Blatant lie or art? How game trailers are created

The commercials seem to be made with a single purpose: to entice us into buying the game. Indeed, in the world of cynical capitalism, there is no other god except hype, and marketers are his prophets. But for some reason, we scroll through individual trailers dozens of times, even if we are not going to spend money on a new product, while others do not even watch until the middle?

Unbelievable, but true: often the developers have an indirect relationship to the trailers of their projects. The video games are produced by Visual Effects (VFX) company specializing in computer animation and editing. What caused this division of labor? Equal to Hollywood. Until the 2000s, trailers in the “dream factory” were created by film studios. But over time, the producers realized: it is much more effective to attract outside professionals who would devote maximum time to the videos. This is how trailerhouses appeared – private studios engaged in the editing of trailers and the selection of music for them. Gamedev has adopted this practice as well.

Who makes the promo video

The budgets of modern games have caught up with movie blockbusters, so it’s not enough today to simply cut pieces of gameplay and edit to music, as was the practice in the 90s. When the fate of a multimillion-dollar potential hit is at stake, every ad should be shocking and awe-inspiring. And it’s not just a spectacular picture. You need to pack in one or two minutes an emotional mini-story that can “hook” both fans and casual viewers. That is, commerce is combined with the art of short films. Who can do such miracles? Specialized companies like American Blur Studio, which employs top-notch CGI artists, Hollywood scriptwriters and editors.

Most likely, you have not heard anything about Blur Studio, but you have probably seen her work. California digital illusion masters have had their hand in the lion’s share of trailers and cutscenes for our favorite games, including DOOM, Dishonored 2, Batman: Arkham Knight and the recent presentations of Middle-earth: Shadow of War and Destiny 2. They also drew cosmic beauties for Avatar James Cameron and made infernal panoramas for the full-length South Park.

The meticulousness of Blur, a kind of “Pixar” from the world of video games, can be judged by the example of the debut CGI video of Mafia III. The actor who gave the appearance and voice to the protagonist, while capturing the movements, not only sat in a full-size model of a vintage car, but also used a Zippo lighter from the 60s. It would seem like little things, but the human eye, the Blur animators assure, notices the slightest deception. The lighting and camera angles were borrowed frame by frame from a dozen classic films like Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now and Red Circle. And all this for the sake of three minutes of material! This is how short masterpieces appear, after viewing which the hand itself reaches for the credit card.

How long does it take to manufacture? A three-minute CGI movie like Mafia III is made by a team of 40-50 Blur Studio employees up to four months. But there are also exceptions. It took six months to draw a six-minute trailer for The Elder Scrolls Online for E3 2012.

“It took six months to create the TESO cinematics. However, we completed the hardest work in 90 days. The animation took three weeks, the editing took another month. If you count all the employees involved in the project, including actors and motion capture specialists, there will be about 120 people”


Given the long lead times for producing high-quality trailers, several studios are usually involved in the marketing campaign of one blockbuster. For example, CGI materials for Assassin’s Creed Unity were made by Blur Studio and Czech DIGIC Pictures, and the debut gameplay video was made by Singapore’s REZ.

How videos are created

In some situations, developers come to the production director with specific concepts and blanks (character models, art design, early gameplay footage), in others they give VFX studios almost everything. A preliminary script is written, a storyboard is drawn, music is selected. Then, if we are talking about a full-fledged CGI – modeling the three-dimensional world and environmental details, capturing movements, rendering scenes. And to create gameplay trailers, the tools built into the game engine are used.

“It’s like producing a regular movie, but with one major difference. Imagine all the cast, set, light and crew are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can shoot and edit any scene until the result perfectly matches your idea and the customer’s requests”


Watching Hollywood promo videos is not much different from going to the cinema: in both cases, we sit and watch the pictures move across the screen. This is contemplative entertainment. And video games are interactive. No let-play will convey even a fraction of the experiences that arise during the independent passage. Therefore, the authors of game trailers have to solve a damn difficult task every time – advertising should evoke in a potential buyer the same emotions that he would experience with a gamepad.

“A good trailer doesn’t impose the product, it is entertaining. This is the secret of success”


The shortest path to this is CGI videos, cartoons and clips with real actors and celebrities. By manipulating the instruments of cinema, it is possible to awaken the necessary mood and feelings in the audience. How to convey in a matter of seconds the tragedy, scale and fury of the many hours of battle between humanity and aliens? The creators of the Halo 3 promo video did a simple and ingenious thing: they built a virtual diorama of the battle. And the creators of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon relied on nostalgia, cleverly disguising the shooter’s announcement as a TV commercial for an 80s action movie.

