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“We do our thing, and they make magic…” Behind the scenes of Uncharted 3

A wall full of guns. That’s the first thing I notice as I walk up the ramp and out of the bright Californian sun. A wall full of guns, and all of them somehow very familiar – the FAL, the shoulder-mounted grenade launcher, the trusty pistol. They’re neatly spaced and resting on hooks, like a presentation cabinet, and a quick handle of the AK47 confirms that they’re authentically weighty. They could be real. Except they’re all blue.

I’m on the Sony Pictures lot in Hollywood to visit the studio production of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, and these are Nathan Drake’s weapons. Or rather, these are the realistically-modelled prop weapons used by the game’s actors on the production soundstage, made heavy to keep the motion capture seamlessly life-like. These same silhouettes normally appear in white, tucked into the corner of Uncharted’s display. Seeing them in grabbable real-life is strangely enticing, and I spend a good two minutes with the RPG over my shoulder pretending to fire, even though there are people watching.

Also strangely enticing in real-life is Uncharted’s star, Nolan North, voice of Nathan Drake and the first bona fide A-lister of games. “I’m just acting until the whole bartending thing takes off” he quips with a grin, showing the easy charm which permeates his character and has played a big part in the game’s success.

Easy charm is no mean feat when you’re strapped into a skin-tight bodysock covered in motion tracking balls and playing make-believe in the centre of a vast, brightly-lit soundstage. But that’s Nolan’s job, and since the first game it’s actually gotten easier.  “I remember when we were first shooting we had this one particular suit that Nolan

wore, which was brown and not particularly flattering,” remembers Naughty Dog’s cinematics lead Josh Scherr. “The first time we saw the video reference tape, he resolved at that point to get back in shape.” “I would never, ever put on another brown motion-capture suit,” North deadpans. “If you watch South Park and you’re familiar with Mr Hanky – it was me. Just a mo-cap turd.”

The current stage is a big grey box lined with dozens and dozens of cameras, rigged into a central processing brain at the end opposite the entrance. This brain takes the form of computers, monitors and a crew who pore over the lo-res capture as it rolls in, checking for continuity, sound quality, and that all the marks are hit.

The stage is almost indistinguishable from the dozens of mo-cap spaces used by other games studios the world over, including House Of Moves in LA which Naughty Dog used for the first two Uncharted games (and which Dead Space developer Visceral games is using for its current, as yet-unannounced project). But despite appearances the process on Uncharted is very different.

“We’re kind of ahead of the pack,” says Amy Hennig, Naughty Dog’s focused and articulate creative director. “Even for Uncharted one, we had all the actors working together on a stage very much like this one. Jumping forward in time, Sony graciously built this space back in, I guess we started shooting in June last year, so it’s almost a year this thing has been up and running.”

The new stage is quieter than most, enabling the team to record the actors’ voices at the same time as their movements, making for a more natural final performance. But the biggest difference to how other games are made is simply one of scale and space. Uncharted 3 has been in production since the stage opened – almost a year, as Hennig says – and altogether filming will last perhaps 14 months, with sessions two or three times a week. Compare this with the two or three /days/ an actor might do alone in a recording booth on other titles, and suddenly the gulf in quality seems inevitable. It’s all down to investment.

“Thanks to Sony we’re able to invest the time and the money it takes to rehearse together, make revisions together, and take the time with the material,” says Hennig. North agrees. “Being able to sit down with the words at a table and, not getting too actor-speak, but looking at the motivations and going deeper into the game than I’ve ever done – it really takes it to a different level.”  “It’s as if they’re doing theatre or acting for multi-camera television, really,” puts in Hennig. “Which is Gordon’s background.”

Gordon Hunt is the director on the mo-cap stage, and at 82 is very much a Hollywood veteran. Hunt worked in theatre, film and television for over three decades before getting involved with games through Hennig and the Soul Reaver series, and has a uniquely long-view take on the industry. “We’re in a transition phase now,” he says. “[It used to be] there was television and movies, and there were games. They were nice in their place and you’d pat them on the head. Well everyone knows the financial change that’s happened in terms of games, and my feeling is the artistic aspect is following the same path. It’s becoming much more a mixture of movie or television and games. They’re getting closer and closer, intermeshing as we sit here.”

