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Game developers are right in the middle of inventing an 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. 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.

Hal Barwood, Blogger

May 18, 2000

15 Min Read

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.)

Cinematic Style

Beyond the rulemaking is a set of overall guiding principles. Here are just a few of the simplest...

  • Visual Exposition: Show, don't tell. Expository dialogue is weak, imagery is stronger. Behavior is strongest of all. Remember Indy finding "X marks the spot" in the Venice library in the Last Crusade?

  • Economy: Get rid of unnecessary details. Movie characters may range the globe in an epic that lasts weeks or months, but they rarely changes clothes. Their personal hygiene is rarely examined. And what do they do between scenes? Who knows? Who cares? Movies possess such inherent momentary detail that audiences confabulate vague connective tissue to round out whatever tale is being told. This kind of participation is one of the pleasures of movie-going. Don't deprive the audience!

  • Clarity: To avoid confusion, when cutting from one shot to a related view of the same scene, change angles.

  • Screen Reality: Until something appears onscreen, it doesn't exist. Don't be afraid to control the story by revealing its parts in whatever way is most expressive. Remember Anthony Quinn's sudden introduction out of thin air in Lawrence of Arabia?

  • Melodrama: Unlike stage plays, movies aren't physically present in the theater. Movie actors seem relatively...flat. On the other hand, location photography means that movies aren't confined to stage sets, so they seem fairly realistic, often meaning fairly ordinary. Movie dialogue is embedded in a larger world of more interest than the artificial confines of a theater, rendering speech less important. These features conspire to force movies toward the kinds of exaggerated action we call melodrama. Irving Kirschner taught me that the climax of a play is the moment (in effect) when one actor points accusingly at another and declares, "I know you, Joe Zlbygl!" Whereas, the same moment in a movie is more like, "I know you, Joe Zlbygal," and the actor pulls a gun and fires-Bang! Bang! Another way of illustrating the point is to note that onstage a real dog is as out of place as a fake dog onscreen. Keep your material vivid and exaggerate wherever possible. It will seem normal.


Adapting the Language of Film to Games

Games may owe something to movies, but they are as different from them as movies are different from theater.


  • Real-time 3D is continuous imagery. As such it's not cinematic, so don't worry too much about the above strictures when the player is in charge.

  • In a movie, audiences are free to consider information or ignore it, since either way the end arrives. Not so in games, where players must act upon information they discover in order to complete them. Make your imagery clear.

  • Use the story arc to maintain player involvement. Unlike movies, games are usually challenging tasks-relatively long ones at that. Frustrated players often quit, and when they do, your game leaves a bad impression. Cinematic scenes that lay out goals and hint at the overall shape of your game hold player attention.

  • Visual clues: Unlike movies, it's important to regularize imagery. Moviegoers accept it when an actor knows how to do something unusual, but when called upon to perform the same action, a game player is easily flummoxed. As a tiny example, if you need to press switches, drill player recognition by making them all the same, or obviously similar. If you lay traps for the player and exhibit warnings for one, exhibit warnings for all.

  • Organize cinematic intervals organically within the structure of your game. When a player has worked hard to achieve some goal, it's time to reward him by revealing further goals. Try to weave gameplay and storytelling together in a seamless whole for maximum involvement. Avoid the artificial "book-end" method of placing scenes only at the beginning and end of levels.

  • Reserve the most exciting moments of your game for interactive play and concentrate your cinematics on story development.

  • Economics aside, pick your point of view by deciding on the nature of the player's role: Is he playing himself, or filling the shoes of another character? Use 1st person for the former, 3rd person for the latter.

  • In planning cinematic sequences, ask yourself what kinds of shots maximize the dramatic impact of your scene, and then use them.

  • Finally, remember that players want to play, not watch. Even though the overall game experience must be long, make your scenes as short as possible.



Film Theory:

Katz, Steven D.Film Directing: Shot by Shot. Michael Wiese Productions, 1991; ISBN 0-941188-10-8

Exhaustive standard treatment of the language of film; excellent reliable source.

