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April 11th, 2008

AS I mention below, the BloodSpell commentaries are now available in DivX (and hence smaller) form with the feature film. If you want to listen to us talk about the process of making BloodSpell, there's nearly 6 hours of it here - Creative, Pre-Production, Production and Cast commentaries.

We'll be posting the documentaries we shot over the next few weeks.
I hope everyone's enjoying their BloodSpell DVDs that they've downloaded and burned (not to mention the seperate commentaries). I'm sorry that we couldn't offer an easier way to get the darn things than downloading 10 Gb of data, and then printing your own labels. But, unfortunately, we can't - because despite spending 4 years on BloodSpell, we don't control our own film.

What happened here? Well, for those of you joining the show for the first time, BloodSpell is a Machinima film made using the technology and art assets of Neverwinter Nights, a game released in 2001 by Bioware, who have since been bought by multi-national corporation Electronic Arts. It's not a fan-film (like that should make any difference) but an original story set in a new fantasy world, which I and a team of a couple of dozen other people worked for 4 years to bring to reality. And it's done bloody (no pun) well, with over 100,000 viewers, high-profile press attention, and a lot of favourable comments. I'm not at all unhappy with that result.

We wanted to make the film available on DVD, of course. However, we were sensitive to the fact that we were using artwork that was created by Bioware on the film. Hence, to avoid any possible problems, we made the decision that we would release the film as a Special Edition DVD, but give all the proceeds from the DVD to charity. We nominated Creative Commons as our charity of choice, and emailed Bioware to check they were cool with this plan.

I learned that the question had rapidly been escalated out of Bioware's control and up to Electronic Arts legal. And there it sat for weeks, deep in the bowels of the world's largest computer games conglomerate.

Frankly, we were a bit surprised. Who refuses to let people give money to charity?

But we waited - until the word came down.

"We can't approve your plans with BloodSpell distribution via DVD. I refer you to the terms of the end user license agreement copied below:"

So, ladies, gentlemen, and things of all ages, that's why you've had to download 10 Gb of ISO to watch all the extra features we created, and to watch BloodSpell on your TV. And that's why we've not been able to support a charity that the entire BloodSpell team would have liked to give something back to.

Given all this, you'd think that I'd be furious with Electronic Arts, or Bioware. Well, I'm not, really.

I'm not upset with anyone at Bioware - this was definitely their new parent company's decision, and frankly everyone at Bioware has been absolutely fantastic to us all the way through BloodSpell's history.

And I'm more irritated than furious with Electronic Arts. Sure, it's rather a gutless decision they've made, and it's one that, frankly, doesn't show them up well in light of their competition's increased openness toward Machinima. Who ever thought that Microsoft would be leading the way on fair and reasonable dealings with Intellectual Property? But it's not an unreasonable decision, and, frankly, were it me in the lawyer's shoes who finally gave the no-ahead, I might well have made the same choice.

See, here's the deal. Because BloodSpell uses the art assets of Neverwinter Nights, even though it completely transforms their usage and context, it's treated as a "derivative work" under copyright law. That means that the copyright holder of the original assets has final say over what can be done with the work created with them. In this case, it means that even though we've spent tens of thousands of man-hours working on this story, we exist only at the pleasure of the copyright holders, EA. They control what we can do - even if what we want to do is contribute to charity.

"But surely there's no downside to letting you do what you want!" you might say. "EA are just being evil!"

Nah. There's no reason to be evil without cause. EA are acting quite sensibly.

EA have to give permission for anything like this DVD to be distributed, precisely because of these laws. Most people know that. If we release a DVD of BloodSpell, EA's lawyers and PR people are quite worried that it'll directly reflect on them - because everyone knows that they had to give permission for it to happen, and thus they must approve of it. And they can't predict the future, so they don't know that there won't be some kind of negative reaction to BloodSpell, for which they'll get blamed. And thus, a sensible lawyer will approve nothing, nothing unless there's a very good reason to - because anything else could come back to hurt them.

There's another reason, too. If they were going to say "Ok", legally, they might need to draft a contract. Which would mean even more legal time. Which would cost a lot of money - probably tens of thousands of dollars.

Now, like I say, their decision is very short-sighted. There are plenty of reasons to approve a release like this - good press, new exposure for your brand, increased longevity for your game, and the chance that it'll go Red vs Blue on you, or even bigger. And whilst a single contract would cost lots of money, they could use that money instead to draft a blanket agreement for all Machinima creators, like their rivals Microsoft and Blizzard have done, with major positive PR results. But all of those require EA to take a risk, and that's something embattled multinationals don't generally do.

So, the law - a law, it may be noted, that most people defend as protecting artists - actually creates a huge incentive for large companies to squash or limit small creators like Strange Company. That's what really annoys me about this situation.

The law - copyright law - that's meant to be protecting creators like me actually harms us.

