So, it's Wednesday morning, and Nomad's just asked me to watch and write about this machinima film, 'Killer Robot'.
I'm not too convinced by the title at first – to me, it suggests overblown big stompy robots destroying things while unmodified Quake 2 marines get melodramatic about it – but then I see the name on the credits: Peter Rasmussen of Nanoflix.
About a year ago, I had the pleasure of watching his short film 'Rendezvous', a curious little romance between a pair of robotic deep-space exploration probes. Without a doubt, it was one of the highlights of machinima at the time; and a year on, 'Killer Robot' parts 1 through 4 have again reset the boundaries of quality for the medium.
The models and sets are relatively simple – little robots wandering about the surface of Mars, collecting data and – as you'll see as the story progresses – getting up to other things as well. The script and dialogue, however, are beautifully written. Peter Rasmussen's screenwriting credentials really shine through in the dry wit and often somewhat black humour.
The plot revolves around 3 main characters – Sam, a staid and loyal machine; Mira, the cheerfully chaotic pickaxe-wielding robot who turns Sam's ordered life on its head, and Cato, Sam's 'boss', a robot with a remarkably imaginative method of locomotion and a penchant for over-the-top theatrics.
What really makes this production shine, though, is the use of artificial voices. As opposed to 'Rendezvous', in which voice-actors brought the machines' personalities to life, 'Killer Robot' takes a completely different approach. Using software developed by, among other groups, Edinburgh University, Nanoflix have given their robots synthesized voices that make them sound somewhat like variations on Stephen Hawking.
If it doesn't sound like this would work, just give it a listen. I don't know exactly why, but the strange, flat intonation somehow brings out the robots' personalities, from Sam's constant fretfulness to Mira's laid-back, dry sense of humour.
If there's one fly in the ointment, it's the printed-out text speech from the conversations between the flying robot and Mission Control, which can't always be seen too clearly. However, I think it shows the quality of 'Killer Robot' that my frustration at this is due to worry that I'm missing out on some of the dialogue.
Once again, Peter Rasmussen's shown us just how much can be done with very little in the way of ultra-high-detail models and complex animation. I don't think it's going too far to say that his films exemplify the spirit of machinima – making more with less. So far, I've only seen the first four parts, and I'm told there's more to follow – I can hardly wait until then.
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Killer Robot is a wonderful Machinima creation produced, written and directed by Peter Rasmussen. Like in Rasmussen's other Machinima creations, the main characters are all robots - probes assigned to search the surface of Mars for signs of life. Unlike todays probes, these seem to suffer none of the monotany of single purpose design. All the characters prove to be extremely flexible and use their specialities in increasingly clever ways.
Killer Robot spans 9 chapters, each between 6 and 8 minutes long, making it over an hour in length. This fact alone makes it an epic by Machinima standards. It is wonderfully written and despite their sturdy robot exteriors each of the characters has a diverse personality. Even more impressive - the characters themselves are voiced by MBROLA, an open source voice synthesis engine.
Mira - wonderfully mischevious to the point of being sociopathic, this geology robot uses her pickaxe to shatter rocks and analyse their makeup. At least thats what she does in her day job. The amount of creative uses for the pickaxe that she comes up with is astonishing.
Sam - Mira's sidekick, and the voice of reason among the two. Sam is a survey robot armed with an ultrasound probe. His job is to locate lava floes under the surface. Despite posessing no manipulator, Sam is given ample opportunity to make creative use of his pivotable solar panels.
Cato - a two ton mining robot, one of the most creative characters I've ever seen in a film. Cato is Sam's master unit (and Mira's for that matter, although she destroyed her comms unit so he couldnt order her about.) Cato is an incidental villain as a software bug causes him to go insane and plot to kill the astronauts due to shortly land on the planetary surface.
Helios-9 - A flying robot perpetually looking for a place to land after being damaged by Cato as it entered the atmosphere. Helios communicates only via text displayed on screen, talking to Mission Control to discuss its plight.
Killer Robot is very fun to watch - the robots, despite their practical exteriors, are all very articulate and expressive. Cato particularly is a natural actor. It also has a well developed plot which makes it impossible to watch just one episode without carrying on through all 9.
The movie took over two years to create, with Peter Rasmussen doing all of the work himself on his home PC. Killer Robot was produced using a combination of GameStudio, a low cost game development environment, and TrueSpace, a 3d animation package. Production was automated using Python scripts and the command line Festival MBROLA player.
Rasmussen's production company is Nanoflix (www.nanoflix.net): he has worked on several other Machinima and meatspace films. Killer Robot is available on DVD, or as a lower quality but free download from http://www.machinima.com.