Since its launch, the video game Grand Theft Auto V has been the base for cinematographers exploring its potential to create narratives. The 12 minutes of Not Normal are the most recent example of the game’s potential.
If there is one thing that video games have in common with movies is that both tell stories. For a long time now, especially since graphic engines reached a point allowing them to recreate reality, multiple games have offered users the option to use the graphic engine to capture animated sequences, viewing them afterwards from multiple angles, in a pure cinematic experience.
Grand Theft Auto V, a very popular action-adventure video game developed by Rockstar North and published by Rockstar Games in 2013 for PS3 and Xbox 360 and early 2014 for PC (Windows), took things a bit further, offering on a re-released PC version, from April 2015 a unique tool for budding cinematographers: the Rockstar Editor, which lets players capture and edit gameplay videos. What’s more, the PC version runs at 60FPS in 1080p, with the ability to display visuals in 4K resolution. The Rockstar Editor was introduced in versions of GTA V for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One later that year.
Rockstar editor, a cinematographer’s dream
The game, considered by specialist magazine Edge a “remarkable achievement” in open world design and storytelling, while Tom Hoggins, from The Daily Telegraph, declared it a “colossal feat of technical engineering”, was both a tremendous success to Rockstar, and the bit of a headache, exactly because of the possibilities the Rockstar Editor opened.
What is the Rockstar Editor? Well, according to Rockstar, it is a program which provides a robust suite of recording and editing tools allowing users to build a library of captured footage. Users can record gameplay footage while on or off mission. Use Manual Recording mode for start and stop recording with the push of a button, or save your most recently played footage with the Action Replay feature. Rockstar invites users to edit their projects and share the final footage online.
The Rockstar Editor went further than that, though. Its Director Mode allows users to stage scenes and create custom moments. Users can select from hundreds of GTAV Story Mode characters and citizens across Los Santos (a condensed version of Los Angeles) and Blaine County (an amalgamation of several Southern Californian counties) to play as in the game world, including animals. Users can set locations, time of day, weather and much more. The dream of any cinematographer…
Rockstar versus community
The success of the Rockstar Editor led to something else; the creation, by the community, of multiple mods that allow to fine tune aspects of the movie creation inside the video game. Soon users were creating their first shorts, even recreating segments of popular movies, from Godfather to Terminator or TV series like Twin Peaks. And the exploration of mods continued, with more and more sophisticated tools appearing. One example? Scene Director, released by author elsewhat, a mod for GTA V specifically aimed at recording Machinima. In many ways it’s an extension to Director Mode and Rockstar Editor. The 3.4 release included a major functionality: stage lights, allowing users to light scene as in a real movie. Version 3.4.1 took things a little further: you can add complex move, rotate and flicker effects to stage lights.
The extended changes introduced by the community through mods, not only for cinematography, but also for single player options, led to some friction, in recent months, between the community and Rockstar, and Take-Two, the company distributing the title. Apparently, the problems are sorted out, and an official note published on Rockstar’s website indicates that “Rockstar Games believes in reasonable fan creativity, and, in particular, wants creators to showcase their passion for our games. After discussions with Take-Two, Take-Two has agreed that it generally will not take legal action against third-party projects involving Rockstar’s PC games that are single-player, non-commercial, and respect the intellectual property (IP) rights of third parties.”
Not Normal, the film
It’s within the context of this “battle” that a new film created inside GTA V saw the light of day: Not Normal. Created by Matt MacDonald, the short movie – which at almost 12 minutes is longer than many other shorts created with GTA V – is the most recent in a series of shorts created by the author. An accomplished voice-over actor and nationally published author, Matt received his MFA in Film & Television Production from the prestigious USC School of Cinematic Arts. As a writer, director, and editor, Matt has worked with Microsoft, Playboy, Activision/Blizzard, Electronic Arts, Warner Bros. Digital, and many others. His most recent directing credits include a 60-second spot for Nestlé’s DiGiorno pizza and a pair of animated short films for Ubisoft’s blockbuster game franchise Assassin’s Creed.
With a track record like this, why is Matt MacDonald exploring a video game to create movies? I asked the question to myself and thought readers would also like to know the answer, especially because the short movie No Normal, “shot in Anamorphic 21:9 and edited in Adobe Premiere Pro CC 2017” is the result of a collaboration including all the fields of which real movies are made: written and directed by Matt MacDonald, it has original music by Simon Stevens, sound mix by Eric Marks, editing, VFX and sound design by Mat MacDonald and a voice cast with the names of Jon Bailey, Anthony Falleroni, Matt MacDonald, Tamar Meyouhas and Paige Williams. All this makes Not Normal, a story of a time of anarchy and forgotten morals and the one man who obsesses over the way to fix it, a short to watch.
Matt MacDonald didn’t just create and publish the movie, he took the time to create a complete Behind The Scenes video, 13 minutes long, which is a lesson in both modding GTA V and cinematography. And a unique voyage of discovery if you think that video games and cinema are worlds apart: they are not! But I was eager to know more, so I decided to get in touch with Matt MacDonald and ask him a few questions. His answers are here for you to read. It’s difficult not to get touched by Matt’s enthusiasm. It might well explain why he mentions, in his website, that his dad frequently tells him to “keep up the good work.”
ProVideo Coalition – You’ve done multiple projects in the area of video games, but this is a first. Why did you decide to go ahead with the project?