“There’s games and there’s games,” North cautions. “There are still games that do it the old way, where they do the voices and then animate to that and have the motion capture done in Romania. But now there’s more and more games that are following Amy’s route.” For him, a sign of how far games have come is the calibre of performer they can attract. “On Uncharted 2 we had Graham McTavish who’s now in New Zealand doing The Hobbit,” he says. “I mean, this is a phenomenal actor, and he’s more than happy to be here doing this with us. Call of Duty just had Gary Oldman. For me it’s interesting that movie stars aren’t really interested in doing it – actors are. There’s a freedom and a beauty in doing this – that’s associated with a decent paycheque as well – that’s just like going back to your roots and black box theatre.” Is there still a snobbishness among the Hollywood community? “I know people who used to do videogames, and they’re like, ‘Eventually you’ll move on to animation.’ Now they’re trying to get back to this. But the short answer is: who cares? If they have a problem with it, good. Stay away from our playground.”

The scene the team are filming today involves North and Richard McGonagle, better known as Drake’s rakish mentor, Victor Sullivan. Before the pair enter the set a crew of maybe a dozen stagehands build the framework of a small vehicle using grey boxes dragged in from a store room. A steering wheel is placed in front of one of the seats, while hinged poles with tennis ball markers on the end act as doors. We have a jeep.

The scene doesn’t give much away. We’re in France, and by the sounds of the dialogue the pair are looking for the Chateau that by the time we see it in the game’s trailers has turned into a burning deathtrap (not an unusual thing to happen following a visit from Drake). Perhaps more surprising is that that dialogue varies from take to take, and is subtly different during each of the four or five run-throughs I see. The staples remain the same – “Trust you to find a jungle in the middle of France” rumbles McGonagle – but the actors play off each other, with different jokes and asides.

“The real blessing with the way we get to work is that we write as we go,” says Hennig. “That leaves us a lot of leverage and leeway when things slip or have to be shrunk in size – we can then relax and be flexible.” This way the story and performances can react to gameplay-driven changes to characters and scenes. It also means the writing itself can be more specifically tailored to the performer. “I know their cadences and I know their idiosyncrasies” says Hennig of her cast, “and I can write them right in. And better yet, their characters become infused with their personalities.” North adds an actor’s perspective. “To sustain a character for this long – you can only be Hannibal Lecter for so many days in a row,” he says. “If you’re going to something like this, it has to become a part of you.”

Connecting the performance with the more traditional side of games development is crucial to the quality of the final product. While their skills as actors are integral to the Uncharted series, both North and McGonagle freely admit they know little about the technical side of production. In fact, neither of them even play the game. “I can’t get out of the train” admits McGonagle, meaning the cliff- hanging carriages at the very start of Uncharted 2. North at least has an excuse. “When you watch your body movements and everything die repeatedly, it becomes so disconcerting. You’re like, ‘Who wants to play Lego Star Wars?’” “Oh, you’re not in that?” asks Hennig of the prolific voice-actor. “No,” he replies. “I’m working on it…”

More seriously, North says the more he learns about how Naughty Dog converts his on-stage work into the finished Uncharted games, the more respect he has for the studio. “I mean, I can barely work a toaster,” he explains. “The team at Naughty Dog deserves so much credit for this. There are specific people working on specific things that the average player isn’t even going to notice, but it’s just another layer to the reality that this game brings. We do our thing, and they take it and make magic. They take all of the mistakes we make and fix it.” “‘Nolan’s doing that thing with his arms again’” jokes Scherr. “’Ok, we’ll just fix it.’” “Well you know, I’ve been doing that since I was 13.”

For all the progress made by Naughty Dog and the Uncharted games in improving performance and narrative, the ultimate test is one of popularity. Making games this way is an expensive business, and the bottom line is that if the end result doesn’t convince several million customers to part with their cash, it’s over. Happily Uncharted 2 was a big seller, moving over a million copies in its first week and several more since then. And North doesn’t think they’ll necessarily stop at three. “I think we can do more,” he says. “There’s more stories to tell. You know, if Uncharted 4 is Drake in space fighting alien shark-people, it’s over. But until then, I think we avoid the shark-people and the moon, and we’re okay.”

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