This Spartan Life

Chris Burke was originally interviewed by Chaos Control way back in 1994, when he and his brother Dan comprised the band Glorified Magnified. Chris is still doing music, notably chiptune under the name Glomag, but he’s also doing a very unique ‘machinima’ series called ‘This Spartan Life.’ It’s a talk show where interviews are conducted within networked Halo games and shot by virtual cameramen. Guests on the show have included filmmaker/video artist Peggy Ahwesh, ‘The Raiders Guys’ (who as kids did a shot-for-shot remake of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) and former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. In the following interview, Chris told us about the show and the process behind it.

What initially gave you the idea for “This Spartan Life”? Had you seen other examples of machinima at the time?

I had seen some of The ILL Clan’s work around 2000-2001 and had gone to The New York Video Festival’s “Game Engine” night in 2002 where I saw a lot more machinima. I was intrigued but wasn’t really thinking about making my own machinima because I was busy with audio and music work. Several years later, in 2004, there was a short lull in work and my engineer, John Keith and I started playing a lot of Halo at my studio. After seeing Xbox Live working and being in some multi-player games, I got an idea to do a sort of live machinima in the online game. I wanted to do something that made interesting use of the way the Xbox Live system connects players from remote parts of the globe. John helped me develop the idea for the show, starting with sort of mock TV show and then focusing on the interview idea.

Was Halo always the obvious choice of games to use? If not, where there any alternatives that you were considering?

I liked Halo 2 because the maps were so deep. You can really explore and I felt that my guests would find it inspiring. We didn’t really consider alternatives at the time because it takes a bit of time to develop a technique for shooting in any given game. We knew Halo 2, so we went with that.

What made you decide to go with the talk show format?

It was really the way that Xbox Live allowed us to do more than play a shooter game. It allowed us to extend the game, exploring what is sometimes called “emergent game play.” This was very exciting for me because I hadn’t read any of the scholarship on this sort of thing and it all felt brand new to me. It wasn’t new really, but the next gen games like Halo 2 with their higher immersive capabilities, certainly allowed for more emergent game play. The Talk Show idea was a way of claiming this game space for myself and doing something unintended by the game designers. Later I found that many game designers really love to see their creations extended in this way.

What would you say the biggest challenges were in actually producing a show?

Shooting live on Xbox Live with other gamers in the space with us. Even if they knew we were taping and wanted to behave themselves, they often couldn’t. Ultimately someone would drop a grenade or shoot the guest or host and we’d have to respawn and find each other again. It was was funny and also quite frustrating at the same time. We managed to work around the mishaps eventually.

Could you briefly describe the process behind ‘filming’ in a video game world?

It is a bit different in the different games. For us, in Halo 2 it involved a simple glitch or bit of game play that had a consequence that was not intended by the designers. We found that you could get your avatar to drop the gun that is always in front of your view while playing the game. Once you do that, you see an open screen with no gun and you can treat it as a virtual camera. We had two people, Terry Golob and Michele Darling, operating these virtual cameras. We then took the video and audio outputs of each of their consoles and connected them to a miniDV camera which was in turn connected to my laptop where the video and audio were captured and edited.

Has moving from Halo 2 to 3 brought about any particular improvements relating to how you create the show?

In Halo 3 this is all unnecessary. Bungie, the game designers, instituted something called “Theater Mode,” in which one can save all the game data (not actually video, but the information on what happened when, etc.) This enabled the player to re-run the game any number of times and move a virtual camera (again, built in by Bungie) anywhere they wanted, in essence becoming a virtual director. This meant that we could take time and really hone our camera work considerably.

What would you say are the limitations of the format, and what techniques do you use to overcome them?

The biggest limitations in machinima that is meant to mimic real life and people, are those that break that illusion. If you are trying to create a dramatic scene and your avatar’s lips cannot move while s/he speaks, it poses a problem. Halo has the advantage that the human characters are wearing helmets that obscure their faces, thus making this issue moot. However, no visible face means very little ability to emote. In order to avoid this pitfall, I prefer producing comedy machinima. The most creative solution is always the one that makes use of a limitation, turning it into a positive feature.

Have you done, or do you have any interest in doing, other types of machinima (outside of the world of This Spartan Life and/or Halo)?

We have developed a few other ideas for machinima and are working on one right now. Sometimes these ideas are killed by the legal issues that come with an appropriative art form like this were we are using the assets of a games publisher who may or may not want us to use them. We have been lucky with Bungie to have picked a game and developer that sees machinima as a positive thing in the community built around their games. Some other game companies are not as forward thinking and we have to respect their wishes.

What are you thoughts on the way machinima has evolved over the past few years? Where do you see it going?

There are a lot more people making machinima now and the quality of the films has gone up considerably. Machinima remains an art form with a relatively low bar to entry in terms of skills required and also cost. This makes it a vibrant area of work for young directors. It is also part of what I see as a healthy evolution in animation, CG, etc.- a move toward being more of a performer’s art and away from being an editor’s art. Traditionally animation was a matter of scripting and editing, with each movement painstakingly built frame by frame. In Machinima, movement is created in real time by a performer who is part puppeteer and part actor.

Do you have any interest in perhaps working with custom-designed real-time 3D virtual worlds, or do you prefer creatively re-purposing (and working within the confines of) an existing one?

I would love to work with a team to create a virtual world and stories within it. It is considerably more time consuming and expensive of course, but I am moving in that direction. Having said that, I do love appropriative art in that it forces me to be more creative and clever with the ways in which I work around the limitations, turning them into attributes. And there is much to be said for subversion of the product of mass culture. Video games are certainly that and should be examined just as much as we examine literature, film, television and all media.

In terms of other machinima out there, do you have any particular favorites?

I really like “Apartment Huntin'” by the ILL Clan. My Trip To Liberty City, by Jim Munroe is a favorite and probably the first machinima I saw that played up the comedic differences between a game universe and the real world. Red Vs. Blue is classic and Rooster Teeth are masters. I think Annie Ok is very talented and I look forward to every new thing she does. Short Fuse Films are relatively new but have made a more good films than most. Their “Ignis Solas” is excellent. Friedrich Kirschner is responsible for making machinima a fine art probably more than anyone. I am leaving out a lot of really cool films.

I encourage you to check out :
for lots of great viewing.

What’s in the immediate future for “This Spartan Life”? And what other projects are you working on right now?

I am traveling to Brussels next week for a screening of TSL at Media Ruimte. We are working on more summer screenings and live appearances as well as selecting the guests for upcoming episodes. The other machinima project I am currently developing is in very early stages still and I can’t talk about it yet. We hope to be unveiling something later this year.