The Captured Actor

In late 2019 Iain Lowson, the noted narrative designer, writer and wordsmith, was asked to deliver a lecture to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Iain decided to deliver the lecture in the form of a documentary feature, with a line-up of experts from the videogames, performing arts and interactive industries.

Aimed at students in drama and the performing arts (actors), the documentary answers the question: How is modern technology impacting the opportunities for performers – and how can institutions like the Royal Conservatoire help their students understand and prepare for this new reality?

Iain interviewed people including Andy Payne, OBE, the founder of Mastertronic and AppyNation, UKIE board member and chair of the British eSports association; Martin Vaughan & Sini Downing from Side; director Kate Saxon (Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, Goldeneye Reloaded) and actor John Schwab (The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Xenoblade Chronicles II), as well as Toby Coffey, the head of digital development for the National Theatre and head of the Immersive Storytelling Studio.

The documentary explores themes from both the games and performance aspects. Andy Payne discusses the imact of constant, rapidly evolving technology on the games industry, while John Schwab outlines the experience of actors working within games, from voice only, through to full body capture and working remotely from teams several time zones away.

The constant evolution of technology within the games sector, is a topic that is picked up several times. From an actor’s point of view, the move from basic short voice clips, to full body capture and detailed facial capture in full 3D virtual reality has been staggering, taking place in less than a decade.

The work of the NT’s Immersive Storytelling Studio is fascinating. It is the intersection between cutting edge technology and creative performers of all kinds, to create entirely new experiences. The willingness to experiment and explore new forms of theatre, while not always knowing what the outcome will be, is a brave move for an organisation rooted in physical performance.

The film uses examples of work from numerous games, from the original Space Invaders, through to more recent titles including Witcher 3, Alien: Isolation, Sea of Thieves and Everyone’s Gone To The Rapture, which have featured numerous performers at various stages of their careers, and used their talents very differently. It highlights the opportunities for developers to utilise performers in very different ways and how their performances can help to shape the perception of a reaction to well-loved characters.

The use of actors is not confined to triple-A console titles. Even smaller, 2D indie games can benefit from an intelligent and creative use of performers. Think about the astonishing voice over work in Thomas Was Alone (Danny Wallace) Bastion (Logan Cunningham) or Dear Esther (Nigel Carrington).

Arguably, the voiceover in Portal (Ellen McLain) – along with the astonishingly great writing – helped to elevate what was a perplexing 3D puzzle game, into the multiple award-winning juggernaut it became.

Experiments such as the Bandersnatch choose-your-own-adventure show on Netflix (authored by former games journalist Charlie Brooker), while flawed, highlight new opportunities for games companies, developers and digital creators, to explore new types of experience.

Compared to some of the early examples of interactive movies, it shows a huge amount of evolution and subtlety. Seriously, watch the playthrough of Ripper, starring Christopher Walken and Chris Cohen to see where we were in 1996.

Games Meet Movies

The world’s most popular games engines, Unity 3D and Unreal Engine, have both now created dedicated departments, focused upon the use of their technology within the screen industries. Closer to home, Axis Animation in Glasgowe now has a ‘realtime’ animation team, producing dynamic animation, for use within games.

Scotland can also boast being the home of Dimensional Imaging (DI4D) which produces the leading facial capture kit, used many of the leading blockbuster movie and game titles.

Convergence Is Here

The reality of our world today is that digital and interactive media is fundamentally changing every aspect of the creative industries. Convergence between film, television, animation – and stage – is already happening. Every developer now has the opportunity to look beyond the confines of ‘games’ as they’re commonly defined, to create something new and innovative.

While The Captured Actor may have been created for performing arts and drama students, it has something to offer a far wider audience, especially from a games and interactive perspective.

Whether you’re a student, or professional, from a performing arts, or digital background, take an hour, watch The Captured Actor and consider how your work could incorporate elements from the other side.

Thanks to Iain Lowson for sharing the documentary with us.

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