Ultimate in convergence: casting actors for video games


There will soon come a day when creating a video game will be not much different than filming a movie. Two games currently in development illustrate the fine line that divides the two processes -- and the actors who were cast for the games, rehearsed for them, and then acted in their "filming" can surely attest to their similarities.

Brand new technologies contributed to the creation of both games: Sony's "Uncharted: Drake's Fortune" -- expected to be released on Nov. 20 for the PlayStation 3 -- utilizes a state-of-the-art motion-capture process to give the illusion of life-like animated characters, while the martial arts fighters in Creative Edge Studios' "Warriors of Elysia" don't just seem real, they are real. For possibly the first time, live actors were filmed and their nonanimated images placed in 3-D environments and made available for gamers to manipulate in real-time with whatever punches and kicks they choose. "Warriors" for the PC had been scheduled for year-end release but may be postponed until early 2008.

Sony and Creative Edge both claim that they are creating better games that benefit from being more lifelike because they capture human emotion. It remains to be seen whether gamers will agree when they vote with their pocketbooks.

Sony's Santa Monica, Calif.-based Naughty Dog studio is known primarily for more stylized, cartoon-like games like "Crash Bandicoot" and the Jak and Daxter series. But Amy Hennig says that the launch of her new franchise, which is based on the classic pulp action-adventure serials of the '30s, demands a more realistic look.

Hennig's role would be that of "producer" at another game studio but, at Naughty Dog, her title is "game director," since, as she explains, her company has moved slowly toward more of a film model. It is a nod toward how game-making is become increasingly like movie-making, she agrees.

"Naughty Dog has always done all of its animation by hand," says Hennig, "and it was all done by a staff of traditionally trained, Disney-type animators. But, for 'Uncharted,' we have a very strong, very lifelike main character who has a lot of depth, personality, and wit, with a very strong cast around him. From the start, we knew we needed to replicate believable human expressions and emotions, which meant that the casting and the performances were going to be critical. So that's where we started."

She describes the central character of Nathan Drake as very gritty, "very Harrison Ford, very Bruce Willis, with a charm that we wanted when we cast our hero." The role went to Nolan North, a veteran of over 80 video games and TV shows, while Emily Rose became the game's heroine, Elena Fisher.

In order to replicate the human emotions of the actors, Hennig and her team knew early on that they needed to use a state-of-the-art mo-cap process.

"It's very difficult for a traditional hand animator to accomplish what we set out to do," she says. "We didn't want our characters to be caricatures or cardboard cutouts. We wanted an emotional authenticity. That's why a Harrison Ford is more memorable than some forgettable actor in a forgettable film ... because he can create a character that seems believable. We wanted to tone back the squash-stretch exaggerations of nonrealistic characters and do something that's actually low-key and believable with the kind of depth you don't ordinarily see in a video game."

But Hennig doesn't believe that technology was the only key to capturing emotion; rather, she said, it was the production of the game as if it were a traditional movie or stage play.

"Our two lead actors were cast not because they had mo-cap experience but because they had a lot of camera and stage experience and knew how to use their bodies in their performance," she recalls. "And because they had the right personalities and the right physical types and the right voices."

Before each mo-cap session, there were table reads and rehearsals and scene blocking -- all typically unheard of in video game creation. Then came improvisation, the script was revised as the cast contributed new ideas, and improvements were made.

"We worked with Gordon Hunt as our mo-cap and voice director," says Hennig, "a man with tons of stage and TV experience, which I think was critical. Either out of eagerness or arrogance, many video game developers think they can do it all themselves, but there's no replacement for experience, for someone who knows how to work with actors."

Hennig believes that gamers will see the difference: "Instead of getting the usual over-the-top performances you usually experience in a video game, I expect gamers will say, 'Wow! They seem just like real people.' And that's because the performances you're seeing do come from real people."

It was a one-year process for the actors -- from being cast in August of 2006 to wrapping the mo-cap filming in August of 2007.

