There is a big problem that Second Life machinima makers run into as soon as they begin to record scenes from the virtual world. No matter how hard one tries, it’s almost impossible to make smooth camera movements using a mouse and keyboard.
If you want better quality machinima, you have a few options. You can spend upwards of a hundred dollars on a SpaceNavigator or other “3d mouse.” You can use a scripted option that may or may not yield the results you are looking for. Or you can use a built-in Second Life feature and a controller you probably already own. Here’s how:
Second life has a feature, the joystick flycam, that removes the link between your avatar and the camera. It works much like holding alt down on your keyboard and clicking your mouse around a scene. You can now “film” things without the avatar getting in the way. The trick to getting better quality machinima is using a game controller with the joystick flycam, rather than a mouse and keyboard. This can be anything from an xBox controller to a full HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick) setup, like the Saitek X52 that I use.
Once you have a game controller connected to your PC, go into preferences > Move & View > Other Device. Check the box to enable your controller, and check the box next to Flycam to start assigning your controller’s axes.
In the ‘Move & View’ section of SL preferences, there is an option to enable game controllers to control the flycam
There are 6 basic camera movements: tilt, pan, dolly, truck, pedestal, and zoom. There are also six axes on the joystick that I use, which allows me to map each of the camera moves to a different axis. For instance, if I want to zoom in, I twist the stick (rudder), and if I want to dolly in, I push forward on the throttle.
Basic Camera Movements
Second Life Joystick Configuration window with camera movements.
If you are using an Xbox controller you will only have 5 axes that you can map. The thumb sticks have two axes, and the left and right analog triggers count for the positive and negative sides of a single axis. When using such a controller, I suggest not bothering to assign the zoom, unless you need it for a specific shot. Assign the axes by changing the numbers in the boxes at the top of the joystick configuration window.
Once you have your axes mapped, you enable flycam mode by pressing alt-shift-f on the keyboard. (PROTIP: Use software to assign keyboard shortcuts to the buttons on your controller. While you're at it, assign a button to ctrl-shift-U which hides the Second Life UI. ctrl-tilde takes a snapshot to disk. And another button should be assigned to start and stop recording a movie in whatever recording software that you use.) This is the setup I use for the x52:
A Saitek X52 camera control configuration for Second Life
As soon as you begin to use the joystick flycam you’ll notice how much smoother your recordings can be. Once you have the basic movements mastered, you can begin to combine them into the classic moves that filmmakers have been using since the Battleship Potemkin.
The Dolly Zoom
The dolly zoom is a move that was first popularized by Alfred Hitchcock in the film Vertigo. The effect is achieved by simultaneously dollying and zooming in opposite directions. The show Top Gear often used the shot at the beginning of segments featuring a super car. And you can use the shot to highlight your Second Life build or for a scene in your machinima.
The Arc Shot
An arc shot is another important camera technique you can now film smoothly in your machinima. It involves trucking left and right while simultaneously panning to keep your subject in view, and can also include a dolly in or out. Keep in mind that, when filming a product, another option is to rotate the item while keeping the camera still.
Putting it All Together
Once you are comfortable using the joystick flycam, you can start to put together all of the moves you’ve learned to create smooth and compelling machinima. This is a quick fly through that I filmed.
It would be nearly impossible to film this using a mouse and keyboard, while keeping the camera movements silky smooth.
Brookston Holiday (@ProMaterials on Twitter) has been building in Second Life for over a decade.
In his first life, he is a freelance 3d Artist, musician, and amateur sailor. When he isn’t working in 3d, he’s trying to wire a 70amp sub panel in his garage without killing himself.