From the outside, you wouldn’t even know it was there. In Playa Vista, Los Angeles, a massive and modest commercial lot houses the PlayStation motion capture volume set.
It’s where some of the world’s best developers bring their interactive stories to life. In one, Guerrilla Games is working hard filming scenes for the recently announced Horizon Forbidden West. Lance Reddick, the eternal badass he is, appears for a day of filming. I try to stay calm.
But Lance Reddick is not why I’m here. I’m here because Naughty Dog is working hard on the last week of motion capture filming for The Last of Us Part 2. Against the ability of my own stupid brain to understand how, I’ve persuaded the development team to let me come. the walk.
So far, it is surprisingly discreet. I wake up at 4 in the morning, fainted and groggy. A few hours later, I catch an Uber across town early to dodge traffic; failure, because LA. The commercial lot itself is huge and unassuming. Across the set, Sony Santa Monica is busy working on whatever follows God of War. I briefly consider sneaking around to try and take a look.
A security guy searches me, gives me a badge, and I’m inside. Some cameramen, some entertainers, voice trainers, and a Troy Baker (Joel) finally show up to get their badges and have a drink before the day starts. . The actor is friendly and gushing about what The Last of Us means to him.
Then the others follow: Ashley Johnson (Ellie) Shannon Woodward (who plays Ellie’s girlfriend Dina), Jeffrey Pierce (Tommy) and the game’s co-writer, Halley Gross. Finally, a Neil Druckmann. In his completely black Tesla, obviously. The number of people on set is limited compared to the 350 developers in the studio because the time they spend here is expensive. The key is efficiency.
It’s April 2019, over a year before the game finally comes out, but this is still a momentous week in creating any game, let alone one of Part 2’s cinematic ambitions. It’s been a long way for get here; The Naughty Dog team has been using this installation to create The Last of Us Part 2 from time to time for the past few years. Even before Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End appeared in 2016, the team used the stage to create the announcement for the 2016 game. You know where Ellie plays the guitar and promises Joel that he will find and kill “until the last of them. ” It has been by far the largest and longest shoot on the team.
The real magic happens behind two heavy soundproof doors; a large light identifies when the cameras are rolling. Once action is called, you can’t get in or out, lest you want the team’s ire for interrupting any big shot. But before that, a small group, Druckmann, Gross, and the cast, enter a side room to read the table. It’s where they rehearse before the actual rehearsal on the main stage.
At first I’m not sure if I should go in. It is a private and intimate part of the process for which, I am told, some actors like to be alone. It’s an opportunity for them to voice any complaints about their character’s lines, and just discuss any general direction with Druckmann and Gross before taking the stage. But then Druckmann sends me a text message: “Come in.” I approach in silence and try to assume the shape of the sofa I’m sitting on so as not to interrupt.
The cast read a bunch of scenes and slightly modified the dialogue, with Druckmann and Gross explaining the motivations and moods of any given moment. Meanwhile, there is a wealth of concept art on the big screen at the head of the table to give actors an idea of how locations will be performed in the final game.
The main scenes this week are the game’s quiet and intimate opening sequence, in which Joel explains to Tommy about the lie he told Ellie at the end of the original game; as well as the weed den sequence where Ellie and Dina share a wonderfully romantic moment that handles teenage angst better than any other game I’ve seen before. There are a few others, too, but they’re smaller. Most of the lines are spoken by the main characters, but there are also a few extra bits in the script. “I have some thoughts on Patrol Pilot 2,” Baker jokes, after a lengthy discussion of Joel’s motivations in this opening sequence. Then it is time for a proper rehearsal.
Once inside the stage, the air disappears around you. There is no reverb whatsoever and you can hear a pin when the cameras are turned on and everyone is quiet. Even a tummy noise runs the risk of spoiling the performance, especially during “wild shots,” which is when the audio team wants to capture lines without any action by making the actor sit motionless in the center of the room with microphones. close to make sure there is no audio disturbance outside. That’s something that catches Halley Gross and me multiple times. Why didn’t I have more breakfast?
The rehearsal has the actors performing the scenes on set, without mocap costumes. Each scene is marked with duct tape on the floor, rudimentary 3D modeled on screens around the room so the team can make sure the actors are within the limits of the level. On some screens you can see real life images, on others you can see the game’s representation of the level and characters, recorded by the motion capture costumes worn by the actors.
Every time the scene changes, the tape markers change. Horses are just sitting boxes; pistols are plastic models with motion capture balls; The gates and other landmarks, such as a grave or a dead horse, are made of metal posts, pieces of wood, and foam for the actors to do their part. At one point, I come to a scene with a motion capture gun to act as an NPC that will be in the final game, as a kind of guide on where the actors should look and walk.
The mocap suits themselves are spandex giants covered with velcro and plastic tracking points. Woodward explains to me how he has a hard drive (“and an often unbearably annoying fan”) attached to his thigh that powers a camera with a very bright light that comes on every recording. Every morning, the cast performs a login process with the computer, making sure that all of the plastic balls in the suit register correctly, essentially saving your own body’s personal settings before the performance capture sessions. Then a make-up artist applies a few points to their faces: it takes about ten minutes.
While on stage, before and after each shot, they assume a “T-pose,” which is literally what it sounds like: standing, arms outstretched to one side. There’s also the “Z pose” that doesn’t require you to contort into a Z, it just bears the name of the zombie walk. Video games are not subtle.
One thing that amazes me throughout the week is how quickly the team works through the scenes. It is thanks to sharp writing, Druckmann’s strong direction and the combination of exhaustive table reading and exhaustive rehearsal. Gross and Druckmann offer guidance to the actors, while being pissed off profusely, and it lends itself to a truly optimistic atmosphere throughout the days.
Baker and Pierce achieve their opening scene together, while Johnson and Woodward take a little longer to get a perfect kiss. It’s a scene with a lot of body movement and facial animation, which means the team has to use a ton of different capture techniques to get it right, with and without their head-mounted cameras. This continues throughout the week as everything ends: Emotions increase as the final day approaches.
When it does, there are tears and toast. Johnson, Baker and Druckmann snap a photo together to mark another complete game together, before Druckmann gives a speech to thank the cast and crew. “We have been on this journey for almost ten years,” he says. “I hope you are as proud of what you brought to this project as we are. You are amazing.”
It has been a long time coming, but the actors are almost ready. Now is the time for the developers of Naughty Dog to return to the studio and finish the game. There is still an incredible amount of work to do. The cast will still have a nice extra dialogue between now and launch, snippets of in-game conversations to complete levels, recorded in the privacy of the studio’s dialogue booths, but for now, it’s time for a drink.
Read more: Lev, The Last of Us Part 2, and imperfectly important representation.
The Last of Us Part 2 final and discussion of the story.