Ko-Fi Request: ‘Possession’

I didn’t expect to come out of Possession, an infamously divisive cult classic, with such a middling feeling. Credit where it’s due, the film does its damnedest to make you feel some type of way about it. It seems designed for you to find it either grating or enthralling, and just as happy to engender the former as the latter. In that way, it’s a film made for everyone and no one, a work absent an intended recipient, a pure auteurist vision.

And it’s, you know, it’s okay.

I’ll talk first about what I unambiguously loved about it, and that’s the cinematography. Director Andrzej Żuławski and DP Bruno Nuytten construct the sort of overwhelming, fractured spaces familiar to viewers of John Carpenter or Paul W.S. Anderson. There is no symmetry in Possession, no clean lines or comforting shapes. The corners of rooms jut out towards the camera, as though the space itself is resisting the act of filming it. The actors are assaulted, too, on all sides by a world that seems to want them dead. The camera swings around these rooms and hallways, each frame prompting a new angle of attack.

It gives the impression of a film that doesn’t want to be made. This contributes nicely to the horror of it all in a creepypasta sort of way. It’s the sort of film you expect to find abandoned in some dead person’s attic, or thrown from a car window on the side of the highway. You watch it and get the unsettled feeling that it’s somehow watching you back. You feel as though you shouldn’t be here, that this film shouldn’t exist, and yet you’re compelled to keep watching.

The problem is that it too often tips its hand and goes for more straightforward chills. I have nothing against the sort of bloody violence we see in the film’s latter half, and the creature is really well-done, properly creepy. But I wish it could live more in its ambiguous frights than its big brash shocks.

At the very least, I wish it would choose one or the other and run with it. I was exhausted trying to get a handle on the film’s ambitions. It wasn’t until the end that I realized it never had any. There’s no real perspective to speak of in Possession. You can read it simultaneously as MRA propaganda and an ode to feminist creativity. This isn’t a result of the film trying to have it both ways or find some middle ground, but rather the complete absence of any point of view at all. Its primary aim, if it has any, is to terrify and disturb. Is there anything wrong with that? Not really. It’s just not for me.

The only real problem I had with Possession was its performances. I can see why someone would be bewitched by the work of the three leads. Their physicality is so gonzo, their dialogue so heightened. It’s unlike much else in the realm of acting. I found myself frustrated, personally, by how directed they felt. Obviously every film performance is the sum of collaboration between an actor and their director. In this case, though, I felt the hand of the latter much more than the former. Their bizarre hand movements and flailing limbs felt less motivated and more choreographed. In other words, I never felt they were possessed by anyone but the director. I could be completely off-base here (I wasn’t on set, of course). That’s just what I came away with.

Part of me wishes I either liked or hated this film more. It would certainly make writing about it less of a challenge. The other part of me is comfortable riding the middle, though. I’m happy for the many people I know who are awed or bored by Possession, and I can see why they would be. My feelings on it just aren’t that strong.

The Twin ‘Resident Evil 2’s and Video Game Cinematography

Why is game cinematography so much worse than it used to be?

Last year I wrote a story about God of War’s single-take presentation. Though I spoke more to how that game suffered from a lack of editing, as well as how games have successfully utilized editing techniques, the problem of God of War’s visual element was actually twofold. This was a game with its nose upturned at not just editing, but cinematography as well. But unlike its one-shot trick, this wasn’t innovation on God of War’s part.

For a medium so powerfully obsessed with appearing superficially cinematic, mainstream video games have rejected the basic tenets of shot composition for over a decade. Play any big-budget hit from the past couple years and you’ll find at least one consistent thread: Player control of the camera. You can orbit the camera 360 degrees around and above the player character at any time during gameplay. You’re typically restricted by physical objects like walls and floors (which often strikes me as a failure of imagination as much as a design necessity, an insistence on implying the existence of a real camera in the digital space) but for the most part you can look wherever you want, whenever you want. It’s a design decision based in the notion of “player freedom,” this idea that the best games allow the player the most leeway to choose their own courses of action.

