You do not want to fuck with me.
I am driven by pure, unadulterated resentment. I kill without remorse and light cars on fire just to see what will happen. As far as I am concerned there is no tomorrow. I live in a trailer park, in cramped filth, and to salve my psychic wounds I party all day and night. My creator calls me a “psychopath.”
He’s entitled to his opinion. I don’t take it personally, because he’s not talking about me. He’s describing a character I play in a video game. You see, I am the actor who portrays Trevor Phillips, one of the baddest badasses to bound across any screen, big or small, in “Grand Theft Auto V.”
GTAV is the highest grossing entertainment product ever. It reaped more than $1 billion in three days, a new world record while at the same time setting six other records for entertainment grosses and views. It’s bigger than “Avatar” and “The Avengers” combined.
How does it feel? Well, it doesn’t change the way I drink coffee in the morning or the way I walk. It doesn’t change the way I answer my emails… no, wait! That has changed, but only because of the sheer number of emails I receive these days, a direct result of the game’s huge global fan base. I am fortunate to have been involved in a project of this magnitude and scale.
It was a marvelous experience that took three years to film. And I have to admit it’s been fun to receive all this attention. Perhaps the biggest challenge has been to answer the question, which I get almost every day: “What was it like to be the voice actor for the loveably psychotic character of Trevor?”
Answer: Probably not what you think.
Voice actor. Voice acting. Call it what you will, but I would call it a misnomer. Every actor, from the three lead protagonists to smaller roles throughout the game, were motion captured. Each was wrapped in a tight spandex outfit from the tips of his feet to his helmeted head, with a tiny camera and light mounted 10 inches from his forehead. Everything, including our voices, was captured. Calling what we did for the game “voice acting” would be like calling what a coal miner does “digging.”
I understand the confusion, up to a point. There is a lot of talking in the game and if someone had no idea that our performances were motion captured, I imagine they could think of us actors standing in a recording studio reciting dialogue from a script. But it doesn’t reflect the tremendous amount of work and effort a motion capture actor puts into a performance.
Ten years ago there were big differences between being an actor in theater, television, film, and commercials. It was one or the other, but rarely both or three. Now? You are simply an actor. Which means you are either working or you are not. Zachary Quinto, or the new Spock to “Star Trek” fans, is in “The Glass Menagerie” on Broadway while big name actors like John Hamm (“Mad Men”) are voicing commercials. Liev Schreiber acts in theater, film, TV and is the voice of HBO sports, narrating shows like “Hard Knocks.” Other name actors perform guest star roles on TV shows. These separate categories have little meaning.
Add motion capture performances to the list of acting categories that blur these lines. It is slowly being recognized as a viable art form. I’m not the only one who believes this. James Franco, in a piece he wrote for Deadline Hollywood, gave serious props to Andy Serkis, his co-star in “Planet of the Apes,” who plays Cesar, “Che Guevera in chimp form.” Franco called what Serkis did “performance capture,” which he viewed as nothing short of an “acting revolution.”
In the way that actors now bounce from movie screen to TV screen to computer screen in online videos actors are also migrating to video games. Willem DaFoe and Ellen Page starred in the recently released video game “Beyond Two Souls.” Dafoe likened it to “a movie with a motion capture performance. In some ways, it was so technological and complicated in generating the material, but on the other hand, doing the scenes was very simple.” Comic actor Jonah Hill, meanwhile, landed a starring role in “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.” The hip-hop artist formerly known as Snoop Dogg once released his own eponymous video game.
As somebody who has done it, I can tell you that motion capture is like any other performance, aside from the technical demands. Being somewhat constrained in a skin-tight suit and covered in dozens of reflective balls the size of marbles does not yield unbound artistic inspiration. Yet an actor also experiences near total freedom being on the large motion capture stage. There are no close ups, over the shoulders or wide angles needed. It is the closest to being a kid again.
One challenge of this kind of performance is there is nothing to rely on to inform your character. If anything, the actor has to fight against the constraints of the sterile environment and circus-like suit by completely accepting what is and diving straight into the character and situation. If I were filming the role of Trevor in a Hollywood movie I would likely have a filthy nasty trailer, tattoos covering my body and disgusting clothes to help fill in the life of my character. In a motion capture performance, however, there is but one thing to help the actor: imagination.
It used to be that film stars looked down their noses at TV actors. Then shows like “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” appeared, and now some of the best acting is coming out of television. Legendary film actor Anthony Hopkins recently sent Bryan Cranston, the star of “Breaking Bad,” a fan letter, gushing that his “performance as Walter White was the best acting that I have ever seen.”
It took decades for television to achieve parity with film — some would argue it has surpassed it. Perhaps one day video game acting, which requires special skills of its own, will have its breakthrough roles. At the very least, we deserve recognition. Take any of your favorite characters in film or television and essentially animate them. Then you know what we did in “Grand Theft Auto V.”