On the shelf in my office, I’ve got a small, but steadily growing stack of machinima DVDs. From the early days of machinima, back when Dave and I first wrote our book about it, there are three classics: Red vs Blue, Season 1, by Rooster Teeth, Killer Robot by the late Peter Rasmussen of Nanoflix, and Anachronox, by Jake Hughes and ION Storm. I picked up all of those when Dave and I were writing our book about machinima in 2004. At that time, we were expecting to see a lot more machinima on DVD, as it was clearly the easiest way for the top machinimators to get paid for their work.
It simply didn’t happen that way, though. There’s nothing new on the shelf until we get to Strange Company’s Bloodspell, which came out in 2008.
And then… nothing. Even though machinima.com became one of the most popular channels on YouTube, and more people are watching machinima than ever before, the machinima DVD simply hasn’t emerged as a format for the medium.
Now, however, the pace of new releases has suddenly picked up. Just before Christmas, I got a pre-release copy of Jack and Holly’s Christmas Countdown, which uses a mixture of Moviestorm, live action and regular animation. And so far this year, I’ve had two more machinima DVDs land in my letterbox. First there was Wonder Boy, by Lucinda McNary. Wonder Boy was made with iClone, and is based on characters from a classic Sega video game (used with permission). It’s an epic fantasy adventure: “a forever young teenager and an immortal warlord both seek The Salamander Cross; the one thing that will allow one to destroy the other for good.”
Next, a few weeks ago, I got the remastered version of E. Hughes’s Moviestorm sci-fi epic 2020AD. We first talked to Elizabeth Hughes about 2020AD last year. This new version has extra scenes, and some scenes appear to have been reshot using new animations from Moddingstorm, which have beefed up the action scenes substantially. You can’t really call it a director’s cut, since the first edition was originally a director’s cut, but this feels like it’s much closer to her original vision for the movie.
More or less at the same time, I also got a sneak preview of Damien Valentine’s feature-length cut of his new Web series, Chronicles of Humanity, another Moviestorm sci-fi piece. He tells me he’s thinking of making that available on DVD once the series has finishing airing online, so that will doubtless get added to the bookshelf shortly.
It’s now easier than ever to make commercial DVDs: there’s affordable mastering software, and there are plenty of companies who offer print on demand, and will offer reasonable quality boxed DVDs, including inserts and wrappers, for only a couple of bucks. This is a godsend to amateur and short run DVD creators. You don’t have to pay for hundreds of copies, cluttering up your spare room and your garage, and hope you sell enough to cover your upfront manufacturing costs. It’s the way we do it with Moviestorm: we don’t want to risk having loads of disks of obsolete software lying around, so we simply get them manufactured as we need them and update the master disk image every time we release an update. It’s a little more expensive for each disk, but it works out more cost-effective that way.
Looking at these, I began to ponder whether there’s a role for DVDs in the future, now that most people have high quality streaming available. In the case of something like Red vs Blue, where all the episodes are already available online free, why would you ever want to buy a disc? If you want to charge people to watch your movies, it’s easy enough to set up a paywall so they have to give you a couple of dollars before they can see the whole thing. You’d probably make nearly as much money per sale charging $5 for online access as you would selling the DVD for $11, by the time you allow for the cost of sales and production, and surely more people would pay if it was only half the price, right?
As always, the answer is a resounding maybe.
From the customer’s point of view, DVDs are still a nice thing to have for a variety of reasons.
They allow you to support the creator, but you actually get something physical in return. Donating $5 to see a movie doesn’t really feel satisfying. Donating $10 or $15 and getting a disc in return feels like it was worth it - that’s one reason why almost every Kickstarter movie campaign offers a DVD as the base level reward. There’s a safety element to a physical purchase too. You’re not getting your credit card out for access to some site that you’ve never heard of; you’re just making a regular Amazon purchase. DVDs also make for great gifts. Admittedly, not many people want to give machinima DVDs as gifts, but it’s still one major advantage of the medium over online payments.
DVDs offer a different type of security too. Once you’ve bought a DVD, you’ve got it for good. Since the untimely death of Peter Rasmussen in 2008, Killer Robot no longer seems to be available online, but I know I can still watch my copy any time I want. There are no DRM issues with a DVD. There may be copy protection, but I can do what I want with the one copy I’ve legally acquired. I can lend you my copy of Wonder Boy, and you can watch it in your own home. You don’t have to wait till I’m over there and let me punch in my access details so we can watch it together (or persuade me to hand over my password). I can watch my DVD whenever and wherever I like, assuming there’s no region coding on it, and I’m not restricted to a certain number of “authorized devices” or a limited viewing window.
There’s also something fundamentally different about the DVD watching experience for many people, although this is beginning to change as devices like the iPad gain popularity. I’ll watch online content wherever I am, usually on my laptop. It’s then competing for my attention with Skype, email, and all the other things my laptop is capable of doing. Often, the movie’s only in a small window to one side, and I’m writing or reading something else at the same time. When I have a DVD to watch, though, I put it on the big screen in the living room, sit back with snacks, and settle down for an hour or more’s uninterrupted viewing. It’s not just an online thing. It becomes a “proper movie”.
And lastly, of course, there’s the quality issue, though I suspect that’s less important these days. The early machinima DVDs offered a much higher quality than what was available on YouTube. It was impractical for most people to download 7Gb of video, and most video sites restricted uploads to 100Mb, or 10 minutes. As a result, most feature length machinima movies were chopped into small parts rendered at fairly low resolution and then compressed as far as possible. The result was blocky, choppy, and not at all like watching a movie. DVDs allow these movies to be watched in their full glory. Now, however, sites like Vimeo allow you to upload fairly high resolution video. Although the DVD is probably better quality, the difference is less significant.
From the creator’s point of view, it’s just nice to have a DVD. It feels “real” in a way that online publishing doesn’t. It’s the same with book publishing too: e-books are a perfectly viable medium, but every author would love to have a printed copy of their book on their shelf. DVDs are great to give to your friends, family, cast, and crew.
It’s commercially sensible too. You can send review copies to journalists and bloggers, and they’ll take you more seriously than if you just send them a link. I know I’m guilty of that - a newly arrived Moviestorm DVD gets my attention much faster than a link to a new release, especially if it’s going to demand more than an hour of my time.
I’m guessing that the DVD is here to stay, at least for a while longer. I’m now wondering what will be the first machinima movie released on Blu-Ray.
Get machinima DVDs:
- Red vs Blue (Amazon)
- Anachronox (Internet archive, free download)
- Bloodspell (Internet archive, free download)
- Jack and Holly (Amazon, DVD version not available in US)
- Wonder Boy (Amazon)
- 2020AD (Amazon)
One closing thought. The first thing that struck me when compiling this list is that they’re all science fiction or fantasy movies. Is that a coincidence, or is there a reason why? Your thoughts are welcome!