Salute Your Shorts: John Hillcoat's "Red Dead Redemption" Machinima

Games Features John Hillcoat
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Salute Your Shorts is a weekly column that looks at short films, music videos, commercials or any other short form visual media that generally gets ignored.

After the success and eventual cult following of his 2005 film The Proposition, it’s no big surprise that John Hillcoat decided to return to Westerns following his brief foray into Hollywood filmmaking with The Road. You might not have heard about this, though, not just because the movie is entirely computer generated, but because it’s a video game tie-in. No, not the bad sort of tie-in that’s been plaguing our theaters since Super Mario Bros. opened in 1993. Rather, it’s a film made entirely with the tools and resources of a game. In short, Hillcoat was the first Hollywood director to create a machinima film and it premiered last Saturday night on Fox.

Before we get into the film itself, a question that comes up frequently, though less so now than even a few years ago, is this: What are machinima films? Basically, by using an image capture card and a console or computer, you move around characters and virtual cameras within a game in order to set up scenes within its world. Depending upon the game, this can actually offer a lot of flexibility and resources that would be otherwise unavailable. One of the most popular games for creating these videos is World of Warcraft, not just because the game itself is so popular, but also because it offers such a wide variety of locations, wardrobes and character types that make for good videos, not to mention the ease in controlling character motions. Machinima has been around for a long time, but for a lot of obvious and less obvious reasons, it’s been largely avoided for commercial filmmaking, and although there have been a few previous successes such as Red vs. Blue and the World of Warcraft episode of South Park, for the most part, you’ll largely just see these things on YouTube every now and then. In fact, the classic Leeroy Jenkins film is in itself a well-made faux-verite piece of machinima.

Hillcoat began working in machinima after his music-video company was contacted to do a three-minute trailer for “Red Dead Redemption,” a recently released western from Rockstar Games. It just so happened that the game was influenced by The Proposition, and despite a dearth of Australian accents, there’s an obvious stylistic debt. As Hillcoat looked into the assignment, it was gradually expanded into a half-hour TV special (which is to say: 24 minutes of actual film).

So the film is effectively an advertisement for the game, and, as such, doesn’t actually create new characters or stories to tell using the game’s universe. Instead, it’s an attempt to tell the game’s story, or rather its first act’s, as artistically as possible. Like its namesake, “Red Dead Redemption” focuses on John Marston and his attempt to capture or kill an old comrade of his, Bill Williamson. Williamson is now in charge of a gang, so Marston enlists a local sheriff, a travelling salesman and, for some largely unexplained reason, a grave robber, to help him attack Williamson’s fort. They sneak in and blow the place to smithereens, but unfortunately, Williamson gets away, ready to be hunted down by the player if they purchase the game.

This material clearly wasn’t made by Hillcoat himself, since this truly is a way of compressing the first part of the game and making it more interesting to the masses. It’s still pretty recognizably Hillcoat, though, and not just because the game itself is based on his style. Although he could do little with the game’s cutscenes, Hillcoat’s short still features some of his typically sweeping camera shots and inspired, understated camera positioning. The movie also cuts and blends scenes in a way that makes the entire film more dramatic than the game and gives what’s ultimately a very free-roaming experience a lot of pathos. There’s a definite eye towards heightening the game’s already prevalent style and in Hillcoat’s hands the entire film becomes epic.

Red Dead Redemption is the best-made machinima I’ve ever seen, which isn’t exactly fair, because Hillcoat had tools other people making video game movies don’t. He had control of the time, lighting and weather for sequences and with this chose to make every sequence occur in a different-yet-fully-realized environment. He still had issues, though, with the sheer mechanics of the world that was being filmed. As he noted to New York Magazine, “Ocasionally the guys would come in and say, we tried this shot, but unfortunately the guy was attacked by a mountain lion.” Regardless of these occasional difficulties, it looks every bit as good as a video of this sort can, and while it’s by no means Avatar, the current-generation console graphics looks good enough, with no render farms required in the making of the film. So long as you don’t go into it with unrealistic expectations about how things will look, you may be surprised with the depth of what was created with the available material.

The film didn’t get any glowing recommendations from game fans, which is somewhat unfortunate considering that this was an interesting, well-done integration between games and films that’s rarely been done before. It was also certainly a lot better than the week’s other game/film crossover, Prince of Persia. I suspect this is because ultimately the audience who’d watched it had already played through these sequences in the game and thus, to them, the story lacked a lot of its punch. Hillcoat’s somewhat elliptical telling of the story leaves out details from the game that he found unimportant and spends no time explaining motivation or situations, instead letting them simply play out. This probably earned him no favors. Conversely, though, it’s those qualities that are in fact his greatest stamp on the movie and what sets them apart from the way the game’s story actually plays out. While it may be based on a game and told using game assets, Hillcoat’s “Red Dead Redemption” isn’t spoon fed to us.

It’s hard to say how successful the film was as a promo—likely not particularly great as the only audience that really knew it existed had already bought the game. But it does open up the possibility of other directors taking stabs at machinima and perhaps doing more interesting things with the medium and with any luck one day telling entirely new stories using game assets. And for anyone who is a fan of Hillcoat, “Red Dead Redemption” is definitely worth a look and good enough to make you want to buy the game. Its lack of success is due to its conception rather than its execution. Hopefully Rockstar Games and other companies will judge the film by its quality rather than its impact and begin commissioning other directors, as it’s an avenue with clear promise that’s still yet to be fully seen.

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