We were lucky enough to snag some time with Red Vs. Blue's Burnie Burns. He is to Red Vs. Blue, what Seven of Nine is to the Starship Voyager. That's right, Burnie Burns is a sexy cyborg. Anyway, we found him in a small room working on more Red vs. Blue antics and we were all, "Hey what's a Red Vs. Blue, and how does it benefit me?"
And Burnie Burns was all...
Tell us what RvB is, and how it got started.
Red vs. Blue is a machinima series based in the multiplayer world of Halo. Essentially, it is a computer generated cartoon that chronicles the ongoing story of two teams, Red and Blue, that are stationed in a tiny box canyon with no apparent strategic value, in some remote part of the galaxy. They don't know why they're fighting or why they're there, they just know they have to kill the other side. Most of the series focuses on the interpersonal conflict of the two teams and the frequent insults hurled across the battlefield.
We started making Red vs Blue on April 1, 2003. We put up three videos: an introduction, a PSA and Episode 1 of the series. It was linked on a bunch of different sites like Slashdot, Fark and Penny Arcade. The resulting traffic melted our servers and we've been off and running ever since. We average a new video about once every ten days, and we group them into ~20 episode "seasons". Most people watch the series by downloading it from our website, redvsblue.com.
Why do you think RvB resonated with such a wide audience, extending beyond even folks who've played the game?
As big as machinima is now, back when we started Red vs. Blue, there really wasn't that much out there. And most of what was out there was either gameplay videos or physics experiments. Red vs. Blue was the first set of videos with an actual narrative storyline. It also helped that we came out on a regular basis, as opposed to being a one-off piece that was great, but then just went away. With Halo fans in particular, the timing was great. Halo:CE came out with Xbox in November 2001. Halo 2 debuted in November 2004. Not knowing the release date of Halo 2, it was pure luck that RvB came out at almost exactly the midway point of the two games when it began in April 2003.
The crossover appeal to non-Halo players was a definite surprise. By intention, we tried to stay as far away from the Halo storyline as possible, and as a result, I think the whole series felt like less of an inside joke. Being a military comedy, we also make lots of bureaucracy jokes, which I think is pretty universal humor, whether you work in an office or whether you're fighting for control of the universe. Except for a few key details, those jobs are remarkably similar.
Can you explain to our readers what Machinima actually is?
The term "machinima" comes from combining the words "machine" and "cinema" . It's a very futuristic word - pretty soon everyone will be combining word pairs, because no one has time for all those pesky extra syllables. Like next time you go automobile shopping, just tell everyone you're "autopping". They'll know what you mean. Boss at work giving you trouble? Try "penicking" him, which should make him much more tolerable. I know it works in our office.
Machinima is the use of videogame engines to make real time animation. If you step back and look at the technology of what we call a "videogame", it helps to understand it. The actual program on the disc is really an advanced tool for displaying a simulated world in real time. For instance, Zanzibar is a beach outpost with a huge windmill. This program you're running allows you to interact with the world and the other inhabitants. The players are the ones that actually make it a game. They show up, line up across the map from each other and interact under a strict set of rules. They grab flags, throw grenades and generally cause all-around mayhem within those rules. Machinima is the violation of those rules. Instead of using our view portal to find enemies, machinimators use it to explore the virtual world and experiment with different ideas. If you record and share these experiments, you have machinima. If you record Halo footage then dub over voices and sound effects and edit it all to make a story, you have Red vs. Blue. In a sentence, machinima simply means using videogames to shoot movies.
I think machinima and professional gaming (like the CPL) are basically the same thing. They're both two different kinds of play, one just seems to come more naturally from everyone's expectation of what a game is. As a person who has more interest in story-telling than professional sports, I gravitate towards the machinima type of play.
If one of our readers is new to RvB, where do you suggest they start?
RvB is really two different shows. We have the ongoing series, which just hit Episode 77. Each one picks up where the previous left off, so it can be a little hard to jump in the middle. At this point, there's over 400 minutes of videos in that story and we don't do a lot of backtracking in the development of characters or plot. We just assume everyone is on board and we forge ahead.
I would recommend starting with one of our Public Service Announcements, which are the stand-alone "commercial breaks" of the show. I would recommend Real Life vs The Internet or Cold and Flu Season. If you watch those and you don't think it's the stupidest thing you've ever seen, then watch the series starting from Episode 1. That should convince you.
What are the biggest technical hurdles in creating an episode, as far as using the Xbox is concerned?
Machinima is all about working with limitations. On a console in particular, you don't have the ability to re-skin models or add new objects, so you really have to learn to work with what you have. From a writing perspective it's actually a fun challenge, you have to be creative in lots of different ways, like writing the plasma pistol as a medical scanner or remote detonator. It also means you have to pace yourself. Since you only have a finite number of sets (levels) and props (objects) you can't use them all in the first episode. Introducing a new item into such a closed-in world can be a big event in the storyline. A lot of times we use these items to really drive the story forward. So, you have to be careful about not seeing them onscreen before you're ready to use them in the story. Maps are the same way. In Season 4, we did two episodes on Backwash, but we had to be very careful to avoid including any of the map's structures in the shots we used. We have plans for using those parts of the map as part of a later scene and if people remember them from the swamp, it won't make any sense geographically. In Season 5, we have a large virtual set constructed from small portions of Elongation, Turf, Colossus and Backwash. It's going to be hard enough to do that without shooting ourselves in the foot by accidentally including them in earlier episodes.
