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Paul Marino Talks Cinematic Scenes

Lead Cinematic Designer Paul Marino paints a clear picture of how a scene is designed and directed in Star Wars The Old Republic

Story telling is a big part of what Bioware does and a lot of people say they do it really well. Lead Cinematic Designer Paul Marino walks us through his job and tosses out a few animated examples.

"... the cinematic presentation of narrative can turn the simplest event into a pivotal moment. It's this crafted layering of camerawork, performance, direction and gameplay that allows us to emotionally invest into the characters and the world around them."


Some people think cut scenes are annoying, other people love them, where do you fall on the subject? Are there things that you would change if you could to make them better? How do you let people play out a story instead of just watching it? These are questions the people over at Bioware are asking themselves constantly I'm sure. I applaud Bioware's efforts to ratchet things up and draw us into the story they are telling. It's a fine line for sure and hopefully we all learn to get it right more often then not. I think their sales and popularity show how well of a job they do. Are they prefect? Probably not but they're doing an awesome job and trying hard to break new ground.

Even if you're a model monkey you might have some interest in cinematic story telling?

One thing that tends to bug me about in game cinematic scenes, is that environments aren't often animated or incorporated to the level they could be. It seems like we as an industry tend to focus on the characters and getting mo-cap to flow smoothly instead of drawing on the entire scene to pull people in. The technical hurdles can be daunting and just because an animator can clean up mo-cap doesn't necessarily mean he or she can technically execute and navigate a gauntlet of in game limitations. Still it seems like we're slowly moving toward a more encompassing cinematic experience, over the last few years there have been some great tools written to help script sequences together. I hope they continue to become more intuitive, fluid and wide spread as the gap between VFX and Games starts to close.

I think we often end up sacrificing composition for whatever works as long as we stick to the in game environment. Would it help to take cinematic composition into account when creating environments? Is this something people typically do or do they just the environment along to the next guy and let him deal with it?

Characters are a big part of course, but it seems like we do this at the expense of the background, its almost as if it doesn't matter if its there or not. I like that they cut away to a detonator flashing, but that's pretty typical just before something explodes. There are a lot of camera tricks and story telling methods that Hollywood uses to set up and tell stories without showing the characters at first. A lot of stories start off with an environment of some kind and then you get to know its inhabitants. It seems like some stories tend to use the environment in interesting ways.

Looking back over books I've read on the subject of story telling and story boards I remember "Directing the Story: Professional Storytelling and Storyboarding Techniques" By Francis Glebas being helpful and informative.

What are some things you've read or discussed?

Have any interesting links on the subject of Cinematic Scenes?



  • wolferey
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    wolferey polycounter lvl 11
    I believe it is a hit-or-miss type of thing. Sometimes cut scenes fits perfectly into a game, and really plays their part in bringing the story to the next level, others would fit better with perhaps something like Half-Life 2 type of storytelling where it lies more in the environment and walking through it rather than placing in a cut scene.

    Take Amnesia: The Dark Descent as an example. I could never imagine it would play well if they had used cut scenes for the parts where you find a diary piece or to highlight something dangerous behind a door. Much of the "dynamic" storytelling (by dynamic I mean you yourself create the feeling) of being afraid to pick up a diary piece because you don't know what will happen if you step into the room would be lost if a cut scene suddenly played once you walked into the room. Metal Gear Solid 4's cut scenes ended up being fairly long, and while interesting enough, it ends up being annoying because you itch to play again, to use the controller.

    Others, like Uncharted, ends up being at an ok length so you get a pause from the action just enough to follow the story and peaks and twists and turns and then back into action again, which is great. Mass Effect also has pretty good cut scenes and "kinda" cut scenes when you talk to people.

    My favorite thought is the more interactive storytelling, the one where the environment around you and the whole feel as dialogue plays in the background and NPCs walk around, sit or is animated in such a way you can tell the story without ever having a single cut scene. My best example would be Half-Life 2's intro, where you step off the train and hear Breen talk on the monitor about being chosen to come to City 17 and you see that everything he says is a lie because of the guards and floating security camera and by talking to people and having to go through security. It's such a good use of people and environment to tell a story without ever giving away player controls.

    So year.. fairly hit-n-miss. Sometimes it works well, sometimes it doesn't. The worst thought it playing through a story once, and then on the second play-through you can't skip the cut scenes, or having cut scenes every few meters apart.
  • Klumpmeister
    I am not really thinking that this game is going to be able to beat WoW unless they go free to play. Since Cataclysm is out I don't think many MMO players will buy it.
  • doeseph
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    doeseph polycounter lvl 7
    I feel like BioWare's success with SW:TOR doesn't rely so much on how many people they can pull away from WoW, but how well they can tap into the market of people who have no interest in WoW or who are fans of Star-Wars (which is, what, everybody?). If they can do that, they'll have a successful MMO. But let's be honest, no MMO will probably ever see twelve-million subscriptions (except World of Warcraft obviously). And no, I don't think "World of Warcraft 2" would see those numbers either for some strange reason.

    As for cinematic scenes, I've always thought "on the fly" storytelling is the more effective way of engrossing the player. That isn't to say a good cinematic scene isn't effective, but if I had to pick between the way Half-Life did it and the way MGS4 did it, I'm going with Half-Life no questions asked.

    Now that I think about it though, it's not so simple. Halo, for example, was very sparse in the placement of it's cinematic sequences: they either played at the end of a mission or the beginning. They never interjected once the player was given control so the pace was never broken. Heck the game was released ten years ago and I remember almost all of the cinematic sequences even now. I can't do the same with Gears of War, a game I just recently beat again a few months ago. That could just be bad placement though, I can't recall ever thinking the cinematic qualities of the cut-scenes were bad by any means.

    But even still, I think as far as video game storytelling goes, Half Life got it right because it's a game that attempts to tell a story. Something like MGS4 or Final Fantasy XIV, where the game attempts to be a movie, they just don't work.
  • Habboi
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    Habboi sublime tool
    Love KOTOR but never truly felt like I was part of a Galaxy because it was a small game. With TOR I'll see other players and the worlds are huge. I was very interested in the game at the start but I'm having doubts and I won't know till I try.
  • nreynolds
    These 2 books are extremely well written and illustrated if you are looking to learn more about cinematic compositions and the reasons behind them check these out.

    The Film Makers Eye - this book is full of shots of real movies and have full explanations of the shots. If you are looking for in depth information this book is a must buy.

    Framed Ink - a great book on how and why to create cinematic shots. Full of amazing drawings as well a good secondary book to The Film Makers Eye.
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