How An Official Video Game Screenshot Is Made

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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!”

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.”

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.