Lesson Plan: Skill, Perception, and Epiphany across Cinema and Videogames

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Ian here—

What follows is a lesson from my 2013 course “Comparative Media Poetics: Cinema and Videogames” at taught U Chicago. On the docket for this week: displays of intelligence and expertise in cinema (from Buster Keaton films to contemporary action cinema), and the ways in which the needs for interactivity force a very different visual style in games than we see in contemporary cinema.

The screening/play-session hybrid that lead up to this class included clips from The General (Buster Keaton with Clyde Bruckman,1926), College (Buster Keaton with James W. Horne, 1927), Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006), and The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass, 2007), the latter of which is our primary concern here. It also included students playing portions of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (Naughty Dog, 2011) and Mirror’s Edge (DICE, 2009). Readings for the week included selections from Noël Carroll’s book on Buster Keaton Comedy Incarnate, and a chapter from James Paul Gee’s book Why Video Games Are Good for Your Soul.

(You can follow along with the visual presentation for the following section here.)

Sliced to pieces

The Bourne films have been magnets for criticism from critics who feel that contemporary action filmmaking is becoming too incomprehensible in its editing.

Leo McCarthy of Variety, for instance, writes of The Bourne Supremacy: “One has to imagine that the lack of clarity, continuity and coherence in this furiously fought sequence is intentional,” charging the film with a tendency towards “breathless bluster, insistent showiness and defiant disorientation.”

Occasionally, you’ll see the blame for this sort of kinetic, incoherent presentation of action in contemporary action cinema being laid at the feet of videogames. The critic B. Kite makes excellent points, though, in contrasting the two forms:

When film critics compare some particular movie to a video game, it’s almost always derogatory, and it’s almost always based on a couple of factors: heavy reliance on CGI and a strategy of attaining a rush of continual, heightened sensation through quick cutting. The first is fair enough. The second is weirdly inaccurate. Many games, especially shooters, do strive to create an ongoing rush of sensation, but they frame it within expansive, unbroken tracts of game world.[i]

Kite goes on to describe the first-person shooter genre, especially, as presenting what “is effectively a 12-or-more-hour continuous tracking shot.”

Now let’s look at something that is definitely not a continuous unbroken tracking shot: An action sequence from The Bourne Ultimatum. In this scene, ex-spy Jason Bourne, currently in Tangiers, has just failed to stop assassin Desh Bouksani from killing one of his contacts with a bomb. Recovering from the blast, Bourne realizes that his ally Nicky Parsons is likely Bouksani’s next target. A chase on the streets and rooftops follows, as Borne attempts to catch up to and kill Bouksani before Bouksani kills the fleeing Parsons.

Here, I just ask students the straightforward question: How many cuts do you think are in this sequence? I let them take guesses. The range of responses can be quite large.

I have an advantage that students don’t: I’ve imported a video clip of this sequence into Final Cut Pro, where I can go through frame by frame, and mark points in the timeline where I see a cut. At this point in class, I brought up my Final Cut timeline, just so that students who are filmmakers and might recognize the Final Cut interface can get a good look at the truly tremendous number of little razor blade tool splices now adorn the clip in my timeline.

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By my count, there are 329 cuts in this sequence. That means we have 330 shots, over a 9 min and 3 sec sequence. The average shot length, then, is a mere 1.65 seconds.

Now, let’s take a look at chase sequence from Uncharted 3. It is simpler than the Bourne chase sequence, with only two players instead of three. Otherwise, though, it shares some remarkable similarities. Our hero, Nathan Drake, chases the nefarious assassin Talbot across the rooftops of a bustling city (with Bourne‘s Tangiers being substituted for an unnamed city in Yemen). Again, a clothesline provides proves invaluable to our hero, and again, a climactic moment revolves around him crashing through a window.

Again, I ask:  How many cuts are in this sequence? And I let students take guesses. Some students will guess “none,” which isn’t accurate, but does show the degree to which the cutting here adheres to the Old Hollywood principle of “invisibility” (certainly, no one would guess “none” for the Bourne sequence).

