Every shot is a choice. In each choice, a cinematographer communicates to the viewer. The language of this communication is not the contents of a scene — it is the ways in which a scene is captured.
How can we, the audience, interpret these messages? By applying technical analysis and close reading to one cutscene in one video game, I will provide a translation. I hope it will inspire the same scrutiny and appreciation in you, the reader, for these messages in all forms: video game, TV episode, movie, or otherwise.
In many (but not all) cases, a cutscene is a sequence within a video game that reduces player control and deviates from the presentation of regular gameplay for a more cinematic experience. For context, here are two examples.
One from the original Pac-Man (1980)…
…and another from The Last of Us (2013). Warning: this clip contains blood and violence.
Cutscenes, like any form of video, have the power to incite joy and terror, to convey emotional drama and plot tension, to expose a character’s inner psychology and flaunt digitally rendered landscapes. Within 3-dimensional games, one may examine the way in which a cutscene is ‘filmed’: the cutscene cinematographer chooses how to visually present time, place, and action. This means that film techniques can be used to the same effect. This essay will examine three of those techniques in the grocery store sequence in Capcom’s Dead Rising (2006).
Dead Rising, produced by Keiji Inafune, is the first of a series of games, with releases spanning over a decade. The player controls Frank West, a gutsy wartime photographer investigating a mysterious “protest” in Willamette, Colorado. He finds himself stuck in a middle-American shopping mall for 72 hours, investigating what he soon realizes is a zombie outbreak, saving helpless shoppers and using every object in the mall to beat down zombies and murderous humans alike. In one cutscene, Frank is collecting medicine at the grocery store pharmacy when he is confronted by the store’s owner, Steven. The whole sequence is linked here, but we’ll examine only the first two minutes.
After 11 years, six sequels, and two console generations, this cutscene is still moving. It’s clever, dramatic, and creepy. It embodies the dark, absurdist, self-aware humor that makes the game so special. These sentiments are conveyed powerfully through the manner in which this cutscene is ‘filmed’. The cinematography in this scene — directed by Yoshinori Kawano and lead-edited by Keiko Kamekawa — uses a number of film techniques to relate the player to the characters and build drama for the following boss fight. The three techniques we will cover are the low angle shot, the Dutch angle, and the dolly zoom.
Low Angle Shot
A low angle shot is created by filming a subject below its height. Low angle shots, particularly those that track through an enclosed space, enlarge a subject’s surroundings and emphasize camera speed.
Stanley Kubrick uses the low angle shot for the famous hedge maze scene at the end of The Shining (1980). In this scene, the deranged Jack is chasing his son Danny through a hedge maze, likely in an attempt to kill him. As Danny runs through the maze he is filmed from below, giving the walls a looming, enveloping look. Being closer to the ground, the camera appears to be moving faster than it would be if set above Danny, contributing to the scene’s suspense and tension. (This shot is technically difficult to implement, especially in a snow-covered labyrinth.)
In the case of the grocery store scene, the store wall and shelves stretch dramatically. Frank appears much smaller in relation. Thanks to a few straight angle shots interspersed, we know that Frank’s head reaches the top shelf, yet the shelves are twice his size when shot from below. The low angle shot contributes to the sense of entrapment and distress Frank feels as he realizes he is not alone in the store.
A Dutch angle is achieved by rolling the camera to the left or right. The vertical and horizontal lines of the shot are not parallel with the sides of the frame, giving a sense of imbalance, suspense, or instability.
Above is a shot from The Third Man (1949), directed by Sir Carol Reed and filmed by Robert Krasker. In the film, Holly Martins is an American in Vienna, entangled in a plot of mystery and crime in a country completely foreign to him. Disoriented and concerned, Holly runs through the city streets. The shot here reflects his state of mind.
Like the still from The Third Man, the grocery store cutscene uses architecture to amplify the Dutch angle effect. When Steven is first introduced to the scene, his presence is announced by a rolling can. In the shot, the lines of the grocery shelves are skewed by a twisted camera angle, giving the viewer a sense that everything is not in order; the grocery store has been upended and distorted by the entrance of this character. Steven approaches Frank and the distortion turns menacing as the assorted rusty blades on Steven’s cart point upwards from the bottom of the frame, running along the same skewed lines that now point in hostility at Frank’s face.
A dolly zoom is performed by simultaneously moving the camera away from the subject and zooming in, or vice versa. The size of and focus on the subject is maintained while the foreground and background shrink/grow. This distorting effect can be used to highlight the subject’s psychological distress or instability. Alfred Hitchcock was the first director to use this technique in his 1958 Vertigo. In the opening scene, the main character chases an escaping criminal over rooftops. When he looks down, the camera takes on his point of view and dolly zooms downwards to portray his dizzied perspective.
The dolly zoom may convey a specific type of psychological distress: the “oh sh*t” moment. This is the moment when a character realizes the severity of a situation, such as in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975).
The scene in Dead Rising takes this a step further, using a match dolly zoom on Steven and Frank. At the climax of Steven’s rant, the camera moves, or dollies, towards Steven as it zooms out (we know it’s a dolly in-zoom out because of the fisheye distortion occurring as the camera nears Steven’s face). We humans don’t have a zoom function for our eyes, so when we see something like this we may feel dizzy or disturbed. This effect forces us into Frank’s state of mind. Frank has encountered a man so obsessed with his store and its sanctity that he has kidnapped a fellow survivor and threatened Frank with a grocery cart outfitted with gardening tools, knives, and butane torches.
The next shot introduces the match dolly zoom. Visually, the zoom on Steven’s face matches the following zoom on Frank’s face. Here is Frank’s “oh sh*t” moment: the dark realization of his dangerous situation. The dolly zoom conveys that to us and the visual match links Steven to that realization.
Watch the cutscene again without sound. Translate the cinematographer’s messages yourself: see how much is communicated through the manner in which it is filmed. I’d love to hear what you think — leave your comments and questions below.