Machinima Review: Stolen Life

Posted 26 Jul 2007 at 21:49 UTC by steve Share This

We seem to have a history here at of reviewing unusual robot-related art forms. Last time it was robot poetry and today it's a machine-made movie about machines. Stolen Life is an example of machinima. It's an animated movie but it isn't animated in any traditional way. It was rendered on a computer but not in the way you'd expect. Rather than rendering the scenes one frame at a time at the highest resolution possible in the way Hollywood does, machinima goes the opposite direction, rendering in real time at low resolution. The rendering is done not by specialized animation software but by repurposing a videogame rendering engine. The upside is that it's fast and inexpensive compared to Hollywood's method. The downside is that it looks like, well, a video game. It doesn't look real like the CG you see in typical theatrical movies. It looks more like the earliest attempts at computer rendered animation such as Tron. Aside from the unusual animation, Stolen Life has an interesting story, a great score, and voices provided by real actors. Read on for a more detailed review and an interview with the producer.

Review by R. Steven Rainwater

Title: Stolen Life

Starring (the voices of): Claudia Black and Chris Jones

Production Company: Nanoflix Productions

Music: Phillip Johnston

Running Time: 80 minutes

Format: NTSC DVD

I read up on machinima a bit before watching Stolen Life to try to prepare myself for it. If you've never seen this type of thing before, it may take a little while to get into the story. The animation can be very distracting at first. Eventually you learn to ignore it. One solution is simple to tune out the visual experience and listen. My wife compared the experience to listening an old-style radio play where you have sound but no picture. To me it brought to mind the experience of watching the animatics or story board run through during the pre-production stage of a film. At other times it felt like watching someone else play a videogame. I wanted to reach for the controls to steer a robot away from a precipice before it fell in. After a while, though, I began to stop noticing the form and pay more attention to the content; the story, the voice characterizations, and the music.

Lest the above sound too negative, I should point out that Stolen Life is regarded as one the best works of machinima to date. It was nominated for a whole pile of awards from the relevant crowd of machinima geeks at the 2006 Machinima Film Festival in New York including Best Picture, Best Visual Design, Best Voice Acting Performance, Best Virtual Performance, Best Technical Achievement, and Best Original Music. It ended up winning a well deserved Best Original Music award for Phillip Johnston's score.

But enough about the background, you probably want to hear about the story. All the characters in Stolen Life are autonomous robots, very autonomous robots. They are sentient, conscious beings with emotion that can be heard in their voices and observed in their actions. Humans are mentioned but never seen. The story concerns a private investigator robot, appropriately named Pi, who arrives at a seemingly abandoned asteroid mining operation. Chris Jones provides the voice of Pi. After arriving, Pi finds and activates the station's facilities manager, a robot named Kieru. Claudia Black, of Farscape and Stargate: SG1 fame, is the voice of Kieru. Pi explains that he has been sent to the station to determine its status and find out what happened to a missing worker robot.

It soon becomes evident from the conversation between Pi and Kieru that there are several mysteries for the viewer to solve. Where is the missing robot? Why was the station shut down? What are the mining robots hiding? What's happening at the other automated mining facilities that's got the humans so worried? What does the stolen life of the movie's title refer to? As more of the station's robot are re-activated, the mysteries and dangers deepen. Pi works through the clues to solve the mystery as well as any human detective could. Along the way the viewer is introduced to a variety of interesting robot characters including Daisy, Grip, Cutter, and Doc, each a different type of autonomous robot.

The fun of any mystery is in the process of discovering and understanding the clues so I won't spoil it for you. Buy a copy of Stolen Life and watch it for yourself. You'll enjoy it. If you're a science fiction reading robot geek, you may have the mystery solved before Pi does. By the time things get sorted out at the end of the movie, you'll have completely forgotten about the videogame-like quality of the animation and be more interested in the story.

Because of the unusual nature of this project, I talked Peter Rasmussen into giving us few minutes of his time for an interview. Peter is the writer and producer of Stolen Life. To be honest, I'd have preferred an in person interview with Claudia Black but she was unavailable. :-)

Before we get to the interview, here's a preview of Stolen Life to give you an idea of what the movie looks like

Interview with Peter Rasmussen Stolen Life is described as machinima. Can you explain what machinima is for those who may not be familiar with this genre?

Peter Rasmussen: Machinima is animation using video game technology. A feature of many first person shooters is the ability to record the action. There is no rendering time so it has an advantage over standard animation, which can take hours or days to render.

