Star Wars, Sam Witwer, and the art of video game acting

This article (below) written by was originally posted by the guardian.co.uk back in October 2010.  However, it’s well worth a re-post, which we do now with huge thanks to Keith and The Guardian.

*****

Starkiller, the moody hero of The Force Unleashed video games, has become a key character in the Star Wars canon. But what’s it like bringing him to virtual life? Sam Witwer discusses the challenges of working in interactive entertainment.

Bringing life to The Force Unleashed II. From left – David Collins, Sam Witwer and Darragh O’Farrell.

On the set of Star Wars, a long, long time ago, an exasperated Harrison Ford is alleged to have yelled, “you can type this shit, George, but you sure as hell can’t say it”. He was referring to the tortured sci-fi exactness of lines like, “It’ll take a few moments to get the coordinates from the navi-computer,” but it’s the whole arcane language and terminology of the Star Wars universe that must befuddle some actors. Through all his years of repertory theatre, through the Ealing comedies and that magisterial work with David Lean, Alec Guiness would never have had to say anything like, “And these blast points, too accurate for Sandpeople. Only Imperial stormtroopers are so precise.”

So what does it take to act in a Star Wars production – especially a video game? Last week, Gamesblog was lucky enough to visit LucasArts in San Francisco and got some time with actor Sam Witwer, the voice, face and body of Force Unleashed hero, Starkiller. In an engaging and interesting chat with David Collins (sound supervisor, voice director and voice of Proxy) and Darragh O’Farrell (director of audio), he talks about some of the challenges and rewards of game acting – and the way in which Hollywood is now looking toward games for its talent and ideas…

So did you use full performance capture in Force Unleashed 2?
Darragh:No, for TFU 2, we were in a voice-over studio in LA, but we had HD cams on all the performers. Sam had at least two, sometimes three. It was a cast recording so all the actors – Sam, Nathalie Cox (Juno), Cully Fredricksen (Kota) – everyone was there, playing off each other. Generally, line counts and logistics don’t allow for that, but with this game we felt it was important. And unlike in TFU1, we allowed the performers to step on each other’s lines. In reality, when we talk, we tend to overlap each other – in a game it gives a much more natural and realistic performance.

And so, Sam, this felt more like a TV or film job?
Sam: We had conversations about the difference between shooting a TV show and shooting for a video game. The first game was tiring but this one was absolutely exhausting, and I said to David, was I just a tougher guy back then?

David: Well, no. In the first one, we had a camera set up and all the other actors were behind it feeding lines, we recorded one actor at a time. But here, you’d just be yelling for four hours straight. In a TV show, you give it your all then you take a break and go back to your trailer, because they’ve got to do another set up. And an hour later, you’re ready to do the next scene. But with a video game you just don’t have that – it’s four continuous hours of screaming.

Sam: Not to mention that the character is going through a hell of a lot more in this game. There’s an emotional distress to being in that place for hours at a time.

David: In the first game you’re a Jedi hunter, now you’re a fugitive.

Sam: And even though Starkiller was off balance with Vader and with Juno in TFU1, when he was on the mission, he was ON that mission. This time, there’s no mission.

David: You and Cully Fredricksen had it the worst. Those two had to do a lot of intense screaming. There was a scene that we shot that took about 24 takes – we called it The Widowmaker. Darragh’s script was just filled with pencil markings!

Darragh: That stuff is exhausting. You may get the performance, but then the engineers will say, ‘we were overblown on that one line’. It’s like, ‘Arrrgh! Okay, roll – let’s do another one.’

Sam: Plus, I had several HD cameras on me for the voice-over sessions. And in those situations, the actors need to stay put. I didn’t stay put.

Darragh: No. Sam’s a challenge.

Sam: Well, you put a camera on me and I’m going to be moving around!

David: But there’s no boom following you!

Darragh: Sam’s such a dynamic actor though. It’s challenging to record, but the end results are always better with an actor like him, who’s always giving it 110 percent.