This has always been a false premise, of course. Nothing you have ever done in a video game has truly been your choice, because you can do nothing that isn’t prewritten by the rules of the game’s mechanics. Great games may make you feel like you’re playing by your own rules, and indeed there are often ways to break those rules and play in unintended ways. But ultimately, no matter how far you dig, you’re going to hit bedrock eventually. You can’t simply do whatever you want simply because you want to do it. There is no such thing as true “player freedom,” and chasing it down can sometimes lead to much more restrictive experiences.

As a case study, I’m going to take the two games called Resident Evil 2. The first was released in 1998, the second in 2019. The latter is a remake of the former, preserving the game’s narrative, map layout, and most of its interactions. You’re doing more or less the same exact things in 2019’s version that you did in 1998’s, finding the same items, solving the same puzzles, etc. The remake was created with the goal of updating the game’s visuals and mechanics to be in line with what most players expect from a modern release. That means gorgeous environments and quality-of-life improvements, but it also means losing out on the best aspect of the original game: The camera. That is to say, the cameras.

I talked a bit about this in the God of War piece, so I’ll try and keep it brief here. In the original Resident Evil games, the environment was broken up into individual chunks, each viewed from a distinct, stationary camera. As you moved from one chunk to another, a cut took place as your view changed between the two cameras. What’s notable isn’t just the use of basic editing language here, it’s that the placement of each camera was unique. You were never just viewing the player character (either Leon or Claire) from behind as they moved forwards. You might have a profile view, or a low-angle shot, or a dutch angle, or any number of variations. Each shot was carefully composed to best capture whatever area of the map it was assigned, and each shot told a different story about that particular space. Sometimes a high-angle placement implied a surveillance camera, giving the impression that the character was being monitored. A more symmetrical composition comes across as more Gothic and intimidating. A low-angle makes you feel that something is lurking in the shadows, ready to strike. A dutch angle is the universal cinematographic symbol for “something fucked up is going on!” And so on.

If the fixed camera angles of the original Resident Evil 2 are a compromise forced by technical limitations, they’re a brilliant one. It’s a great example of how games can adapt the cinematic arts without shoddily imitating them, building out a new art form that is influenced by another one rather than adhering to a misunderstanding of that other medium’s rules. This is what good cinematography looks like in a video game, not the idiotic single-take gimmick of God of War or the laughable “cinematic camera” in Red Dead Redemption 2 that pulls the camera back and adds letterboxing.

So it’s a shame that the version of Resident Evil 2 released in 2019 was a video game released in 2019.

Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the remake. I think its map construction is still ingenious and its set design properly creepy. But I mourn for what was lost with the ditched fixed cameras of the original. Ironically, this means less visual mutability than the original. The remake’s free-floating camera is going to stick right behind Leon or Claire’s back most of the time. Every part of the game’s world that you see will be from this one single (you might call it “fixed”) perspective. Gone are the visual implications of all those different camera angles. You’re seeing every inch of the map as part of a contiguous whole, viewed straight-on ahead at eye level. Nothing is communicated by this perspective, nothing besides “this is what the player character can see.” The game stabs itself in the back by relinquishing the power of cinematography for the sake of “player freedom.”

The game makes up for this in some small part with its set design. I noticed a paltry few moments where something shocking or scary was positioned to be revealed just as I opened a door or turned a corner, and that’s decent work. But it doesn’t come close to matching the tremendous impact of fixed camera angles. It’s tragic that games being made on this scale will likely never play around with cinematography again (even in cutscenes, if God of War is any indication). Maybe they’ll patch in a “fixed camera mode” somewhere down the line. I’d be keen to see that version of the game. For now, though, 2019’s Resident Evil 2 is a sadly compromised vision. As much fun as I had with it, I can’t help but pine for the version of this remake that preserved the best aspect of the original instead of trashing it. I pine for a mainstream gaming landscape that isn’t shackled by such a restrictive conception of what a game camera can produce. But I think too much time has passed for that to ever happen. Outside of the underappreciated experimental space, we’re probably stuck with “free” cameras forever. It’s something that can’t be fixed.

