Wednesday, July 25, 2012

STO: Making a Show

As I think I've mentioned before, I'm working on a show. Specifically, a machinima. What's a machinima, I'm sure you're asking. It's basically a show of some sort using a video game as the primary source of visual material. It can be an on-going show like Red vs. Blue (which used Halo and Halo 2 and basically started the genre), a one-off deal, or just a bunch of random skits put together like the G-Mod Idiot Box (which is essentially a skit comedy show using Garry's Mod for various games by Valve).

In my case, I'm doing an on-going show based on the video game Star Trek Online. I'll say it now: I love Star Trek. I grew up on The Next Generation, seen all the shows and movies, and I've been playing the game for over 2 1/2 years, since closed beta. Out of this love, I've decided to do a proper machinima show based on the game. So, I'd like to talk about that a little bit.

One advantage that STO has is that it has some tools which specifically help with making a proper show out of it. The first is one called DemoRecord. By running a /demorecord command in-game, it records everything that happens around you while it's running, in a small, editable text file. So, it records all the costume settings of my character (and anyone else that appears), where we're all standing, what exact actions we perform and when, etc. There's a program another user of the game put out to help organize and edit demo files, and I use this extensively, particularly for costume swaps (i.e. changing the appearance of characters in the demo files to almost anything I need them to be).

Another main tool I utilize is DemoPlayback. This is an external application that, as you might guess, plays back the demo files. It includes options for setting up camera paths, adding in sound effects, and a bunch of other things. I wind up spending a LOT of time in here setting up everything just right (unfortunately this particular tool isn't very well supported and needs a LOT of work on the user-friendliness front). Once I have it all, I playback the demo file, and use a video recording program called FRAPS to capture everything that shows up on screen. I import these raw videos into a regular video editor, crop out toolbars, fix up the timing of shots, add in dialogue, etc., and then publish the final thing as an actual show.

The final main tool I use is called the Foundry, which is a toolset within STO for making your own missions for other players to play. I use this for any custom "sets" for the show, as well as setting up specific animations for characters to perform (such as talking, gesturing, etc.) throughout the show. Again, it's not as user-friendly as it could be, and I waste a LOT of time just sitting at load screens, but oh well.

That said, let's take a quick look at the writing side of it. As an aspiring writer of some kind, I try to give the show a coherent plot and in-depth characters. As a lifelong introvert, that's not always easy. I've noticed the most popular episodes and movies of Star Trek are generally the ones that are character-driven stories, and the sci-fi elements are almost just window-dressing. So that's the pattern I've tried to follow, also watching for good examples of character interaction and dialogue in anything else I watch, from other sci-fi to real-world based drama. Thankfully, I also have an extremely brutal editor whose's input has drastically improved my work. Though the opening trilogy of episodes is very much plot-driven, later episodes will be much more character-driven.

So, among the cast, we've got Captain Allerka (voiced by myself), who's been tasked with taking command of the U.S.S. Durandal, a new ship built primarily for combat in an increasingly-hostile galaxy, and leading it on a highly classified mission (which is revealed in the second episode, though there's numerous clues dropped in the first episode). He hastily selects his crew and sets off. He's somewhat of a mix of Kirk and Picard, combining the intellect and rationality of Picard with the warrior spirit and relentless drive of Kirk. Most of the officers he's gathered for his crew are already known to him, but even with such personal connections, he generally remains aloof and distant, fully cognizant of the burdens of command that separate him from those under his stewardship.

His first officer is Commander Wekalla al-Dyab, a longtime associate. The two have known each other for a very long time, though the exact nature of their relationship is generally not revealed to most except those closest to them. Wekalla is extremely stern and stoic, possessing little in the way of humor, probably a result of having a very rough childhood. Initially, she's opposed to being assigned to the Durandal, as she's just gotten engaged, with her fiance being on her previous ship, but Allerka convinces her to stick around for the first mission, after which she can transfer back (though, of course, a seemingly never-ending string of crises prevents this from happening).

Heading up security is Vharia, a psychotically disturbed woman whom Allerka gets released from prison early to serve on the Durandal, complete with a field commission. Though she's prone to fits of violence and relishes inflicting pain, somehow Allerka has won her complete loyalty and will obey him. Still, Allerka does little to rein her in when she's performing her duties on the Durandal, as long as she doesn't kill anyone, and so sickbay is frequently treating recipients of her "disciplinary measures".

Engineering is run by Lieutenant Commander Elliott Durand, a longtime friend of Allerka. Elliott comes from a long line of British military men, though his noble lineage is hard to tell at times, given his disposition towards sarcasm and passion for enjoying himself. On the job, though, he's a veritable genius of mechanics and a hard worker, which he needs to be, given how hard Allerka winds up pushing the ship in combat.

Finally, the chief medical officer is Lieutenant D'vesh, an Orion. Given most of the rest of her species is at war with the Federation, D'vesh has to deal with frequent suspicion from other officers, though her species' popularly-known promiscuous nature also means she has to deal with even more unwanted attention in another way. Despite this, she is a consummate and dedicated doctor, selected by Allerka for her excellent performance record. So far, she has yet to disappoint in performing her duties.

Those are the five main characters, though lots of secondary characters will show up throughout the show.

Ultimately, I have a lot of fun making these, even if it's horrendously time-consuming (on average about eight hours of work per minute of footage), especially since I have to do it all myself. But it's very rewarding (the stream of compliments I get wherever I post the videos is certainly a nice ego boost), and I hope I can use these to show off my story-telling skills in the future for possible employment.

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