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Cutting to the Chase: Cinematic Construction for Gamers
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Cutting to the Chase: Cinematic Construction for Gamers

May 18, 2000 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

Game developers are right in the middle of inventing our art form, and the rules are vague. Some of us assume that we must also invent our own system of dynamic visual expression, because those rules seem vague as well. Judging by the embarrassing ignorance displayed in some of the titles I see, a number of developers seem to think that there are no rules at all, just because they never heard of any. So it may come as a surprise to learn that the so-called "language of film" emerged as a solid body of knowledge around 75 years ago and has changed little since. You don't think a movie director's real job is doing lunch, do you?

This article is a primer aimed at designers and artists who need to incorporate cinematic sequences within their games in order to drive a story or heighten the impact of their title, and who have little knowledge of how to proceed. We will rapidly and superficially cover a lot of material since it's impossible to teach a film course in such a short article, but it doesn't matter. My purpose here is merely to bewilder readers and generate enough curiosity to send them scurrying for more information in the literature, referenced below.

I'm a veteran moviemaker and game designer who likes games that tell stories. The organization of the following material reflects my own personal views about the best way to use cinematic elements in games. In other words, the information is heavily biased. Your mileage may vary.

Fundamental Ideas

Until motion picture technology was invented in the last third of the 19th Century, no one had any idea that movies were possible, to say nothing of how they would work.

1. The Shot

Without something recorded on film or video (or possibly a series of esoteric commands in a game scripting language) there is no possiblity of motion picture entertainment; so individual moving images are the primary cinematic material. They require design in and of themselves. In 1895, the Lumière Brothers strung up a bedsheet and charged startled Parisians real money to watch a train lumber across it. For a naïve audience it was a thrilling sight. At that moment it was possible to believe that cinema would forever consist of a single shot and nothing more-something like a recorded stage play, with continuous uninterrupted action an essential requirement for intelligibility.

2. The Cut

By 1902, when Edwin S. Porter filmed The Life of an American Fireman, moviemakers knew better: an audience can be induced to understand a collection of separate film shots-snippets photographed at various times in various locations and connected only by direct cuts-as a continuous experience. Uninterrupted action was not only unnecessary, but a hindrance.

3. Film Theory

A problem remained, however. Not all shots would cut together. Some combinations worked better than others. And some cuts produced spooky effects beyond what anyone had imagined, suggesting great expressive power waiting to be harnessed. The language of film developed in the first decades of the twentieth century in order to develop a set of rules for making shots that will cut successfully, without confusion, and deliver emotional impact.
Here are some of the discoveries the early moviemakers made:


  • The Kuleshov Effect: Shot of an actor cut between shots of soup, a body in a coffin, a little girl playing with a toy. Actor never changes expression, but the audience perceives hunger, grief, fatherly love, due to simple juxtaposition.
  • Artificial Landscapes: Placing the White House in Moscow.
  • Synthetic Woman: Image of a woman from cuts of one woman's lips, another's legs.
  • Parallel action: Events distant in time and place, with different actors, are understood as separate parts of the same story.


The important lesson was, as Hitchcock observed, "movies are life with the bad bits cut out."

Cinematic Elements

Here is a short collection of important film elements. It's far from complete, but will suggest some of the possibilities and pitfalls of moviemaking...

1. Actors & Acting

Motion picture entertainment is recorded, but acting dominates, which is why we have movie stars. Casting and acting, however, are too complicated to discuss in this article. So let's acknowledge the topic and move on to purely cinematic ideas...

2. Images & Staging

Framing and sizing individual shots turn out to be important considerations in making a movie, as does the orchestration of camera and actor movement. Some primitive observations...

  • Early filmmakers wondered whether changes in the apparent size of actors in different shots would make audiences think they had grown or shrunk. Well, no, that doesn't happen, an important discovery leading to the close-up.
  • The focal length of lenses dictate perspective. Filmmakers quickly learned that wide angles exaggerate motion and depth perception, while narrow angles reduce both.
  • Lighting is important for a sense of three-dimensionality and for emotional color. Harsh lighting makes actors look angry or distressed, soft lighting makes them seem romantic.
  • Stage scenes to look good on camera. Move actors within a shot for emphasis. Notice that actors tend to stand closer together in a movie than they would in a real social situation. Notice that no one notices this artifice.
  • Roughly speaking, big image changes carry more power than little ones. If one actor takes a swing at another, the bigger the fist moving through the frame, the better.
  • Shots have a life of their own. Something should happen in each one. Without an event, a shot is dead.


3. Cinematic Expression

Notice that by atomizing the events of a dramatic sequence into discrete shots chosen, framed, and cut together with care, filmmakers can intensify the movie experience in a number of important ways. For example...


  • Flow of Time-Dull: "Shoe leather" moments can be reduced or eliminated altogether, while events too rapid to be appreciated can be extended to maximize their impact. Overall, a satisfying pace can be generated mechanically by timing the cuts.
  • Dramatic Emphasis: What's most interesting about a given moment in a scene should be onscreen right now! Often, a close-up is important to read an actor's mood or intentions. An actor seen alone emphasizes his or her emotional state. An over-the-shoulder shot emphasizes the enclosing social situation. An insert (a close-up of hands or props or almost anything that doesn't include the actor's face) is often as expressive as anything else. Examples: a match lights a fuse orr feet slamming on the brakes when a driver spots a woman hitchhiking.
  • Ecstatic Point of View: Film generally doesn't tell a story from any particular set of eyes. The camera is a disembodied ghost roving wherever the best shot can be found. How did the camera get outside Apollo 13? How can it fall 13 stories with some unlucky villain and live to tell the rest of the tale? Well, it just does so effortlessly, because the audience is more interested in expression than mechanics. When drama demands, the camera easily adopts an actor's POV, but it's rare to do it for more than a few seconds.
  • Camera Elevation: Low camera means that the character is in charge; A high camera means that fate is in charge.
  • Suspense: When the audience is informed about the nature of a situation, that's suspense. Let's say we frame two people talking at a table. If we cut to an insert of a bomb ticking away underneath it, we have suspense. If someone jumps in a taxi and tells the driver, "The airport! Hurry or I'll miss my flight," and we follow with shots of heavy traffic, that's also suspense. Keep the audience involved by keeping them aware of pitfalls and goals.

4. The World Of Left & Right

In reality, we need a sense of navigation to understand our position and velocity through three-dimensional space. Wondering about north, south, east, west, up and down is important for our health and well-being. By contrast, in film everything is reduced to left & right. It takes a while for most people to grasp this slightly disturbing idea, but it's true. Directors must be aware of the many aspects of this principle. For example...


  • The Establishing Shot: Ashot that shows everything in place in a scene, so the audience can see important spatial relationships.
  • The Stage Line: An imaginary and elastic line running between the two most important elements of an establishing shot. Don't cross it by accident!
  • Coverage: If an establishing shot depicts two actors facing each other, Alice looking right and Bob looking left, then the close-ups that cut properly with the wider shot must preserve the look directions. Oh, and actors never look at the camera.
  • Camera Progress: In a chase, movement must generally proceed in the same direction from shot to shot. (Obvious exception: the complex truck chase coverage in Raider.)

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