How An Official Video Game Screenshot Is Made

Petri Levälahti, aka Berduu, is a screenshot artist whose images we’ve featured a bunch of times here. For the past year, though, his hobby has also been his profession.

Berduu has been screenshotting—using tools to capture beautiful in-game screenshots of video games—since 2014, having been inspired by the work of Duncan Harris’ Dead End Thrills. The photo modes that we take for granted in many of today’s biggest games didn’t exist then, so folks like Harris and Berduu used everything from camera tweaks to cheat engine hacks to hijack a game’s visuals and create stunning images.

At the time, Berduu was living in Finland and working as a freelancer outside the games business, doing everything from newspaper writing to graphic design. “It really opened my eyes”, he told me of Harris’ screenshots in an interview. “I never knew this subculture existed, and I was hooked immediately.”

He began using tools like Matti Hietanen’s Frostbite engine camera hacks to make his own screenshots in games like Battlefield. “I spent days and nights setting up cool shots on private servers with friends. I really enjoyed the fiddling aspect of it - moving the sun, adjusting the fog, setting up lights, moving the player bones for different poses, triggering various effects. Shots didn’t always represent what the game was about, but I enjoyed the creative process, the tinkering of the tiniest details.”

Berduu’s screenshots soon began spreading across social media, and in addition to being picked up by sites like ours, were also noticed by those working at EA, particularly its Battlefield studio DICE. They reached out to Berduu, and began offering him some freelance work creating screenshots—of their own games!—that they could use in marketing. “The pay was ok,” he remembers, “but I didn’t really care about the money. It was just super cool to do official shots!”

How An Official Video Game Screenshot Is Made

His early jobs for EA included taking screenshots of Battlefield 4, Battlefield Hardline and the alpha/beta releases of Battlefield 1. Then, towards the end of 2016, he was offered a permanent position as a Media Editor, which required a move from Jyväskylä, Finland to DICE’s Stockholm offices, a shift that wasn’t as drastic as moves between other countries may be.

“Finland and Sweden are neighbours and therefore very similar, except Finland is better at hockey, which is very important to mention in this interview” Berduu said. “Moving here was like moving to another city in Finland, except in this city the language sounds odd and everybody eats chocolate balls at 4pm.”

I spoke with Berduu mostly about his work with DICE on Star Wars: Battlefront II. It’s an area of game development I’m weirdly curious about; I’ve written about “Bullshots” before, but the whole process of creating the imagery of video games has always interested me, so I wanted to find out just how something as innocuous and ever-present as screenshots were made, from start to end.

It starts, at least in DICE’s case, with a brief from marketing, which tells Berduu everything they want to show off and highlight. “The brief is usually quite reasonable”, he said, “but sometimes there’s some back and forth about expectations and reality.”

Berduu’s desk has two monitors, and both are used to create or capture a screenshot. One will have the latest build of the game in question running, while the other is displaying a Frostbite engine editor called FrostEd. Both are linked, so if the camera is moved in the editor, it is reflected in real-time in the game.

“Most of the time I’m working on unfinished levels and characters. I usually start the job by going over our gorgeous concept art, having a look around the unfinished level, and then consulting our art director, who can usually point out the areas and angles that will look good sooner rather than later.”

After that, Berduu is free to scout around the relevant areas, trying different things and compositions until something “clicks” and achieves (or gets close to) his brief. “I usually end up with a handful of ideas, and our art director or some other Very Important Person picks the ones I’ll polish. I might [also] consult our level, lighting and characters artists about the... level, lighting and characters.”

How An Official Video Game Screenshot Is Made

He admits that he rarely “slam dunks” it on the first attempt. “There’s always some feedback, fixes or waiting for the [necessary] level or character to be finished.” When finally a shot is decided upon and deemed finished, one of DICE’s concept artists will look over it and, occasionally, add some effects.

Sometimes that involves some motion blur, but there are a few other possible changes involved as well, like enhancing the amount of lens flare or adjusting tweaks so that image can be easier to identify across various sizes and formats. “But even that’s quite rare”, he stresses, saying most of the time a shot doesn’t get much of a makeover. “We never add anything that wasn’t on my screen to begin with.”

“I capture at high resolutions, but most of the time the number of pixels don’t have much to do with the quality of the image. If you have some understanding of composition, light and shadow, and what kind of camera settings would work in the shot you’re doing, you can get away with 1080p shots easily.”

For more detailed vista shots he’ll increase the number of pixels, but that carries with it a fresh set of challenges, because some of the effects like ambient occlusion and bloom may not automatically scale with the higher resolutions.

