Six Ways Filmmakers Can Improve Their Craft By Studying Casino Movies

Casinos have been a favorite subject and setting of movies for decades. The thrilling spectacle of spinning reels and tumbling dice provides the perfect backdrop for about any film genre you can name. Dramas, horror movies, romantic flicks, suspense-thrillers, and comedies and have all found a home in where revelers come to party and win big.

Scan a list of most memorable movies featuring casino themes, and you’ll find blockbuster hits like Martin Scorsese’s Casino and Steven Soderbergh’s trilogy of Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Twelve, and Ocean’s Thirteen.

So why are casinos so appealing to filmmakers? The answer lies with how these six components critical to the making of a successful film are supported or required by a casino backdrop.

A Place for Unbridled Emotions

A busy casino floor is a microcosm of society at large. These venerable entertainment venues are full of interesting characters, rising action, and a thousand storylines all playing out at once. The spontaneous cinema created by a bachelorette party group-singing Lady Gaga karaoke at the lounge is quite different from the confident high-roller with laser focus on his poker hand.

The takeaway here is simple–casinos provide a space for the expression of a dizzying range of emotions. It’s easy to lose sight of others among the glaring lights and bustling sounds, but stop and look around the next time you’re at a casino. You’ll find people laughing, thinking, flirting, strategizing, and maybe even crying.

And this is exactly the objective of a memorable film–to capture and communicate a range of emotions.

Photo by pxhere / CC0 1.0

Stick to the Storyline  

Just like how it’s easy to get distracted by the universe of details occurring on the casino floor, the same applies to the storyline.

If four main characters are seated around a blackjack table discussing their upcoming hijinks, we don’t need to know about the newlywed couple at the adjacent roulette wheel. We can apply the 80/20 rule here. Consider dedicating at least 80% of screen time to storyline advancement and the remaining 20% to supporting aspects.

Character Development 101

Placing a character in a casino naturally provokes questions from the audience. Casinos are a very deliberate place to be. Why is the character here? Are they a high-roller? What significance to the story does the casino setting supply?

A good film answers these questions, providing viewers with pertinent insight into the backgrounds and motives of the characters. The casino itself becomes a revealing tool for the audience to better understand the film’s personalities while placing them in the context of the story.

Cinematography Stress Test

Capturing the authentic casino feel on film requires masterful cinematography. Major studio casino films use a combination of broad sweeping shots to set the action coupled with tight camera work during character dialog. The glitzy lighting and barrage of sounds native to casinos must also be portrayed to get the ambiance just right.

Details, Details, Details

Sit down in any casino and try analyzing the minutiae of the many events unfolding around you at any given moment. Do it successfully and you might as well have a master’s degree in detail.

Filmmakers are faced with a similar challenge–present relevant casino details when appropriate and filter out the remaining fluff. While background details are necessary to establish a scene’s space and mood, the main plot and its characters are always the focus.

Keep the Continuity Consistent

Portraying a complete casino sequence is often a combination of location and studio shots. The grandiosity of the Las Vegas strip and the elegant casino exteriors found there cannot be replicated on a soundstage. Characters may transition between filming sights in the context of a single movement.

If the antagonist is wearing Wayfarer sunglasses with a scarf draped over his left shoulder while walking down the Strip, he should be seen the same way moments later sitting down at the poker table. While the former may be filmed on the actual Strip, the latter could be filmed a month later in a Hollywood studio. It’s important that filmmakers keep small things like this consistent.