With a more reasonable law on derivative works, one that strongly protected creators who use existing digital material to create genuinely new works, we'd have been able to support charity and give our fans the chance to see our work more easily. With a more reasonable law, creator Phil Rice would have been able to take advantage of the opportunities that his multi-million-view film Male Restroom Etiquette opened up in the TV world - opportunities that were squashed by Electronic Arts, I might note. With a more reasonable law, Terran Gregory and Ezra Fergusson would have been able to turn their mega-hit film The Return into an animated series, and made literally millions of fans very happy, instead of having their - fully funded and ready to go - series squashed by Blizzard Entertainment on the grounds that, get this, they didn't have time to watch it and check it was OK.

How, EXACTLY, does that help anyone?

Now, I'm sure that someone out there is going "yes, but these films DO use other people's art. So, basically, you're just stealing their work and then complaining when they won't let you."

Fair enough, I can see why you'd think that. And to answer you, I'm going to talk about cooking.

I'm a very keen cook. Actually, I've cooked for money before now, and I'm currently making an internet TV program about "molecular gastronomy" - scientific cooking. Now, when I cook, I'm creating a derivative work, just like when I make Machinima. I use other people's recipes - sure, I adapt them, but basically if I'm cooking a spaghetti bolognaise, I'm drawing on Heston Blumenthal's recipe really heavily. And Dr Blumenthal, in turn, is basing his recipe on a whole bunch of other people's work - indeed, in his books, which of course he receives money for, he talks extensively about all the people whose recipes he studied, adapted, and took techniques from.

"Took." Virtually every recipe you've ever seen in any cookery book, magazine, or TV program is a derivative of another. Would the cooking world really be richer if I had to get Dr Blumenthal's permission and approval before I wrote about or cooked his bolognaise, or he could be sued by Thomas Keller for his burger recipe, or Gordon Ramsey and Jamie Oliver had to work every recipe out from base ingredients rather than looking at the work of other chefs?

But there's more. See, when I shoot my cooking program, I use loads of art assets that other people have made, too. They're called "ingredients".

Yes, creating a 3D character is hard work, and the creator should be rewarded for that - that's why I buy games, to compensate the people who made them. But growing a carrot is hard work, too - I know a few farmers, and they work at least as hard as games developers. And yet, when I buy that carrot, I can use it for whatever I want. I can film it, I can cook it, I can eat it raw, I can use it as a substitute for a laser pointer if I want. It won't work well, but I can't get sued for it.

Would the world really be a better place if carrots were licensed "for home usage only"? If chefs had to get the permission of all the farmers who sold their meat before serving it to customers? If some chump like me making a cookery show could have that show totally controlled by the organic farm he bought his eggs from?

I use ingredients in cookery and in filmmaking. In both cases, the end result is not merely all the parts mashed together. And one of the reasons I'm making this cookery show is that I'm tired of not being able to cook what I want in Machinima without having to stir the result with a lawyer.

Deep breath. I'm a practical person. I don't really do ranting for catharsis - I prefer to take action. So what action can we take?

Well, for starters, Machinima creators can stop using engines that are made by unreasonable companies. This isn't a bite-off-nose-to-spite-face deal. Actually, as the BloodSpell alternative shows, it's very practical. We got off very lightly with the DVD deal - it could have been worse - and when you've spent a lot of time on a project, that's not something you want to risk.

I'm afraid that Johnnie and I will probably be modifying our recommentations in the next edition of Machinima for Dummies, whenever that appears, to say that unless you're really, really sure that you don't care about the results of your creativity at all, you should avoid most game engines, because you just can't control your work, and that has a high chance of hurting you, particularly if your film does well.

Avoid EA games in particular. Unfortunately, yes, that includes the upcoming "Spore" and "Sims 3". But EA have such a bad record of limiting Machinima creators, and as one of the few Machinima-heavy games companies to have not yet released any kind of usage agreement for Machinima creators, you just shouldn't risk their reactions if you care about your work. Blizzard fall into a similar category - whilst they have a usage agreement, it's very limiting, and they've shown no willingness to let Machinima creators take their work further.

Microsoft are probably the only games company whose games we'd recommend using - their usage agreement is clear and succinct, and they're open to dialog about other uses.

And, of course, Second Life, IClone, Antics3D and Moviestorm are all fine, clear, free, and definitely good to use.

Secondly, you can support organisations that fight for creators' rights in digital media. Sadly, as of yet that doesn't mean any of the traditional Guilds - WGA, DGA, etc. But it does mean people like the Electronic Frontier Foundation in the US and the Open Rights Group in the UK. Volunteer your time, give them money, give them press, participate in their calls to action, and communicate with them about your own frustrations, battles and fears in this new frontier of creation.

And finally, you can take action yourself. Contact your local government officials and make your concerns known. Learn how to express your dissatisfaction with the current system, read up on alternative suggestions, and TALK TO PEOPLE. Less than 1% of the population ever actively involves itself in government, and really, talking to the people who change the laws is the only way to try to make sure that things improve.

