'Call of Duty: Black Ops II': Treyarch's Dave Anthony on Directing Sam Worthington, Michael Keaton (Q&A)

Michael Keaton Headshot - P 2012
Getty Images

Michael Keaton Headshot - P 2012

The developer enlisted other actors such as Michael Rooker, Tony Todd and Kamar de los Reyes to bring the video game to life.

Activision is poised to break entertainment records once again with developer Treyarch’s Call of Duty: Black Ops II, released at midnight Tuesday. The Los Angeles-based game maker enlisted Hollywood actors to bring the game’s cinematic campaign story to life. Working with writer David S. Goyer, Treyarch game director Dave Anthony enlisted a large cast of notable names from film and television to undergo full performance capture for the first time in the franchise. Anthony talks about the important role Hollywood talent played in the new game in this exclusive interview.

The Hollywood Reporter: How has the success of past Call of Duty games impacted the type of Hollywood talent you’ve been able to attract to this game?

Dave Anthony: One of the great things about working on a game like Black Ops II is that you really do get attention from the real A-list of Hollywood. One of the characters in the game is played by Michael Keaton, who I can tell you I’m a huge fan of his work, and to get the opportunity to work with someone like him is amazing. When you get to meet him he’s everything you would want him to be. He’s so smart. He’s so nice and it’s just a dream come true. Working with Sam Worthington, who starred in the biggest movie of all time with Avatar. He’s one of the most humble, nicest, hardworking people I’ve ever worked with. I can see exactly why James Cameron picked him for that role because he just gives it his all. He would come to me many times after we would do the scenes and I’m perfectly happy with his performance and he told me like, “Dave, let me see it. Let me see.” Then we’d show it to him and he’s like, “You okay with that? You sure?” They actually give this level of commitment. There’s sometimes a perception that celebrities may come on to a game and just phone it in because it’s a video game or something like that. It does occasionally happen, but I can tell you our experience working with Gary Oldman and Sam Worthington and Michael Keaton, these guys are into it.

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THR: How much of a commitment did you need for these actors for performance capture?

Anthony: I would say it’s an insane level of commitment actually. Let me give you an example of Kamar de los Reyes who plays Raul Menendez. His character is in there for I don’t know how long. When I showed him the completed version of a lot of his scenes the other day, it was almost cathartic to him because he’d invested himself so heavily in the preproduction of this and assumed the character himself.  We’ve been wrapped shooting with him now for probably two months, but he still hadn’t let a lot of the stuff go. It was still within him, and watching him watching the footage that I showed him was cathartic for him. You could see it seeping out of him, and that’s actually the level of investment that’s needed for these believable performances. You look at what James Burns did and Rich McDonald and Michael Rooker, I could not have asked more from those guys. They really gave it their all. I’m really proud of how their worked turned out.

THR: How have advances in performance capture opened up what you were able to do at House of Moves in bringing these characters to life?

Anthony: I’m so excited about where performance capture has gone on this project. At Treyarch, we’ve always tried to push it further each time. I think for the first time that we’ve really nailed the emotional side of things, which for this story we had to. If we couldn’t have actually authentically replicated the emotion of the actor’s performances, we would not have been able to pull off the story because it’s all rooted in human emotion. When we’re filming these scenes now on a motion capture stage, we can actually in real-time film the actor’s body movements, record his voice and actually record his facial movements all at the same time -- but not just for one actor. We can actually get all the actors together and do an entire scene in one take, which I can tell you just opens up so many creative opportunities for the quality of what these guys are doing. When these guys start feeding off of each other and they’re actually really acting as the performers within the scene, it’s just so much better, so much more authentic.

THR: How many actors can you direct on stage at once and what impact has that had on storytelling?

Anthony: We usually limit it to about five or six, but I can tell you with the way the story was written, we never really have more key people in a scene than that. In that respect, it actually wasn’t restrictive at all. It actually gives us the confidence to create scenes that have high emotional impact because you’re not going to have to film each person separately and just hope that it all gels together. Some of the scenes in the game – I obviously won’t give any spoilers away -- but there’s one scene in particular about halfway through where it’s such an emotional roller coaster with the characters involved. It’s like a completion of the character arcs from the very first Black Ops game all in a very intense scene. I would not have wanted to do that scene if I didn’t have this technology available because we just couldn’t pull off the performance.