The entire production process -- including the mo-cap and the duplication of gestures and facial expressions using Naughty Dog's proprietary Wrinkle Mapping Facial Animation system -- took approximately two years and cost upward of $20 million, reports Hennig who had "naively expected the motion-capture process to get us to completion much faster. Somehow we thought we'd just be whipping through this stuff." But, she says, the one-year mo-cap process took just as long as if the game were hand-animated "and the end-result is far better, far subtler."

Meanwhile, subtlety wasn't necessarily the goal at Sterling, Va.-based Creative Edge Studios, which is in the second go-'round on a live-action martial arts game for CEO and president Travis Riggs.

The first one, "Bikini Karate Babes" in 2002, featured 2-D, not 3-D characters and environments. And despite positive reaction from gamers, it was roundly criticized for its satirical "babes in bikinis" theme.

The new game -- despite the main characters' skimpy attire -- is a more serious one, according to Riggs, who describes it as "darker and more complex compared to the campy, earlier spoof. This time we're crossing the line between movies and games by incorporating sets, by building sound stages, by using props and makeup and costumes." It will be distributed internationally for the PC by Hong Kong-based publisher Enlight Software.

"This is the first time that we're using our Cinescape 3-D proprietary game engine which puts actual real video images into a 3-D environment [see sample video clip] and lets gamers control them in real-time like you can control any other video game character," explains Riggs. "In earlier times, in the early '90s, when it was popular to have real actors in such games as 'Mortal Kombat,' what you saw was 2-D, not 3-D, and they would skip frames so there was no full range of motion, which is what we're doing."

Riggs describes his 11-year-old company as a video production house as well as a game developer, which has enabled his 30-person staff to do everything internally.

"Basically what our process does is to film all of the performers' movements in front of a green screen using multiple static and moving cameras and then insert them into the game; what they did in the studio is what you control in the game," he explains. "We're not rerendering anything, unless we're doing special effects, which is something else we're capable of doing."

While some may see the live-action game as merely a novelty, Riggs says the process enhances its excitement since the characters are able to display their emotions through real, not simulated, facial expressions.

"Video game artists have been trying for years to duplicate facial expressions, but that seems to be one thing they really can't nail down. We have real people moving around in real-time in 3-D environments conveying real emotions. That's something I think gamers will relate to far more strongly than they do to computer-generated images."

Riggs recalls that creating the game was almost exactly like filming a movie, beginning with his casting of the actors.

"We wanted strong personalities, a diversity in their appearance, some acting experience, and, if they didn't have martial arts skills, we actually taught them how to fight. We worked with them on their movements," he says.

Indeed Riggs' plan is to expand the storyline into a "Xena"-like TV series or a movie. "Because we are a production company, we have the means to take this franchise beyond gaming. We already have a treatment and a storyline. In fact, we are actively seeking partners for movie and TV distribution even now. All we need is someone to look past the bikinis and get a good sense of the concept. If a TV network called us tomorrow, we'd be ready in a heartbeat."

What remains to be seen is whether gamers will prefer the animated characters they are used to, embrace the pseudo reality of motion-captured actors as in "Uncharted," or be fascinated by the even more realistic process of seeing live actors on real sets as in "Warriors."

Sony's Hennig believes that there's such a thing as too much realism and that a little animation work to enhance the performances goes a long way towards improving it.

"I still believe there's a phase in game development that calls for animators to interpret the live performance," she explains. "I know that developers are working towards a 100% simulated reality, but when it gets too real, well, let's just say it kind of creeps me out. In my mind, too much reality is almost cadaverous."

But Creative Edge's Riggs disagrees. "We have every intent to maximize what our engine is capable of," he says. "We shot this game using only one static and one moving camera. Imagine what we could do on a grander scale."

He believes that, like all people, gamers relate best to real people and will be excited by games that feature folks with whom they can actually interact.

"I foresee video game conventions where fans can actually meet the video game characters they admire," he says. "Imagine trying to do that with, say, Mario. But we have gamers registering on our Web site and chatting with the stars of our games. They can't do that with, say, Lara Croft. Can they leave a message like, "Hey, Lara, how's it going?" and get a real response? I don't think so."

Paul "The Game Master" Hyman is the former editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He has covered the games industry for over a dozen years. His columns for The Hollywood Reporter run exclusively on the this site.