As a performance director, Tom Keegan works with actors to create engaging, realistic performances. Tom has worked on over 35 video games over the years and he talks with GBR about his work on Battlefield 3.
GBR: Tom, we understand your background is in film and storytelling. You are called in to help some of the larger publishers create more realistic human interaction in games. Let’s talk about the Battlefield 3 project. There were a number of challenges surrounding the scope of the Battlefield 3 project, can you go through them for us?
For Battlefield 3 there were several key issues facing the team, the more critical being:
- Most of the actors had not done mocap before
- The game, which was shot in Stockholm, included actors from the UK, Sweden and the U.S. speaking English, Russian and Farsi
- The game required a great deal of physical action, and was shot in darkened rooms under mocap lights, without the benefit of the real locations
- The actors had to do the physical scenes, and then again do a shoot that focused on their facial movement
GBR: What other challenges did EA bring you in Battlefield 3?
Tom Keegan: Bring a 300 page script to life less than six months before release, drawing on actors speaking 4 languages from the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East. In addition, EA was just launching their own proprietary face capture technology called “Face Forward,” so we got the opportunity to play with and refine what, up until that point, had been an experimental process. Since I had done quite a few games and also a growing number of mocap projects, I was familiar enough with the technology to work with something quite new and keep the quality high.
GBR: How about the actors? Did they find working in this new medium different from working in film?
Tom Keegan: A few of the actors had done performance capture before, but none to the depth of quality this game called for. The three actors doing the Face Forward process found it the most challenging. Face Forward demands the actor sit in a chair, not moving their head, and re-shooting the face and voice of the scene they had just done in the body shoot, in the exact same timing. The actors are looking at a monitor with their own performance on it, so it’s like doing an extended closeup while looking in a mirror. I held a little stick with a ball on it to guide them where to move their eyes.
GBR: What is your role in the process?
Tom Keegan: When it comes to performance capture, I’m the director, although it’s not exactly the same as what a film director would do. My role is to direct the actors, but I’m translating the vision of a development team that represents a whole studio’s involvement in what will become the game. It’s my job to advise and to lead, but also to listen very closely to what my developers need in order to put the pieces together. I also do some shaping of the script to get it ready for the actors to bring to life. Like a film director, I’m the general on the set leading the troops, but it’s not my single vision. It’s a highly collaborative process, which I love. Most of the time, anyway.
GBR: How did you get into this?
Tom Keegan: I started as an actor in NY, doing a wide variety of work from classics to avant-garde performance art. I have a background in movement as well, spending a lot of time working in the downtown theatre scene of New York City in the ’80s. I had my own theatre company for a while, then I moved to the west coast and started working in animation. I worked at Hanna-Barbera and Universal Studios in the TV development departments, and eventually got into games directing voice over. I was the in-house talent director at Vivendi Games for 8 years. My favorite project there was “The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay” with Starbreeze Studios out of Uppsala, Sweden. Eventually I went freelance, and then got the chance to work with Starbreeze on “The Darkness.” That was a seminal performance capture game, one of the earliest. We were able to get a very high level of performance from the actors. It was a natural thing for me, with my background in theatre and movement, and I was hooked.
GBR: What is state-of-the-art in terms of how motion capture is being used in video games today?
Tom Keegan: More and more, motion capture is being used to create not only the animations for characters in games, but also animate the faces of the characters as well. In fact, it’s now being referred to as “performance capture” which more accurately describes what is happening. Simultaneously, the voices are recorded, bringing the creation of games closer to a hybrid of film, theater, and digital media
GBR: In your opinion, where is mocap going?
Tom Keegan: More and more detail means more and more depth to the acting and emotional performance. Soon, face capture technology will be in real time, so actors will be able to skip the “closeup” step. Actors worry that they will someday be replaced by virtual performers, but I believe motion capture frees the performer to play with their true essence in a more physical way. The same actor can do many more roles because they can look different in every part. It’s great for me because it’s more like black box laboratory theatre, so I look for actors who have those flexible physical acting skills.
GBR: What has driven the need for this new discipline?
Tom Keegan: HD television, high end PCs, and surround sound are more and more common in user’s homes, perhaps as a balance to the everyday small screens of mobile phones. As game engines get more sophisticated, bringing higher detail and realism, the bar for acting in games has risen higher. Performance capture gives more bang for the animation department’s 3D buck, as motion capture has come down in price. Developers are more than ever in need of a director with mocap experience who also understands how to bring the emotional life to a physical/virtual performance.
GBR: Thanks so much for speaking with us.