Alex Chan simply wanted to make a political statement, countering what he deemed inaccurate coverage of the riots in French suburbs. Instead, the industrial designer created an emblem for a hot new form of entertainment. Working on his laptop with software from a $70 video game -- a technique called machinima -- Chan made a rudimentary but powerful 12-minute animated film about racism, The French Democracy, that is winning applause worldwide. "What I love is how neatly it blends the culture of games with the aesthetics of film," says Clive Thompson, a journalist in New York who has written about machinima and runs a well-known blog on technology and culture.
Since it emerged in the late 1990s, machinima has been the playground of mainly hard-core gamers who cobble together characters and sequences from favorite games, adding voice-overs laced with references that only fellow gamers can grasp. But with more user-friendly software tools on the market, novices can create their own narratives. That will democratize the movie business, machinima enthusiasts say. Anyone with a computer and off-the-shelf game software can now make and distribute animated movies over the Internet. "This is to the movies what blogs are to the written media," says Paul Marino, executive director of the Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences, a New York nonprofit.
Many entertainment executives see machinima as an opportunity rather than a threat. One is Evan Shapiro, general manager of Independent Film Channel, a unit of Cablevision Systems Corp. (CVC ) that reaches 36 million U.S. homes. IFC has sponsored a machinima film festival and commissioned six films from animation companies such as the ILL Clan and RoosterTeeth Productions. The films are cheap and appeal to IFC's tech-savvy viewers, Shapiro says. "This is grassroots moviemaking at its best."
1 MILLION HITS
Chan produced his film using a video game called The Movies, in which players make their own films. He then posted the film on a site hosted by the game's developer, Lionhead Studios Ltd. of Surrey, England. The site is hot: Within three weeks of the game's November release, users posted more than 15,000 films. New ones are being added at a rate of one per minute. The French Democracy helped the site hit 1 million unique viewers in the past month.
No one is more astonished than Chan. The 27-year-old from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve was upset by news reports suggesting the violence was linked to Islamic fundamentalism. The film weaves together the experiences of three dark-skinned characters, all French citizens, to back Chan's contention that racism was a key reason for the riots. "I wanted to get people to understand why this happened," he says. It's not a polished work of art: The street scenery provided by The Movies is in Manhattan, so Chan's French characters act against a backdrop that includes the Empire State Building. Still, the film packs an emotional wallop.
The buzz over the film could help Hollywood and machinima move closer together. Directors George Lucas and Peter Jackson already have tried the technique for special effects. Who knows: The maker of the next blockbuster may be hunched over a computer right now, ignoring Mom's calls to dinner.
By Carol Matlack, with Ronald Grover in Los Angeles