He’s also found that the official, in-house tools used to make screenshots at DICE aren’t too far removed from those he was using previously. “Besides having control of terrain and props, and having the ability to save scenes, our tools have pretty much the same options as Hattiwatti’s camera mod. His Battlefield tools have weather control, animation importing, custom lights, effect spawning, tonemap, full camera controls... almost everything.”

When a screenshot is finished and approved, it can end up in a variety of places, not just the expected places like press releases and websites, but also as in-game menu screens pr as part of a game’s box art.

Berduu’s journey from fandom to employee may sound unique, but it’s actually quite common in the business, especially at EA. “Inside the Battlefield community alone, I know of at least 4-5 people who have done freelance screenshot/video work for the franchise,” he said. Indeed, much of DICE’s current media team can be traced back to fans who started out creating work based on the series they loved.

Hoodoo_Operator, a cinematic video creator who started making fan trailers for Battlefield, went on to create official trailers for the series before landing at GTA developers Rockstar North. Another community artist, ShadowSix, has created official screens for both Battlefield and PUBG. And TheFloppyRagdoll made Battlefield trailers that DICE loved so much they hired him a few years back.

You can see examples of Berduu’s DICE work throughout this story, from his earlier freelance gigs on Battlefield through to last year’s Battlefront II. He still maintains a personal Flickr page where his non-DICE work lives; he’s recently been screenshotting games like Far Cry 5.

How An Official Video Game Screenshot Is Made

Luke Plunkett is a Senior Editor based in Canberra, Australia. He has written a book on cosplay, designed a game about airplanes, and also runs cosplay.kotaku.com.

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DISCUSSION

Not many publishers have dedicated screenshot people - it’s usually handled by the product managers. I worked in marketing for one of the publishers mentioned in this article and was pressed into screenshot duty occasionally - the higher-ups liked the work that I did for my marketing projects so just asked me to do it for PR and even box art occasionally.

Some of the work I’m proudest of, of anything I did at that company, are the shots I took that made it onto game boxes. At my company, it was almost a mantra that a single screenshot can make an entire game’s marketing and PR campaign. We had several multi-million sellers with a PR (aka hype) cycle that began with one screenshot, and that was all there was for months. A good one can make people really excited and build anticipation.

That’s the thing I think some people don’t get about screenshots - the guy in this article obviously does or he wouldn’t be doing them for a big publisher. Most people can’t do it, just like most people can’t be a professional photographer. It’s the same set of skills. (I am also a trained photographer who has worked professionally, so I say this from experience.) Composition and lighting are hugely important, and it can take many hours to find the right location at the right time and with the right characters and/or objects.

But *also* important are the PR goals of the shot. You have to take a lot of stuff into consideration when taking a screenshot. What is the company trying to convey to help sell the game at this point in its PR cycle? It’s not any different than something like taking a photo of a car driving around a bend in a mountain road for a magazine ad, although that’s probably easier because it’s basically just a template. Everybody knows what a photo of a sports car rounding a bend is supposed to look like, but it’s often up to the screenshot person to decide what’s going to best sell a game and then present that to the higher-ups. Often you’re trying to give them something they didn’t know they wanted. If they look at a shot and go “wow, that looks sweet!”, then usually the public will too. But they don’t always know what that’s going to be.

Technically speaking, while every game is a little different, you usually can’t just plop characters and other things down where and when you want them either; to at least some extent, you have to actually play the game. (You can usually at least select any level/mission/whatever, and you can use regular cheat codes to plop down vehicles and weapons if the build of the game you have actually has those codes.) Partly that’s to keep the shots authentic, but partly it’s because the tools for taking screenshots are often an afterthought - they’re just good enough to do the job, but it’s not worth a developer’s time to really refine them when they could be working on the game itself. So it can take a really long time to get good shots. When I did it, I’d get maybe 10 shots I considered good per day, and maybe 1 of those would end up being approved for some kind of use. (Screenshots are used for all sorts of things, from box shots and full page magazine ads to seemingly random gameplay shots given out for online previews.) Still, that was considered a good ratio; most of the others doing it at my company would get like 1 out of 100 approved.

So with approval rates like that, you can imagine that as games get closer to release, there will often be 5-10 people just doing screenshots, and often staying late or coming in special just for that. It’s part of the crunch work. A publisher might need 20-30 screenshots per day in the weeks leading up to release, to cover things like exclusives given to different publications, shots for packaging, online and print ads, TV ads, etc. And between those 5-10 people, only maybe 10-20 shots might end up being approved each day, so there’d better be some “banked” already. But usually the banked shots run out at some point. Most shots can’t be reused; you can’t, for example, give your hero shot from the back of the box as an exclusive screenshot for Kotaku. So it was always a mad scramble at the end.

Anyway, just a little more detail about the process.