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Friday, April 08, 2011

Ethnic diversity in machinima

I keep reading articles about the lack of opportunity for ethnic minorities in the mainstream film and television industries in America and Britain. This year’s Oscars is seen by many as a snub to black people, with not a single nomination for any of the major awards, There’s a widespread perception that there are very few leading, or significant roles for Asians or Latinos, and even fewer directors. Check these out:

Obviously, there are exceptions: Ang Lee, Spike Lee, Will Smith, Jessica Alba, M. Night Shyamalan, and Antonio Banderas, to name but a few. And there are shows like The Bengali Detective, recently picked up by Fox. The studios say they’re simply choosing the best actors and directors, and it’s not their fault if there aren’t enough non-whites coming through the system. The producers blame the writers, and say they can only cast the roles they’re given. The writers blame the studios and say they’re writing the scripts they can sell. Whatever the reason, it seems to be a vicious circle.

However, let’s step away from the world of Hollywood and the major TV networks and look at amateur and low budget movies. When you’re working with no budget, a whole bunch of problems that beset professional movie-makers simply go away. You don’t have a marketing team riding roughshod over your production, telling you what you need to do to make your film saleable. You don’t have to work your way through agents and flunkies to try and catch the eye of backers or buyers. You make your film, the way you want it, and you put it out directly to your audience.

Machinima would seem to open up opportunities for film-makers from a diverse range of backgrounds. As a machinimator, you don’t have to conform to any norms at all, either in your movie or your personality. You can be yourself, and make whatever movie you like, without any interference. Since you’re working online, you can hide behind a pseudonym and any avatar you like.

imageDirecting and writing

Anyone can pick up a tool like Moviestorm, Muvizu, iClone or Second Life, and simply start making a movie. You don’t need to convince anyone to hire you, or try to be better than the other (white) guy. Just do it yourself.

What’s more, there’s no need to find yourself stuck within the stereotypical confines of what’s expected of you. Many black filmmakers and writers, for example, feel they can only make “black movies,” focusing on specific issues, and featuring a predominantly black cast, even though that’s not really what they want to be doing. As directors like Ang Lee and John Woo have proved time and time again, you don’t need to pigeonhole ethnic filmmakers in that restrictive way. Machinima offers you the freedom to do anything you like - so go right ahead and make period dramas, sci-fi, or whatever interests you.

On the other hand, if you do want to make a movie that does center around ethnic issues, or relying on a particular ethnic cast, then machinima provides a much more viable route for such projects than commercial independent films. A studio may not want to back a gritty film about life in urban Guatemala, for example. They’d quite reasonably claim there’s not enough market for it. But it’s the sort of thing that a passionate filmmaker can create and distribute on a low budget without needing anyone else’s approval. You can easily do it as a personal project, targeting a very small, niche audience.


One great advantage of machinima is that you can create any character you like with ease. If you want the hero of your cop show to be Indian, then you can do it. You don’t even need to find a voice actor with a heavy ethnic accent. Many British Indians, for instance, don’t sound at all like stereotypical Bollywood Indians. So just create the character, and find a voice that works well.

By contrast, if you’re an actor who does have a strong ethnic accent, you can also use machinima to your advantage. Create a clip reel showing what you can do, and how versatile you can be. Don’t just settle for the “assistant at the convenience store” or comic roles. Do some action parts. Do some romantic parts. Make people realise how interesting your voice can be, particularly when matched to different faces. Get with a writer, and get them to write parts for you.

The real story

Surprisingly, though, there are very few filmmakers from ethnic minorities working with machinima. The overwhelming majority are white (and, incidentally, mostly male, English-speaking and heterosexual). In the Moviestorm world, we have a few that I know of, all of whom operate under pseudonyms, such as: act3scene24 (Jorge Campos, who’s Mexican), ehughes and reshonda (Erica Hughes and Krystal Blake, who are African-American), and newcomer shaman (Mohamed Shahidi, who’s Moroccan). We’ve also got some enthusiastic filmmakers in the Pacific island of Vanuatu, based at the Wan Smolbag Theatre.

It’s intriguing, and a little disappointing, that machinima hasn’t been embraced by a more diverse range of filmmakers. The tools are cheap and widely available, so that’s one major barrier removed. The online world offers a chance to sidestep any institutional prejudice. Direct distribution allows filmmakers to make what they want without having to conform to stereotypes or genres. Yet despite bringing down as many barriers as possible, it just hasn’t happened.

We’d love to see more movies from as many different people as possible. And we’d love to hear your ideas on why machinima seems to appeal to such a narrow spectrum of potential film-makers.

(3) Comments | Permalink | Posted by Matt Kelland

(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/08 at 10:04 AM

You just have to give it time.  I’m a filmmaker in America that just found MS recently, and I’ve read that it’s been around for a while now.  You’ll have that one break-out machinima filmmaker soon enough.

Hugh Hancock on 04/12 at 03:48 AM

It’s a geek issue. In general, the geek world as a whole is very, very caucasian-centric (and male-centric, of course, although that’s changing slowly).

3D animation in general and Machinima in particular is still pretty complex stuff, and most of the people picking it up are at least somewhat computer-familiar if not outright geeks. That means the field is picking from a mostly-white community.

And frankly, that points to a much bigger problem. Why is it that computers and tech in general are so very, very white (with the honourable exception of the Indian community on Hacker News)?

Dousa Dragonash on 04/25 at 06:08 PM

Ultimately I dont think that it isn’t simply the case of geek or not geek. It is the unwritten rules that apply in certain areas of the world that run through media industry that are so constricting. Most of the people that I know are fighting for a living. Of course there will be some who get through successfully but that is it.  Not enough change in too long a time. We do machinima. We also have a very diverse team. That was because we sought it out as a very deliberate policy and continue to do so. In life, there simply isnt the luxury of choice. It is all about strategy in the confines that are set up. Personally speaking, I am bored to death of ‘the best for the job’ attitude. Just takes us round in circles. I go to the ends to assault these ‘rules’ .. it gives me joy to make machinima. It is freeing; I can do it in a team or on my own and I dont have to listen to claptrap about who or what I am, or am from etc. Most importantly I can do it now. I dont have to wait for everyone else to finally wake up and smell the roses. Just a word to Hugh.. is computer and tech ‘so very very white’ as you say, or is it just where you are situated?

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