When God of War released a few weeks ago, one of the ways it impressed critics and fans was with its use of “one shot” visual storytelling: Barring the occasional fade to white light or transition to or from menu screens, God of War’s camera never “cuts.” Instead, the full game is one long take.
In other games (and throughout film, television, and animation), cuts are used to make transitions of all sorts. Sometimes that’s to frame whoever the principal speaker in a conversation, to highlight some important onscreen object, to show off some arriving complication, or to introduce the viewer to the location of of a new scene. But God of War keeps the action rolling the whole time, using camera movement to change focus instead of hard cuts.
Dori Arazi, the game's director of cinematography, goes into their process here, and its worth a watch to get what the team was going for:
While I understand why this technique wowed some other folks, it never landed for me. On Waypoint Radio, I said that was partially because the game does have the occasional cuts in the action mentioned above. It was also, I said, because cuts can be very valuable, and sometimes God of War feels like it would be better with them.
After all, cuts are as varied (and potentially powerful) as any other visual storytelling technique. In some dialog scenes, cuts can feel almost invisible or they can emphasize one speaker over the other. Cuts can be rapid to create a sense of speed, or they can arrive slowly in order to make a moment feel like it's stretching dramatically (or in the case of a good comedy, awkwardly). A hard cut can draw attention to itself to create a sense of dramatic irony or transitional smoothness. Cuts can communicate the passing of time or simultaneous action elsewhere. By eschewing these sorts of tools, God of War was declining to use an entire toolbox filled with storytelling devices.
But even beyond that, there was something nagging at me about why the one shot device didn’t work for me. I just couldn’t put my finger on it until Saturday night, when--after his appearance on SNL--Donald Glover released the new Childish Gambino video, “This is America.”
The last thing the world needs is another shot-by-shot breakdown of the video, but for those who’ve missed it here’s the summary: Without cutting, the camera follows Glover through a series of sequences set across a warehouse space. He executes a seated guitarist, dances with school children, murders an entire choir, and finds himself caught up in riotous chaos. As each vignette piles on the one before it the tension rises. Everything feels like it’s on the precipice, like everything could fall apart at any second.
And the truth is, it probably could, and that’s part of why the video’s use of long take cinematography works.
In film, one shot sequences feel like feats of choreography and execution: performance, direction, camera work, lighting, everything needs to come together in a single take. Horses need to follow orders. Bad guys need to fall just down the stairs just so. Whether shot in a single go or pieced together by hiding cuts (as in Hitchcock’s Rope), these long takes can be exhilarating, exhausting, destabilizing, or surprising. More importantly, there is the feeling that it could all go wrong.
Take the seven minute long fight scene in last year’s Atomic Blonde, as Charlize Theron’s Lorraine Broughton, cold war spy, fights her way up (and down) an apartment building:
Sitting in theaters, watching her go from multi-floor gunfight to living room brawl, I felt fatigued. For all the excitement, it was also wearing me down. Even though I knew that there was no way the sequence I was watching would end in a botched stunt, the long take made me feel the desire in all of the performers to land their choreographed moves, and by extension their character’s desires to win that fight. I was desperate for the release of a cut, and the filmmakers refused to give me one.
All of which is to say that the long take or one shot in film feels like an accomplishment, especially since in real life, so many things can go wrong: books can fall off of shelves, a bird can land in the middle of your shot, an actor can forget a line. Long takes in film require the sculpting of possibility into a firm shape.
Listen to Waypoint's Austin Walker and Patrick Klepek talk all about God of War spoilers in this bonus episode of Waypoint Radio:
But in games, rigidity in visual storytelling is the thing developers have been trying to surpass for years. It’s why a four minute Mass Effect trailer turned so many heads in 2006. Instead of moving as if on wires, people swayed, blinked, and emoted with a realistic imprecision.
While I know that all of God of War's cutscenes were motion captured, it isn't the one shot structure that achieves that feeling of imprecision. Instead, God of War delivers on that effect elsewhere: through a lingering, disappointed look from Atreus; from Kratos’ conflicted brows easing as he resolves to be honest; in the the shaky cam that grounds boss fights in a sort of documentary aesthetic; even with the curving, half-predictable arc of the Leviathan axe as it returns to your hand with a snap. These all make the world feel loose, and if not “realistic,” at least human.
“This Is America,” like the classic Touch of Evil intro before it, does have a cut. But where Welles spliced in an explosion, “This Is America” director Hiro Murai adds an exhale that resets the emotional floor of the video, and allows the viewer’s mind a moment to rest and think.
It’s hard not to think about what great cuts could’ve been added to the game, what emotional re-alignments Arazi and the rest of the game's creative team could've performed if they had let themselves have just a handful of cuts.