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.
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.
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.
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.
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?