Ko-Fi Request: The Ups and Downs of ‘Hotel Monterey’

This article was based on a request from one of my patrons on ko-fi. For $3, you can recommend a film for me to watch and write an article about! Visit this link if interested!

Hotel Monterey, one of the earliest films by the great Chantal Akerman, is a work of establishing shots that establish nothing. It is an exhaustive catalog of small spaces within a whole that never becomes coherent. It is obsessed with symmetry, geometry, and the transformative power of the elevator. I absolutely loved it.

It’s also only an hour long, and that never hurts.

Let’s start by talking about those elevators. There are long stretches of Hotel Monterey which take place inside elevators as they move up and down the floors of the eponymous building. We see the hallway outside the elevator, then the door shuts, and moments later it opens again onto an entirely new location. Akerman seems fascinated with the visual trickery on display here. It’s almost like a magic trick, concealing one hallway and then (admittedly, without a magician’s flourish) revealing that a different one has taken its place. She also takes the reverse approach, showing people disappearing into elevators from an exterior position. These people are swallowed up by the spaces they inhabit, or else the spaces swallow themselves up in a strange ouroboros effect. The elevators are the subject of an image that can change it from within, barely motivated by human interaction. Akerman seems infatuated with the idea that an automated machine can have such radical influence on the visuals that ostensibly contain them.

But it isn’t all these ups and downs. With few other exceptions, the rest of the film is concerned with unchanging spaces within the hotel. Akerman’s images are solid, sturdy, completely motionless until the film’s final third. They seem to be held up by the hotel walls themselves, as though the slightest camera move would have them collapse. Even the tracking shots later in the film slide evenly up and down hallways, never turning or shifting away from a composition with two walls squarely on either side of the frame. There are frames within frames as well; subjects are set securely in small spaces between doorframes or corners, or inside a small wall mirror as in the film’s opening shot. They seem almost crushed by the images they inhabit. The few times we see people outside this constriction, they are still stuck in their seats by the will of the camera — and the filmmaker.

Despite the ambitions one might ascribe to it, the film makes no bones about the fact that the camera’s presence alters whatever it films. In one memorable moment, the elevator door opens and a woman begins to walk inside, only to see the camera (and, presumably, Akerman herself) and step back. These seemingly empty spaces are never truly empty. The camera’s presence makes it hard to appreciate them as such.

We must also contend with the fact that the pleasures of observing these spaces, with their attractive geometries and mostly unpopulated territories, comes only because of the way the camera constructs them. These rooms and hallways do not exist solely in the precise symmetrical angles Akerman shoots them in. The camera creates these perspectives. It takes a portion of each space and leaves the rest unseen. We see this most clearly in my favorite moment of the film. Akerman shoots a perfectly even hotel room, the bed exactly centered and the light nicely even. Then she cuts to the same room, but rearranged. The bed is shoved to the side, the lighting is more focused, a chair has been added, and a woman is sitting in it. The space has been totally disrupted in an instant. If not for the sequencing of the two shots, you probably wouldn’t even know it was the same room.

Akerman makes no judgement on the room’s reorganization. Is the second shot an attack on the desirable order of the first, or has it been made more approachable and alive by human intervention? It’s easy to assume, given the rest of the film, where Akerman’s preferences lie. But I’m not so certain. I get the feeling that there’s something disturbing to her about these balanced, empty spaces. There’s no score or narration in Hotel Monterey, which far from giving the film a neutral tone, induced a feeling of dread. These spaces are not natural. They squeeze the life out of their subjects. Even when we finally get some exterior shots near the end of the film, Akerman pulls back to show that she’s still inside the hotel. It’s like she’s trapped inside, desperate after an hour’s runtime to be let out.

