[‘Letters from the Metaverse’ is a regular weekly column by Mathew Kumar about his adventures in the massively multiplayer online world of Second Life. This week’s column covers Second Life machinima.]

Last week I was wondering about machinima in Second Life, and this week I decided to look at it. I have to be honest; I think that machinima is almost always terrible. Much like using video games to create architecture prototypes, it works fantastically to create quick and dirty mock-ups of shots, locations or even scenes, but to create whole movies? Gosh, no thanks.

I actually went to see a whole range of machinima at this year’s Worldwide Short Film Festival in Toronto and was sorely disappointed; that the best they could find was the laughably overwrought (if technically impressive) World of Warcraft movie The Return was a bit depressing.

So, now you know about my in-built prejudices against machinima, you can probably take my opinions with a grain of salt. But! I genuinely think that with so many interesting locations in the world, hundreds of players who really have nothing better to do than be extras and built in video capturing tools, Second Life really does seem to be the ultimate “game” in which to create quick and easy machinima.

And having watched quite a few machinima shorts created in Second Life by now, I’d say that the only problem that affects Second Life’s machinima is the same that affects most others; loads of technical ability, absolutely no creative talent. As per usual, it’s like asking C++ coders to write Shakespeare. I've taken a look at a few of the best and worst.

2006_09_19_spurs.jpgSilver Bells and Golden Spurs – Probably one of the best known Machinima films from Second Life, as it’s the main one linked on the Second Life webpage, this is an amazingly impressive piece of work with a massive cast, mature camera angles and great set, let down by freaky animation (particularly the mouths) and a lame voice over. Made with the help of Linden Lab and apparently cost $555 to make, though. (The live action El Mariachi was made for only $7,000. Seriously. You could just save up.)

Second Life: Get One
- Best-of-show winner in the 2006 Second Life movie trailer contest, this is exactly the kind of thing they would pick to win. An absurdly overblown, if well edited, paean. Has a blustery voice over that'll sicken anyone who’s actually struggled against the many, many flaws of Second Life. Horrific.

Better Life – A man in a wheelchair escapes into Second Life, a “better life” in which all he seems to do is fall through the sky. Comes back to that “asking to C++ coders write Shakespeare” thing; the wheelchair is unsubtle to the point of being offensive.

2006_09_19_tour.jpgTour of the Solar System – Not a narrative, more a short educational film created by the well known Second Lifer Aimee Weber, it’s nice but I really don’t see what it gains by being machinima. Planets are usually fairly easy to create and animate in anything (Even I could probably do it in Lightwave, and it’s been years since I’ve used it). Some pretty incongruous music at points, too.

Lip Flap – An at least slightly funny, if far too self-referential (And therefore self conscious) film about a couple getting ready for a party. Has some character models perfectly representative of Second Life, too (i.e. hideous caricatures of what people think is attractive).

If you’d like to try making Machinima in Second Life, you should probably start at the Second Life page on it which includes a white paper written by Eric Call (creator of Silver Bells and Golden Spurs). It’s perhaps amusing to note that the best piece of machinima about Second Life is probably the Second Life episode of Tra5h Ta1k; it’s astoundingly true to the world.

[Mathew Kumar is a freelance journalist who’s dabbled in MMORPGs, but is too cheap/strong willed to play past a free trial. He got his break with Insert Credit, and his work has been featured in publications as diverse as The Globe and Mail, Plan B magazine, and Eurogamer. Check out his workblog, too.]