A pioneering cross-media film-maker has recruited Joanna Lumley and Brian Blessed for a unique film which uses one of the world’s best-known computer games as its “virtual soundstage”.
Five years in the making, Death Knight Love Story is a fusion of game, motion capture, and traditional voice acting. Since its release last month, it has proved an online hit around the world. The film, which also stars Jack Davenport and Anna Chancellor, was inspired by Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and was largely made by Hugh Hancock in his flat in the capital.
Blessed said the “wonderful new techniques” employed in the feature offer new challenges and opportunities for actors, while Lumley said her decision to join the cast was born out of the belief that actors “can’t afford to be divorced from new methods of entertainment”.
Hancock, regarded as one of the founding fathers of the machinima movement, a medium that has spawned its own film festivals, described the experience of working with such veteran actors as “absolutely amazing”.
The 36-year-old writer and director created the film using the graphics from the popular online role playing game, World of Warcraft, before using motion capture technology to use the game’s characters as his actors and its locations as his sets.
Those who helped Hancock realise his vision contributed their talent for free or at a reduced rate. The film’s stellar talent was brought on board by Gail Stevens, casting director for hit films including Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting.
Lumley said that although every actor was “a little bit nervous” that motion capture technology would eventually see them “dispensed with”, it was important to use new methods of storytelling.
She said: “There’s an old phrase in acting which is, ‘Stay in the boat’. As things change, stay in the boat. Don’t go, ‘Oh, I would never dream of doing that’ or ‘Oh we didn’t do that, I haven’t been trained’. Just learn and stick with it and find out how it is going.
“Because you’ll find that you’ll be able to contribute quite a lot more than you thought you would, but secondly you can’t afford to be divorced from new methods of entertainment.”
Blessed said: “I feel one mustn’t be afraid of new technology, and people condemn it all the time… I ultimately feel that all the avatar techniques and all these wonderful new techniques that are coming through will actually bring a new reality, and the actor will be needed much more. Virtually it’s going to be so brilliant that they’re in your sitting room.”
Even though the 20 minute-long film is now out, Hancock said he was still shocked at attracting such a well-known cast to star in Death Knight Love Story, which he made for around a tenth of the budget of a film that would use conventional technology.
“It was absolutely amazing, I cannot stress how fantastic it was working with people with that much experience and talent,” he said.
“I did not expect to get anything like the calibre of actors we have in the film. I approached Gail and some other people and pitched the idea, expecting all of them to turn round and say, ‘Well that sounds very interesting, but no’. In fact what I got was, ‘Well that sounds very interesting, can you come to our offices in the morning?’
“The next thing I knew we were discussing casting Brian, Joanna and Jack. The entire thing had suddenly taken on a life of its own.”
The film-maker, who first started making machinima shorts in 1997, said he was particularly pleased with the success of using a game to tell a love a story, an unlikely genre for the medium in general, and pointed to its myriad possibilities.
“The technology means there’s no requirement to tell the story within the story of the game world,” he said.
Game on: Recycling technology
Machinima films may look like any other computer-animated feature, but they make use of a range of technologies, saving time and money in the process.
Rather than using their own expensive, custom-made artwork, machinima film-makers adapt the three dimensional models from computer games played the world over. In the case of Death Knight Love Story, Hugh Hancock used the visuals from World of Warcraft, an online role-playing game that has amassed millions of players since its release a decade ago. Having chosen which locations and characters from the game to use as his virtual set, Hancock then used motion capture technology similar to that employed in Hollywood blockbusters such as Avatar and The Hobbit, imposing his own narrative on the world.
After recording the performances of voice actors, he then processed the results using 3D software known as Mach Studio Pro. Programmed by graphics veterans from the games industry, the software combines cutting-edge game engine graphics techniques with 3D film-making, allowing its users to become directors.