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Grand Theft Auto provides template for UCLA films about LAs future

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(The Center Square) – Teenagers Kerstin and Yolanda agree to work together to hunt down a lost electronic toy in Los Angeles in a short film series created at a university in California.

Kerstin and Yolanda are two characters in a short film made by UCLA faculty, students and alumni, according to a news release from UCLA. They are computer-generated avatars and the movie was shot using a modified version of the video game Grand Theft Auto V.

It’s all part of the “Grand Theft Eco” project. It’s a series of three short films made over the past five years. The project’s team leaders include English professors Ursula Heise and Danny Snelson under the auspices of UCLA’s Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies.

The first episode premiered on May 20 at 4 p.m. in Kaplan Hall room 193.

Nearly two dozen undergraduates and graduate students worked on the project.

They wrote scripts, provided character voice acting, and reprogrammed the game’s infrastructure to serve as the sets for their stories.

The series looks at the city’s environmental future and issues like economic and social justice.

Each episode has a different theme theme: the revitalization of the Los Angeles River, private–public competition over electric power, and urban wildlife.

Making “Grand Theft Eco” was a cinematic and world-building endeavor, the release said.

Before filming began, the team had to mod the environments and settings of Grand Theft Auto to create their vision of the environmental future of Los Angela’s

“In Grand Theft Auto, gamers compete as criminals in a fictional city called Los Santos, which is modeled after Los Angeles,” the release explained.

The game has a reputation for violence and sexism, but the UCLA team didn’t include that in their modded version. Rather, the filmmakers altered the game’s code to change parts of Los Santos, “taking into account real-life plans that have been laid out for Los Angeles,” the release said.

“By using GTA V, we’re defamiliarizing scenes from the game,” Snelson said in the release. “How far can we push a game built for violence and high-speed chases to tell really poignant narratives toward a better real-world Los Angeles? How can we highlight these speculative futures in order to see our present differently?”

The researchers hiding a modified video game as the shell for narrative storytelling is unique for a project of this size, but not a new concept.

Modifying video games for cinematic productions has been done for decades. The term for it, “machinima,” was coined in 1998.

A 2023 grant from UCLA’s Chancellor’s Arts Initiative helped fund this project. The Chancellor’s Council on the Arts and the office of the vice chancellor for research and creative activities administers this initiative. It is “intended to advance the arts and arts-related scholarship,” the release said.