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Do Cinematographers Have a Future in the Video Game Industry?

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It’s clear that cinematography is changing, both from technological and aesthetic perspectives. Images are being created in new, oftentimes fascinating ways, and the role of the cinematographer is evolving at a rapid pace. Cinematographers are now being included in the extensive visual effects processes that dominate contemporary Hollywood — although the extent to which some cinematographers are actually involved is hotly debated. All of this means that the future of cinematography as we know it today is an exciting, albeit uncertain one. However, there’s one area that might provide a new outlet for the cinematographers of tomorrow: video games.


Let me start by saying that I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a video games kind of guy. With the exception of some Mario Kart and Tony Hawk Pro Skater experience from my formative teenage years, I know relatively little about the gaming industry and the way it operates. With that said, I do know that video games are trending towards cinematic visuals, and that cinematographers are perhaps the most qualified group of people to oversee the creation of cinematic visuals.

For me, this raises a question that I’d like to bring to the No Film School community: Do cinematographers have a viable future in the video game industry?

There are multiple ways in which I can envision cinematographers being valuable in the gaming industry. First is the creation of game trailers, which are often heavily reliant on captivating cinematic visuals, and which are crucially important to the marketing success of any given game. Second is in the actual creation of the games themselves, whether it’s the narrative cutscenes, the game-play, or some combination thereof. Cinematographers are highly qualified when it comes to creating a unique aesthetic, then managing a team in order to make sure that aesthetic makes it into the final project.

Game Trailers

Most of us who frequent the internet have come across game trailers, as the best of them often go viral. Most game trailers aren’t necessarily representative of actual game-play, but instead they’re similar to movie trailers, with a brief introductions to the characters and the narrative of the final product. They’re often visually stimulating and highly cinematic in order to vaguely promise the viewers that the game-play itself will be incredibly cinematic. Here are a few of the best examples from previous years:

As these trailers push more and more into familiar cinematic territory, there may very well be chances for opportunistic cinematographers to play a role in their creation. Because there are absurd amounts of money on the line with these major game releases, much like with Hollywood blockbusters, the trailers are an absolutely essential, maybe even make-or-break, part of the marketing for any given game. With so much on the line, and with compelling cinematic visuals being paramount to success, it makes sense to bring in cinematographers in order to oversee image creation.

Whether or not cinematographers would be hired for just the developmental/pre-production stages of these game trailers or whether or not they would be present throughout the actual creation of the visuals is something that I cannot provide any insight towards, but my best guess is that their involvement would mirror the way in which CG-heavy films are created today.

Game-Play

Trailers are one thing. They’re often refined visual statements about how a game should look and feel, but the reality is that games often don’t live up to the glorious visuals of their trailers. One of the problems with trying to craft a consistent aesthetic in traditional narrative games is that they often rely on cutscenes, or narrative breaks in the game-play, that can be cinematic in their own right, but have little in common with the actual aesthetics of the game-play. However, one of the things that game producers are focusing on these days is not only how to make the cutscenes and game-play more cinematic, but how to get them to flow together to create a cohesive visual and narrative experience.

Here’s a video from Time Magazine about the direction in which video game cinematography might be headed. This features Ru Weerasuriya of Ready at Dawn, as he talks about the highly cinematic nature of their upcoming release, The Order 1886

In the case of The Order 1886, the visual philosophy is not typical of what you might find in other games. Instead of trying to create a sterile gaming environment, where the images actually look like they’ve been created by computers,  Weerasuriya and his team are attempting to make the game seem as if it has been crafted with traditional imaging techniques, with physical cameras and lenses:

We decided to replicate the attributes of physical lenses used in photography and cinematography in our game engine, such as a lens specific depth of field or focus. This also meant that we had to recreate the “imperfections” found in physical lenses that we often take for granted. Lens curvature, chromatic aberration, vignette and lens dirt are just a few examples. In games, we often have the tendency to see everything through a perfect window, which is very much unlike what people have been accustomed to seeing in other visual media through the lens of a camera.

