There are certainly a few familiar faces knocking around in the virtual photography community these days, and so many of you will likely need no introduction to my latest interview guest. One of the usual suspects, Shinobi_space.
A teacher of French language in Japan, the multilingual Shinobi is also fluent in creativity, regularly sharing his capture art on Twitter and streaming on Twitch. More than that though, he has also recently had influential input into photo mode design and development, so let's find out more about this ninja of virtual photography...
- WARFRAME // SHINOBI_SPACE -
Let’s start off with a bit about you. Tell us more about the person behind the Shinobi_Space username and how you first got into virtual photography.
I’m a 40 year old French man living in Japan. I obviously like video games and photography (traditional & virtual) as my main hobbies, yet I wouldn’t say my love of traditional photography brought me to the virtual one. I got into the former when I moved to Japan, but I was already taking pictures in games before that. I just didn’t know there was such a thing as “Virtual Photography” and probably never thought of my in-game pictures in a photographic aesthetic angle. At least not consciously.
I used to create scenes with my characters from MMORPGs (mainly Guild Wars 2, Aion and Tera Online) every time I was tired of grinding XP. I was also a long time player of Warframe and when they introduced their Captura feature – which is basically a photo mode, and a very complete one – I naturally started to use it and created a twitter account to share those.
- 40 GAMES // SHINOBI_SPACE -
That’s when I met the virtual photography community, and realised some of my games had photo modes that I didn’t notice before. Spider-Man PS4 started it all, then God of War and Horizon Zero Dawn… before also shooting with camera tools on PC beginning with Jedi Fallen Order.
I have literally never stopped since then and have already shot more than 40 games in 2 years.
I’d love to know more about your “Spaces in Video Games” art project, what did that involve and do you see any parallels with your current video game art?
Oh wow, you remember that one! Thanks! I’ll try to keep it simple and short, but it needs a bit of background…
So I was studying Art at University; painting, drawing, sculpting and on the theory side, Art history, photography, cinema and so on. By the last year of my Master’s Degree in 2006, I was already deeply in love with all kinds of video games, especially MMORPGs as I mentioned, but didn’t feel like they were really represented in the Art world I was navigating. Sure, a few games had this “Artsy” aura, like Shadow of the Colossus and a few others, but it was definitely not in galleries or in the conversations around me, so I wanted to find an angle to work on this medium.
I like to shoot games that are not trending in the VP community...
“Spaces in Video Games” was my thesis title because I explored many types of spaces. Impossible architectures allowed by the virtual worlds, the space in which the character and player interact, personal spaces and shared spaces of people playing online – you know? When you’d hear a teammate’s mom calling him for dinner over Team Speak… in that moment you were in 3 places at once; your room, his room and the game.
Anyways, it was interesting to dig into those philosophies that I hadn’t seen discussed before, but I don’t see a direct relationship with this and my VP practice, except my love for pictures, composition, color work etc., although I inherited those from painting as much as photography. I definitely think that VP opened a new artistic window in the gaming world though, so if I had to do my Master’s again, I would most certainly work on that topic now!
You’ve mentioned previously that you particularly enjoy getting shots from less well-known titles. Does that come from a sense of exclusivity or perhaps a desire to give exposure to smaller studios?
Actually both! I wouldn’t say “smaller studios” though. I mean, yes of course, games from indie studios are super nice to shoot and it is great to give them a bit of exposure (not like I was doing them such a huge favor haha), but to me it’s more about the game itself.
I like to shoot games that are not trending in the VP community (I do not forbid myself to play trending games, let’s be clear) so it can be like Vampyr, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, Remnant: From the Ashes, Quantum Break etc. Giving new exposure to older games is more important than the size of the studio.
- QUANTUM BREAK // SHINOBI_SPACE -
Now as you said, there is definitely also a big part of the pleasure coming from the feeling of being the only one to shoot this game at the moment. Not only for ego flattery and avoidance of “competition”, but mostly because it prevents me from feeling restrained in my creativity. See, if I see too many shots of one game on my timeline, rather than getting inspired, I tend to feel frustrated because I want to avoid using the same good ideas myself.
It results in a kind of self-censorship that really annoys me. So even if I shoot the new big release, I really try to avoid seeing too many shots of it. I don’t go as far as muting hashtags for instance, because I still think inspiration and emulation is the core of being in a community. You understand why it’s easier to go for older games a bit less exposed on our social networks.
I definitely understand where you are coming from, it’s a pursuit of novel creativity that I think can be a sign of expressing a personal identity in a creative space...
On the subject of studios though, you recently collaborated with Cold Symmetry on the creation of the Mortal Shell photo mode. How did that opportunity arise?
Well, exactly like you’d meet people in real life. I heard about the game when they released an open beta in July 2019 and went in without any idea of what I’d find, just “Souls-like” was in my mind. I fell in love in the first second of the game, the Foundling’s (your character) design was just mind blowing to me. Before I even moved the guy, I instantly tried to open the Universal Unreal Engine 4 Unlocker (UUU) and saw that I could use it. Instantly I shot the hell out of the tutorial area and posted on twitter, as usual.
- FOUNDLING // SHINOBI_SPACE -
That’s when someone from the publisher, Playstack, noticed them and contacted me via Twitter DM...
“Heya, I saw your shots and absolutely fell in love with them. I wondered if you would like to help us make a few more?”
