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Cinematography and Games: Halo v Alien

Originally Posted: March 2016

More often than not games will borrow from the film industry, whether it be how they frame their shots or how they use lighting to set the tone. The Alien franchise started in 1979 with Ridley Scott helping to pave the way for future sci-fi films and evidently many games. The Halo franchise is one of the most notable examples of this. The Halo franchise started in 2001 with the release of Halo: Combat Evolved for the Xbox, there have been 11 released titles not including the remastered editions, 18 novels and 2 live action miniseries and animated films. Within the Halo universe many of the characters and technology have been influenced by the Alien franchise, particularly the second film Aliens. When it comes to cinematography there is no exception. This will be a look at the similarities and differences in the cinematography of the Alien and Halo franchises.

Composition & Framing

Establishing Shot

The first Halo game and Alien movie start off with establishing shots to give the viewer a sense of where they are in the universe, in this case they both show the outside of a ship having it enter from the upper right corner of the screen. This gives you a sense of scale since it is not just a flat image of a ship that is supposed to be moving through space.

Above: The Nostromo - Alien

Above: The Pillar of Autumn - Halo: Combat Evolved

Simply showing the ships would not tell the viewer that they are moving since there is no point of reference in space to tell you that they are moving, but by having them cross the screen it tells you that they are in fact moving forward.

Again in other installments of both franchises they use extremely similar establishing shots, the only differentiation being the direction they are travelling which can be seen above in the screen shots I took from Aliens and Halo: Reach.

Look Space

Both also make use of look space, but they use it for different reasons. In Alien the crew sets out to try and find the xenomorph that just burst through a crew-mates chest, during this Brett is separated from the rest trying to find Jonesy their cat on board the Nostromo. While his attention is on Jonesy the alien approaches him from behind and Brett remains completely oblivious. The audience is able to see this happening because he is held to the left side of the screen allowing us to see past him. Within this shot Brett remains still while the alien moves in the background drawing our eye to it. This first starts with the tail stretching out and ends with the alien descending behind him.

The Alien's tail comes down on the right.

The Alien appears thus effectively builds tension and emphasizes the amount of danger that he is in.

On the other hand Halo does not use this to build tension but instead utilizes look space to focus the player’s attention on the falling ship on the right hand side of the screen. This shows them the result of what they have done in the previous level. It also acts as a form of relief knowing that you have succeeded in your goal by allowing you to revel in it.

The enemy ship exits towards the left.

The ship has been shot and crashes to the ground while our heroes look on.

Up Shots

Both use up shots to establish the dominance of specific characters, in this case it happens to be the soldiers in combat. Both scenes take place early on when it appears that the humans have the upper hand and stand a fighting chase against the aliens. This tells the viewer how strong and powerful these characters actually are so that when the aliens do begin to kill them off it means that much more to the audience, helping to create tension.

Aliens- The marines do a sweep for an survivors. So far they have no encountered any enemy aliens and are confident in their abilities to deal with whatever threat lurks within the abandoned base.

Halo 2 - The Master Chief is attending a ceremony right before the Covenant arrives to attack Earth. At this point humanity believes that Earth is safe from invasion.

Point of View - POV Halo clearly borrows from Aliens when it comes to POV shots. Both make it look like the viewer is looking through a camera of one of the marines in combat. By having these moments it helps to immerse the player further by putting them in the action, which is the whole reason why Halo is a first person shooter to begin with. The tension increases and it is a nice break from typical shots and helps to intrigue the viewer.


Lighting & Tone

In many films blue and orange highlights and filters are used to help create contrast and emphasize certain points. This is used throughout the Alien and Halo franchises. Since they are complementary colours the do create a nice contrast for the viewer. The orange may draw their attention if it is particularly bright but if not then it provides a nice warm glow that is almost comforting whereas the blue gives the viewer’s eyes a place to rest. In the case of Alien the orange is normally used to represent the humans and the blue aliens.

Colour and lighting has been used by both to emphasize when the enemies are near by helping to set the mood for dramatic scenes. For example, the alien is always shown in blue lighting and the flood, being Halos equivalent of the zenomorph, is always shown in green lighting. This use of colour helps to signal to the viewer when something is about to happen, and in the case of Halo allows the player to prepare for a fight.


Shot Sizes

Throughout both franchises the most common type of shot would have to be the mid shot. In Aliens there are many and they often take place when a character is talking helping to keep the focus more so on the face while also allowing body language to play its part. Halo also does this but since it is a game the body language dose not really play a part. In fact it seems to be more technical reasons that drive the decision to have so many mid shots. Halo is about 15 years old now so the older games look pretty rough compared to today’s standards and while they still have their charm it is likely that the designers did not want to have close ups on their models since the detailing would not be so great. In fact it is not until the games that came out around 2010 that you see more than one or two close ups on character models. In Halo 4 there is an extreme close up of the main characters face and similarly Alien does the same for the alien.

Both of these moments are important in their own right for their respective franchises. With alien this is the first time that we ever get a good look at it and see how it kills and with Halo this is the first time that players get to see what the main character, Master Chief, looks like after over 10 years of guessing.


Focus & Camera Movement

Throughout Alien there is a change of focus to emphasize certain characters also so known as rack focus. This tends to happen when one character starts to talk and the focus changes to them rather than having cuts to focus on a new character.

Camera Movement

Tracking is used throughout both helping to keep things even and smooth. Things are also clear allowing the viewer to remain focused and retain the information being given to them. In the case of Aliens the camera tracks the marines as they move throughout the complex searching for survivors. Halo instead uses it to follow the main character as they move throughout an environment.

Halo 4 below.


Shot Transitions

The most common form of transitions found in both franchises is a simple cut. Used when going back and forth between two characters in a conversation and during action scenes. They are fast paced and keeps everything going without interrupting the flow to tell the story. In the case of Alien the scene where Dallas goes into the air vents to hunt down the alien is a perfect example. By going back and forth between what is happening with Dallas and what is happening with the rest of the crew the film builds tension until the alien finally kills Dallas. The cuts that were used during this scene provided the viewer with relevant and important information to create tension.

Halo Reach uses cuts to show who is talking and the reaction of the person who is being given the information, as well as giving the player an idea of what their environment is.

Fades are also used, typically when there is not so much action going on. In Alien fades are used while the crew slowly wakes up from cryo sleep to show who some of the crew members are. Halo also uses fades but they fade to black and are used to break up shots in a slow scene. They are also used to end cutscenes and bring players back into the game. This is a preferable method since it is not to jarring to the player.

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