If the video game industry continues to push towards more cinematic visuals, and more games adopt the philosophy set forth by the creators of The Order 1886, then talented cinematographers might very well become a valuable asset in the game creation process. Considering the fact that the gaming industry is growing rapidly, while well-paid narrative film production getting harder to find, it might also make financial sense for cinematographers to branch out into the gaming industry, in addition to commercial and narrative work.

The Order

Like I said before, I don’t know much about the technicality of video game creation, or even the creation of game trailers, but my guess is that the involvement of a cinematographer in these processes would be similar to the involvement of a cinematographer in the visual effects process in VFX-heavy movies. It’s not so much about the cinematographer having an in-depth knowledge of how games are made — although it would certainly help. Instead, it’s about them being able to create a vision for how the game should look and feel, then overseeing a team of technicians (likely coders and graphic artists) in order to make sure that unique vision is what makes it into the game.

Because cinematography is very much about using the tools of cameras, lenses, and lighting in order to manipulate the emotions of an audience, it follows that compelling video game cinematography, if properly overseen by an experienced cinematographer, could take a video game’s aesthetics to an entirely new level, one which would be more immersive. If the gaming industry really is serious about creating the most cinematic and visually engaging experiences for gamers, then it seems like a no-brainer for them to incorporate cinematographers into the game creation process and embrace the unique perspective that only cinematographers can provide.

The Last of Us

That brings us back to the question of whether or not cinematographers actually will have a place in the gaming industry in the future. It seems clear that there would be some serious benefits from incorporating experienced cinematographers into the game creation process, but whether or not that will actually happen is another matter entirely.

So I will now defer to you guys. Do you think cinematographers have a viable future in the video game industry?

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COMMENT POLICY

We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

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  • Chance Kimber on 07.3.14 @ 2:25PM

    I think yes. Video games are slowly and steadily becoming the next gargantuan that film once was in the early days. Until recent games like Metal Gear Solid and The Last of Us, video games have been looked at as mindless and pointless entertainment, or vessels for violence and simulation, but with the increase of video game focus on independent and thought provoking art pieces like Journey (Game) and Hotline Miami, we’re starting to see a major increase in games that are on par with films like Citizen Kane, The Godfather, and Apocalypse Now. A little more focus with modern day cinematographers use of the camera and motion capture is can really help and is really helping video games make that push into the next level. If you want to see for yourself, take a look at The Last Of Us (If you haven’t already), Metal Gear Solid (Easily one of the best and most film-like video game series of all time), or Beyond: Two Souls, a key step in motion capture and cinematography in video games.

  • I really, really, reaallllly do hope so :) I’d love to direct a video game too!

  • I just finished The Last of Us. It was a better cinematic experience and more compelling story than a lot of films I have seen recently. Videogames are entering a period of maturity – it’s no longer looked down upon for storytelling like it was in the past – i.e. Roger Ebert claiming a video game can’t be art because its open world.

    A videogame draws more on the novel than cinema – in that you are fully in the character. Thanks for this post.

  • I believe isn’t fair to apply the same formula on both formats. A director of photography is a person who knows about light and colour, and takes that to the camera. In videogames there’s no camera.

    Do you remember Kuleshov’s path in search of a own cinematographic languaje? Well, with the videogames is the same thing. It’s good to apply lightning techniques and colour to a scene in order to achieve a determined look and a feeling, but the videogames are a single type of art by himself, and it needs to find his own way to entertain and tell stories without borrowing from other arts.

    That is the reason why I dont enjoy cinematic scenes in a game. What about his own continuity? Why I need to leave the controller on the table for 15 minutes to know something about the story? Why we need to imitate the optical mistakes that we pay for not have in our footage? Why we need to restrict the dynamic range of a scene to be a film-like, when our eyes always go much further? Why we need to have that cinematic scenes on 24 fps, while the rest of the game is happening at 60 fps?

