Books: The Five C’s of Cinematography

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The Five C’s of Cinematography: Motion Picture Filming Techniques, by Joseph V. Mascelli.

The camera is a much neglected topic in game design. We think a lot about what we are looking at and less about how we are looking at it. But if 100 years of cinema have taught us anything, it is that the choice of camera influences us as much as the choice of subject. A good game designer needs to know to use all the tools available, including the camera, so we should take some time to learn from those who have most experience with the device. The Five C’s are a good place to start. Yes, the book is getting old and the example shots look dated, but the principles still hold and are clearly and simply stated. To those who argue that the interactivity of games requires us to break all these rules, I quote from Mascelli himself in the prologue:

“It is important, however, that ambitious movie makers first learn the rules before breaking them. … Experiment; be hold; shot in an unorthodox fashion! But, first learn the correct way, don’t simply do it a “new” way – which, very likely, was new thirty years ago! – because of lack of knowledge of proper filiming techniques.”

So what are the rules? Mascelli’s five C’s are Camera Angles, Continuity, Cutting, Close-Ups, and Composition (to which he adds an unofficial sixth: Cheating). He dedicates a chapter to each of these topics, discussing in detail how the placement of the camera and the sequencing of shots affect our understanding of a scene. Many of the rules deal with how to avoid mistakes that confuse the viewer. For example, continuity requires that travelling actors are always from the same side (usually travelling left to right) unless they make an important change in their journey. Someone coming to meet them is shot from the other side, so they are seen travelling right to left. If, after the encounter, the main character decides to return home then the camera changes sides, now showing them travelling towards the left of the screen which in the viewer’s mind represents home. It is interesting to reflect on how these rules relate to the games we play. Is it a coincidence that almost every platformer has the player travelling left to right?

Of course, the rules will need to be broken. Much of Mascelli’s advice relies on the director being able to control the scene and edit it afterwards – although he does spend a fair amount time discussing shooting documentary and news footage where the ability to direct the scene is limited. In games we have a dynamic scene which we have to shoot and edit on the fly, but we should know the ideals that we are aiming for and the pitfalls we need to avoid.

Combining cinematography and interactivity is an art that we are still learning. Film has an established language that audiences know how to interpret, but that language is also evolving and growing more sophisticated. Camera techniques in games have been fairly simplisitc so far, but we are beginning to learn greater subtlety. Jonathan Cooper’s essay Cinematics without Cutscenes is a great starting point for designers interested in this topic.

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