How God of War’s Long Take Experiment Fails, and How Editing In Games Can Succeed

There’s a running thread in the new game God of War, a reboot of a series that once exemplified the loud and frenetic action of mid-2000s entertainment, where main character Kratos finds himself unable to pat his son on the back. In classic rule-of-threes style, he twice reaches out his hand and then pulls back, and finally finds the strength to show his son some affection on the third try. But the game finds itself unable to treat this payoff with the weight that it’s due. There’s no close-up on Kratos’ hand, no insert shots of either of their faces reacting to this gesture, nothing that would suggest that this is a payoff at all. The camera just floats behind them, unfocused and untethered, prisoner to God of War’s self-imposed cinematography rule.

See, God of War doesn’t have any cuts. Applying terms of cinema to a medium that uses an entirely different set of tools is difficult, but in this context a lack of cuts indicates an image unbroken by loading screens or fades in and out of pre-rendered scenes. From the moment you start the game to the final credits, the virtual camera never turns off, flowing seamlessly from gameplay to cutscene and back again. That is, assuming you play the forty-plus-hour game all in one sitting without ever dying or pressing pause.

I’ve long been irritated by the single take as a cinematic trick. While it can be an effective dramatic emphasizer, the visual equivalent of underlining a scene, it’s too often used in film as a show-offy example of a director’s technical skill. “Look what we pulled off,” it seems to scream, while failing to actually say or show anything interesting. The interminable film Birdman is the worst example in recent memory, its “the whole film is one shot! gimmick” belied by its drab imagery and haughty story. It’s often a technical accomplishment, but rarely an artistic one.

Property of Santa Monica Studios

God of War isn’t even the first game in recent years to attempt this gimmick. The interconnected world of Dark Souls made it possible to play for hours on end without hitting a single loading screen or cutscene. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain pulled a similar trick to God of War, shooting most of its cutscenes in single takes and having them flow directly into gameplay. But Phantom Pain didn’t flow the opposite direction, from gameplay into cutscene, making it a half-measure compared to God of War. Phantom Pain’s cutscenes also ran in contrast to God of War’s staid and dull photography, with simple shot-reverse scenes composed with a madman’s abandon, running back and forth across the digital set and abusing the zoom function. Phantom Pain director Hideo Kojima’s next game, Death Stranding, has been advertised with one-shot trailers, indicating a return to or evolution of this style. A recent trailer for The Last of Us Part II is also in a single take. All of this foreshadows a trend in prestige game design which we probably won’t be able to shake for years to come. God of War’s sterling critical reception may be a sign that this is to become expected of games on this scale for the time being.

In a way, this is the promise of any open world game, and furthermore the promise of the past decade of AAA game trends; the ability to play freely uninterrupted by level segmentation or story cutscenes for as long as you want stands right alongside the single take. God of War stands alone for its commitment to the bit. Its promise to never ever cut away turns a cinematic gimmick into a back-of-the-box promo, right alongside “brutal action” and “a massive open world.” The game’s developer, Sony’s Santa Monica Studio, have taken their flagship franchise as the basis of a game design experiment.

And it doesn’t work.

Property of Santa Monica Studios

Part of this is down to the game’s story. It follows perpetually mad demigod Kratos and his son Atreus, on a journey to the top of the realm’s highest mountain to scatter the ashes of their wife and mother, respectively. It’s a deliberate 180 from the tone of previous entries in the series, which reveled in their protagonist’s barbaric violence. The Kratos of 2018’s God of War is melancholy and emotionally restrained. He still partakes in ferocious combat, but only in defense of himself and his son. The game seeks to overturn the series’ previously uncritical penchant for bloody murder and instead tell an intimate story about a grieving father and son.

