Casting a Shadow: Why Did Everyone Forget How To Communicate Scale?

Recently I played the game Shadow of the Colossus for the first time. I don’t know if you’ve heard anyone say this before, but it’s very good. It’s at turns exciting and disturbing, hollowing you out and letting you stew in the emptiness. It’s the rare “modern classic” that lives up to its reputation.

One thing that caught me by surprise is how well Shadow of the Colossus imparts the scale of its titular creatures. The player character, Wander, is dwarfed by his sixteen foes. The smallest of them is still the size of an elephant. The way that the game conveys this shows a deep understanding of the language of cinema. It got me thinking about how many games and movies seem to have forgotten these techniques in recent years.

Here’s a shot from the upcoming film Pacific Rim: Uprising.

Property of Universal Pictures

These are the Jaegers, gigantic mechs designed to take on equally gigantic monsters called kaiju. But in this shot, they don’t feel gigantic. The blue Jaeger in the center is shot straight forward and from the waist-up. It’s framed in the same way you’d frame an ordinary person. The three Jaegers behind it look to be about half as tall as it, and all four of them look tiny compared to the buildings in the background. They’re supposed to be these towering titans, but they look like action figures. They feel about as tall as one of those flapping tube men outside a car dealership.

Here’s a shot from last year’s Kong: Skull Island.

Property of Warner Bros. Pictures

This one is just hilarious. Kong looks like a kid in a Halloween costume here. It’s even worse than the Pacific Rim example because you can see the director making an effort to show off Kong’s size. See that tiny human down there between his feet? The problem here is that the human is barely visible at a glance. They’re not the focus of the shot, being on the same plane as Kong himself, so your brain doesn’t even register their presence. Instead you see Kong, pinched between two mountains that dominate much more of the frame than he does. This shot is trying to communicate how big Kong is, but instead it makes him look so much smaller.

Now for a good example, here’s a shot from a late-game cutscene Shadow of the Colossus.

Property of Sony Computer Entertainment

This is our introduction to the fifteenth colossus, nicknamed Argus by the game’s fans. Here we see a better version of the Kong example. Wander is clearly visible in the foreground, marking a distinct contrast between him and Argus. In the background, Argus absolutely dominates the image. His body spans the diagonal length of the frame, and his weapon nearly does the same on the other axis. Note that unlike the Kong shot, this one is still from Wander’s perspective, rather than the perspective of an anonymous floating camera. We feel as dwarfed by Argus as Wander does in this moment.

Property of Sony Computer Entertaiment

It’s not just the colossi that make the player feel small. Even the environments in Shadow of the Colossus are oppressively large. The photo above is of the entrance to the area where you fight Argus. Before the colossus even shows up, you’re made to feel like a tiny intruder in a much grander space. You feel like you’re not supposed to be there, and you aren’t. Part of the narrative of this game is that Wander is literally an invader, breaking into each colossus’ home and murdering it. You’re not meant to feel powerful after finishing each fight. This isn’t a world you can conquer. Even when every colossus is dead, the broken-down arches and pillars still loom overhead, intimidating reminders that these lands don’t want you here.

For a good example from a recent film, here’s a shot from 2016’s Shin Godzilla.

Property of Toho Pictures

It was hard to single out a good example from this film. Director Hideaki Anno has been doing this masterfully since his giant mech show Neon Genesis Evangelion, and that experience comes to bear here. This shot is more akin to the Pacific Rim one above. In both shots, skyscrapers tower above the being that’s the focus of the shot, but that’s not a liability in the Shin Godzilla shot. Like Argus, Godzilla commands this frame, and he doesn’t even take up the majority of it. The purple light on the buildings ensures that Godzilla monopolizes the image. The low-angle camera helps too, a classic technique for making the audience feel smaller than the subject of a shot. It doesn’t matter that Godzilla isn’t the biggest thing in this shot. It feels as though he is.

Property of Toho Pictures

I like this other close-up shot as well. If you’re wondering how to communicate the scale of something without direct visual comparison, here’s a great example. Godzilla is so big that he bursts past the edges of the frame, so big that it’s hard to even coherently construct an image of him. If this was the first time you’d ever seen Godzilla, you’d still be able to tell that he was a titanic creature.

So why do films like Pacific Rim: Uprising and Kong: Skull Island fail in this department? Besides a general incompetence and inexperience on the part of many blockbuster directors, I think it’s largely out of a desire to display the effects that so much money was spent on. Notice that the shots I pulled from both films frame their subjects in such a way that best shows off their designs. The Jaegers are framed like ordinary people in costumes, and the head-to-toe shot of Kong screams “look at how realistic this big monkey is!” In neither shot was it a priority to suggest the scale of these things, despite that being the most interesting thing about them. Shadow of the Colossus was originally released in 2005, but today’s filmmakers and game designers could still stand to learn from its excellent direction.

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