Photographers attempt to freeze a moment. They capture the beauty of a scene, the character in a portrait, the drama in an event. But would it still be photography if the images were made without a camera, only a monitor, if the landscapes were virtual and the portraits were of people who really are two-dimensional? The technical process might be completely different, demanding coding and hacking skills rather than a knowledge of f-stops and lenses, but the artistic skills are the same: the “photographer” still has to think about framing and focus, lighting and effect. And the results can be no less dramatic, moving and eye-catching.
Duncan Harris likes to think of himself as a “videogame tourist” but compares the work he does in finding and capturing photogenic moments in computer gameworlds to that of a Unit Stills Photographer creating shots for a movie’s publicity material. Like the photographer, his goal too, he argues, is to reflect the flavor of a scene and its movement in a single frame. Harris has created thousands of landscape images, portraits and dramatic shots captured while exploring the giant worlds created by computer game designers and populated with animated characters.
First, Free the Camera
A journalist specializing in video games, screen captures used to be a part of Harris’s review process. Although those early gameworlds were lacking in architecture and furnishing, they presented the same challenges that Harris faces now: removing the head-up display that gamers need to play, and unlocking the camera so that he could explore the world beyond the game’s narrative to search for unusual views and attractive scenes. As games became richer and more complex so the opportunities for capturing beautiful images increased.
“It’s several things that all come together to make it worthwhile,” he says of his work. “Freeing the art of games from the technology, hardware and rituals of gaming is the obvious one; exploring and celebrating overlooked games with great art is another; then there’s the idea of broadening the hobby of gaming beyond the obvious gameplay, taking it to a place where everyone can appreciate it…. Games can create enjoyable standalone art in realtime now. It’s not all about concept art anymore.”
The process is technical and complex, and varies from game to game. Each title will require a few hours of investigation as Harris examines the options available and how much of the world he can open up with a few modifications. Specialist tools include Dolphin, a Nintendo emulator, which has a “free camera” and lets Harris remove the head-up displays and pause screens. Unreal Engine, used to power many gameworlds, includes generic developer functions that can give a knowledgeable user control beyond the gameplay itself. Other games have software development kits and consoles hidden away but accessible to people who know how to dig them out and use them. And then there are the tricks involved in capturing the images in 1080p and bringing them from an Xbox 360 to a computer for rendering in 2160p. (This apparently involves a process that requires hacking “a few EDID values in the monitor driver” and tweaking registry settings for the videocard drivers.) The amount of freedom Harris can give himself to explore a gameworld can range from “absolute” to “harsh austerity” so he looks first for a clear screen, a free camera and — every photographer’s dream — the ability to stop time.
Suggesting Movement in a Shot
But while the process of image capture is unique to gaming, the aesthetics involved in choosing and creating that image would be recognizable to any photographer. Harris has no formal background in photography and says that he has no idea how to properly use a camera. He thinks of photography as a “higher art form” that can strike your heart immediately and “haunt you forever” while games have “to insinuate their way there” through exploration and the life or the world around the viewer. Photography, he believes, has much to teach the gaming world about landscapes and objects, and he made a point of looking at car photography before working on racing game Gran Turismo 5.
And yet there’s no questioning Harris’s photographic eye.
“I know shapes and symbols, and the emotions they convey,” he says. “I know the value of framing, and how adjusting field of vision can ‘compress’ a scene to push out any dead space. I know when something should and shouldn’t violate the edge of the frame to suggest scale. The right frame of an idle animation, a flicker in a character’s eye that stops them looking like a zombie for a second, the right balance and placement of light and shadow: you just pick these things up after a while. And motion, of course; there are countless ways to suggest motion in something that doesn’t move.”
Making money from these images though might just pose a bigger challenge than the difficulties involved in actually creating them. Game development firms occasionally pay Harris to capture shots of their games, and magazines will sometimes ask him for images to illustrate their stories. But while landscapes belong to everyone and the freedom to use a portrait can be signed away with a model release form, ownership of the artwork that Harris captures while exploring The Exiled World of Arborea (Tera) or The Need For Speed Hot Pursuit belongs to the publisher and developer of the game not to the “photographer” who captures them.
That just leaves Harris with the pleasure of doing something that he loves: overcoming the technical challenges involved in creating an image; exploring the scenery to find the right shot; enjoying the thrill of spotting a moment that’s perfect for capturing — then going back and doing it all over again.
“A lot of these games I do several times over because new things are discovered,” he says. So when people ask if this is ‘art’, that’s where I’m comfortable saying yes.”