The word “intimate” is key here, and it’s the main reason why the single take doesn’t really work in God of War. The cut is a powerful tool in creating empathy. In connecting two disparate images, an emotional bond is created between them in the viewer’s mind. God of War is a game entirely about an emotional bond between two people. Why would you willingly give up the cut in attempting to tell that story? There are so many moments in just the first hour of the game when an inserted reaction shot or reverse angle or wider view could’ve enhanced the drama and emotional impact of a scene, but the game is shackled by a camera that can do nothing but hover listlessly around the central figures. It flattens the the emotion of every scene, turning what might have been genuinely touching moments into dull and banal ones.

The above sequence from early in the game gives a good overview of what the technique looks like, as well as showing off a sneaky problem caused by the refusal to cut. Near the end here, we see Atreus being attacked in the background of a shot, and Kratos in the foreground. Atreus calls out for Kratos, and it takes a couple beats before Kratos responds in any way. With editing, the scene could have gotten closer to Atreus in what ends up being an important moment for him, while letting enough time pass during that shot for Kratos to finish his struggle with the bandit and immediately respond. As it stands, we’re too far removed from Atreus, and Kratos’ delayed reaction feels awkward.

There are also simple logistical issues that cutting could have solved. In one scene, Kratos fixes the strap of Atreus’ quiver. But since Kratos is quite a bit bigger than Atreus, he physically blocks his son from the camera’s view. We can’t see what he’s doing at all, nor can we see Atreus’ reaction to his father’s little teachable moment. There are a shocking number of moments like this, where the camera struggles to capture all of a scene’s relevant information without cutting to show specifics in isolation. This leads to bizarre instances where the camera will shift in and out of Kratos’ point-of-view to make sure the audience gets a good look at whatever the game wants them to see. If this is to be the future of AAA game design, someone should at least teach these people about blocking. The scene linked below shows this off well, though it’s from late in the game so beware of SPOILERS.

Furthermore, making the entirety of God of War a single take removes the capability of distinguishing certain bits from one another. Action beats can’t stand on their own because they’re blended together with slower and quieter interludes that would normally keep them separate to help them stand out. The ostensible intention is to put the player fully in Kratos’ perspective, but the inherent limitations of the form prevent the full one-to-one connection that this seeks. There’s a reason why tools like editing exist, and it’s to shepard the audience’s perspective towards the intention of a work. Abandoning these tools is a step backwards, not forwards.

Then there’s the issue of the blend between cutscene and gameplay. The action in God of War is relentlessly vicious, with Kratos and Atreus taking on everything from ten-foot trolls to colossal dragons to skyscraping giants. Normally, a game like this would allow the player some breathing room between these fights. But God of War is incapable of truly separating its uptime from its downtime. Its loudest and quietest moments just sort of blend together into an indistinct mush. The game can’t draw any real contrast between them because they’re all forced to be part of the same single image.

All of this is in addition to the fact that, as alluded to at the beginning of this article, a single take game is never going to function as such in practice. God of War has a pause button where you can do things like read up on the world’s various enemies and change Kratos’ gear. Checking these menus cuts away from the otherwise “unbroken” image to show something entirely different. And it’s not like you’re not going to be pausing regularly. The game constantly pops up little text boxes imploring you to check some new detail that’s been added to your journal—a new quest, a new monster, a new bit of lore.

Not to mention the fact that God of War is a loot game, meaning that you’re constantly changing the gear that Kratos has equipped as you pick up new items. It’s also possible for Kratos to die in combat, which causes a cut to black and another cut back to the most recent checkpoint. Even playing on the easiest difficulty, I died several times over the course of my run through the game. There’s also the game’s length to consider. God of War took me around 30 hours to complete, over the course of several days. It is interminably long, even for a release of this magnitude. It’s highly unlikely that anyone is going to finish this game in a single sitting without pausing or dying, but that’s the only way to experience it as a single take. It really only exists in single take form in theory. The most the average player will get out of this experiment is a lack of loading screens during their multiple sessions with the game.

