Do’s and Don’ts for Cinematics

Thinking more about what Bruce Evriss touched on the other day regarding cinematics, I put together a list of do’s and don’ts for their implementation.

Some of them are aesthetic and some are technology based. All are based one examples of stuff I’ve seen in the past. I’m going to call out the two different types of cinematic here – the Half Life type (where you still control the camera and position and can ignore the cinematic totally if need be) I’m going to call First Person Cinematic, and the traditional “I’m taking control of the camera and you aren’t going anywhere” I’ll call third person cinematic.


  • If you are doing either cinematic type, please please preload textures and lods of models before starting. There is nothing more jarring that watching textures pop and lods pop in as the cinematic progresses (I’m looking at You, Halo 3). If you need to jump between high LOD scenes, where there’s not that much on screen and low LOD scenes, where there’s a lot on screen, do a camera cut from one to the other and drop everything (or raise everything) in one go. Don’t dick around with gradual degradation. It looks tacky.

  • Further to that, remember, YOU are in control of the camera – what you put in view is entirely up to you. There is NO excuse for jittery cinematics because the engine can’t handle what’s being displayed.

  • Don’t put foreground objects in high contrast situations – e.g. a guy in dark armor against a white sky. The high contrast nature of the image will totally highlight the low polygon nature of the model and will make your bump mapping look a little weird. Effectively what you generate in these situations is a silhouette, and thats never a good thing unless you have really high polygon count objects.

  • Watch the bloom. Seriously. Watch it. It can often obscure whats going on.

  • If you are doing location based sound, if the camera is moving at any speed Turn off the location aspect of the sound for any speech. There’s nothing worse that speech volume coming and going because of the camera motion.

  • And while we are talking about it,have turn off able subtitles for all speech. The number of times I’ve missed a crucial bit of speech since there was an explosion over the top of it or because someone moved a bit more distant from the camera is staggering.

  • Don’t go in close unless you have really good looking models. It just makes every thing look bad (SOF II – you are a prime culprit here).

  • When cutting to a cinematic, have the principle actors be doing something – manys the time there are bit players in a scene that just stand there waiting for the main actors to talk to them. Have them do something – anything. It costs a little bit of animation but it’s worth it. Have them be talking on a phone, or sitting with their feet up or picking their nails or doing something natural.

  • In fact, in addition to this point, actually populate the scene with more items and stuff. How many times have you seen a cinematic with a room, a basic table and chair, something very high polygon on the table and just the other actors in the room? It looks very strange because you’ve got the high polygon do-hickey (which is obviously a crucial part of the scene) and virtually nothing else going on. A few low polygon bump mapped objects scattered around the place (like pencils and so on) makes a scene totally more believable.

  • And also be careful about ambient sound sets – they can totally make a cinematic not work unless you have total script control over them.

  • Remember, in animation, the eyes move first then the head follows when the eyes hit their angle limits. If I had a dollar for the number of cinematics where the head moves and the eyes don’t (or not enough) I’d be a rich man indeed. Remember folks, we are emulating reality here, not trying to remake Thunderbirds.

  • Strange camera angles can sometimes really work well – Batman back in the 60′s did this to great effect.

  • If you aren’t cutting directly back into the action (ie true third person cinematics and not first person cinematics, which will pick up immediately that the cinematic finishes seamlessly) don’t be afraid to relight your scene specially for the cinematic to increase dramatic tension. If you need a light cast in a certain way (like across the eyes) or whatever, then do it. It’s up to you.

  • Remember that the cinematic is there to progress the story, so keep it short and light.

  • And lastly,- even if this is the ONLY one you take on board,- make ALL Cinematics skippable. Entirely. Sure, make the must watch the first time if need be, but from then on in, make them skippable. And if your scripting language doesn’t allow that, go sit on the relevant programmers head until it does. This is sacrosanct. And an addendum to that, if the player dies and has to reload, don’t ever put a reload node before the cinematic, always put it afterwards. While it’s cool if you can skip it, the player shouldn’t have to – he should be placed back in the action immediately without having to rewatch something. Too many games to mention do this – Even Gears of War does it – and it’s a No No.

    I hope all that helps.

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