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Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Hugh Hancock - taking machinima further than ever

Hugh Hancock - affectionately known to long-term machinima aficionados as “machinima guru Hugh Hancock” - is a filmmaker with a unique vision.

For those who don’t know, Hugh was the person who actually coined the term “machinima”, way back in the 1990s. It was actually Anthony Bailey who came up with the word “machinema” (machine cinema), but Hugh famously misspelled it as “machinima”, which stuck. He was the founder of, which is now one of the most popular channels on YouTube. He was one of the authors of Machinima for Dummies, and, after 14 years working full-time in machinima, probably has more experience with more different platforms than anyone else in the world.

Hugh’s still making films, and pushing the boundaries of machinima - more on that later - but he’s first and foremost a businessman. After all, he’s been making a living from machinima for over a decade through the aptly named Strange Company, and he’s learned a lot about how to create successful low-budget video for Internet distribution. He’s recently started Guerrilla Showrunner, which offers advice and information to people wanting to get the most out of online shows. “I’ve been doing this for 14 years,” he points out, “which is, I think, longer than anyone else. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, I’ve learned a lot of things, and I’ve got a lot of useful knowledge locked up in my head.”

One of the main focus areas of Guerrilla Showrunner is publicity. “You can make a great show, but people need to find out about it,” he says. “But amazingly, most people don’t even do the basics of PR. In fact, they seem positively against it. I get flamed by some people in the machinima community for just sending out emails to journalists about my films. It’s not rocket science, though. You’ve got to market your work if you want to be successful.” He’s giving away a free series of tutorials on the subject, entitled Get More Crazed Stalkers.

Hugh’s keen to get feedback on what people want to know. “I’ve been doing this for so long that much of it seems second nature to me. Things that I take for granted often baffle people who are just starting out.”  He’s taking a very pragmatic approach to it. “I did think that maybe I should tell people what they needed to know, but I realised that if they don’t want to know what you’re telling them, they won’t listen. It’s best to focus on what they’re interested in, and then they’ll pick up on the other stuff when they’re ready.”

As well as providing consultancy and free resources, there’s also a Guerrilla Showrunner e-book in the works.

Death Knight Love Story

No matter how dark the world around, love can still prevail. Raised from the grave to serve the powers of darkness, a man and a woman find a spark of light in each other. But with the Lich King’s cold gaze upon them, love may be punishable by death.

Hugh’s major film project is - as always - horrendously ambitious. He’s been fascinated with performance capture for some time, and a few years ago he decided to create his own mocap setup. Instead of using ready-made game animations to drive World of Warcraft, he’s using his motion capture studio to create custom animations. It cost less than you might think - at around £15,000 it wasn’t cheap, but it’s comparable to the sort of equipment costs a typical indie moviemaker faces. He managed to find 15,000 square feet of empty warehouse space in Edinburgh going cheap, which makes it, as he points out, one of the largest mocap facilities in Europe. Not that he can use all that space - the OptiTrak rig he uses only has a capture area of 12’ x 12’.

The rig isn’t up there with the latest Hollywood systems, of course. It can’t do facial capture, for example, and it uses the tried and trusted system of “ping pong balls on black suits”. And it’s not always a smooth process. The rig can get confused by a shiny backside, a speck of dust, or even fluctuations in temperature. However, it does give Hugh an immense amount of flexibility. “It takes longer, but the results are better,” he says. “The fight scenes are amazing, nothing like what you see in a game.”

imageBut that’s not the limit of Hugh’s ambition for Death Knight Love Story. He decided to bring in a professional cast of voice actors, featuring some extremely well-known British actors: Brian Blessed (I, Claudius), Joanna Lumley (Absolutely Fabulous), Anna Chancellor (St Trinians), and Jack Davenport (Pirates of the Caribbean). “It was pretty straightforward,” says Hugh. “I just contacted a load of casting agents, and told them what I was doing. I said I had a little money, so I wasn’t expecting anyone to work for free, and these were the kind of people they came up with.” If anything the process was easier than he expected, and he’s still a little taken aback by how it actually went. “There’s something surreal about sitting there with these people, and hearing myself saying, ‘Well, Sir Ian McKellen would be great for the PR, but I don’t think he’s right for the role,’ and then working out how we could juggle Jack’s schedule around his Hollywood commitments. We ended up with him recording in a studio in LA while I directed him from London. Weird.”

Hugh’s blunt about the reason he’s pulled this off. “There’s a huge difference between having some money and having no money. I could have got a new kitchen, but instead I decided to make a movie. That meant I could go to people and offer to pay them, even if it wasn’t much. Then they treat you like a professional. Even though some of them agreed to work for free, it puts you on a whole different basis. I also hired an animator for six months. That’s made the whole process go much smoother.”

Screenshot from the animatic

There’s no release date yet for Death Knight Love Story. “We showed the animatic to the test audiences, and they basically tore it to shreds,” says Hugh, philosophically. “There was stuff they didn’t understand, so we had to add in an extra 12 minutes of footage. They didn’t like some of the characters, so we had to create new models for them. And they didn’t like the graphics quality, so we went out and got a new renderer, MachStudioPro. That’s the same software WETA uses. But the results are worth it. We’ve got battle scenes that look totally epic, basically the fantasy equivalent of Omaha beach.”

Read more:
Guerrilla Showrunner
Strange Company
Death Knight Love Story

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