Using Game Engines to Create Cinematic Videos

July 30, 2023
#How to

Gameplay videos (the ones rendered in real time by game engines, shot with a virtual camera, and edited afterwards) are very popular in game development nowadays for several reasons.

  • Real-time (game) engines are capable of creating near-photorealistic imagery
  • The toolset for working with these engines has expanded
  • The “REAL GAMEPLAY FOOTAGE” (or similar) caption is a very powerful marketing tool
  • Games themselves have changed, becoming more cinematic

When we at Playsense say “cinematic”, we mean several things associated with cinema, like high production values, the capability of connecting with the audience through meaningful narratives and immersion (providing an enveloping and captivating experience via visual means). Our team’s unofficial motto we use for inspiration is “Make it a movie!”, which is quite possible with the World of Tanks Core engine.

The essence of the work of a Gameplay Video Artist is very much related to movies. You need to have the skills of directing, setting up scenes, editing, working with lighting, etc. Also, movies have a colossal number of techniques we can draw upon. Together with Siamion Azhypa, Gameplay Video Artist at Playsense, we’ll detail how we turn gameplay videos into truly cinematic works of art (transforming the ‘raw’ in-engine footage on the top into what you see on the bottom.)

What is the cinema frame effect?

Let’s start with the basics—and the stills. As movies are moving pictures (sets of static frames), we can use techniques that have been used for centuries by the creators of still pictures to create an illusion of a 3D space on a 2D surface. Naturally, we see the world in 3D thanks to the parallax effect created by our binocular vision. It allows us to assess the distance between us and various objects. Game engines allow us to create the parallax effect, but we should use it as a finishing touch to crank up the immersion to the max. There’s a ton of tricks to “cheat” the viewer’s perception and make the picture more expressive by giving it more depth.

Painters couldn’t use the parallax effect, but they learned to underline depth by various means. Here’s a landscape painting by Bob Ross (left) and a frame from a trailer for The Last of Us Part II (right), a great example of a cinematic game.

Both have depth (and thus are immersive), and both achieve that by the same means:

  • Multiple layers (regarding the distance from the ‘POV’ to different sets of objects)
  • Composition (‘parabolic’ positioning of layers)
  • Different lighting of layers
  • Atmospheric effects (mist, haze, smoke, etc.)
  • Accentuation

The latter is probably the most essential, exemplified (on the painting) by how sharp and contrasting the tree foliage is when compared to the next layer that serves as the background for it, or how pronounced the fir trees are (which is intentional—you’re unlikely to ever observe mist that thick in nature).

How to make gameplay video frames expressive (WoT Core)

Here’s a frame taken in World of Tanks’ Core engine. It has the perspective, but it still lacks depth. Let’s fix that by using the techniques mentioned above.

After we apply depth of field, a flat plane of smoke, plus several light sources for accentuation, it looks like this. Perfect for a banner, but it’s still not cinematic enough!

Let’s add in multiple layers and composition to a different frame.

In the WoT Core engine, we can gather a bunch of objects (rocks, trees, shrubs, etc.) and place them around the tank. We can make fog thicker, add more stuff to the background (the final layer), and create more sources of light to accentuate the foreground. Here’s the frame after we’ve used our entire arsenal of tricks.

And only after that should you apply the parallax effect (in the video) to give an extra boost to the picture which is already great. We built the scene real fast, employing ready-to-use assets. Sure, the WoT Core engine is a closed one, but there’s a ton of ready-to-use assets in the UE Marketplace (for a small price), Quixel Bridge (for free), etc. Plus, there are photoscans.

You can re-use assets multiple times and redefine the roles of these assets. For example, for the World of Tanks gameplay video for Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) we put our standard lanterns behind building windows (in the foreground) or simply in place of windows (in the background) and promptly created the illusion of a populated city at night.

How to use the setting of your game

Those familiar with World of Tanks will say there’s no night maps in the game yet. But you can and should go beyond the assets already present in the game. Creating a special setting for the video with the tools game engines give you can turn very productive.

A setting is a complex notion connected to your game’s narrative and lore. For example, your setting can justify the intense use of tools such as Height Fog. It introduces 3D mist and equally disperses it everywhere in the scene to add extra depth because it makes objects more blurred depending on the distance.

Lore provided an excellent reason for introducing omnipresent heavy fog into our Mirny-13 in-game event and the gameplay video promoting it: according to the town’s backstory, it was engulfed in it as a result of an unexplained anomaly. And in our gameplay intro for World of Tanks Battle Pass Season 3, the heroes find themselves in a massive sandstorm. In both cases, the setting allowed us to boost the visuals significantly with Height Fog and diffused lighting, making the scene more cinematic and increasing the immersion.

How to set up the action in a gameplay video frame (WoT Core)

Gameplay videos reflect the actual gameplay and sometimes they show more than the game has to offer. This isn’t a bad thing if you seek to entertain your audience. An example is a funny video we made; it was dedicated to the MS-1, an entry-level tank. We used a tool called Sequencer which is present in both the Unreal Engine and in the WoT Core engine. We played with the model: we added a gun from a top-tier vehicle producing some abnormal recoil, then another of these guns (turning the MS-1 into a chopper). Finally, we transformed the little tank into something like a Martial battle tripod from War of the Worlds. The action in the frame was created by animating the tank’s static mesh.

How to use post-effects to make the picture top-notch (Adobe Creative Cloud)

To finalize the picture and make it truly cinematic, we use such techniques as motion blur (the native in-game/in-engine one). We sometimes even overdo it because it changes the perception at low framerates (and the framerate in movies, which serve as a sort of beacon for us, is very low). If you somehow don’t have access to the native motion blur tools, you can use the RSMB (ReelSmart Motion Blur) plugin which can apply the effect after analyzing successive frames.

Then, there’s camera shake. Movies are shot with analog/mechanical tools to which the laws of physics apply. World of Tanks videos are highly dynamic, often using vehicle ‘POVs’ and having an especially high number of explosions and rattles. Like motion blur, camera shake effects can be implemented with in-engine tools (by working with the virtual camera) or during the post-processing with the Camera Shake plugin which is part of the Universe Pack by Red Giant.

Vignette is another feature of mechanical cameras we seek to emulate. Light sometimes gets into the camera lens in an uneven manner, being shaded by the edges of the diaphragm or the rim of the lens. We imitate the effect by applying Black Solid in Adobe After Effects or Color Matte in Adobe Premiere.

Grain and noise are used to imitate the effects of real movie film used in physical cameras. We add these with the Renoiser and grain16 plugins, or with the default Noise plugin.

Finally, there’s chromatic aberration. The lenses of physical cameras sometimes distort the light of different wavelengths, creating color or ‘rainbow’ outlines along the edges of the frame. You can achieve the effect in the Unreal Engine, but we mostly create it during post-processing using the RGB Separation or Red Giant Looks plugin. You generally shouldn’t overdo it (but you may want to use it as means of cinematic expression :).

Here’s a short video combining all the techniques and tricks we mentioned in the article. We hope you enjoy it!


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