Oh, and by the way, the game cheats.

I’m not going to make any grand pronouncements about whether or not the single take can ever work in games. God of War doesn’t bode well for the technique’s future, but I can’t say that there’ll never be a game that figures out how to do it well. What I can say, however, is that editing is an art that games should really engage with more frequently. When they do, the results are often fantastic.

Older games used to make more frequent use of editing, due primarily to technical limitations. One of my favorite examples is the original Resident Evil. The game has you exploring a spooky mansion that’s been beset upon by zombies. As you move through the 3D space, the game cuts to different fixed angles to better show you the surrounding area. This is used for more than just practical effect. You’ll be running down a hallway when you hear an ominous groan, only for the game to cut to an angle that shows a zombie bearing down on you. These camera placements, full of melodramatically canted angles, were terrifically gothic, taking inspiration from silent horror cinema as much as classic zombie fare. But they could only be so effective because the camera didn’t have a full range of motion. A single-take Resident Evil would’ve forfeited these images.

For a more recent example of editing in games, we can look at Firewatch,. Unlike God of War, Firewatch has no cutscenes and is experienced from a first-person perspective. You are always in control of main character Henry as he explores the state forest where he’s taken up a job as a fire lookout. The beginning of the game cuts between short bits of Henry travelling to his outpost for the first time and text-based flashbacks of the events that led him there. When you first play the game, you’re unaware of where Henry is headed or who he even is. As the text segments flesh out his backstory and lead him to the moment when he accepted the job, the player walks Henry further and further into the woods, committing to the work more with each step. It’s not until the sequence ends that you realize the terrible choice Henry made by coming out here, but by that point it’s too late. You’ve already propelled him to his new fate. The intercutting here is genius. You think you’re moving Henry towards something right up until the moment you realize he’s really running away. It’s a revelation that only exists because of editing.

Property of Campo Santo

NieR: Automata’s editing is probably the boldest I’ve seen in any game. It splits the player’s time between different playable characters. You play through the first half of the game with one of them, then again with another. This separation can be thought of as a sort of cut, a distinguishing line drawn between two distinct images, with new meaning born from their contrast. This almost recalls the dialectical origins of film editing itself. Where things get really interesting is in the second half, when the time spent with each character before switching off gets shorter and shorter, until finally the cuts back and forth come at such a rapid pace that the two characters seem to blend into one. This contributes so much to the fabulous tension of the game’s final act.

I’m not optimistic for the future of the single-take game. Most players and critics have fallen so hard for it that it’ll surely pop up again in major releases for years to come. Maybe there’ll be a game to crack the code, a game that’ll find a place between Phantom Pain’s frantic nonsense and God of War’s styleless dullery. But I’d much rather see games learn to make use of editing techniques than try to master a challenge with so little reward. I just don’t see any good reason to make your game in a single shot. And if there is one, God of War didn’t find it.

Casting a Shadow: Why Did Everyone Forget How To Communicate Scale?

Recently I played the game Shadow of the Colossus for the first time. I don’t know if you’ve heard anyone say this before, but it’s very good. It’s at turns exciting and disturbing, hollowing you out and letting you stew in the emptiness. It’s the rare “modern classic” that lives up to its reputation.

One thing that caught me by surprise is how well Shadow of the Colossus imparts the scale of its titular creatures. The player character, Wander, is dwarfed by his sixteen foes. The smallest of them is still the size of an elephant. The way that the game conveys this shows a deep understanding of the language of cinema. It got me thinking about how many games and movies seem to have forgotten these techniques in recent years.

Here’s a shot from the upcoming film Pacific Rim: Uprising.

