Digital camcorders are now fairly affordable, but making a movie can still be difficult. There are actors to cast, locations to scout, characters to control and other aspects of production to manage. Helpfully, animation software can take care of the first two variables for you, offering a flexible range of sets and a team of willing actors.
Such programs provide a fully customisable animated world, with 3D avatars that let you create exactly the story you want, without leaving your computer desk.
Using an existing 3D engine to make a movie isn't a new concept - a whole genre of cult movies has been created using this idea. Usually referred to as Machinima, these movies use a game as the set, and the in-game characters as the actors. You can find several examples at machinima.com.
With games offering multiplayer modes, an ensemble production is possible. The most famous example of Machinima is Rooster Productions' Red vs Blue, which uses the Halo engine. This online series has been going for seven years, resulting in more than 100 episodes and a regular advertising income.
However, Machinima movies are limited by the capabilities of their host gaming engine. The world and its inhabitants will be predefined by the game's original programmers, unless you're particularly adept at modding.
Moviestorm, which we use in the following tutorial to show you how to get started on your first film, is different. Unlike most Machinima hosts, it offers a stage you can alter to your heart's content. You can also customise the bodies and dress of your actors. A range of content packs is available for even more options.
Moviestorm is sold on a subscription basis at £4.99 per month, alternatively, you can buy the lifetime version for £149. A time-limited free trial is available from moviestorm.co.uk.
Step 1. Download the Moviestorm installer from moviestorm.co.uk. This helper app will download the remaining content for you, which totals hundreds of megabytes, so ensure you have a swift and dependable web connection and enough hard disk space. Register a username and password, then log in.
Step 2. Launch Moviestorm and choose 'New Movie'. You can choose a template, follow a brief tutorial or customise a prepared movie. We've selected the blank Moviestorm template. This creates a simple set with no bundled actors or activities. Click the tick at the bottom of the screen to load the template.
Step 3. The creation process is arranged into logical steps, with a row of icons at the top of the screen. The first of these, depicted as a hammer and spanner, loads your basic set. Choose an empty space or one of several predesigned sets, from rooms and gardens to stylised cartoon worlds. Click the tick to confirm.
Step 4. If you chose a predesigned set, a 3D room with furniture and props will load onscreen. Click on any item, wall or floor to customise it. The six icons at the bottom left provide options for adding more walls and props. You can also customise the lighting and background noise, and change the look of the sky outside.
Step 5. Click the second icon at the top of the screen to enter the Dressing Room. Choose a character's body type and clothing from the palette on the right, and enter their name in the space provided at the bottom. Some character types are locked, you can purchase extra Content Packs if you want to access these.
Step 6. Add as many characters as you want to the cast list. This is accessed using the icon to the left of the character's name. You can also customise their face and hair and add accessories. The facial options are particularly extensive, with a wide range of parameters, makeup and even scars available.
Step 7. Now it's time to start telling your virtual cast what to do. This is the Director's view, represented by the clapperboard icon at the top of the screen. Place your actors where you want them to begin the scene. Click on their icons at the bottom left in succession, and for each one click in the set and select 'Place here at start of scene'.
Step 8. Choose a point in the timeline that you want an action to occur, then click on an item or character and choose from the options given for each. You can also select floor positions for the character to move between. If your movie starts running out of frames, use the 'Insert time' icon to increase its duration.
Step 9. Your next task is to film the action with Moviestorm's virtual camera, represented by a film camera icon at the top of the screen. You can frame your production just as if you were using a real camera, with long shots to establish the scene and medium shots and close-ups to home in on the action.
Step 10. It's possible to set the camera to follow the action. Select keyframe positions using the timeline, then move the camera to the desired position by clicking mouse buttons and scrolling. The Change Lens icon provides zoom control. The upturned blue triangle then adds your keyframe to the timeline.
Step 11. You now need to select which footage you want to use from each camera and splice it together. Enter the Cutting Room view via the scissors icon. Drag footage to the timeline and move the slider to mark beginning and end points for each clip. Use the timeline scissors icon to cut the clip. Delete unwanted portions.
Step 12. Only one video track is provided, which means you'll have to construct your movie in sequence from start to finish. However, you can import audio and still images, add a small selection of special effects and create simple text, including opening titles, overlaid subtitles and end credits.
Step 13. Click the film reel icon to enter the Publisher's view and render the finished movie. Small-, medium- and large-resolution presets are available, as well as a Custom option. The latter provides up to full-HD (1920x1080 pixels) resolution and a choice of formatting options.
Step 14. Once rendered, Moviestorm offers to upload your animation to YouTube or its own sharing space. The latter is a community where Moviestorm users show off their completed works. Featured movies may even end up on the opening screen of the software itself.