The internet is bound to be teeming with famous movie clips and quirky music videos redone with Team Fortress 2 assets for a little while. We have Valve’s intriguing and robust Source Filmmaker to thank for that. Allowing the community to get their creative mits on the same tools Valve uses to make fully fleshed, quality looking short films is going to lead to some of the most confounding and fascinating practices of machinima ever.
Fans have been making weird filmic experiments with Source games since Garry’s Mod source engine freedom frenzies. Being able to basically break the physics and in-game models gave hilarious and unexpected results, and players ran with it. But it was never really meant for making films, so you would see either haphazard stop-motion, or disjointed models being flung around an environment to simulate “walking”. Cameras and lighting were horrifically basic, so the best videos were ironic mish-mashes of random ideas and story sequences. And for a time it was all anybody really needed.
Valve then began releasing the “Meet the ___” videos for Team Fortress and they looked amazing. First impressions were that they were just a CG film like something Pixar would produce. But Valve stated that they were made completely in-game, thus where the Source Filmmaker comes in.
Released now as an open beta, the Source Filmmaker looks like any other modern editing program and the layout seems inspired heavily by Adobe Premiere or After Effects, Adobe’s film editing software and special effects tool, respectively. It has video tracks and audio tracks. You can make cuts and trim shots. You can speed up or slow down time. You can add music, record your own voice or add a ton of sound effects. It’s pretty basic stuff.
Then SFM starts to show its chops when you put an actual game map into the software. Once it loads, you can fly around the map in an actual 3D space. From there you can place any object model anywhere on the map. Move it around and position exactly where you need it to be. Then you can place in a player model, like a Scout, and you can either give him one of Valve’s pre-made animations, or meticulously animate him frame by frame. Or, and this is where it gets really cool, just press the record button, and the actual game opens in a new window, gives you a few pre-roll beeps then records your every action as you are doing it. You then go return to SFM and play back your Scout double jumping around a corner.
From there you can tweak facial movements and have the Scout say something witty with a smirk on his face, then cut to a disgruntled Soldier whose rocket just missed. The possibilities are seemingly endless in terms of complete movement. With enough patience you can have every class doing the running man to the tune of “Funky Cold Medina”.
But if animating isn’t really your thing, setting up cameras and lights is something worth exploring. Lights and camera work just like props, where they can moved around and animated as well. If you want two lights to fly past like they were a car, it’s a pretty simple process. Changing the mood of a scene merely takes a few adjustments of color and brightness. Zooming in on some action or panning the camera left or right is just a variable slider away. And the best part is that fixing or changing something is quick and easy. If you don’t like the color of a scene just tweak it around a bit then see how it looks. Nothing is ever set in stone until you do the final render. No take can be flubbed, and mistakes can be corrected. It’s streamlined and convenient, but it does come at a price.
There may be a lot of cool movies being made from this, but it’s mostly confined to Team Fortress 2 characters, with a few exceptions from Half-Life 2, Portal and Left 4 Dead, for the time being. From my experience, TF2 maps were the only sets you could use, aside from a few empty blank rooms Source Filmmaker provides, but props were still plentiful. Custom maps could be made for sets, but I personally have no expertise in that.
Then there is actually learning to operate the program. For the normal user, it probably looks pretty daunting. For someone who has ever used and sort of video editing software or animation software, however, there is a lot to recognize. Keyframes are your best friend, and the time selection tool allows for smooth actions to be transitioned fairly easy. There is a tutorial from Valve, which contains eleven videos on the most basic of familiarizing yourself with the UI and actually creating a ten-second scene. It’s best to go through it at least once, and maybe even twice to really get a grasp of the software. But even then, it doesn’t really go through the more intricate aspects. From there, your best bet is to look for user made tutorials, forums, or to just experiment for yourself.
It is still in beta for the community, so information is understandably sparse. But I’ve also encountered odd bugs and mishaps myself. The program started having trouble differentiating the free roaming Work Camera from the actual set-up camera. Some maps seem to be a little broken, leaving one of my scenes with annoying stretches on the right and bottom of the screen. Some movement and placing of props and animation can sometimes be extremely finicky, and though it’s not really the fault of the software, it can become easy to lose track of all of the elements you’re working with and the variables they each have.
Still, the Source Filmmaker is an incredibly cool and robust tool. It definitely isn’t for the everyday Steam user, but really rewards people who have the patience and skill for animating. Still, the best films will most likely come from those who experiment the most with it. There are obviously some kinks to work, and more in-depth information on how to use it would be extremely welcome, but the Source Filmmaker is bound to produce some very interesting results.