In fact, there are 9 cuts in this sequence. 10 shots, over a 5 min 1 sec sequence, equals an average shot length of 30 seconds, almost exactly. Just as Kite describes: expansive, unbroken tracts of game world. Despite the similarities of action that takes place in both, it would be difficult to find something more stylistically divergent from the Bourne sequence. Clearly, games’ requirements for interactivity are having a profound effect at the stylistic choices towards clarity and legibility on display here.

Lines of flight, lines of sight

It is important to remember that clarity and legibility are about more than just average shot length. You’ll notice, for instance, that the “camerawork” in Uncharted 3 is also much more steady. There are other factors at play, as well. For instance, let’s take a look at the character’s lines of sight.bourne_graph_1What we have here is a graph of lines of sight. The Blue line represents Bourne, the red line Nicky Parsons, and the green line the assassin Bouksani. They move up and down along the y-axis according to who is seeing whom at any good time. If the film is not clearly establishing that anyone is seeing anyone, the lines remain at the bottom of the y-axis. As you can see, this is the case for an astounding percentage of the sequence’s 541 second running time.

In this entire sequence, there are really only eight times where we distinctly witness a character catching sight of another character. The first time begins our clip. Bourne lies on the street, injured after Bouksani’s bomb blast. From here, we have a basic eyeline match cut to Bouksani. He gazes at Bourne warily, before apparently being confident that he is dead. Then, he turns his back on Bourne, just before Bourne’s eyes open. The whole thing takes about 7 seconds.bourne_graph_2

Next, at the 22 second mark, we have a clear indication that Bourne sees Bouksani. As he stumbles to his feet, we see him looking at Bouksani on his bike (in the same frame), and over the next several shots, as Bourne sprints down a flight of steps to follow the bike, there are repeated instances of the two characters being in the same frame, clearly establishing Bourne’s awareness of Bouksani’s location. This goes on for about 12 seconds.

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The motorcycle chase that follows is hectically shot in quickly-whipping close-ups, which means that we never get a chance to see both Bouksani and Bourne in the same shot.

Bouksani and Bourne both ditch their motorcycles, and begin pursuing Parsons on foot. It’s not entirely clear how Bouksani tracks Parsons, as the film takes its time in establishing that he actually gets a good look at her. At the 3 minute 36 second mark, his spotting of her is finally confirmed in a couple of back-and-forth eyeline-match shots of the two of them, as she nervously glances over her shoulder:

Then, at the 4 min 36 second mark, viewers finally get a clear indication of how well Bourne has tracked Bouksani’s position. By this point, Bourne has ascended to the top of a building for a better vantage point. In a quick succession of eyeline-match cuts, we first see Bourne catching sight of Parsons:

And then we see Bourne catch sight of Bouksani pursuing Parsons. The spatial relationship of all three characters to one another finally established, Bourne snaps into action. This whole visual exchange has only taken 7 seconds.

Parsons keeps glancing behind her, but it’s not immediately obvious if she consistently sees Bouksani in pursuit. It won’t be until the 6 min, 47 second mark until we get another one of these eyeline-match cuts that very clearly and neatly establishes one character seeing another. When it does come, it is an especially complicated one. First, Bourne sees Bouksani prowling the streets below:

Then, a quick furry of eyeline-match cuts establishes that both Bourne and Bouksani spot Parsons as she leaps from one roof to another. The chase is on again, with Bourne and Bouksani on a collision course as they both race for Parsons.

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Parsons finally gets another clear own point-of-view shot at the 8 min 21 sec mark, when she sees Bouksani creeping up the stairwell of the building she’s hiding in.

Then, finally, at the 8 min 53 second mark, Bourne spots Bouksani through the window of a neighboring building, and crashes through said window for a rousing fistfight.

What are we to make of the long stretches in Bourne where we, as viewers, are not really getting any confirmation that any character is seeing any other character? This is an odd choice for what is nominally a chase sequence. However, it does reinforce certain things about the film’s characters.

Bourne is supposed to be a consummate professional. We, as viewers, are supposed to be in awe of his keen intelligence, and his skilled expertise in hand-to-hand combat, evasion, and tracking. Bourne is always absolutely aware of his surroundings, in a way that we, as non-Treadstone Program spies, can never hope to be.