Robots: Is it appropriate to call this a "film" since there was probably no film involved at any point in the production process? Is video more applicable?

Peter: I like to call it a movie.

Robots: Was Stolen Life intended from the begining as machinima or was this selected later in the process as a way to reduce the cost of producing the project?

Peter: Yes, Stolen Life was always intended to be a machinima project. The immediacy of the process is very liberating. It's not just about cost or speed of production. Being able to see results as you are working is a very powerful element in the creative process. There is also something about the "game look" aesthetic that is very appealing once you get used to it.

Robots: Did the chosen technology place any limits on the story?

Peter: No, in fact if Stolen Life had been made for a big budget it would be almost certain that the corporate nature of mainstream movie making would have forced the story to become more run of the mill and predictable.

Robots: Machinima seems to lend itself to the practice of "upgrading" more so than traditional film making techniques. Are there any plans to re-render Stolen Life when higher resolution, more advanced software becomes available?

Peter: Not at this stage. I wouldn't be adverse to it but I feel that it is better to put energy into advancing more new projects. This is why I have left my previous project Killer Robot as it is.

Robots: All of the characters in this story are machines. Has that presented any difficulty for viewers or have they identified as well with robots as they do with any other type of characters?

Peter: Some people have told me that at first they were not sure what to make of it. They were surprised to realise how much empathy they ended up having for these alien looking creatures. At the cast and crew screening the people who tagged along and had no idea of what to expect were among the most excited over this fresh experience. This feeling of discovery in the audiance is a very pleasing result. The story is very much about the "humanity" that derives directly from the intelligence of these creatures.

Robots: Do you believe fully conscious, autonomous robots like those depicted in Stolen Life will someday exist?

Peter: It would seem to be a very long way off but it would seem to be more likely than many other things we see in popular sci-fi. If you follow research on the human brain they are discovering things about how it works that not so long ago would have seemed impossible to measure or work with in any way.

Robots: Claudia Black is well-known from her roles in Stargate: SG1 and Farscape. How did Claudia become involved with the your project?

Peter: We sent information about the project along with the script to her agent. In only a few days we got a response saying Claudia was interested and we started negotiations.

Robots: For more on Claudia Black's involvement and her take on machinima, see this short video clip:

Robots: Phillip Johnston has composed music for an interesting variety of projects. How was he selected to write the score for Stolen Life?

Peter: Jackie Turnure the Co-Producer of Stolen Life was very familiar with Phillip's work. Jackie sent me some samples to listen to. All of his music has a playful wit. He was the obvious choice from the outset and a real joy to work with.

Robots: How is machinima like Stolen Life distributed? Are they shown in traditional venues like movie theaters or on television? Are they distributed online via file sharing programs such bittorrent or is purchasing a DVD the primary way people obtain machinima?

Peter: It's very early days for machinima. Most machinima at this stage are short pieces. If you search for "machinima" at YouTube many very creative and entertaining clips can be found. Stolen Life is one of the first "long form" professional machinima movies to be made. At the 2006 Machinima Film Festival in New York the only other feature length project was "Bloodspell" by Hugh Hancock of Strange Company.

Robots: How would someone who liked Stolen Life find out about other machinima and where could they view them?

Peter: At there is a list of the winners of the 2006 Machinima Film Festival. They are a pretty good example of the state of the art in Machinima at the moment.

Robots: Do you have any advice for those who'd like to try making their own machinima? How did you get started?

Peter: Six years ago when I started my first machinima projects there was no off the shelf software so I had to do a lot of code writing to make the various elements work together. Late this year dedicated machinima making software will be released called Movie storm. It's also worth looking at previz software called Antics and I have also heard of something called Iclone. There are a number of other machinima making systems around but they are not free of copyright restrictions.

Robots: What was the budget of Stolen Life? Do you expect it turn a profit?

Peter: It's unusual for any kind of movie to turn a profit mainstream or otherwise. But with a low budget project like this we are actually in a stronger position. Blair Witch is a great example. The cash spent on production of Stolen Life amounts to about $25,000 (Australian Dollars) The deferred fees come to about $300,000. By conventional film standards this is a tiny amount. If the feedback we have been getting so far is any indication it's quite reasonable to expect to see at least a little "Blue sky"

Robots: What's next from Nanoflix? Any more robot related stories planned?

Peter: A while ago Jackie Turnure and I developed a script called "Bots" which we intended for a Toy Story stile of production. We are so happy with the way Stolen Life has turned out that we may also do Bots as machinima. But hopefully with a bit more cash and a slightly larger crew.

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