Who are the voices behind the characters and what inspires those onscreen personas?
We have twelve voice actors now that play a variety of roles. The main roles are played by Burnie (Church), Matt (Sarge/Doc), Geoff (Grif), Gus (Simmons), Jason (Tucker), Dan (Donut), Joel (Caboose), Kathleen (Tex), Yomary (Sheila) and Nathan (Andy). The characters have changed so much since they first appeared, it's hard to say how that has happened. From a writing stand point, I can tell you that we write more for characters now than actors. If we have a scene where the jeep breaks down, there's just certain characters you want in that scene and ones that are a bad fit. So, we just sketch out the premise, fill in the characters and the dialogue flows naturally from the scenario and the established relationships of the participants. We also drink a lot.
What were the most acclaimed and vilified episodes?
That's a little tough. Pretty much, everyone says their favorite episode of Red vs Blue is "the first one I saw". In a way, that does make sense, if a person didn't like the first video someone showed them, why would they watch the rest? However, it does make it hard for us to figure out which ones are the most popular. Real Life vs The Internet has been linked (and "hosted") by other sites the most. Episode 2 is probably the most quoted by Halo fans, since that's the last time we made direct Halo references (e.g. The Warthog naming). By downloads, Episode 39 has been grabbed the most times and Episode 70 has the most comments in our online archive (32,767 posts).
Vilified moments are equally as relative. We catch a lot of grief not having much action in the series. But, I think we established from the first episode that these guys are pretty lousy soldiers. I feel if we did a lot of action, eventually the series we look more like gameplay machinima. Plus, we suck at Halo. So, it's a nice cop out us for us to focus on dialogue.
Are you guys surprised at the exponential growth of the Machinima scene?
Yes and I believe Bungie has a lot to do with that growth. It's going to sound like a total ass kiss when I say this, but I think that a lot of other video game companies have started to embrace machinima based on Bungie's reaction to the movement. There's always going to be a certain level of uneasiness when something like this comes along. With all the tools being built into games for recording and HUD removal, it's clear that a lot of companies are now "getting it". And it certainly didn't hurt that Bungie "got it" first.
For our part, I always keep in mind that while we did not invent machinima, we have certainly forged some new paths in the genre. We always try to conduct ourselves in a manner that would make people in the future point to us as an example of why machinima is a good thing. I would hate to think that some young filmmaker wouldn't get the necessary permission to work on his machinima video because we did something that left a bad taste in the industry's mouth.
Machinima is just going to grow and grow. Real-time animation still has a long way to match the quality of pre-rendering. But, that gap is closing at an amazing rate. Look at the difference in visual fidelity between Marathon (1995) and Halo 2 (2004). Then look at two pre-rendered movies from that same time frame: Toy Story (1995) and The Incredibles (2004). Sure, both sets had improvements in technical quality, but the real-time achievements gained a ton more ground. They haven't caught up yet, and I don't know that they ever will, but the differences will soon be insignificant.
Which other Machinima do you guys admire, and why?
There's a ton of great work out there. Randall Glass was an inspiration for some of our first RvB vids, and his work never fails to impress me. Overall, my favorite piece is one called "My Trip To Liberty City", which is a piece made using Grand Theft Auto. The author did a fantastic job of capturing the spirit of machinima. It shows him playing GTA and talking about the game, then he goes on to say how doesn't really want to beat people to death with baseball bats, so he re-skins his character with a Canadian tourist texture and starts wandering the city taking pictures of architecture and prostitutes. To me, that's the essence of machinima in a nutshell, wandering around in a virtual space and exploring it in a unique way. Also, taking pictures of prostitutes. I just think that the rules of a game are what make it a game. Once you violate the rules, you stop playing the game and that's the moment where machinima begins.
What are you most looking forward to seeing at E3?
I really want to see more from Xbox 360 Arcade. I love that feature and just want more games on it, if for no other reason than I can switch between games on the fly without swapping discs. I read a rumor that a certain classic Bungie title might make its way there, I have high hopes for some info on that. I wish most classic PC games would come to Arcade. I'm no developer, but it seems like there's a number of potential ports available. I would probably sell a body part to be able to download Star Control 2 and play it multiplayer.
I also want to see some more info on Spore, which looks really unique. The Nintendo Revolution controller also looks interesting; a hands-on demo would be nice.
And, of course, I am hoping that Bungie might provide us with some "confirmation or denial of rumors and speculation". Which I suppose you could tell me, but then you'd have to kill me.
Oh we totally won't kill you. Murder is ignorant. But so is not watching Red vs. Blue, one of the funniest things on the whole interweb. Go see for yourself, HERE.