Matt MacDonald – The amazing thing about video games (and Grand Theft Auto in particular) is how realistic they’re becoming. Every once in awhile, you look at one and — for just a brief moment — aren’t really sure if it’s real life or a game. So, I thought I’d try and capitalize on that by making a really slick, expensive-looking film using the most life-like medium I could. And since I’m already pretty familiar with video games, I knew I would be able to pull off way more this way than I ever could for no budget on a real shoot. Like, the car chase? Zero chance most indy filmmakers could afford to do something like that on their own. Why not use something like a video game to show off your directing abilities for no money and hopefully convince someone to let you do it for real one day?
PVC – Why did you choose GTA V? Do you play games?
MM – I don’t play as many games as I’d like because adulthood sucks, but I’ve been a huge fan of the GTA series since I was a kid and diligently played through GTAV when it was first released. The great thing about these games is that they’re so massive, they really allow a lot of flexibility in what the player can do. Want to rob a bank? Go for it. Want to get a lap dance? You bet. Want to chase down and murder people in a spat of vigilante justice? Of course you can! Because of that flexibility, it really allows us filmmakers to tell a wide range of stories and I think that’s the most you could ever hope for from a machinima.
PVC – Is it harder to create a movie like this, using machinima, than with real actors and scenes? Why?
MM – I think every kind of filmmaking is going to have its challenges, so it’s just a matter of figuring out the best ways to get around them. The tricky part about making a machinima, like you said, is you aren’t working with real actors in front of a camera, so you have to completely re-think your writing and how you shoot a scene. You can’t rely on witty dialogue to get you through because the lip sync will never match. You can’t rely on a lot of close ups because the characters in the game aren’t acting and will just stare blankly. Scenes you would maybe shoot one way in a live action shoot have to be rethought because the textures fall apart if you get too close or the game doesn’t have a proper animation for the scene you’re thinking up. It’s quite challenging. On the flip side, it can be quite liberating. You can move your camera virtually anywhere, without limitation. You can get endless coverage for the same take without having to reshoot. I don’t think machinima filmmaking is going to replace anything any time soon, but it certainly teaches a lot you can bring to your live action projects.
PVC – This was a completely new experience for you. When it comes to filming, what do you usually work on? What interests you most?
MM – This was definitely a new experience for me, but my approach was no different than when I’m directing a live action film. I genuinely love intelligent, large-scale stories, both independent and from the studio, and this kind of dark thriller / action piece is very appealing to me. I was also surprised to discover the facets I enjoyed the most making a film this way are the same ones you’d encounter on a traditional set. I really enjoyed blocking out the scenes — looking around the location I had selected, working out with the action the characters would perform. I really enjoyed lighting the scenes just like a cinematographer, finding ways to make these iconic GTA settings look unique and more cinematic. I enjoyed doing the camerawork, emulating big crane moves and moving picture cars. The aspects I found the most frustrating were the nitty gritty tedious tasks — finding the right animation for the character model to perform, troubleshooting technical glitches and crashes, finding different ways to “cheat” simple actions no one would think twice about on a live action shoot.
PVC – The short was shot in Anamorphic 21:9. Why did you go that way? To completely emulate the idea of a real film using a different perspective?
MM – I really love the anamorphic look. Seriously, I’ll go on Vimeo and just watch anamorphic lens tests because I get such nerd joy from it. I think it’s a really unique and visually interesting format. So, because I wanted to try and make this as cinematic as possible, I knew pretty early on I wanted to replicate that look as best I could. I was able to capture all my footage in a way that gave it a slight squeeze and then in post I added a vignette and some slight lens artifacting. Plus, having the 21:9 monitor on my PC gave a lot more flexibility for framing shots.
PVC – You mention potential future problems with Take 2 and Rockstar because of the way people have used their IP? Which problems? Does this not promote the interest for the game?
MM – There’s been some controversy lately because GTA parent company Take-Two came down hard on a handful of fan-made game mods, which are essential to creating these kinds of machinima films. They sent some cease-and-desist orders and the GTA community reacted very strongly, arguing the corporate overlords were going too far. In recent days, there’s been some resolution, as Take-Two and Rockstar have backtracked a little and it seems they will allow some of these mods to continue, but it’s a touchy topic. If you’re the companies, you’re trying to protect this very valuable IP that generates a lot of profit for you, so the idea of people modding and changing the game and potentially ruining the experience of what you intended is very alarming. On the other hand, most players using these mods just want to do so harmlessly, allowing them to tell stories like this one and spread their creative wings. It’s an interesting topic to think about as games and technology move forward — once a game releases, does it belong to the fans or is it the responsibility of the developer / publisher to protect their original vision? I’m not sure of the answer.
PVC – Notwithstanding the outcome of this experience, do you plan on creating more shorts using video game engines?
MM – I don’t know that I’ll ever make a film using GTAV again. I feel like I challenged myself to create something I’ve never done before, making a statement on the world using this particular tool and I accomplished that, so there’s not much left for me to do. I’m certainly open to trying other engines though. Things like the Unreal Engine, Unity, CryEngine are all turning out incredible visuals and there’s a lot to be explored there. That said, my first love will always be traditional live action. Computer graphics and animation and photorealism will continue to improve, but there’s just no replacement to seeing a real person on screen and my personal goal is to move into making features. That said, one interesting idea filmmakers should consider is using a game engine like GTA to help with their pre-visualizations. I could definitely see myself firing up GTAV to work out the logistics of a car chase or create an animatic for the crew on how we plan to shoot a scene. There’s no need to turn to some expensive post-house to do a pre-viz for you when anyone with a passing knowledge of video games and a computer can make something equally good, if not better. In that sense, it’s pretty amazing times we live in.
To find more about the work of Matt MacDonald visit his website.