    This is the big lie about cinema and photography. Read Susan Sontag and you’ll know what I’m talking about. The photography has changed the way we see the reality, and accept that lie on photographic formats is fair, but outside isn’t. It’s something we need to control and use it wisely, because if not, it controls you.

    Half Life 2 is the only game I’ve seen that applies those things entirely. And I enjoy it a lot.

    I’m sorry here, guys, but cinema is cinema, and videogames are videogames. Does the videogame industry need cinematographers? I dont think so. Does the videogame as art himself need light mastering, colour and feelings? Oh yes.

    Cheers.

    (Sorry about the poor english. I think I have explain myself)

    • You do realise that dop’s are actually hired by video games companies to fulfil this roll and not programmers right?

      • I do, but they are hired as a visual artists, not in the technician role. And that is what the industry needs.

          • Because in videogames industry you have no need to know about camera, lenses, depth of field and filters.

            • Never say never.
              What if those techniques are used in video games? The evolution of the visual may lead to a resurgence in motion picture production……and, oh ya, it’s also a game.

              Your phone is a camera, phone, internet surfer, and message board. Just a few years ago it was just a phone.

              Never say never. Why not evangelize the art of cinematography in games. It may be a new business model for you and others to pursue.

              Regards,
              Rachael

            • I think the reason they hire cinematographers is because they know about camera lenses and depth of field. How else do you explain the spot on cinematics in videogames? you think someone without knowledge of cameras, lenses and depth of field could create this? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AaOWRvmtEFQ

    • Navin Pradhan on 07.3.14 @ 10:40PM

      I absolutely agree in terms of the Vertov theory, Games need to find their own place and communication methods, but haven’t they already done that with platformer style games??? Those types of games still exist today, and they are being further developed. People enjoy the cinema-game format, and cinematographers definitely have something to contribute to the aesthetics of games. But obviously that doesnt mean that games are going to become playable movies.

  • Yeah, I just have to say that if you have not played The Last of Us, even if you’re not a gamer, you’re seriously missing out! The Last of Us has the BEST told story I’ve ever experienced, in any book, movie, series, game etc. It made me laugh, it made me angry, it made me cry, and it made me love. It’s simply just the best of the best. If you don’t have a PS3 or PS4 at least watch a playthrough on Youtube, you won’t get the exact same experience, but at least you’ll get why it has won over 200 game of the year awards.

  • I find a few developers appear to either hire or have a good eye themselves for cinematography, and put it to good use during cut scenes and the like. But, being a bit of a gamer myself, I find the best games are those that aren’t trying to be films and are developing their own medium. From Software’s “Dark Souls” (and Demon’s Souls) games are probably the best and most confident I’ve seen in terms of uniqueness, specifically NOT trying to be an “interactive movie” or tell stories the way films do. As cool as The Last of Us is, if you strip away the “movie”, it’s not all that remarkable beyond being really pretty.

    • Totally respect your taste dude but as you say Last of Us IS cool though and that’s what is important surely? I think that games like that have their place and cinematographers have a place within them. I love games that are story driven and often prefer a story driven game to something vastly open world because I find it an immersive story telling medium. Still, that doesn’t stop me feeling out on Battlefield multiplayer when I get a day off to wind down but I play them for different reasons. Often when I play game that’s like a movie, my girlfriend plays with me or sits and watches. F.E.A.R 2 and Last of Us she wouldn’t even let me play them without her haha! Ps. If anyone wants to get into a badass horror/cinematic experience then play Outlast! The lighting and film effects are really quite good ;)

      • *feeling out = geeking out.

