What Video Game Developers Know About Video-Editing

In the world of video-editing, you won’t hear the name Saturo Iwata mentioned very often.

You may have come across this name around the Internet in recent days, or if you grew up playing video games like I did, you might know who this person is. Saturo Iwata was the president of the video game company, Nintendo, and he died July 11. Unlike many game corporation presidents, however, Mr. Iwata was first a game developer. Among his achievements were bringing games like Kirby: Dreamland and Smash Bros. to fruition, as well as helping release the Nintendo DS and the Wii.

So why is he relevant on a blog about video-editing? While Mr. Iwata’s world was video-game development and design, the overarching goal of making games is exactly the same as good video-editing: connecting people to stories through emotion.

In his 2005 keynote at the Game Developers Conference, Mr. Iwata defined successful game creation as this: “Like any other form of entertainment media, we must create an emotional response in order to succeed. Laughter. Fear. Joy. Anger. Affection. Surprise. And most of all: pride in accomplishment. In the end, triggering these feelings from our players is a true judgment of our work.” (1) Likewise, when we trigger the emotions in our audience, we are succeeding at our job as videos editors.

All media is centered around the idea of storytelling in some fashion. Game developers tell stories with sections for the audience to experience through tactile play, as well as cut-aways to reveal important pieces of information. A game is considered good if it challenges the players to think and problem-solve various challenges, all while enjoying the emotions of living vicariously through the game character. And a successful game is one where players come back for more.

Likewise, a good editor is crafting and creating emotional experiences for an audience. We want the audience to live vicariously in the visual space we create. And we want them to enjoy and receive from our stories and videos. Creating an emotional response is the most important thing we do as editors. If a video or film doesn’t generate a response, we are bored, impatient, and apt to switch it off for something more interesting. Video game players do it as well, when games don’t play well or are monotonous and dull.

Consider how a video game player feels when they’ve finished the latest installment of Legend of Zelda: along the way the player feels the fun of running around and fighting enemies, the challenge of learning different combat strategies, the frustration of running out of lives and experiencing “game over,” and the eventual rush of success when defeating Gannondorf. The emotions run so deep the players will yell and shout at the TV when they’re frustrated, and throw their hands in the air when they win.

Successful movies trigger emotional reactions too. When a blockbuster like Avengers: Age of Ultron starts on opening night, die-hard fans pack out the theaters. It’s not unusual for such audiences to shout with delight, cheer their favorite characters on, or boo when the bad guy is on-screen. Why? Because the audience is feeling what their favorite characters are feeling.

So if emotion is so important, how do we capitalize on it and use it to our best advantage as editors?

Always define what you want your audience to feel when they watch your video. A journey is not for the destination, but for the experience along the way. And every video is a journey of emotion.

Academy-award winning film editor, Walter Murch, in his list of the most important factors that make a successful edit, said that emotion was the most important of all. He writes in his book, In the Blink of an Eye, “Emotion, at the top of list, is the thing you should try to preserve at all costs.”

Further on in the book, Murch describes how he would print out stills from the footage of his films, encapsulating the emotions he wanted to find and select when he shuttled through film reels. It helped him refine and maintain the emotional continuity in his films.

The biggest tool you have in learning how to tease out emotion is yourself. How do you react when you watch your cuts? While it is common to get over-saturated with the content in your NLE, remember how you felt when you first watched the footage. What made you laugh? What made you cry? What did you consider poignant? Write notes if you have to, and then grab those things when you edit. What you felt the first time will still be there, even after you’ve watched it a hundred times.

Augment your initial reactions to the footage by choosing corresponding music and effects. Everything you do as an editor is cranking up with emotions through your cuts and choices. If combining two moving images creates a third meaning, then the sounds, music, and effects all contribute language to be interpreted by the viewer. Sometimes, “brevity is the soul of wit” so keep the edits simple. Sometimes more is better, the layers building up into a powerful whole. Let the emotion of the piece dictate the additions of sound, music and effects. When the emotion gets cluttered up by too much, remove layers until you find the emotion again.

Editing, by nature, is the careful curation of footage, music, sound and effects to create a precise emotion. Some things end up in the final product, and some things, no matter how beautiful or funny, must be left in the bin. Each video you work on is an opportunity to further refine your skills in making the audience feel something.

Back in 1994, long before he was president of Nintendo, Saturo Iwata gave an interview for a Japanese book entitled, Introduction to Game Design. He said, “Talent, in my view, is the power to continue persevering in your endeavors. Those people we look at and say, ‘Wow!’ are the people who kept on at their work without thinking how hard it all was. Those who can continually exert themselves in improving their own abilities are natural creators, I think.” (2)

Throughout his career, Mr. Iwata was inspired to keep making games because he knew the emotional response a good game could have. Our favorite filmmakers and editors make us crave more because of how they make us feel when we watch their films. Work at honing this important part of your craft, and learn to make people respond emotionally. Then you will create work that would satisfy a game-developer’s definition of success.

(1) Quote from Saturo Iwata’s GDC 2005 keynote taken from video at: http://www.theverge.com/2015/7/15/8968345/satoru-iwata-heart-of-a-gamer-gdc-2005-video

(2) Quote from interview in “Introduction to Game Design” found here: http://shmuplations.com/1994game4/