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Anatomy of a fight scene

In video game on June 23, 2009 at 10:37 pm

The best hand-to-hand combat in the entire history of animation is the scene between Tifa and Loz in Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. It’s only 2 minutes. Click here if you haven’t seen it yet.

The fight occurs in the ruins of an old church. The secret ingredient in the setting is the small patch of grass. This is significant because the image serves a poetic function in the original story. A patch of grass inside a ruined church, illuminated by a beam of sunlight — any gamer will recognize this as a visual literalization of the game’s extended metaphor, which is the character of Aeris. In any case, its presence adds more texture to the scene and, in terms of sound, gives more contrast to the series of thuds throughout the fight.

Before the actual fight begins, there is an establishing shot showing the fighters, with the camera at 90 degrees with respect to the imaginary axis connecting the two subjects. In order to invoke tension, a child spectator moves to the foreground while the camera reacts in a reverse follow action, as if to collide with her and unsettle the viewer.

The next series of shots presents the attack stance of each fighter. We see a close-up of Tifa’s hand wearing a glove, then a medium shot of Loz showing his gauntlet. This conventional shot-countershot technique, repeated in many parts of the action, is most crucial in the beginning if it is the intention of the director to make the outcome of the fight unknown to the viewer. The purpose is to establish the “balance of power” between fighters by having a symmetrical duration scheme in the shot reverse shot at the start of the fight.

Before a character makes his/her “first move”, the camera passes over the axis to signal this high-suspense moment. The effect on the viewer is that the impending danger developed in the preliminary shots is coming ever closer. The left/right relationship of Tifa and Loz at the start is reversed from this point onward.

Finally, we have another (briefer) shot reverse shot before Tifa dashes from the left of the screen to punch Loz offscreen. Then we see a cutaway of the child spectator and a cutback to the shot with Tifa having reached Loz. The purpose of the cutaway is to decrease the cinematic duration for Tifa to physically and realistically reach Loz, thereby hastening the pace of the attack.

Tifa continually punches Loz and pushes him to the right of the screen. This is accompanied by dollying with the subjects to keep them onscreen. Then to break the quickness of the successive actions of punching, a freeze frame shot shows Tifa readying her leg to kick Loz. This sudden pause signals two things: a more intense hit and the use of a new “tool”. The intense kick is a sub-climax in the action because it ends Tifa’s series of hits and begins Loz’s first aggressive reaction. This makes the use of a freeze frame shot all the more appropriate.

We are then shown two reaction shots showing a determined expression on Tifa’s face and a triumphant-looking Loz. This serves as a cue for the next series of shots where Tifa tries to develop her sequence of punches and Loz retains his defensive position. Tifa slides down the floor and the dust motes are an excellent device for emphasizing that her move is dodged by Loz. (The dust is not shown but heard).

Tifa attacks again and this time there’s a very smooth take on the action combined with complex pivoting movements of the camera. The area covered is now longer in the sense that they have moved away from the patch of grass to another area in the church. The smooth movements are utilized in two long shots, one showing Loz throwing off Tifa in a rotating action. The freeze frame shots that follow prepare the viewer for Tifa’s death blow, which includes tossing Loz upward and throwing him back on the floor. The death blow is captured through a rotating camera action semi-independent of the movement of the subject.

In the last part, the “victory fanfare” theme we hear in the video game after every battle is played. Later on, it is revealed as the ring tone of Loz’s phone. Apparently, it’s an intertextual joke for gamers who had been conditioned to hearing the theme every time a fight ends.