David: I don’t think we’ve ever had an actor who gives that much energy and passion in front of the microphone. I remember during shooting, there’s a scene where Starkiller’s all worked up, going through all these crazy emotions and Sam just went for it, I mean his face was red, just screaming out these lines in anger and frustration. It was chilling to watch. It was terrifying. But that’s what Force Unleashed 2 needed. And as a Star Wars fan Sam knew that.

Sam: I have to thank you actually, David, because at one point in the first game, Haden [Blackman, the co-creator of Force Unleashed] felt that some of the screams that Starkiller yelled should be taken out, but I think it was you who said, ‘but they’re really cool Harrison Ford screams!’ So he changed his mind…

David: There’s an art to screaming and you modulate it really well.

Sam: Thank you. But Harrison Ford does it better than anyone.

Sam as Starkiller (image courtesy of Lucasfilm)

Are actors able to shape the performance and the content more in video games nowadays?
Darragh:Definitely. In both TFU 1 and 2, we did table reads and all the actors were there before shooting. It gave the writers the chance to go in, take notes and ponder the scene. Sometimes something will happen naturally and organically between actors that’s not on the page, and we’d say, ‘oh, that’s just better, let’s write that in.’ And when you’re in shooting, it’s exactly the same thing. When you’ve got so many creative people in a room together, you just go with the flow.

Sam: I think we’ve been more confident with this in Force Unleashed 2. At times in the cut scenes, we have these long performance beats where the camera might hang on a character for six seconds of screen time while they’re thinking. We would never have had the courage to do that on the first game because, if it doesn’t work, you have six seconds of nothing, just a character model looking slack-jawed. So this time we took more risks with acting beats, and it’s been fun to see that develop.

David: Even with plot points, there was a time when we were in the table read and things started to emerge in Starkiller and Kota’s conversation, specifically about Kamino and how to tie a couple of scenes together, and the scriptwriter was there, and it was re-written on the fly and became an integral part of the scene.

Sam: And Haden was more confident, because he now had a Writer’s Guild award under his belt. On the first game he was very tight about things, and that’s very common for people who are new to writing and seeing someone perform their work. When writers first have that experience, they get very uncomfortable, because they’ve seen it some way in their head, and then when they watch someone performing it differently, they assume it’s wrong. But no, it’s an interpretation of what you wrote and in fact, it might be exactly right. If the story’s coming across, it doesn’t have to be exactly what you see in your head. Young writers are not used to that. But Haden surrendered to the creative process – the collaboration.

Sam, because Starkiller is such a close physical likeness to you, you’ve become one of the first video game actors to be recognised in the street. Do you think this will become more common in this industry?
Sam: Yeah, if Force Unleashed had just been a voice-over gig, I wouldn’t be recognised. But you look at Starkiller and he’s me, he even walks like me – I showed the animators how I thought he should walk and they took that onboard. They’ve video referenced the hell out of me, they’ve mo-capped the hell out of me, they have all this information, so this character has emerged, and it’s about as much me as anything I’ve ever done.

For LucasArts, this game has always been about character, and I’ve been dragged along on that process. And I have had people approach me on the street and go, ‘Starkiller!’ Right now, I’m shooting Being Human in Montreal, and when I was first cast, I saw several write-ups that referred to me as, Sam Whitworth, brackets, Force Unleashed. I’ve been in Dexter, Battlestar, Smallville, but Force Unleashed was always on that list of stuff that I’ve done – I could never have guessed that would happen, that it’s actually helped my career.

In fact, when I sat down for a meeting with the Smallville producers, they wanted to know all about Force Unleashed. It’s because video games are evolving, they are growing up with the generation that invented them. And Hollywood is taking notice of that, it’s important. LucasArts decided to do this crazy thing where they’d get actors who not only have the right voice but the right look, and they wanted to use everything about that actor. And as a Star Wars fan, that’s been great.

David: And people recognise you just as much for Force Unleashed as for your TV roles?

Sam: Just as much.

David: That’s crazy to hear as a developer. I mean, it all came about when we moved in to the office with Industrial Light and Magic – they have this wonderful technology for likeness capture and motion capture. When Darragh was tasked with casting Force Unleashed, Sam’s name came up and we had this concept art created by a really talented artist here named Amy Beth Christenson, and Starkiller just looked a lot like Sam.

Sam: I have that art on the wall in my apartment!