        Screw you iPhone ;)

      • Absolutely, Last of Us is great and I truly enjoyed it. And YES games like LoS totally have a place and I’m so happy to see one that has succeeded so completely. So much so that it rivals many film or TV narratives, both in story but also in its visual language. My point about the Souls games was not that they don’t tell a story in any way, I’m trying to say they DO tell a very rich story, but in a massively different way than film-influenced games do. Dialogue? Hardly any. Defined chapters or acts? Far from it. Enormous depth of art and history? Very much so, and through those means the story is told as the player explores and experiences it. It’s very much a “show, don’t tell” philosophy.

        Ok I realize I’m drifting far from the original post at this point haha, would love to consult on a videogame tho :D

        • Haha! I can dig it :) Fair point!

        • I reckon movies and video games are pretty much converging towards the same point somewhere in the future. It’s only a matter of (a long) time until we’re all immersing ourselves Matrix-style into worlds we create and at a time when the two mediums are increasingly crossing over it’s pretty darn relevant to be talking in terms of cinematography in gaming. After all it’s not the tools that dictate the craft, so regardless of the narrative i.e. whether a game’s gonna try to be a movie or not cinematography’s always gonna be applicable! It makes sense that if there’s convergence in the media then the role of cinematography itself is undoubtedly set to change, evolve and expand beyond film alone. That said, I dunno whether a cinematographer consulting on lighting for games really counts as a cinematographer at that point, but I guess that’s really just semantics.

    • It’s canned theater all over again. Game developers feel they have to ape cinema to be taken seriously, instead of furthering the creation of their own unique art form.

  • I feel last June was a watershed moment for film and video games with the release of World War Z in theaters and The Last of Us on PS3 a couple weeks apart. One of those two was a masterful exploration of mankind at the end of society, a heart-wrenching depicting of one survivor’s emotional journey to keep some semblance of his humanity in a world turned upside down. The other one was a shitty Brad Pitt movie – I really fear for the future of film, I don’t see where it fits into our overcrowded media marketplace. This is from someone who really likes movies.

  • Can’t believe no one mentioned Valve’s 15 minute short for their game Team Fortress 2!

    It was even created using the same engine as the game & looks boots.

    • Terence Kearns on 07.10.14 @ 7:39PM

    • Terence Kearns on 07.10.14 @ 7:43PM

      I’ve actually had a play with this software, and while it is a little “querky”, it presents a great opportunity for machinema film making. I think the low production cost for making machinema would be a great way for aspiring cinematographers to gain skills and build up a demo reel – especially if they want to get contracts for big budget games. The above software is free. Although I recomend you team up with an artist who can create 3D characters and environments with tools like Z-Brush or Cinema 4D.

  • Cinematographers who know how to code.

    • Mike van der Lee on 07.4.14 @ 7:20AM

      nonsense

      • He’s probably right. Outside of studios with large budgets that can afford to higher people that do nothing other than critique and direct images, most developers would want someone with at least basic coding experience.
        Think of it this way: on a film set cinematographers are generally expected to know how to use all of the camera and lighting equipment to a professional level. They need to know all about exposure theory, lighting types, and crafting the various elements in the scene to suit their vision. A cinematographer jumping into a game development studio to direct the imagery without knowing the programs and development tools would be like having an unacquainted painter hawk over the cinematographer’s shoulder on a film set, pointing out different bits on the screen to say “make that brighter/darker” or “more contrast there”, etc., in painting terms.

        • He’s not. Even with a smaller company there’s room for a ‘cinematographer’ type role (usually called a cinematic designer), as long as he has something else to bring to the table (producer, game designer, animator). Most of the time it’s animation, and while you do need to know the toolsets (Maya, UE4, Unity, etc…) you don’t need to be a programmer.

          Most of the stuff that would need to be coded in regards to cinematics and cutscenes is all minor anyway. You don’t have to actually develop the tools yourself, just familiarize yourself with them and be able to make them work for your story. At most you might need to write a few trigger scripts or set up the transitions from in-game to cutscene, but that role is closer to a narrative or content game designer, not strictly a cinematic designer.

