Brian Stokes, whose blog I always enjoy reading, linked to the fantastic French student animation film Burning Safari a little while ago alluded to the fact that it's difficult to do something like it in Machinima. While I agree completely that it would be nearly impossible to make Burning Safari with most existing Machinima and digital puppetry tools, after spending sometime looking at the films in terms of what I am working on with Panda Puppet I think this type of animated film could definitely be done using real-time techniques.
As a theoretical exercise I broke down the main sections of the film and I'll describe here how would approach them using digital puppetry techniques:
The Spaceship Landing - Easy enough to do, lots of video games already have vehicles like this in them. `Nuff said.
The Little Robots - These guys sure are cute. There are two possibilities for performing them that I can imagine; the simplest way would be to create walk cycles for them and then having a puppeteer simply control their X-Y movement within a scene. Another possibility would be to use a data glove on a flat surface like a table with each leg controlled by a different finger. This would allow more spontaneous and specific control, but running around might be difficult if you didn't have a large enough space to perform in.
"Robo-Vision" - To be perfectly honest, I would cheat this shot in After Effects.
The Monkey - Boy, I love monkeys. There's just something funny about them. In fact, he bares a striking resemblance to "Suzanne" the Blender monkey-head primitive. Controlling a character like this will be relatively straight forward with a control system like Panda Puppet.
See Monkey Get Mad - The only thing funnier than a monkey is an angry monkey. This type of moment in a scene seemed like a real challenge at first, but I have been playing with an idea I call "Emotion State Control" which would influence the movements and poses of a character according to the character's emotion state. If the emotion state "happy" is assigned to a joystick's trigger as long as the trigger is pressed all of the "happy" versions of different movements and poses would be used.
See Monkey Run - Once again, running is done using simple walk cycles. Leaping, jumping, etc. is fairly easily using a combination of walk-cycles and physics. Even the squash and stretch is fairly easy to achieve.
See Monkey On Fire - Ragdoll physics would work nicely in this situation. I would do the energy squares or whatever the robots are chucking at the monkey and the fire on the monkey's face in post using After Effects or something similar.
The other big problem that needs to be addressed is image quality. The graphics in real-time rendering are tied to a computer's ability to draw polygons onscreen. The more polygons a computer can draw and the faster it can draw them, the better the graphics. So having high resolution real-time graphics is really just a matter of having enough computational power. With enough of it, theoretically, you can render graphics of this quality in real-time. In fact I've seen real-time 3D demonstrations that exceed the quality of Burning Safari. Another work around is to simply do performances in real-time at low resolution and then render out higher quality resolution frame by frame afterwards.
There you have it, easy-peasy. Well, almost.
I don't mean to suggest that something being technically doable means it's easy artistically. Making great films is hard no matter how you do it. And even when I get Panda Puppet or someone else gets another digital puppetry system to the point where it can do all this all it will be is just a great tool. Having great tools is awfully nice, but what ultimately makes great art is a great artist.