There aren't a lot of companies that would take the time and effort to build a fully featured 3D animation program and release it to the public for a total of zero dollars, but then again, Valve isn't like a lot of companies. It's a good thing, too, because lowering the barrier to entry for this sort of machinima-style moviemaking has already led to a flood of terrific videos hitting YouTube. I've been spending some time with Source Filmmaker myself--all you need to download it is a Steam account--and thought I'd offer a few bits of advice to anyone else thinking of taking the plunge.
If you don't know other 3D animation programs, don't worry
One of the cool things about SFM is that you can get into the real nitty gritty of keyframing and character rigging if that's what you're interested in, but it's not a requirement. There are a number of tools in the program for making things as automated and painless as possible. One way of capturing animation allows you to hit the record button and then run through an in-game map using the WASD controls you've already spent a lifetime getting to know. Another tool automatically reads WAV files to generate lip-sync animations for your character without you having to reposition a single virtual cheek muscle. (The results are far from perfect, but if you position the camera far enough away, no one will notice.) So while you're definitely at an advantage if you have a background in 3D animation, if you don't, there's no reason to let that stop you.
Spend some time with video tutorials
Before you try to build your first masterpiece, be sure to take a look at some of the video tutorials floating around YouTube. You'll want to start with Valve's own video playlist for learning the interface and making your first video. Sure, it's 13 videos long and will probably eat up a few hours of your life, but it's well worth the time investment.
Outside of Valve, there are a bunch of folks out there making quality tutorials. My favorite is YouTube user Jimer Lins, who publishes a series called "Tip of the Day" explaining one single element of SFM in thorough detail. Plus, the guy has got an amazing broadcaster voice. Check him out.
A few other highly useful tutorials: how to make your characters look like they're breathing, how to give your characters realistic eye movement, and--always critical in any Team Fortress 2 video--how to put hats on your characters.
Focus on one skill at a time
If your first act after watching those tutorials is to get started on a 10-minute opus with dialogue, action, and fancy camera work, there's a good chance you'll overwhelm yourself. Personally, what I did to start out was make a handful of short videos that were each focused on learning one specific skill to improve my work in SFM.
I'll show you a few examples of what I mean. Here's one I made early on where I tried to focus entirely on lighting. I decided to try replicating the shadowy sci-fi lighting in Mass Effect with its dark blues and purples, and then throw in a few contrasting reds and a strong vignette effect to boot. And, of course, I added a deeply stupid voice-over just for fun:
As you can tell from that last video, making my characters converse in a lifelike manner definitely took a backseat to the lighting. So for my next video, I decided to focus entirely on creating the natural facial tics and body movements people display in real-life conversations. Since I'd just seen Good Will Hunting on TV the night before, I thought I'd pull one of my favorite scenes from that movie and try to get Ben Affleck's general mannerisms down. And, just for fun, I threw in a Pyro gobbling down a sandvich:
And lastly, my most recent video was an effort to learn dramatic, sweeping camera shots to create something a little more moody and serious. The idea I had was to show the aftermath of a Team Fortress 2 match with no respawns. It's a bit on the grim side, but figuring out how to make a movie with that sort of serious tone was what I was trying to learn. It was outside my normally humorous comfort zone, but I think it turned out pretty OK:
So, after getting my feet wet with these short, focused videos, I feel like I'm in a better position to start making something a little more substantial and high-concept. That's definitely what I'd recommend to you as well: don't try to create The Godfather right off the bat. Use your first few videos as a learning experience and then make something amazing once you've developed a varied skill set.
Learn the screen manipulator tool
Ready to start posing characters? There are three basic tools for doing so: the translation tool, which lets you move them from one point to another along the X,Y, and Z axes; the rotation tool, which lets you rotate them around fixed points; and the screen manipulator, which is kind of like reaching your hand in there and grabbing onto the model yourself. The screen manipulator is the most confusing method when first starting out, but for the love of God invest some time into learning how it works. It's one of the most powerful tools in SFM and you'll be thanking yourself profusely once you've figured it out. Trust me: taking the time to learn this tool early on will save you much, much more time down the road.
The more cinematic you want it to look, the more time you'll need
When you're finally ready to hit the export button on your movie, there are a few things to bear in mind that will affect the quality of the final product. SFM uses a technique called "progressive refinement" to render things like depth of field, motion blur, and soft shadows--all important techniques for making a movie that's less Doom and more Pixar. In the list of render settings you see before finalizing your movie, you can tweak a few dropdown menus to make these effects more or less pronounced depending on the size of each number.
But what "progressive refinement" means is that in order to produce the blurry background in a high depth-of-field shot, SFM has to look at the same frame over and over again to create a composite image of all those backgrounds. So when you select higher numbers in those dropdown menus, SFM will actually be examining each frame that many more times. What this means is that a better-looking movie will take exponentially longer to render than one with no depth of field or motion blur. It's up to you how pronounced you want those effects to be, but just remember to set some time aside if you want your video to look as cinematic as possible.
A few more tips
- Looking for sources of inspiration? Steam Workshop and Reddit's SFM channel are both great places to keep track of what other people are making.
- If you're looking to pull audio from an existing YouTube video and use it as the dialog in your SFM video, there's a free PC program called Audacity that lets you record WAV files of any sound playing on your computer.
- Valve's got a pretty good wiki up if you're looking for a quick bit of information and don't feel like watching an entire tutorial video.
Been making your own SFM videos? Feel free to link them in the comments!