          • I don’t disagree, but maybe I should emphasize that the coding experience I’m saying is needed is basic or minimal. Also, the reason for needing this basic coding knowledge would be more to aid in communication with other developers rather than actually performing substantial coding oneself. Obviously, if one is expected to know how to use certain development tools as part of their job, they’d probably need to be generally proficient with them to be hired in the first place.

            That proficiency, though, is part of my point. If the cinematographer is already well acquainted with the software and systems they’ll need to use, then there’s not much of an issue. What I’m saying is that a regular pure-film/video cinematographer might have a hard time jumping over to the video game industry cold-turkey and think that they’ll be able to direct the imagery aptly within that environment.

            So, I totally agree with what you’re saying — that a cinematographer who also works another job as a producer/designer/animator would be fine. My point is that someone who is just a cinematographer from the film/video industry and doesn’t normally handle any other jobs probably wouldn’t be fine.

  • Hardy, your question assumes that there are no Cinematographers in this field… It sounds like until now all the game cinematics were done by none cinematographers people. May be some of the guys who make this cinematics never filmed on a real film camera, but it doesn’t mean that you should discard them. So cinematographers are already there, they film, they light, they render, they compose, edit and publish and it is been decades like this. Just check early War Craft 3 cinematics, they are just gorgeous, and there was no Roger Deakins around to consult them. Meanwhile most of the people at NFS are all crazy about pixel peeping, 4k not 4k, dynamic range and all other bs, game artists at studios where busy creating beautiful visuals before the so cold DSLR revolution happened.

  • There are varying capacities a cinematographer could fill depending on the video game, though.
    Some video games lack much in the way of regular linear video content (cut-scenes or cinematics) and thus would probably be fine with the regular art directors/visual designers that already exist within the industry (though, whose roles could perhaps be performed by a very tech-savvy cinematographer).
    Other video games rely more on inter-cut movies to tell their stories or move the plot along, and thus may need the specific expertise of one familiar with creating great-looking motion pictures.

    It’s important to note, though, that because of the very technology-heavy nature of video game development, most development studios would want someone at least minimally familiar with programming. Only the highest of budgeted productions would be able to hire on one person specifically to overlook their cut-scene cinematography. If that same person would want to then oversee the entire visual design of the game, they would be expected to be able to adequately communicate with the developers, which usually means having a basic understanding of programming.

    Separately, I see a lot of comments mentioning how video games shouldn’t rely on cut-scenes to tell their stories. While I think this is partly a personal decision on the part of the creative forces behind the video game and partly dictated by the genre of gameplay chosen for a particular game, I do agree. As video games, and all interactive narrative media, continue to evolve and mature, it’s important for them to develop their own narrative language. Video games that can master the language of expressing narrative though interactivity will, in many cases, be more successful in their missions to deliver that narrative to those willing to play the game to the necessary extent.

    Then again, in modern motion pictures, the audio is sometimes just as important as the imagery, despite audio and music being of separate mediums than the visuals. Still, I’d like to see video game creators challenge themselves to further perfect their interactive language before relying too much on existing tropes of other media.

    • A great post. I don’t play video games – well, I used to be addicted to Jezzball about 20 years ago – but the industry is likely to have (borrowing from Mr. Blah above) a Visual Design Supervisor rather than a cinematographer. What should be scary for the “real” cinematographers though is that CGI is getting to the photo realism level at lower and lower prices and a film like “Gravity” can soon be made much faster and much cheaper and with only a modicum of actual camera work. In that sense, the Visual Design Supervisor will replace the cinematographer and not vice versa.