Who directs the best trailers

Since gamedev borrows a lot from the “dream factory”, it is not surprising that the production of important trailers is entrusted to eminent directors. It began in 1998, when George Romero shot a TV commercial for Resident Evil 2. This practice became common in the mid-2000s: AAA title budgets had grown so big that it required a “mass destruction” advertisement to promote games.

Often, the director is matched to the project, introducing the corporate identity. James Wang, who ate the dog on horror movies, did not disappoint with the Dead Space ad. And Michael Bay packed the Need for Speed: The Run trailer to the eyeballs with pyromania and chases. But sometimes directors reveal themselves from a non-standard side. Who would have thought that the creator of “Predator” and “Die Hard” would shoot videos about cats? This teaser for Ghost Recon: Wildlands from John McTiernan is valuable: it breaks templates.

Rupert Sanders can be criticized for the recent remake of Ghost in the Shell, but his Halo 3: ODST trailer keeps him on his toes until the last frame. It is worth a lot to furnish a shooter ad as a drama inspired by Elem Klimov’s Come and See. And literally: the production of five Halo 3 commercials cost Microsoft ten million dollars.

In addition to Rupert Sanders, the short films for the third part of the saga about the Master Chief were directed by Neil Blomkamp and Joseph Kosinski, and the promo for the fourth was produced by David Fincher. The logic is clear: a good director not only makes beautiful, but also turns advertising into a self-sufficient artistic expression.

How audiovisual images are manipulated

Whoever is sitting in the director’s chair, the main thing is to intrigue and emotionally stir up the viewer. There are tons of cinematic tricks for that, including whipping up suspense, ragged cuts, absurd humor, and unusual camera angles. Only one selection of music can ditch the impression or, conversely, turn a good video into a brilliant one. But the main secret of keeping attention, paradoxically, was formulated by Aristotle in Poetics: you need to tell a boring story that has a plot, culmination and denouement. Let’s remember the Overwatch cartoons: not so much advertising, but sketches from the life of the characters and the world.

“We believe in the power of stories. Therefore, we try to build emotional connections with the audience. There are many tools for this, but the most reliable one is creating convincing characters”


But relying on storyline and emotion, CGI trailers often set high expectations. Especially if the presentation takes place before the actual gameplay footage appears. A textbook example: in 2011, the Scottish company Axis Animation drew a breathtaking video for the announcement of Dead Island (it is still considered one of the best trailers in history). An unconventional narrative, a poignant drama about the death of a family in the early days of the zombie apocalypse and characters who wanted to empathize – a real short horror film. Hype then skyrocketed. But the shooter itself turned out to be a nondescript meat grinder.

And here, it seems, there are no complaints about Axis Animation: the animators gave their best, and the developers and the publisher, who ordered the cinematic, cheated. But it also happens that video makers are deliberately deceiving. This, of course, is about manipulating the graphics of gameplay promo videos.

How are trailers ‘graphics’ improving?

It all starts with heavy color correction, when the color scale and tone of the video is changed with the help of special filters. This is not yet a full-fledged “improvement”, but it is already a significant change to the original scale of the game. Color grading is used to create an overall mood that needs to be “sold” to the viewer. Also, the game can look trite and boring, so they add color to it during the editing process.

Are there many editing programs?

To create videos, internal development tools are used along with widely available programs. For example, to get footage for staged cutscenes, tools built into the game’s proprietary client are used. And then everything is written in Shadowplay or Bandicam with further editing in the Adobe software package.

Are the game engine manipulated?

Yes, often the image itself is rendered at settings that exceed the maximum available to the user. An increased drawing distance, high-resolution shadows, an increased number of particles – all this is not much, but it still improves the picture. But the main attempt on the picture takes place in the form of additional drawings. This is when additional special effects, objects and characters that were not there initially are superimposed on the frames from the game. The task is to make the picture more dynamic and rich in order to impress the viewer more.

Are there such “improvements”?

All this has to be done to one degree or another, but at the initiative of the customer. I am of the opinion that the game in trailers should look the way it looks in reality. My recommendation for gamers who care about the initial look of graphics: watch letplays.

But since the authors of trailers have long erased the line between PR games and cinema, there is not much to choose. Such a choreography of battles, as in the advertisement for Star Wars: The Old Republic, will be envied by the full-length Star Wars. Yes, our feelings and emotions are shamelessly manipulated. But the same happens when watching your favorite Hollywood tapes. Therefore, instead of lamenting about times and mores, let’s just say: try to relax and enjoy the artfully made trailers. The main thing to remember is that any art is illusory by definition.

Based on materials 4pda

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