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Guest Blogger: Rhonda Gill

Rest in peace, Oprah’s Book Club. Rest in peace, Borders Group, Inc. Facebook has higher audience numbers than ABC affiliates can count on their collective fingers and toes, and Amazon sells more e-books than hardcover and paperback combined.

This shift in the way people shop for, choose, and purchase books has a direct impact on how we, as writers, reach our audience. Potential buyers might Google the title or author, browse through electronic reviews, and make their decision based solely on how much they learn during a brief web-surfing expedition. Self-published authors and traditional publishing houses alike have scrambled for innovative marketing strategies to promote their books. Word of mouth has morphed into social networking, and websites like Goodreads have become the armchair literati’s go-to resource when it comes to sniffing out the current bestselling titles.

Holly asked me to write about a concept I’m developing, which is animated book trailers produced with professional 3D modeling tools. (Above left is a screenshot of characters in Amanda Borenstadt’s novel, Syzgy.)

(Left on Stonehaven, the machinima was created using The Sims 2. A straight-up machinima film)

The idea of book trailers is not new; quite a few novels already have them. But production costs for quality live-action film puts them out of reach for many authors. What’s unique about my approach is the technology—I don’t need a production team and a cast of actors. With no salaries to pay, I can keep pricing reasonable and still provide a new or self-published author with the same kind of marketing tool implemented by industry moguls.

Do I think animated trailers are appropriate for every novel? No, I don’t. I suspect an author will know instinctively if their work lends itself to 3D rendering. I’m a big fan of photorealism, which means I prefer to work with extremely lifelike media rather than cartoons. Debate rages about this within the animation universe; old school diehards avoid the dreaded “uncanny valley” on pain of death, and the newer generation of animators strives to leap clean over it. I belong the latter camp. It’s hard for me to take a character seriously if their ears (or nose or eyes) are bigger than their fist, or if they’re green or purple and have clown shoes for feet.

That being said, I discovered machinima as a result of my addiction to The Sims 2. Wikipedia defines machinima as “the use of real-time 3D computer graphics rendering engines to create a cinematic production.” In plain English, this means that machinimators hijack existing 3D content from video games and manipulate it to film little movies.

When I grasped the storytelling potential of this medium, I conducted an experiment. I adapted a dear friend’s novel-in-progress to a machinima film using The Sims 2 as my platform. What did I learn? The most important thing was how high interest soared among serious, even scholarly writers. I was stunned. But I also learned that no matter how cleverly one hacks the game files or how innovative the customization might be, Sims still look goofy to the uninitiated.

When considered alongside legal issues that could arise from commercial use of an EA Games product, the dodgy graphics generated by the Sims 2 game engine convinced me to research other options. The two dedicated machinima software applications on the market now are Moviestorm and Reallusion’s iClone. I prefer iClone because it is almost one hundred percent customizable, with photorealistic rendering and extremely lifelike animation capability, including a MoCap plugin that works with standard Xbox Kinect technology. To put it simply, in the right hands, iClone software can produce extremely realistic 3D animation. Plus, it’s royalty-free, which means I own all rights to any work product generated using that software.

Along with filming a project for other writers comes the need to create content specific for their characters and story. For this I use 3DS Max, which is sold by Autodesk. This software is as powerful and professional as it gets, which is good. It also has a nearly insurmountable learning curve, which is bad. Especially for someone like me, who has no formal training in digital arts.

Still, I’m already backlogged until September with requests for book trailers. So am I excited about this? You bet I am. Not only because of potential benefit to me, but because of the doors this might open for indie writers and publishers around the world. I can’t guarantee that animated book trailers are the Next Big Thing. But I do believe they’ll play a role in tomorrow’s publishing world.

I’m blogging about my experiences with iClone and 3ds Max at www.dolittlesaymuch.wordpress.com

For more information about machinima: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Machinima

Amanda Borenstadt’s blog