This allows him to have the foresight to instinctively wrap his hands in hanging laundry before vaulting over a glass-studded wall, successfully losing the police officers that did not have such foresight …

… and it also allows him to be able to catch the briefest of glimpses of someone from a rooftop two blocks away, recognize them, and instantaneously plot a path through nearby buildings to intercept them. It’s all just part of the package of this character’s intelligence.

We can contrast this to Drake’s line of sight in the Uncharted 3 chase sequence. In this sequence, Talbot is clearly in Drake’s sight for fully 75% of the sequence. (By contrast, Greengrass and his editors only bother to establish a clear line of sight between any of the characters in only about 9% of that sequence’s running time.)

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The moments in which Talbot does slip out of sight are usually when the game is setting up one of Talbot’s tricks against Drake, which generally last only a handful of seconds.

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Here, I just straight up ask students: Why does this graph look so different from that of Bourne? Why do we see Talbot for 75% of this chase scene? The most obvious response is that, because of the needs of interactivity, game designers work under certain constraints that filmmakers do not. There needs to be a certain baseline level of clarity and legibility of action, or else the game would become unplayable, and players would rebel.

That is the straightforward answer. What I eventually try to do though, is point discussion in the direction of this week’s readings: Noël Carroll’s writings on adaptability in cinema (specifically, in the cinema of Buster Keaton), and James Paul Gee’s writings on the feeling of expertise that games grant us.

In cinema, we want to feel surprise and delight when a character adapts to their environment in an unexpected way. This can be when Buster Keaton uses one railroad tie to launch another off the tracks …

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… or when he uses a laundry pole to pole-vault into a window …

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… or when Daniel Craig’s Bond simply bursts through the drywall, rather than jump through a small gap in it …

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… or when Bourne has the foresight to wrap his hands before stabbing them on the glass. The pleasures of all of these scenes are our “aha” moments. We like to see characters have epiphanies that we didn’t see coming. That’s why Keaton’s stunts aren’t just stunts–they’re also gags. That’s why Daniel Craig bursting through the drywall actually gets a laugh.

Game designers, by contrast, are under constant pressure to deliver the type of “click” moments that Gee discusses:

When we do sense such a match between our way of seeing the world, at a particular time and place, and our action goals, and have the skills to carry these actions out, then we feel great power and satisfaction. Things click, the world looks like it was made for us. Unfortunately, this happens, for many people, more often in video games than it does in life.[ii]

If we, as Drake, lost sight of Talbot for a significantly longer length of time, we would just get frustrated. We’d feel like we were doing something wrongor, alternately, that the game wasn’t signposting enough. We’d have to be pulled out of our power fantasy, to acknowledge that we aren’t as good as Bourne at tracking someone across a cityscape. The pacing of epiphanies is different here: The Bourne Ultimatum can stretch out moments of audience confusion, so that our sudden understanding of Bourne’s understanding comes with a satisfying jolt. Uncharted 3, by contrast, needs to constantly drip-feed us a baseline level of pseudo-epiphanies, so that we can feel clever despite the fact that we’re not doing much of anything.

From here, I transition to a free-form discussion of how students felt while playing Mirror’s Edge, a game that requires much more precision of input on the part of its player, and a game it’s much easier to catastrophically fail at on a regular basis than Uncharted 3. Reproducing this discussion is impossible, as it depends upon the play experiences of students. Embedding a video of Mirror’s Edge wouldn’t do much good, either, as the discussion hinged heavily on the differences between students who were encountering the game for the first time versus those who felt more “expert” at it—something that’s hard to represent in video form. However, if you are interested in a non-pedagogically-oriented analysis of the game, you can take a look at a conference paper I delivered on it, here.

[i]. Kite, B. “State of Play, Pt. 1.” Moving Image Source.

[ii]. Gee, James Paul. Why Video Games Are Good for Your Soul: Pleasure and Learning. Champaign, IL: Common Ground, 2005. Pg 56.

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