Property of Universal Pictures

These are the Jaegers, gigantic mechs designed to take on equally gigantic monsters called kaiju. But in this shot, they don’t feel gigantic. The blue Jaeger in the center is shot straight forward and from the waist-up. It’s framed in the same way you’d frame an ordinary person. The three Jaegers behind it look to be about half as tall as it, and all four of them look tiny compared to the buildings in the background. They’re supposed to be these towering titans, but they look like action figures. They feel about as tall as one of those flapping tube men outside a car dealership.

Here’s a shot from last year’s Kong: Skull Island.

Property of Warner Bros. Pictures

This one is just hilarious. Kong looks like a kid in a Halloween costume here. It’s even worse than the Pacific Rim example because you can see the director making an effort to show off Kong’s size. See that tiny human down there between his feet? The problem here is that the human is barely visible at a glance. They’re not the focus of the shot, being on the same plane as Kong himself, so your brain doesn’t even register their presence. Instead you see Kong, pinched between two mountains that dominate much more of the frame than he does. This shot is trying to communicate how big Kong is, but instead it makes him look so much smaller.

Now for a good example, here’s a shot from a late-game cutscene Shadow of the Colossus.

Property of Sony Computer Entertainment

This is our introduction to the fifteenth colossus, nicknamed Argus by the game’s fans. Here we see a better version of the Kong example. Wander is clearly visible in the foreground, marking a distinct contrast between him and Argus. In the background, Argus absolutely dominates the image. His body spans the diagonal length of the frame, and his weapon nearly does the same on the other axis. Note that unlike the Kong shot, this one is still from Wander’s perspective, rather than the perspective of an anonymous floating camera. We feel as dwarfed by Argus as Wander does in this moment.

Property of Sony Computer Entertaiment

It’s not just the colossi that make the player feel small. Even the environments in Shadow of the Colossus are oppressively large. The photo above is of the entrance to the area where you fight Argus. Before the colossus even shows up, you’re made to feel like a tiny intruder in a much grander space. You feel like you’re not supposed to be there, and you aren’t. Part of the narrative of this game is that Wander is literally an invader, breaking into each colossus’ home and murdering it. You’re not meant to feel powerful after finishing each fight. This isn’t a world you can conquer. Even when every colossus is dead, the broken-down arches and pillars still loom overhead, intimidating reminders that these lands don’t want you here.

For a good example from a recent film, here’s a shot from 2016’s Shin Godzilla.

Property of Toho Pictures

It was hard to single out a good example from this film. Director Hideaki Anno has been doing this masterfully since his giant mech show Neon Genesis Evangelion, and that experience comes to bear here. This shot is more akin to the Pacific Rim one above. In both shots, skyscrapers tower above the being that’s the focus of the shot, but that’s not a liability in the Shin Godzilla shot. Like Argus, Godzilla commands this frame, and he doesn’t even take up the majority of it. The purple light on the buildings ensures that Godzilla monopolizes the image. The low-angle camera helps too, a classic technique for making the audience feel smaller than the subject of a shot. It doesn’t matter that Godzilla isn’t the biggest thing in this shot. It feels as though he is.

Property of Toho Pictures

I like this other close-up shot as well. If you’re wondering how to communicate the scale of something without direct visual comparison, here’s a great example. Godzilla is so big that he bursts past the edges of the frame, so big that it’s hard to even coherently construct an image of him. If this was the first time you’d ever seen Godzilla, you’d still be able to tell that he was a titanic creature.

So why do films like Pacific Rim: Uprising and Kong: Skull Island fail in this department? Besides a general incompetence and inexperience on the part of many blockbuster directors, I think it’s largely out of a desire to display the effects that so much money was spent on. Notice that the shots I pulled from both films frame their subjects in such a way that best shows off their designs. The Jaegers are framed like ordinary people in costumes, and the head-to-toe shot of Kong screams “look at how realistic this big monkey is!” In neither shot was it a priority to suggest the scale of these things, despite that being the most interesting thing about them. Shadow of the Colossus was originally released in 2005, but today’s filmmakers and game designers could still stand to learn from its excellent direction.