If you are familiar with London's West End, you will know Sam Crane from roles including Farinelli in Farinelli and the King (2015) or Winston in 1984 (2014). From the stage to tv and animation (including voicing Sheridan in our own The Lost Romance of Elizabeth Linley), he enjoys a varied career. Here he shares his first experience of motion capture as Frederick Abberline in Ubisoft's blockbuster game Assassin's Creed Syndicate.
I was actually having my haircut when my agent called to tell me I’d been offered the part. “Remember that video game you auditioned for?” Uh, no. What, 3 months ago? That one? OK, I have a vague recollection of a casting in spotlight, doing some scenes with an actress, it going ok, but kind of knowing I wasn’t right for it, seeing that guy from Eastenders waiting to go in, forgetting about it, moving on to the next thing as you have to learn to do in this business. So it turns out, that indeed I wasn’t right for it, but now they’re offering me a different part from the one I went in for.
Now I haven’t really played computer games since the days of Chuckie Egg and Horace Goes Skiing. But the idea of being in one is appealing. I guess because it seems new, different, and perhaps the future - or at least part of the future, of the acting industry. I know hardly anything about the project – the level of secrecy is immense, they won’t tell me the name of the game or even my character. But I’ve heard about mocap and the funny suits with lights all over them. I picture myself crawling around like Gollum in Lord of the Rings. So with no idea of what I’m doing I find myself on a plane to Toronto.
On my first day at the studio, Allie, the production coordinator shows me into the green room type area. There’s coffee, tea, snacks etc, and a bunch of people wearing black onesies covered with little flourescent balls, their faces have black spots all over them, and they have weird vice like contraptions with cameras attached to their heads. And they’re just chatting away, drinking coffee, checking facebook and twitter on their phones like it’s the most normal situation in the world. It turns out that these are the other actors and I have to join them and suit up. You can see how I end up looking.
While this is going on I find out a bit more about the project. It’s the latest title in the hugely popular Assassin’s Creed franchise, and it turns out that my character is not Gollum but Frederick Abberline, a real life human being from the 19th century, who went on to become the lead investigator in the Jack the Ripper case, but in 1868, when the game is set, is an idealistic young sergeant with a penchant for outrageous disguises.
When I’m ready we go into THE VOLUME. So here’s the thing. When you tell people you’re doing mocap, they always say, so that’s with green screen right? Wrong. THE VOLUME is just a big white room with a rig running all the way around and on the rig are a hundred or so cameras, so all those fluorescent dots can be captured from all directions. The first thing you do in THE VOLUME is THE ROM – or Range of Motion. This is weird. It’s a bit like an aerobics dance class. They play music and you all stand in a line and you have to copy a series of movements. You also have to do a FACIAL ROM – similar to the ROM but just with your face. I still don’t quite understand the reasons for doing this – but it’s pretty fun to do.
So far it all seems strange and futuristic, but you get used to all the tech stuff pretty quickly (there’s another weird thing you have to do at the beginning and end of every take – the T-POSE – so you have to stand in a T shape – legs together arms out – and someone always forgets so you get the technicians shouting T-POSE PLEASE!)
But when it comes to filming the actual scenes, what’s really interesting, and what’s so different from being on a film or tv set, is there are no set ups to do. There’s no hanging around while the DOP rigs 50 lights, and no turning around to do the scene from another angle. No hair and make up touching you up seconds before action. All that stuff is done in post production. So in the volume, it’s just you and the other actors playing the scene. It’s all about capturing the performances. And this makes me think about what the whole deal is with performance capture. Why they go to such trouble to get actors in and dress them up in these funny suits. It’s about breathing life and soul into these computer generated animations. And this is thrilling. You’re part of this multi multi million dollar project, using the most sophisticated technology, and the filming process is all about the actors. Sure, most of the money, time and expertise goes into creating the digitally animated world long after I’ve got back on the plane to London but when you’re there in the volume, doing the scenes, it’s like being in a rehearsal room. It’s like being at drama school. A block of wood becomes a newspaper. A wooden crate becomes the bank of England. It’s fun. It’s playful. It’s magical. And you know that a few months down the line millions of people around the world are going to see a weird animated version of you doing things like this: