Is the Rockstar Editor for GTA V the next revolution in film production?


“Grand Theft Auto V.” A glorious game of open world mayhem set in a fictional modern day representation of Southern California. Following the missions and story is fun, taking on an army of law enforcement after accidentally running over a pedestrian is also fun. But what’s truly astounding is how rewarding it is simply to travel around in this world, rich in detail and atmosphere. The landscapes are beautiful, the sunsets are gorgeous. Add a little sea-salt smell to the air, and it’s like you’re actually cruising along the pacific coast highway without a care in the world (and usually in some vehicle you could never afford in real life).

So realistic is the world, in fact, that it begins to tug at any indie filmmaker with a flair for the greenscreen- “could I use this environment as an incredibly rich, $60 backdrop for my next film project?”

It’s certainly a question I’ve been asking, and in my first couple weeks using the game’s built-in video editor, the answer is a resounding “sort-of.”

GTA 02

if this doesn’t work, I can always steal that bike back there and ride off…

The greatest part about the editor, aside from giving you access to the visuals as mentioned above, is that it records full on game data, not just a camera recording of whatever you’re doing in the game. What this means is that when you go in to edit a “clip,” you have access to move your camera wherever you’d like, cut between shots, slow down or speed up time, apply depth of field and other effects, and basically create any type of shot you want within a certain range from your player character.

Currently, I’m working on a music video using GTA V, and many of the shots I’m pulling are of surrounding elements that have no relation to my “player” or the actions I was doing while in-game. The game-world breathes with so much detail that you can focus on pedestrians in conversation, angry drivers on their phone, police chases that have nothing to do with you, it’s like having a 1000 free background extras in full character and costume.

It’s definitely not quite the DSLR revolution of a few years back, when suddenly anyone with a credit card could suddenly buy a camera that shot gorgeous HD video footage, but it’s also not far off, and some of the limitations I’m experiencing kind of remind me of the the early days of video on the canon 5D MKII, trying to get around the 30 fps, the 4gb recording limit, syncing sound, etc. This editor is not designed for someone like me to try to make real… art? with, it’s designed to let you make cool action clips and immediately export them directly to youtube without any go-between software.

Additionally, character and animation-wise, there isn’t much for your player to express – you can’t sing and dance, you can’t converse, you can’t really interact other than in how the game is meant to be played, i.e. run, shoot, drive, but I’m hopeful that other gamer-filmmakers out there are coping to this opportunity as well, and someone will create an expression mod that allows you to at least perform some of the gestures that are so well done in the cut scenes. Obviously the full tools are somewhere, as the extensive storytelling that Rockstar has done are all performed in-game.

This video game offers the first chance to really give yourself an epic backlot of Southern California (for exteriors at least, trying to go “inside” anywhere in GTA V without starting a mission is extremely limited.) And with enough green screen savvy and maybe a cartoon filter on the live-action footage, as well as some serious shot planning, I think there’s real possibility to tell the visual side of a story, rather beautifully, with a $60 video game. That’s pretty incredible.

And looking forward, I really think there’s an evolution progressing. When Skyrim came out, it was stunning, and the graphics on that game still hold up with enough texture and lighting mods installed, and you marched around and it was like “I am in a completely beautiful fantasy world,” and some people were able to milk a webisode or two out of it, but the main problem was that you really had to turn on an external video capture software, and then go into the game and then run some console prompts to pause and unlock the camera, etc. It was grueling, and my stamina to attempt any storytelling in there quickly fell off. With GTA V, it’s enough to keep trying to push the boundaries, get creative, work around the glitches and wonky keyframing that can sometimes occur, and do something fun. The character issues will ultimately limit the experience, but it’s a step forward. And if enough of us take to it, hopefully soon there will be a market for a virtual world software that lets you run wild in a fully fledged, pre-built environment, either to create plates to make backgrounds for your footage, or even better, use in-game character models to tell a story with cinematic flair.

It’s still up in the air, but I’m not entirely certain that when Nikon put hd video on their D90 video camera in 2008, they knew that they had unlocked a new market with massive growth (in fact, judging by how much they missed the boat in subsequent releases, I’d say they had no idea that a video revolution ‘could’ happen on dslrs). I think rockstar has much more of a grasp, and I really hope they encourage the community, and that other AAA title makers see this as an opportunity to extend the shelf life of their own games as well, and someday, I can chat about this blog article from a podium somewhere with an award in my hand. 😉