Anyone who plays even a casual amount of video games has no doubt noticed that game companies have really stepped up the level of filmmaking in their cinematics in recent years. As far as this gamer is concerned, one company is leading the pack: Valve, makers of Half-Life, Portal, Team Fortress 2, and Left 4 Dead.
Sure, studios like Blizzard and Naughty Dog have high-end and immaculately rendered cinematics as well, but they're more or less just glossy trailers and action reels to show off fleeting moments of plot. Valve, on the other hand, uses their cinematics as actual storytelling devices. They're not just making cool marketing materials, they're making legitimate, well-rounded short films that expand their brand's respective worlds beyond the (virtual) walls of the game. Don't believe us? Check out their latest short in their long-running TF2 series, Meet the Pyro.
They've even poached top talent from the filmmaking industry to make their movies, but now you don't have to have worked on the Lord of the Rings trilogy to make films like the one above using Valve's custom tools. They've released their entire, custom-built software package to fans for free. Yes, free. And yes, you, dear aspiring animated filmmaker, can commercialize films made using it.
It's called Source Filmmaker and it's an all-in one animation tool that lets you make movies inside the company's revolutionary Source game engine. Or, as the company's own Bay Raitt puts it, "We condensed the entire pipeline of an animation studio into a single gaming PC." Check it out:
Now, there are some things you need to know before you turn your desktop into your own personal Pixar studio. For starters, the Source Filmmaker, while free, is still in beta. This just means you need to apply to get in. Once it's out of beta, however, it will still be free.
The other caveat is that initially Valve are only providing fans the ability to make movies using assets from Team Fortress 2. Unfortunately that means you're not going to fire up SFM right out of the box and start making your dream zombie film using Left 4 Dead. However, SFM is completely compatible with custom-made game mods, and that means, as stated on their own FAQ, "Users familiar with modding with the Source engine will be able to mod the SFM build of TF2 to create new worlds." Which is a coy way of saying, "We're only releasing TF2 assets for now, but we know you'll figure out how to make it do exactly what you want it to do."
And as mentioned above, Valve heartily encourages any aspiring filmmakers to commercialize the films they make using SFM. Of course, if your film uses the default TF2 assets created by Valve's artists, you can put it online for the community to enjoy, but you can't, say, go make a feature version of Meet the Pyro and sell it. If, however, you create your own original assets and mods and use SFM to create a movie within that world, you're free and clear to do whatever you want with the movie.
Very cool and very generous, right? This kind of complete embrace of a fan community is what causes people like me to put Valve up on a pedestal. But even if you don't know Valve from a hole in the ground, you can at least see that the goods they deliver using the Source Filmmaker speak for themselves. Here are just a few more they've made over the years:
And here's a few (legitimately funny, we might add) short films that fans have already made in the week since Source Filmmaker was released:
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