Thursday, May 15, 2008

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Making "Molotov": How The Man Behind The HBO/Cinemax Special Created His Avatar-Based Documentary, And Why

Molotov_with_orhalla_2 When Douglas Gayeton began creating the documentary short that airs tonight in the US at 8pm on Cinemax, he wasn't even sure what people meant by the word "machinima".

"I had heard the term," Douglas told me last weekend, "but didn’t even know what it was.  I thought it was a Second Life culture."  In 2006/early 2007, the Dutch production company Submarine had hired the seasoned filmmaker to create a documentary about Web 2.0 culture, specific topic unspecified.  But his wife Laura had just given birth to their first child, and he was loathe to leave their goat farm in Petaluma.  (Laura runs a popular organic goat milk ice cream company-- a story in itself.)  "That’s when I realized I could stay in Second Life and not have to leave the house."

The result was "Molotov Alva and the Search for His Creator: A Second Life Odyssey", and the story of its viral ascent into a major cable network was covered here.  Since writing that post last year, I should say by way of full disclosure, Douglas and I have become friendly.  But I was enthralled by "Molotov Alva" the very moment the first part aired last March on YouTube, and having seen the whole film since, that sense is only heightened: dizzying, funny, profound, it's a fever dream vision that perfectly captures the essence of Second Life.  (I'm hardly its only admirer.)

In creating it, Douglas more or less invented a new technique to shoot machinima, waded through 100 hours of footage, and wound up with a movie that challenges the very definition of "documentary".  After the break, he talks about that, the surprising (and spoiler-laden) plot twists that were added at the last moment, and where Molotov goes from here.

In center, with Sibley Verbeck and Reuben Steiger (Source: Millions of Us)

Making Molotov Real
At first, much of the documentary was meant to take place in the real world. “I was gonna shoot half around Petaluma and half around Second Life,” Douglas tells me, “to continually compare and contrast Molotov_looks_at_rl the two.”  After spending a couple months in SL, however, he realized Residents rarely discussed their real lives at any great length, and so discarded reality altogether.  The entire movie takes place in Second Life, with the real world only glimpsed in uploaded photos.

The name “Molotov Alva” was taken from an alternate reality game Douglas created for Microsoft in the 90s, naming his hero after skateboard icon Tony Alva.  (In yet another life, Douglas was an avid skateboarder, and to his joy, the surname was available when he created a Second Life account.)  In creating Molotov’s avatar, he went through a dozen versions, but ultimately, took a lesson from Scott McCloud’s classic Understanding Comics--  “the more simplistic a character looks, you see yourself as the character.”  Hence Molotov’s aging, average looking persona, crafted by avatar skin master Chip Midnight.

"What’s ironic about making Molotov as an everyman,” Douglas says now, is how that helped provoke a bidding war between Sundance, MTV, and HBO.  “They all said Molotov was their demographic.”  MTV even saw Molotov as their new Max Headroom, and wanted to buy the avatar from Douglas outright, and turn him into an MTV product. 

Douglas firmly demurred. (“That’d be like doing a movie with Eddie Murphy and at the end you decide you own Eddie Murphy.") He ultimately went with HBO’s Sheila Nevins, a key figure in the documentary film world.  To have her choose it, he says, “gave it a validation”.

Making a Virtual Documentary
Molotov_meets_orhalla Douglas chose "hobo king" Orhalla Zander both as Molotov Alva’s guide, and his virtual world producer, finding him locations, arranging interviews with Residents, and so on, talking with Douglas via Skype as they maneuvered their avatars through various scenarios.  These were recorded live, and events unfolded naturally.  Mostly.  In the scene where Molotov fights a duel to gain entrance to Samurai Island, for example, the warrior he fights was so good, Douglas remembers, Orhalla had to step in with a bindle stick to keep Alva from getting killed.  “We were literally shooting as we went and figured out how to turn into it a story.” 

Three quarters of the locations in “Molotov Alva” don’t exist anymore, removed by their owners or creators for one reason or another.  “We’ve documented something that’s never gonna exist again,” he observes.

He and his editor did that by writing down individual scenes on a 16 foot long whiteboard.  They cobbled these together to form coherent episodes of a documentary, a memoir, a personal travelogue, whatever you prefer to call it. “I’ve never been hung up on the wording,” he says.  He does prefer not to discuss the fairly graphic virtual sex scene with Abigail, Alva’s lover. 

“I’m not gonna talk about that,” Douglas tells me flatly.  It did lead, he does note, to a very interesting conversation with his wife as they drove home from the movie’s theatrical premiere.

Molotov's Machinima Techniques
Not knowing what “machinima” was, Douglas didn’t about the usual tools for making it. “I have to say I was pretty naïve about how it worked, and kind of just stumbled through it.”  His solution was to set his high definition video camera three feet away from his 23 inch monitor, and simply record the action that way, as he sat at the computer. 

“If you look closely,” he says, “you can see my shoulder.  On two shots we decided to leave it in because it was so funny.”  To eliminate refraction, he built a black box around the monitor and covered his studio’s windows with black tape, so the only light source was Second Life.

Because his monitor is LCD, the image is crisp, better than the usual machinima capturing techniques.  “Ironically shooting off the screen gives you better resolution,” he says.  (And capturing software like FRAPS uses a lot of memory and slows the computer down.)  He's since dubbed the technique “Rumple-vision”, after the converted farmhouse where he made his videos.

Where Documentary Ends And Editorial Epilogue Begins
After selling the first seven episodes to HBO, Douglas went back into SL to create a three episode epilogue that reflects his current sense of the world.  “I made no attempt to be a documentary filmmaker anymore… they were almost all shot on sets that I built.”  By then, WindLight had been integrated with Second Life’s viewer software, so he had to de-spectacularize the visuals to prevent a jarring mismatch.   

In these final episodes, Alva grows frustrated by the arrival of corporations and excessive commercialism in Second Life, and lashes out, even becoming a griefer.  Ironically this was a plot twist inspired, he says, by his brief time as Creative Director with NWN partner Millions of Us, where he set up advertising sites for various major clients.  (Gayteon’s real life experiences, in other words, changed the storyline for his avatar.)

Molotov_and_abigail Where Molotov Goes Next
At the end of “Alva”, our hero follows his lover Abigail through a dark tunnel—and out of Second Life.  He’s planning a feature length sequel where the two of them separately explore a dozen other virtual worlds, MMOs, and online games.  While that’ll appeal to the fans of each world, he thinks the audience is far larger. “People have interests in virtual worlds but they don’t have time to get into it,” Douglas says.  It doesn’t mean they’re not interested in the implications and what they look like. Halo or Grand Theft Auto make more money than movies, but no one even knows what they are.”  Thousands of theaters get the movies screen through digital distribution, and he hopes the movie will play there.

As for mysterious Orhalla Zander, the helpful hobo who led his alter ego through Second Life? 

“To this day,” Douglas Gayeton tells me, “we’ve never met.”

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