- @MORTALSHELLGAME -
I answered that I’d loved to but didn’t hear back from them for exactly two months, yet they kept retweeting all of my shots when I published them. After the game’s release date was announced in August, I contacted one of the founders of Cold Symmetry, Andrew McLennan-Murray on discord to congratulate them. We started to chat, and he said he saw my shots and loved them. Knowing that a photo mode was one of their projects for a later update, I engaged on the matter and offered to help by proposing the most important features that the community was carving for, what to avoid, and so on.
It was the team dedicated to the photo mode and we started working together...
The next day Andrew created a group chat on discord with 3 of the 4 co-founders (himself, Vitaly Bulgarof and Anton Gonzalez), 2 gameplay programmers (Csaba Molnár and Francesco Zacchini) and myself. It was the team dedicated to the photo mode and we started working together like that, very simply, all gathered around the same desire to make a good job for the gamers, and for the love of the game itself.
It just shows how far passionate interest can take you! So, what would you say were the most important features to get right when designing that photo mode?
For me personally, the goal was clear; I told them I wanted to make a top 5 tier photomode, and later upgraded this objective to top 3 when they agreed to implement a free camera with no distance limit. I just wanted a full package that would allow players of any platform to experience the freedom I’m used to with PC camera tools and hacks.
The most important features for me were the free cam and huge range – a feature which was, to my knowledge, a first in a game of that span from an indie developer – RGB curves control, a rule of third grid, skip frame etc. Things that many other photo modes criminally lack.
- MORTAL SHELL PM // THEFOURTHFOCUS -
Now I’m no developer, I was there only to give design perspective, technically, I’m not able to program anything so the application of those features were all up to them. Once they were there though, I occasionally asked for fine tuning, like the grid design, the maximum level of brightness, the DoF when it was bugged etc.
Were there any mistakes along the way, and is there anything that you would do differently or still like to see added?
Well, the one mistake that I can think of is the one you pointed out in your review: the inversion of the buttons for crane movements and UI tab navigation compared to the huge majority of photo modes. That’s a mistake on my part, and I’m glad we had the opportunity to fix it in a recent update when The Virtuous Cycle DLC came out.
About the possible future addition, yes there is one! We recently talked about a feature that we’d like to have and, I won’t say too much yet, but it is a brilliant idea that we’ve seen recently in some amazing photo modes on PS5. Also UUU recently got that feature, so we’re able to use it already on PC. My hope is to add it for console players at some point.
Seeing your name in the game credits must have been very rewarding. How did that feel and what was it like to receive feedback on the photo mode features from other people?
Oh yes it was! The name in the credits felt super rewarding indeed, and I asked to keep my twitter handle because I didn’t do any of this for fame, recognition, or even professional opportunities, I was just proud and grateful to be involved and to represent the VP community in this way. As I said, it was really like meeting people and sharing the same energy and dedication, but it absolutely gave me the will to do this again and help more studios.
I remember seeing myself as a 10 year old kid, lying in the dark playing Tetris on my Gameboy with its magnifying glass (you can google that if you’re born after 1998), and thought this little me would be proud as hell.
I remember the Gameboy magnifier well, and the Nuby Game Light & stereo speakers. Mine needed about 12 AA batteries to run everything, good times!
- MORTAL SHELL // THEFOURTHFOCUS -
The feedback from people felt really good, and instructive, obviously. But it’s all the pictures born from our photo mode that made, and still make, my heart warm and bouncing! It’s truly mind-blowing to think that so many players use what we worked hard on for a few weeks and to see them enjoying it!
So, is there anything that you learnt during your time with Cold Symmetry and has it affected your virtual photography work since?
I have learned a lot, about many things, but as far as my personal virtual photography goes, I don’t think it really changed anything. Maybe a bit more interest in the filters feature that I usually overlook in a PM? Working on those for Mortal Shell made me realise that a good filter can get you to places you didn’t think of at first. So I guess I check more filters in other photo modes now too.
- GUILD WARS 2 // SHINOBI_SPACE -
Of course, you also host lots of interactive streams and challenges on social media, would you say that your experience as a teacher influences the way you engage with and help others in the VP space?
It might be the other way around. I think I became a teacher because of my tendency to do stuff like that. Explaining things out loud to make them clearer to me, and to other people.
As far as VP goes, I really don’t see myself in a capacity of teaching anything, even though I know some people call me “teacher”, “sensei”, or even “Master” on twitter haha! It certainly is flattering, and to be honest it’s not new to me in my life, so I guess it’s something in my way of doing things that make me look like teaching, but really, once again, my purpose is more to learn myself and share with others what I learn along the way. Maybe it is what teaching is about after all?
- VAMPYR // SHINOBI_SPACE -
So, what can we expect from you next? Are there any projects on the horizon?
There are, but I can’t talk about any specifics right now. I am in contact with different studios or publishers about possibly helping them with photo mode features, just like I did for Mortal Shell. Indie studios, or bigger ones. Depending on the countries’ they’re working in, it can make things easier or more complicated to get done legally, so… until anything is done, nothing is done. But I will continue to reach out to studios I love, projects I feel close to, and see if I can be useful to them.
Anything else that you’d like to add?
I really want to thank you for giving me this space, and for your dedication to testing photo modes, writing about it, and pushing boundaries of our community goals with your various engagements.
I am very happy to see studios putting more and more energy, time and resources into photo modes recently, but I’m not naïve and understand that many of them still do it without proper knowledge of what artistic side of virtual photography needs. So I’m hoping that the gap between their promotional tool and our creative needs will get smaller in the near future.