David: You were on Dexter and Battlestar at the time, and so we said, ‘let’s get him in’. And when you submitted a demo – everyone was just blown away.

Darragh: We watched this crazy scene you were in on CSI and you were just this tortured guy, and we thought, ‘oh my god, that’s it’.

Sam: These two really put me through my paces. In a normal audition you act for maybe ten minutes and if you’re they’re for longer, you’re just talking. But this was acting for 45 minutes. I made the mistake of saying, ‘hey, so he’s a Sith apprentice – as a Star Wars fans I could think of 50 ways this might go…’ and they said, ‘okay, show us all of them’.

David: It was a discovery process for us as well. As a game company, seeing what Sam would bring to the script was almost an epiphany.

Darragh: I’ve been at Lucas for 15 years, I started with games like Grim Fandango, X-Wing Alliance, Jedi knight… what’s interesting is, during those early years, it was all primarily what we’d class as voice-over talent, people who could manipulate their voice, do lots of characters. But when we came to this game, it changed our approach. With the likeness capture, we thought, rather than going for voice-over actors, we had to look for on-camera actors – that’s what we did across the board. It’s been hugely beneficial for us. As gaming is evolving, you’re going to see games create their own stars. We’re not necessarily looking for the next George Clooney, but…

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II (image courtesy of Lucasfilm)

 

Are there still some prejudices against acting in video games?
Sam: For me, it’s been nothing but beneficial – I mean, not only is it a lead character, it’s a Star Wars character – that brings with it a lot of goodwill and enthusiasm.

Darragh: Initially, back in the day, there was a lot of resistance from big name actors because they couldn’t control the final quality. But Sam has been hugely involved throughout the whole process. He’d be picking up the phone to Haden and saying, ‘hey, can we tweak this, can we change that?’

Sam: I got into a whole email chain with Haden and Darragh about a continuity issue! I have a habit of sticking my nose in where perhaps it doesn’t belong. Any job I have, I’m constantly getting involved in stuff I shouldn’t be! But somewhere along the line it’ll usually benefit me. And here, I’m just wandering the halls – I’ll say ‘hey, I saw this animation, I think it should go like this!’ It’s ridiculous.

Is Force Unleashed all about pain and torment?
Sam: No there are some funny lines in there, some good Star Wars-type back and forth dialogue. At some point the line, ‘I think we’re running out of bottomless pit’ comes out of someone’s mouth…

Darragh: It was the benefit of having performers who knew each other – moments just come out in the studio. And then I’m on the other side of the glass, and I’d say to Haden, ‘okay let’s keep that, it’s funny’.

David: But there are times when it doesn’t work. We’ll say we’ve got this hilarious sequence, and Darragh’s like, ‘no, it’s not funny’. I’d say, okay, let’s try it again!

Darragh: It’s like herding cats…

Sam: But Star Wars itself is so over-the-top. When ever we were doing a performance, we followed the George Lucas rule – when he was filming the original Star Wars, the acting direction he gave was, ‘faster, more intense’. The actors would complain about that, but when you watch the movie, it’s the perfect direction. It’s all 1940s clipped dialogue. And Darragh actually gave that direction on the first game. We’d do a scene and it didn’t feel particularly Star Wars, so Darragh would say ‘faster, more intense!’ and it worked. Bigger performances work better in Star Wars.

And Force Unleashed 2 is even more OTT. I’m very happy that Starkiller, gets to say, ‘I have a bad feeling about this.’ In the movies it’s always said a while before anything bad actually happens. In our version, Starkiller says it during the worst possible moment in the game – he just states the obvious, and it works really well.

Are you pushing to do any live action work for LucasFilm? There have been rumours of a TV series…
Am I in a live action show? No! [Long pause] Not yet… LucasFilm has been extraordinarily generous to me, they like to have me involved, but I don’t know what their plans are. I’m constantly introducing myself to people here and having conversations with people I shouldn’t have, but it tends to work out.

Darragh: Well, he’s a good-looking kid!

Sam: Who says some stupid things sometimes!

*****

Once again, our thanks to Keith Stuart and The Guardian for this article link.

.

Leave a Reply