The Difference Between a Cutscene and Film

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There’s something that I’ve been thinking about for many, many, months. I wanted to do a post on why, for whatever reason, Final Fantasy VII Advent Children doesn’t quite feel like a movie. It was a similar feeling to Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV, of which I discovered the root cause when I went to its IMDB page. Literally, all the team had experience with was cutscene work.

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children possesses the technical properties of a movie, and is technically proficient in its construction. It’s the most watchable of all the Final Fantasy movie, not as anemic as Final Fantasy: Spirits Within or as fundamentally broken as Final Fantasy XV: Kingsglaive.

However, in order for me to really get at the heart of what the issue is, I have to answer a question that no one that I’ve ever seen has really given an answer for or even really addressed: I have to delineate the difference between a cutscene and a film.

My only frame of reference is the similarly constructed “difference between pornography and art”. While there’s the claim that “you know when you see it”, clearly intuition isn’t sufficient when it comes to understanding this.

In the pornography versus art debate, it’s clear that pornography is created with the express intention of arousing the person viewing it, whereas erotica uses sex as an artistic element. Though there are additional issues I could raise with that, I’d be here all day if I went into it.

But the issue with cutscene versus film isn’t one of content. It’s one of context. What do I mean by that?

Let’s look at an iconic cutscene. Final Fantasy VII’s cutscene (relevant given Advent Children) is legendary, even though it has aged poorly.

Assuming no context, the audience sees stars while unknown echoes reverberate in the distance. This fades away to a mysterious, otherworldly glow that illuminates the face of a young woman.  She walks down an empty alleyway in an urban setting, which zooms out to show people walking around, driving, and living their daily lives in an urban environment. This zoom continues until the entire city is visible, showing the unique “pizza” shape. Eventually, the camera zooms into a different part of the city, intercut with a train that brakes. The two sequences eventually converge before gameplay begins.

But what does the cinematic rely on? What does the use of imagery and sound communicate? The cinematic exudes a sense of mystery, the feeling that we’re not in our own world anymore. This is made explicit by the shot of the city, which the audience later learns is named Midgar.

But more importantly, the last frame serves as the pre-rendered background for the gameplay section. This is what I mean by context. Everything in a cutscene recognizes that it’s there to set up the gameplay. It’s not an end in and of itself. This, to me, is what distinguishes the cutscene from a film.

The opening to Final Fantasy VII doesn’t even feature the protagonist, Cloud. He’s reserved for gameplay. In the case of a game, this is a good decision. But if this were judged on standalone value, this leaves us with a pretty big dramatic hole. In recreations of this scene, Cloud jumping off the train is part of the scene.

Herein lies the problem with Final Fantasy movies.  Ultimately, the problem with Square-Enix’s movies is that they don’t know how to establish narrative context outside of gameplay. All of their movies feel like there’s a point where you’re supposed to play through certain sections, but they just cut those parts out.

They understand, on a broad level, that film is a visual medium. But the filmic language is incomplete. For all the talk about how Final Fantasy as a franchise relies on cutscenes to tell its story, much of their cutscenes don’t properly establish narrative context despite their visual flair. Ultimately, it’s imagery that is splendid in an aesthetic sense but communicates little information story-wise.

We can see this in Final Fantasy XV, which has an excellent video essay about the narrative having issues with payoff without setup. This fundamental storytelling flaw is something that Final Fantasy still has trouble with.

But are there any counterexamples? Are there cases where the cutscenes use more sophisticated language to tell a story? Yes, and it’s one of the spin-offs too of all things.

Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions has about thirty minutes worth of pre-rendered cutscenes. They stick to Akihiko Yoshida’s designs and the overall aesthetic of the game. While these cutscenes do look quite good, they also make use of cinematic techniques such as blocking, composition, and the use of symbolism to convey narrative information.

Of particular note is the scene where Delita and Ramza talk in a church before confronting Confessor Zalmour. Delita and Ramza’s positions on “stage” carry narrative weight. Ramza is kneeling before an altar, and at one point Delita ascends to the altar. This kneeling posture that Ramza is doing while Delita stands over him foreshadows and represents Delita’s rise to power. At one point, Ramza stands up, but Delita has walked towards the cathedral doors. They are facing away from each other, representing their opposing views.

This also uses the imagery of the church to represent the Church of Glabados’s attempts to wrest control of Ivalice, with shots focusing on the chandelier while Delita discusses how the church plans to turn Ivalice into “a puppet state, with the High Confessor at its strings.” It’s no coincidence that the chandelier resembles puppet strings.

I don’t have access to the credits. The IMDB page for the game mentions Studiopolis, but that’s clearly just dubbing.  I wonder if Takeshi Nozue directed these scenes or if another director was at the helm. Either way, I’m a little surprised that this hasn’t been replicated in the main Final Fantasy franchise.

In order for Square-Enix to make a good Final Fantasy movie, it needs to go beyond the pure technical aspects of making a film. It needs to understand the filmic language it needs to communicate narrative information.

Stay tuned for Advent Children.

One thought on “The Difference Between a Cutscene and Film

  1. Pingback: The Storytelling Issues of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children – Memory of the Star

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