Review by R. Steven Rainwater
Title: Stolen Life
Starring (the voices of): Claudia Black and
Production Company: Nanoflix Productions
Music: Phillip Johnston
Running Time: 80 minutes
Format: NTSC DVD
I read up on machinima a bit before watching Stolen Life to try to
prepare myself for it. If you've never seen this type of thing before,
it may take a little while to get into the story. The animation can be
very distracting at first. Eventually you learn to ignore it. One
solution is simple to tune out the visual experience and listen. My wife
compared the experience to listening an old-style radio play where you
have sound but no picture. To me it brought to mind the experience of
watching the animatics or story board run through during the
pre-production stage of a film. At other times it felt like watching someone
else play a videogame. I wanted to reach for the controls to steer a robot
away from a precipice before it fell in. After a while, though, I began to
stop noticing the form and pay more
attention to the content; the story, the voice characterizations, and
Lest the above sound too negative, I should point out that Stolen Life
is regarded as one the best works of machinima to date. It was nominated for
a whole pile of awards from the relevant crowd of machinima geeks at the
2006 Machinima Film Festival in New York including Best Picture, Best
Visual Design, Best Voice Acting Performance, Best Virtual Performance,
Best Technical Achievement, and Best Original Music. It ended up winning a well
deserved Best Original Music award for Phillip Johnston's score.
But enough about the background, you probably want to hear about the
story. All the characters in Stolen Life are autonomous robots, very
autonomous robots. They are sentient, conscious beings with emotion that
can be heard in their voices and observed in their actions. Humans are
mentioned but never seen. The story concerns a private investigator
robot, appropriately named Pi, who arrives at a seemingly abandoned
asteroid mining operation. Chris Jones provides the voice of Pi. After
arriving, Pi finds and activates the station's facilities manager, a
robot named Kieru. Claudia Black, of Farscape and Stargate: SG1 fame,
is the voice of Kieru. Pi explains that he has been sent to the station
to determine its status and find out what happened to a missing worker
It soon becomes evident from the conversation between Pi and Kieru that
there are several mysteries for the viewer to solve. Where is the
missing robot? Why was the station shut down? What are the mining robots
hiding? What's happening at the other automated mining facilities that's
got the humans so worried? What does the stolen life of the movie's
title refer to? As more of the station's robot are re-activated, the
mysteries and dangers deepen. Pi works through the clues to solve the
mystery as well as any human detective could. Along the way the viewer
is introduced to a variety of interesting robot characters including
Daisy, Grip, Cutter, and Doc, each a different type of autonomous robot.
The fun of any mystery is in the process of discovering and
understanding the clues so I won't spoil it for you. Buy
a copy of
Stolen Life and watch it for yourself. You'll enjoy it. If you're a
science fiction reading robot geek, you may have the mystery solved
before Pi does. By the time things get sorted out at the end of the
movie, you'll have completely forgotten about the videogame-like quality
of the animation and be more interested in the story.
Because of the unusual nature of this project, I talked Peter Rasmussen
into giving us few minutes of his time for an interview. Peter
is the writer and producer of Stolen Life. To be honest, I'd have
preferred an in person interview with Claudia Black but she was
Before we get to the interview, here's a preview of Stolen Life to
give you an idea of what the movie looks like
Interview with Peter Rasmussen
Robots.net: Stolen Life is described as machinima. Can you explain
what machinima is for those who may not be familiar with this genre?
Peter Rasmussen: Machinima is animation using video game technology. A
feature of many first person shooters is the ability to record the
action. There is no rendering time so it has an advantage over standard
animation, which can take hours or days to render.
Robots: Is it appropriate to call this a "film" since there was
probably no film involved at any point in the production process? Is video
Peter: I like to call it a movie.
Robots: Was Stolen Life intended from the begining as machinima or
was this selected later in the process as a way to reduce the cost of
producing the project?
Peter: Yes, Stolen Life was always intended to be a machinima project.
The immediacy of the process is very liberating. It's not just about
cost or speed of production. Being able to see results as you are
working is a very powerful element in the creative process. There is
also something about the "game look" aesthetic that is very appealing
once you get used to it.