  • Terence Kearns on 07.10.14 @ 7:38PM

    I think it’s obvious that cinematographers have been involved in games for at least the past 20 years. Although it is fair to say that the visual realism has enjoyed an exponential growth which makes it look like games have only recently become movie-like in their gameplay. But for the last 20 years certainly “cut scenes” have enjoyed varying levels of cinematic production values.
    Of course I don’t think there is an explosion of jobs and contracts for cinematographers to the point where there is a shortage of supply, so it’s not really an industry bonanza. Just as with the movie industry, there will only be paid roles for the creme de la creme. I dunno, maybe aspiring cinematographers can ply themselves at indie game developers to the same degree they can with indie film makers, but there will be no budget – and so will not be industrially significant from that point of view.

  • Terence Kearns on 07.10.14 @ 8:48PM

    This guy spends 80 hours making a short featurette in Maya, Premiere and AE, and over a period of a year, that video gets nearly 8 million views on youtube. He has over 2 million subscribers to his channel. His main feature video has 15 million views.

    His videos are based on the world of Minecraft which is a ridiculously popular indie game that has taken the world by storm. 99% of kids with access to a computer seem to play it.

    The point is, that the success of this guy’s cinematic creations are a spin-off from a game, so even if he had no role in the production of the game, he carved one out for himself based on it’s popularity. He has been around for a while so possibly there is a licensing arrangement between himself and the game developer. I don’t know.

    behind the scenes
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KkTMl2JScm8&list=PL2vhO1aHOn7FxbcJ979Aj9SI8C-TYP2Yf

    the featurette

  • I’m a cinematographer that made the switch to game as an assistant cinematic director more than a year ago. What I can tell is that there is really a need for our knowledge in that industry. But lot of those people don’t know it yet. ;) It’s much more complex than film and it’s still a young art that’s looking for is own language, like cinema a 100 years ago. And like cinema have taken from photo, paint, music, etc., Games have to take inspiration from the others forms of art. That’s where we are coming in…
    I’m not a programmer, but I was a more «technical» artist (mostly Editing, Mograph and Director). There’s a basic knowledge that you must have (not from coding), but I’ve learn a lot more from their tools and help programmer to develop them. Programmer can make the tools, but the ones who know that you cannot have a wide DoF with a 500 mm are rare.
    In the past year I had a role in trailer and game production, there is a need in both… It’s not rare that game developer don’t do their trailer and give it to pub or cinema company. There a plus value in having a guy who know cinematography AND have help develop the game to produce, or support producing, a trailer.

    Virtual world is really fun to capture… YOU have unlimited control on camera, environment, time of day, etc.

  • Silvio Javier Castillo Morales on 07.19.14 @ 1:26AM

    I don’t view this as something completely right. Videogames are in its own right a form of art. Rather than trying to copy cinema aesthetic, it should make its own aesthetic, one free of the limitation of cinema and other arts. Its ok if games borrow and learn from cinema to help it self, or the particular use of film aesthetic in one game; but I do think that trying to make games look more and more like film is detrimental to the true capabilities of video games. Now, if cinematographers are going to be part of games well, probably yes, because big publishers want that look because it sell more; but is it good? I am not entirely convinced.

  • As a lighting artist who’s worked on a few games for eight years, I think the trend of games trying to emulate the movie/ film world is only temporary. It’s a natural evolution of games to look toward a much more mature medium (film) for look guidance since we’ve been staring at movies for over a hundred years now, and that visual language is ingrained in all of us.

    Games are certainly looking better as we look at more real-world approaches for lighting and creating surface materials as opposed to “Hey, what just looks cool?” I think the best approach is to start out by replicating the behavior of reality before you take artistic license with it and push it around into something fantastical. In that way, you keep the look and behavior of everything consistent but without limiting yourself to any particular style.

    An interesting quote from David Fincher is, “The audience knows you’re making a movie. They know you can make a T-rex eat a car. So they know you can show them anything. The trick is, what don’t you show?” And I think that line of thinking has finally reached the game industry is that you see titles with much more restraint and focus creating some amazing experiences like The Last Of Us, Uncharted, etc..

  • I strongly believe so. As a cinematography student and a video game lover, this path is for me, so wish me luck!

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