I'll put my money, or at least my time, where my mouth is here. I didn't know I was going to commit to anything like this before I started writing. However. Over the next three months, I'm going to seek meetings with my local Scottish Parliament representatives and whoever is involved with Scottish copyright law, and discuss the problems currently facing creators like me. I'm not promising I'll get anywhere - I'm not a trained lobbyist or politician - but I'll try.

Please try too. Artists should control their own work. We've got an amazing new frontier of opportunity opening up for artists without millions of dollars here - but it's up to us to secure it.

Let's get to work on that.

April 1st, 2008

THIS IS NOT AN APRIL FOOL!

Yes, finally, after about 4 months of work, we're able to offer the BloodSpell Special Edition DVD for download and burning. Sadly we can't offer a physical media version, 'cos we were told not to, so you'll have to burn it yourself.

However, if you do, you'll get:

  • The full feature film at DVD quality - by far the highest quality version available

  • 4 Commentaries, from the creative team, the pre-production team, the filming crew and the cast

  • Documentaries on the making of all aspects of BloodSpell, from initial brainstorming to final edit and release

  • Deleted scenes and parts of the original animatic for BloodSpell, with commentary from me, Hugh Hancock


  • We're very proud of this release, and we hope you enjoy it!

    Download it from here.

March 24th, 2008

New Fanoe

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One of my favorite moments in BloodSpell is the rotating aerial shot around the prison towers. The music for that section, which is then reprised in the final battle, is by a band called Fanoe, easily the most "industrial" influenced participant in the movie's soundtrack.

Fanoe have just released a new album, "Down To Heaven", via CD Baby. If you liked their work in BloodSpell, you'll really like the evolution of their sound in this new album.

http://cdbaby.com/cd/fanoe2

March 11th, 2008

DVD Progress

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OK, so let me tell you how it's going to be...

1) The DVD images are winging their way over to Stamford right now, where the incomparable Henry Lowood will upload them straight onto the Internet Archive. As soon as that happens, we'll make the DVD ISO images available - you'll have to download and burn them, but that's all. I'll also make the artwork for the DVD available to download too, so that you can make your own DVD since we can't send 'em to you in a box.

2) We're also going to distribute all of the additional material from the DVD seperately. First up, this week, will be the Cast, Crew, Pre-Production and Creative commentaries, which we'll be making available in a DivX file with multiple audio streams, as well as in MP3 format for those of you who are comfortable with remixing them into the video or just listening to it as a podcast.

3) From then on, we'll release the extras once or twice a week, with the 5 new documentaries coming over the next five weeks. We'll release other stuff like the animatic (with commentary) and my pieces on key scenes in between them.

Sorry this didn't turn out exactly as we'd hoped, but there's a lot of cool stuff coming your way anyway!

March 4th, 2008

OK, we've finally heard back from Bioware and EA.

Good news: we'll be releasing something you can burn as a DVD, next week.

Bad news: We won't be able to release a physical DVD.

EA have gotten back to us and refused our request to distribute via DVD. Obviously, this is one of the major problems with producing a Machinima film using someone else's Intellectual "Property", in today's rather screwed up legal system. I'll have some more detail on what our plans were and what happened next week.

But we have the ISOs (disk images) ready to go, so here's what we're going to do:

1) We'll upload both the ISOs, hopefully to both the Internet Archive and a Bittorrent server. You can burn these in a standard DVD writer as a DVD you can watch on television. We'll also upload disk and inlay artwork for you.
2) We'll also produce a DivX version of both DVDs, for those of you who want to listen to the commentaries but don't want to download 5 Gb of ISO.
3) Finally, we'll upload all the documentaries we produced to Blip.tv, for your streaming viewing pleasure. They'll also be on both the ISO and the DivX, but there's a lot less downloading involved in watching them on Blip.

So, it's coming, at last - the final chapter in the BloodSpell saga.

February 12th, 2008

A little longer...

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OK, I promised an update on the DVD.

The short version is that we're currently in negotiation with Electronic Arts as to the exact form the DVD comes out in. We had hoped to do something clever and donate the proceeds of the DVD to Creative Commons, but that plan's currently in legal limbo.

I've had an update yesterday, and Bioware are really behind us on this one, so I'm going to give it some more time and see where we end up. However, my current feeling is that we'll release, in some form or other, in March.

February 11th, 2008

Great news - we've on the Official Selection list of the Bare Bones Film Festival, April 17th - 27th in Oklahoma.

This is fantastic, because it's rare for a Machinima film to get into a mainstream, non-Machinima, no-special-section film festival. Wish us luck!

I'll have more news on screening times and so on soon.

February 8th, 2008

What's happening?

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The DVD was nearly ready. It was nearly ready. And then... Silence.

Sorry about that. We've hit some unexpected problems with releasing it. I was hoping to have more information by now, but things are dragging on.

Regardless, I'll be making an announcement on what's happening with the DVD on Tuesday.

Sorry for the delay.

January 25th, 2008

Yay! The Open Rights Group have just put the audio recording of the discussion we had after the ORG screening in November up for all to listen. I recall it being an interesting debate about Machinima legal issues - worth a listen!
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