Robots: Did the chosen technology place any limits on the story?
Peter: No, in fact if Stolen Life had been made for a big budget it
would be almost certain that the corporate nature of mainstream movie
making would have forced the story to become more run of the mill and
Robots: Machinima seems to lend itself to the practice of "upgrading"
more so than traditional film making techniques. Are there any plans to
re-render Stolen Life when higher resolution, more advanced software
Peter: Not at this stage. I wouldn't be adverse to it but I feel that it
is better to put energy into advancing more new projects. This is why I
have left my previous project Killer Robot as it is.
Robots: All of the characters in this story are machines. Has that
presented any difficulty for viewers or have they identified as well
with robots as they do with any other type of characters?
Peter: Some people have told me that at first they were not sure what to
make of it. They were surprised to realise how much empathy they ended
up having for these alien looking creatures. At the cast and crew
screening the people who tagged along and had no idea of what to expect
were among the most excited over this fresh experience. This feeling of
discovery in the audiance is a very pleasing result. The story is very
much about the "humanity" that derives directly from the intelligence of
Robots: Do you believe fully conscious, autonomous robots like those
depicted in Stolen Life will someday exist?
Peter: It would seem to be a very long way off but it would seem to be
more likely than many other things we see in popular sci-fi. If you
follow research on the human brain they are discovering things about how
it works that not so long ago would have seemed impossible to measure or
work with in any way.
Robots: Claudia Black is well-known from her roles in Stargate: SG1
and Farscape. How did Claudia become involved with the your project?
Peter: We sent information about the project along with the script to
her agent. In only a few days we got a response saying Claudia was
interested and we started negotiations.
Robots: For more on Claudia Black's involvement and her take on
machinima, see this short video clip:
Robots: Phillip Johnston has composed music for an interesting
variety of projects. How was he selected to write the score for Stolen
Peter: Jackie Turnure the Co-Producer of Stolen Life was very familiar
with Phillip's work. Jackie sent me some samples to listen to. All of
his music has a playful wit. He was the obvious choice from the outset
and a real joy to work with.
Robots: How is machinima like Stolen Life distributed? Are they shown
in traditional venues like movie theaters or on television? Are they
distributed online via file sharing programs such bittorrent or is
purchasing a DVD the primary way people obtain machinima?
Peter: It's very early days for machinima. Most machinima at this stage
are short pieces. If you search for "machinima" at YouTube many very
creative and entertaining clips can be found. Stolen Life is one of the
first "long form" professional machinima movies to be made. At the 2006
Machinima Film Festival in New York the only other feature length
project was "Bloodspell" by Hugh Hancock of Strange Company.
Robots: How would someone who liked Stolen Life find out about other
machinima and where could they view them?
Peter: At Machinima.org there is a list of the winners of the 2006
Machinima Film Festival. They are a pretty good example of the state of
the art in
Machinima at the moment.
Robots: Do you have any advice for those who'd like to try making
their own machinima? How did you get started?
Peter: Six years ago when I started my first machinima projects there
was no off the shelf software so I had to do a lot of code writing to
make the various elements work together. Late this year dedicated
machinima making software will be released called Movie storm. It's also
worth looking at previz software called Antics and I have also heard of
something called Iclone. There are a number of other machinima making
systems around but they are not free of copyright restrictions.
Robots: What was the budget of Stolen Life? Do you expect it turn a
Peter: It's unusual for any kind of movie to turn a profit mainstream or
otherwise. But with a low budget project like this we are actually in a
position. Blair Witch is a great example. The cash spent on production
of Stolen Life amounts to about $25,000 (Australian Dollars) The
come to about $300,000. By conventional film standards this is a tiny
amount. If the feedback we have been getting so far is any indication
it's quite reasonable to expect to see at least a little "Blue sky"
Robots: What's next from Nanoflix? Any more robot related stories
Peter: A while ago Jackie Turnure and I developed a script called "Bots"
which we intended for a Toy Story stile of production. We are so happy
with the way Stolen Life has turned out that we may also do Bots as
machinima. But hopefully with a bit more cash and a slightly larger crew.