UCLA storytellers use Grand Theft Auto as basis for series of original films imagining L.A. in 2050

Published: May 16, 2024
A character looking out at a rendering of 2050 Los Angeles in a still from the Grand Theft Eco videosA still from the Grand Theft Eco videos. Angel Tolentino, a former UCLA student who worked on the movies, said, “To build a better world, we must envision one. I think this is a creative step in the right direction.” (Image courtesy of UCLA Laboratory for Environmental Strategies)

Emma Horio | May 16, 2024

It’s the year 2050, and the Los Angeles River runs lazily along, sparkling in the sunlight, as the hum of freeway traffic weaves through the idyllic setting. Standing on the riverbank, teenagers Kerstin and Yolanda agree to work together to hunt down a lost electronic toy. Will their mission, and their friendship, survive in spite of their socioeconomic differences?

Kerstin and Yolanda are characters in a short film produced by UCLA faculty, students and alumni. But they’re not played by actors; they’re computer-generated avatars. And the landscapes and neighborhoods they’re about to explore weren’t filmed in present-day Los Angeles, but rather produced using a modified, or “modded,” version of the video game Grand Theft Auto V.

It’s all part of a project called “Grand Theft Eco,” a series of three short films created over the past five years by a team led by English professors Ursula Heise and Danny Snelson under the auspices of UCLA’s Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies, or LENS.

A world-building experience

Close to two dozen undergraduates and graduate students collaborated on the effort — writing the scripts, voice-acting the characters and reprogramming the video game’s infrastructure to function as the “sets” for their stories. The series explores questions about Los Angeles’ environmental future and related issues of economic and social justice, and each episode has its own theme: the revitalization of the Los Angeles River, private–public competition over electric power, and urban wildlife.

Producing “Grand Theft Eco” was both a cinematic and world-building endeavor: Even before filming began, the team had to painstakingly mod the environments and settings of Grand Theft Auto to bring to life a new vision of Los Angeles’ environmental future. In Grand Theft Auto, gamers compete as criminals in a fictional city called Los Santos, which is modeled after Los Angeles.

The game has a reputation for violent and misogynistic content, but the UCLA team had other plans for their modded version. The filmmakers worked in the video game’s code to redesign parts of Los Santos, taking into account real-life plans that have been laid out for Los Angeles.

“By using GTA V, we’re defamiliarizing scenes from the game,” Snelson said. “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?”

Using a modified video game as the shell for narrative storytelling is unusual for a project of this scale, but not an entirely new one: The practice of modifying video games for cinematic productions has been around for decades and the commonly used term for the approach, “machinima,” was coined in 1998.

Expanding perspectives and audiences

“Both films and video games offer important tool sets for environmental narrative,” Heise said. “No one story can encompass the parallel crises the planet is currently undergoing, nor can one narrative capture the wide variety of audiences that environmental communication needs to reach.

“Animated films and video games contribute distinctive media and genres to environmental storytelling at the same time that they help to expand the audiences for the narrative about the future, both for humans and our planet’s other species.”

Animated characters in a Grand Theft Eco video in a rowboat on the Los Angeles River
Characters in Grand Theft Eco rowing on a revitalized Los Angeles River. The filmmakers painstakingly modded the environments of Grand Theft Auto to bring to life a new vision of the city. (Image courtesy of UCLA Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies)

Beyond their writing, programming and acting contributions, students also lent knowledge drawn from their other academic work.

Chase Niesner, who recently completed his doctorate at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, studies human–coyote relations in Los Angeles. Besides serving as a cinematographer, he contributed research that shaped the third episode, which explores questions of belonging for humans and animals, and the ideas of homes and homelessness.

“You can analyze something with one kind of logic, but when you introduce a different kind of poetics into your process, all sorts of strange relations and associations then come from the back of the mind to the forefront,” Niesner said. “In working with the shooting and editing software, I was able to intuitively explore what it might mean to look — with the camera in this case — through other beings’ eyes, and this inspired me to see the webs of the urban ecology as something kind of like the fabric of cinema.”

Angel Tolentino, a former UCLA undergraduate and current affiliate of LENS who modded the game, said the out-of-the-box thinking required to create machinima also lends itself to thinking creatively about the city’s environmental future.

“To build a better world, we must envision one,” Tolentino said. “I think this is a creative step in the right direction.”

The project does not shy away from questions about injustice and inequality, but Heise said it does convey some sense of “optopia” — a term coined by the science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson that means the best world possible given existing circumstances.

“The goal is to tell stories about environmental futures that don’t just fall into apocalypse, post-apocalypse or dystopia,” Heise said. “A world that is more just, more fair, not as hard on nonhumans, even one that isn’t perfect, is worth striving for and investing in. We want to steal the future back from pessimistic visions and dare to imagine an urban ecotopia in Los Angeles.”

The project was funded in part by a 2023 grant from UCLA’s Chancellor’s Arts Initiative, which is administered by the Chancellor’s Council on the Arts and the office of the vice chancellor for research and creative activities, and is intended to advance the arts and arts-related scholarship.