[We're doing a little two-part 'state of machinima' series here on GSW over the next, uh, four hours! Firstly, in an interview we also ran on Gamasutra, Matthew Hawkins sat down with Machinima Festival director Friedrich Kirschner to discuss where the real-time game engine cinema format is at nowadays.]

According to Friedrich Kirschner, festival director of this year's New York-based Machinima Festival, the form is evolving away from gaming in-jokes and toward a broader, more relevant way to create film.

For the first time this year, the festival, which has just presented its 2008 'Mackie' awards, has opened up a "long form" category -- for works of over 20 minutes in length.

The winners of this year's awards for cinema created using real-time engines do still show a reliance on game-related content -- i.e. This Spartan Life, World of Workcraft, Azerothian Super Villains.

But the mix of different types of content, both explicitly game and non-game, makes for a richer medium, and points to continued enthusiasm for the form from a variety of comers.

And though filmmakers from outside games who initially embraced the format in its infancy found difficulty sustaining traction, Kirschner believes they are coming back now that new games and new communities have made it more accessible.

In this interview, Kirschner examines the state of machinima as an artform, discussing the different ways the medium is evolving and changing as user-created content continues to flourish.

So how long have you been involved with the festival and machinima itself?

Friedrich Kirschner: Well, this is my first time directing the event, but I've been making my own films for about five years now. That's when I first got the idea to making movies from video game technology, and thought I was the first at the time.

But of course, the internet has a way proving that your idea is hardly original. [laughs] That's when I cam across the original machinima.org and eventually met Paul Marino and got seriously involved in the movement.

I know this is a loaded question, but what would you say is the very first instance or example of machinima as it is defined today?

FK: (laughs) Yeah, that is a loaded question. Well, I would have to say from 1996, a short piece called Diary of a Camper, which utilized the Quake engine.

It was the first to tap into video game tech to create a coherent narrative, though it was mostly a funny little piece. That's how most machinima were back then, though as time as moved on, people have realized that it can be used for something more.

How exactly have things changed over the years?

FK: Well first off, there are new, far more games out there than ever before, which means new tools and means for people to express themselves. Yet things are still the same; it still takes a while before you see anything good produced. About a year or so before people become familiar with the tool set.

How would you define "good"?

FK: Well, in the beginning people simply just poke around with whatever game's engine, but as time goes on, folks begin to dismantle it and learn the ins and outs, to create custom textures, animations, and the like.

I myself still use Unreal Tournament 2k4, which is pretty old by today's standards, but I'm comfortable with the tools, it does what I want.

And how are things changing?

FK: Well, with games such as The Sims 2 and World of Warcraft, the technical aspects are not as daunting. It’s easier to set up the camera and the elements you want, then begin shooting.

Plus there's also far more resources out there, more communities, more comprehensive web pages, that it's a bit easier overall.

But to go back to the issue of good, there's still the issue of quality, and more specifically accessibility. I have to admit, when I first went to a machinima festival about five years ago, I didn't enjoy much of what I saw. It appeared that most of the films were about the form, and that was basically it...

FK: (laughs) The bottom line is there's a lot of mediocre stuff out there. The thing that is helping to make machinima stronger and better as years go on, as evidenced now, is that more people are playing games. The machinima culture, as with game culture as a whole, has made such incredible leaps and grown.

This year's festival marks the first time ever in which there's a long form category, and we were a bit afraid that a lot of submissions were going to be unwatchable, since anything 20 minutes that's not absolutely engaging and just plain good is very hard to sit through.

Yet we were all pleasantly surprised by the entrants, even the ones that didn't make it into the nominations.

Because the number of people and playing games has expanded, you have an increase of different folks doing machinima, bringing more to the table.

One piece employs blue screen technology, with humans interacting with video game elements, a first. There's another [entitled Clear Skies] that's basically an homage to that sci-fi western from Joss Whedon [Firefly]. Another thing that there was almost never any of, good quality voice acting, is largely persistent.

How many entries did you receive for this year's festival?

FK: Over 200 films from 22 countries.

What were the standards that they had to meet in order to qualify for the festival?

FK: They simply had to be good. They have to work as a film, period. Regardless of the category; even a film that's up for best visual design still needs to stand on its own.

We also have different people from different fields choosing the nominees -- but just those actively involved in machinima -- artists, writers, directors, and the like all working professionally in the world of cinema.

Because things are changing so rapidly, and with many more people getting involved as you say, along with how Hollywood is willingly embracing video games -- as well as that video games are able to express such realistic graphics, to the point that they don't seem very "video game-y" at all -- is there a concern, perhaps from the core group that helped to start it all, that things might change too much?

FK: Not at all. Take Team Fortress 2 for example. It may not have the most photo-realistic graphics in the world, but its exceptional animation and unique art style makes its a joy for certain artists to play with. As technology marches on, people will still want to express themselves in not necessarily realistic ways with not so realistic games.

Once again, the true emphasis will not be on technological but cultural change. I predict more casual gamers to get involved, such as films featuring Spore or LittleBigPlanet, by those that got into gaming thanks to the Wii. Does that mean we're now finally going to get Shakespeare? No.

But the core idea behind machinima has always been opening animation and filmmaking to the masses, and that's definitely happening. People have stories to tell and will utilize whatever means to do so, and now there's this new, rich way of doing so. And because the audience continues to widen, that means an even greater incentive to get people involved.

And not just gamers telling other gamers stories about games? Another thing that turned me off five years ago was that I simply had no clue what was being told, because I wasn't familiar with the game that was being used.

FK: Exactly. The funny thing is that more and more traditional filmmakers are getting involved. And that's because, in its infancy, that's who first became involved in machinima, because they foresaw the opportunities that lay ahead.

But things didn't exactly pan out... the technological hurdles made it basically inaccessible. But those barriers are slowly moving aside.