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Machinima Cutscene Creation, Part One
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Machinima Cutscene Creation, Part One

September 29, 2000 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Fade in:

Wide shot, interior view of a luscious-looking castle: high-quality pictures on the wall, shadows across the floor giving it the feel of a set straight out of "Lord of the Rings." We hold for a moment, admiring the view.

Camera shudders slightly as we pan right to a MAN walking across the floor towards us. He's richly dressed, clad in a cloak which mysteriously pokes through his knee as he walks, and moves stiffly, slightly unnaturally, as though he should be holding something in his hand which has been removed. We follow him, center shot with entire body clearly visible, across the floor. As he comes to a stop his feet skate slightly.

Cut to:

A WOMAN, standing in a part of the set we haven't previously seen clearly and so momentarily disorients us. She, again, is dressed in rich clothes, highly detailed, but moves in a jerky, repeating pattern with her hands unnaturally stiff to her face. The repetition gives us the strong impression that she is suffering from some kind of nervous disease.

When she talks, her mouth (and a portion of her cheek) flaps up and down roughly in time with her words.

WOMAN: (Monotone) Oh no, oh no. The bad one has come for us. Whatever shall we do? Where shall we find a champion to protect us?

Sound familiar?

As 3D graphics engines advance, more and more game developers are coming to the realization that this newfound graphical power can be harnessed not only in traditional gameplay sections, but also to replace the horrendous expense of prerendered cutscenes with in-engine cinematic sequences. And yet, many of the cutscenes so produced resemble the fictional script above more than the work of Spielberg, Scorsese, or even Square.

Certainly, we've got a while to go before in-engine rendered cutscenes can begin to rival the graphical beauty of Diablo II's intermission movies, no matter how well they are made. However, much of the bad reputation in-game cutscenes have earned, and the low expectations they engender, have less to do with the raw graphical ability of the graphics engine they use than with the production and direction processes their creators employ.

Real-time rendered films (called "Machinima" by the many hobbyists who use them to create stand-alone films) are a cinematic form just as much as any prerendered spectacular, and require that their creators understand the quirks both of movies in general, and of Machinima production in particular, in order to achieve satisfactory results. In this two-part article, I hope to provide some insight into some of the most common mistakes and omissions made in real-time cutscene creation, and to point out a few pathways to truly cinematic cutscenes within game engines.

Overall Approach

First, and most importantly, any team intending to use real-time cinematics within their game must realistically budget both time and money for that part of their project. There is a perception that Machinima cinematics are an ultra-cheap -- almost free -- way to add cutscenes into a game. Just get one of the team members to write a script in his or her little spare time, have the voice actors dash off their lines between takes, and have the entire thing scripted into the in-game maps by the level designers, again in the time they have between other projects. Obviously, if you're intending to create cutscenes of any quality, that's a recipe for total disaster.

A Machinima project is an animation/film project, simply using a medium that is cheaper, but also younger and less polished, than prerendered animation. If you intend to produce high-quality results (in other words, results that will add to your players' enjoyment rather than detract from it), then you must approach your in-game cutscenes from this point of view, and budget accordingly:


  • Hire professional scriptwriters for the cutscenes, and have those scripts then edited by other professionals to polish and trim them.

  • Allocate a reasonable amount of time for voice actors' takes, and have them directed by someone with experience in voice direction.

  • Allocate time in content creation to create custom animations, sets, and models for your cutscenes.

  • Have your cutscenes storyboarded shot by shot, then filmed and edited by filmmakers (ideally, experienced Machinima creators) who have experience in those two very different roles.

Remember, your players will be sitting watching, rather than interacting with, your cutscenes. Instead of assuming that they aren't as important as your gameplay and can therefore be of a lower quality visually and aurally, you should remember that your players will have nothing else to occupy them but watching and listening during these scenes, and therefore that they need to be of a corresponding quality, so as not to lose players' interest.

On the other hand, don't succumb to script bloat, either. Your script should be as tightly edited and to the point as you can make it: a script that is twice as long as it needs to be is likely to be half as good as it could be. There's a temptation once you get away from the spiraling costs of prerendered scenes to produce huge, hour-long epic cutscenes. Remember, if the interest in those cutscenes could have been compressed into five minutes, the other 55 of those minutes will see your players getting very, very bored.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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