In recent years, Troy Baker's career has shifted to a focus on games that feature full-fledged motion capture performances, including such titles as The Last of Us, Uncharted 4, Metal Gear Solid V, and inFAMOUS: Second Son. In the upcoming Middle-earth: Shadow of War, Baker not only reprises his role as Talion from 2014's Shadow of Mordor, but also takes up double duty as the game's performance capture director.
Below is an excerpt from an interview with Glixel, where Baker elaborates on the duties the game is calling upon him (Bolded are questions from Glixel, underlined emphasis is our own).
So you're back voicing Talion in Shadow of War. But there's more to your involvement this time, right?
Obviously, as soon as they had shipped the game, they were cranking away at the second one. And they brought me up to Seattle, and they said, "Let me tell you what we're gonna do with this game." And most people expect of the sequel, "Just do more of the same. Do what you did that made you successful." And as they started going through, beat by beat, not on the narrative plot, but the game design as well, this whiteboard that was in front of me continually got more full and more robust and more ambitious.
In that conversation, as they're walking me through, beat by beat, of what they wanted to do with this story, organically out of the conversation, there became a chance for me to participate with the team on kind of a groundbreaking level – something that no one has ever done before. Which is, to be the player character of the game and also have a part of the performance capture with directing it.
When we were capturing those scenes – when we were doing full performance capture with our actors – I was going be the one operating as director. And doing that in tandem with our cinematics director, our animation director, and our game director. To my knowledge, that's never been done before, and I don't know if it'll ever be repeated.
For those who don't know, what exactly is performance capture?
Lord of the Rings was one of the first [times] we actually got to see this with Andy Serkis in a mo-cap suit as Gollum. All of the movements that Andy Serkis did – everything from his face to his voice to his movements – was translated to the character model of Gollum.
So now [in games], we've seen these performances go from people lending their voices to characters that were animated to the stuff that happened with Resident Evil, where it was actual actors in a space, to now. You have Kevin Spacey in Call of Duty where it looks exactly like him.
I've done that, not only in Call of Duty, but in several other games, where it's me – it's my face, and we shoot it just like a film. We'll have, like, 64 cameras in this 360 space on a soundstage, and every actor that's in that scene is acting across from other actors, just like you would a TV show, a film, or anything else. It's like black box theater. My wife calls it "stage on film" because it's very much a stage setting, but it's very much a cinematic film-type performance, where you don’t have to be broad and sell it to the cheap seats. You can actually sell it with this very, very small, very subtle and nuanced performance.
Now, we have these ridiculous suits that have about 48 markers on them that track everything from our fingers to our elbows, our knees, our shoulders – and that becomes like the skeleton of our character. A camera on our face is actually capturing how our mouth moves, if our nose flares, when we say certain words how big our eyes open.
So it starts on the stage, and then it goes through this pipeline process. It takes several months to be able to have it look as if it's a real person on Talion. And it's Talion's movements, and it's Talion's face, and it's Talion's fingers. And the voice, the face, the body – everything has been done in real time at the same time.
So you're actually recording the voice at the same time? Not later in a sound booth?
Absolutely. We do everything on the stage. It's gotten to the point now where very seldom will we have to replace any of the audio. Films and TV shows do the exact same thing.
We actually had to do very little. And a lot of times, when we're replacing stuff, it's because the game has changed, and we're no longer using this word, we're using this word. We'll be changing those things because we do iterate a lot.
Everything – the voice, the face, the body – it is literally that actor's performance translated to their character in the game.
So just how much work is all of this performance-capture direction for you in addition to what you're normally used to on a project like this?
I remember sitting down and having that ah-ha moment of, "I may have bitten off more than I can chew." We're creating richer worlds and experiences [in games] – you have characters like Joel in The Last of Us and Booker DeWitt in BioShock Infinite, where there's an opportunity on to really bring in your actors and parse out these roles and really get down and dirty about what's important through the performance, as opposed to just "Say these lines and do this thing."
We're shooting them like we would a film, and most of the time, actually, we're doing more days of shooting. I love prepping as an actor – I love being in the know. Like we had with Shadow of Mordor, there's a bounty of source material to parse through, like The Silmarillion, and going through and seeing where our world fits inside of this universe.
So, I prepared as an actor, and then, there's a lot of tenets that I've learned. I've learned some good habits and some bad habits in how to bring in truly compelling performances within the game space. There's a lot of people who do it really, really well, like Naughty Dog, and there are a lot of people who are still struggling to find their way of doing it. I think a common mistake that people make is that they try to adopt what other studios are doing. It's almost like you’re trying to get a blood transfusion from someone who's not your blood type – your body will reject it. So, it's finding out what your DNA at a studio is and then creating your own process of creating these kinds of performances.
I was prepping as an actor, but I was also having to prep scenes before we did a shoot – typically about a month before – and I would sit down and work with the team, and we would go beat by beat, scene by scene, sometimes line by line. These would take two entire days of being in what we called the war room, in order to really understand why we were shooting these scenes, what the purposes of these scenes were. What do we need to accomplish narratively? What do need to accomplish from a systemic game design standpoint – because in a film, that scene serves one purpose, and that's to tell the story. In the gaming space, it could be to tutorialize the player – to ingratiate the character to the player so that there's more of an emotional connection to the story.
So we would spend two days, at least, just in preproduction – just understanding what these scenes were. Then we would break away, implement any changes, and then a few days before we would shoot, we would powwow again together, go over the changes that we had, "go to war" again, and then we would get on stage. And we would typically shoot a week at a time.
So we would come in, and we would spend a full day in just rehearsal – a lot of the time that would be very fight-choreography or stunt heavy. So we would have our stunt coordinator onset, either working with the actors or working with our stunt actors. And I would make sure that the fight would look the way we want it to so that it makes sense – that if I'm swinging a sword or my stunt person is swinging a sword, it looks like how Talion looks in the game, and we're not having this weird dissonance between the cinematic fighting space and the gaming fighting space.
It's marrying these two together. It's choosing our camera angles and understanding how we want to shoot this scene. It's blocking those scenes out with your actors so that it feels right. And especially, we may have had actors who never worked in this space before, and they walk into this vast, empty soundstage on the Warner Bros. lot, and we go, "Welcome to Mordor" – it's being able to put them in that place.
So, rehearsals, to me, were some of the most fun and creative spaces because we were literally in a sandbox just building castles out of nothing. And then we would come in and shoot, and it got down and dirty. On a typical big movie, you're gonna shoot three to five pages a day, maybe. Going over that is impossible because you have multiple locations; you have to change your lighting setup, change your camera setup; you have makeup touchups you have to do, wardrobe changes, all of those things. The beauty of how we do these cinematics for the game is that we're lit – the camera is the most mobile thing because it's shooting you in 360 space. Wardrobe is ridiculous because it's a spandex suit with shiny disco balls on it, but all of the obstacles we have typically in TV and film are removed with the performance-capture setup.
We have our own obstacles: getting the actors to visualize the world that they're in – understanding that even though they have a camera six inches from their face, they have to ignore it and move their bodies around in a way that feels natural. All of these things fell on my shoulders as the director to help navigate our actors through, so that we really get these compelling performances. But yeah – it was a lot of work.
The full interview can be read at Glixel.com.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War releases for PC, PS4, and Xbox One on October 10, 2017.