Katz, Steven D. Film Directing: Cinematice Motion. Michael Wiese Productions, 1992; ISBN 0-941188-14-0

Advanced case-study, problem-solving approach to staging and directing; also excellent

Arijon, Daniel. Grammar of The Film Language. Focal Press, London, 1982; ISBN 0-240-50779-7

Film theory in dazzling detail; aside from the slightly odd idea that film stories must be told as alternating pairs, another excellent source

Grlic, Rajko. How To Make Your Movie: An Interactive Film School Interactive CD for Windows and Macintosh. Ohio University and Electronic Vision, 1998; www.interactivefilmschool.com

Film school in a jewel box. No kidding. Deftly arranged as a point-and-click adventure game, this is the most intelligently realized, most informative multimedia production I have ever experienced.

Matching The Movement U.S. Army Signal Corps Pamphlet, publication date unknown

Excellent directing primer intended for military movie units. The discussion is accurate, crisp, unambiguous, and concise. If you find a copy, grab it!

Gaskill, Arthur L. and Englander, David A. How To Shoot a Movie Story. Morgan & Morgan, 4th Edition, 1985; ISBN 0871002396

The basics, to be read along with other sources

Pudovkin, Vsevolod Illarionovich Film Technique and Film Acting. Grove Press, 1960; LOC 60-11104

Insights into moviemaking by one who helped invent it; early and correct emphasis on naturalism in cinematic acting

Reisz, Karel and Millar, Gavin The Technique of Film Editing
Focal Press, 2nd Edition, 1995; ISBN 0240514378

The basics of film editing revealed by a practitioner; ecellent introduction to an important topic.

Murch, Walter. In The Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing. Silman-James Press, 1995; ISBN 1879505231

Murch proposes that the cinematic structure of shots and cuts works because the fluid experience of motion pictures resembles the psychological experience of dreaming and paying attention; a thoughtful book by a distinguished editor.

Movie Lore:

Gorchakov, Nikolai.Stanislavsky Directs. Proscenium Pub, 1985; ISBN 0879100516

The great Russian stage director closely observed by one of his students; an excellent introduction to acting, directing, stagecraft. The discussion of melodrama by itself is reason enough to own this book.

Biskind, Peter. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How The Sex-Drugs-And-Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. A Touchstone Book, Simon & Schuster, 1998; ISBN 0 684 85708 1

So they didn't save Hollywood after all; so sue 'em. This book is still a good read.

Goldman, William. Adventures in the Screen Trade. Warner Books, 1983; ISBN 0-446-37625-6

A famous screenwriter's take on La-La-Land.

Bach, Steven. Final Cut An Onyx Book, New American Library, 1985; ISBN 0-451-40036-4

A Hollywood executive watches his studio, United Artists, sink under the weight of Heaven's Gate while reading hundreds of screenplays in a desperate attempt to mine movie gold from a mountain of paper.

Truffaut, François. Hitchcock. Touchstone Books, Simon & Schuster, 1985; ISBN 0 671 60429 5

Informative conversations with a famous director, conducted by another famous director

Crowe, Cameron. Conversations with Wilder. Knopf, 1999; ISBN 037506603

More informative conversations with another famous director, also conducted by a director

Parrish, Robert. Growing Up In Hollywood. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977; ISBN 0-15-637315-7

About the most entertaining memoir of the entertainment biz ever written; a gem. If you want a glimpse of Hollywood at its most absurd and romantic, with portraits of famous directors John Ford, Robert Rossen and Raoul Walsh thrown in, read this book.

The Internet Movie Database

When it comes to the Kevin Bacon game or anything else about movies, trivial or not, this is the place for facts and figures.

Hal Barwood is a filmmaker and game builder, with multiple published credits. Among my films are Sugarland Express, Dragonslayer, and Warning Sign. Among hisgames are Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Big Sky Trooper, and Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine. In addition, he directed the video sequences of Rebel Assault II. Hal has a Master of Fine Arts degree from the School of Cinema-Television at USC.


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About the Author(s)

Hal Barwood


Hal Barwood was a project leader at LucasArts for more than 10 years, designing, writing and directing a number of story-game titles, including Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, a PC adventure game, Big Sky Trooper, a Super Nintendo RPG, Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine, a real-time 3D action-adventure, and RTX Red Rock, a character-action title for PS2. Before Hal began building games, he spent twenty years in Hollywood as a writer on Sugarland Express, writer-producer on Dragonslayer, and writer-director on Warning Sign.

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