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Chunk: The Ship – winner of Machinima Filmfest

About 3 weeks ago we wrote about the 2008 Mackie Winners – the Machimima Filmfests’ awards for the best Machinima films of the year. We loved the winning video – a beautiful,  moving, surreal short film The Ship – so we got in touch with the guy who made it: Egils Mednis. The Latvian machinimaker explains how he did it, he talks about his temporary obsession for Parisian textures and tells us where he got the idea for the story (something to do with an old bar in Riga). And of course we’ve got the winning film to go with it. (Must) read and (must) see for yourself.

Please tell us a little bit more about yourself
Egils Mednis: “I am from Riga, Latvia. I have an art background, currently working as a professional graphic designer. Sometimes I do motion graphics and I also play games. I think I actually don’t play, but contemplate the games in terms of their interactive and creative output and how this all sticks together.”

What made you decide to do a Machinima?
EM: “For an artist who is into Games, sooner or later a question arises – is there something creative about all this? Is there any value to be added? In terms of self-expression, Machinima is one of the answers.”

“For some time I was messing around with Unreal Tournament 2004. Not so much because of the game itself – there are plenty of other spectacular First Person Shooters around – but more because of its content editor – UnrealEd. I like UnrealEd for its user friendliness, production simplicity and gorgeous graphic possibilities. For an artist who is not skilled in programming this is important.”

“I did some experiments while making short films for a local broadcaster using the Unreal Tournament 2004 engine. I don’t know much about copyrights, but what makes me feel comfortable is that the content I create is 99% original and the profits barely cover the production costs. For me, Machinima is more like a virtual tool or a feature set in the medium I like most – Games. I’m not interested in doing Machinima with standard in-game designs.”

“I should say that when creating content, the cinematic idea is a must. What I mean is that the central idea behind the work should be very clear. It saves the work from becoming too fragmented or overly focused on purely technical stuff. The Ship is my first serious Machinima. One of the main ideas for me to start working on The Ship was to make a strong impact on the audience by means of contemporary game technology. Pre-rendered animation or even filmed footage can do that much better, but that was the challenge for me. And of course the story. I have to thank my friend Olegs Tillbergs for telling me his dream.

Can you tell us a bit more about the story?
EM: “The story of The Ship begins on a dark and rainy Autumn night. I was sitting in one of the Old Riga city bars. It sounds maybe a bit romantic, but that’s how it was. Suddenly one of the best Latvian contemporary artists, Olegs Tillbergs, walked up to me from across the room. I asked him: ‘Olegs, are you a real artist?’
‘Of course I am!’, he said without hesitation.
‘Then tell me one single idea, you should have plenty of them.’
He said: ‘Actually, I’ve been having a dream. It has haunted me for about two weeks. Father and son go through a never-ending field of snow. Then the night falls and they go to sleep. The father feels the ground trembling. At that very moment he knows that they are being followed by a huge, black ship. The father wakes up his son. They continue their journey on the edge of exhaustion…’
Olegs wasn’t finished with his story yet, but I was already there in that cold winter night in my imagination, so strong was the mental image.

Where do the characters come from?
EM: “Both characters come from real-life. The father is a friend of mine, the other one is my son. I tried to find people some through actor agencies, but nothing was close to what I liked. I spent a lot of time on 3D modeling and texturing until I was happy with final character designs.”

Can you explain how you made it?
EM: “I used the Unreal Tournament 2004 engine with its level editor – UnrealEd. First I made storyboard sketches with pencil on paper. I tried to make it all clear to myself. I basically tried to define the plot-character-environment interaction. Based on that I started to visualize the story. Over the period of a year I was seeing the world as textures. I remember visiting Paris as a tourist with my family and all I did for five days was walk around and take pictures of every imaginable texture – pavements, road signs, shop windows, walls, etcetera. There are actual Paris backgrounds in the final city scene.”

“Then I made models – I used Maya for the 3D content – characters, the ice field, the ship, the city elements… There were also character animation loops required for UnrealEd which were provided by a professional animator. The main work begins in UnrealEd. I was helped by a script programmer, together we made about 120 action sequences. When it was all scripted, in one wonderful day all the sequences were played and screen captured by Fraps in real-time. Suddenly I could see all the material, ready for editing. That was the most rewarding feeling. The final editing was done in Premiere. I was trying not to use any post-production effects, keeping the Machinima concept pure.”

The Ship reminds me of Russian cinema. Are you inspired by film?
EM” “There is a great Russian director Andrey Tarkovsky. He made Solaris, Stalker and Nostalgia – these films deal with structuring time, rather than space. In a way I do relate to this stuff, but I can’t say that the Ship is inspired by any of these films. Rather it is the sudden impact of discovery, and the way the dream relates to the ever haunting deadline we all experience in this world.”

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