An Interview With Aaron Staton of L.A. Noire

We talk to the star of Rockstar and Team Bondi's crime thriller about going from TV to games, the challenges of L.A. Noire's performance capture, and more.

If you've ever seen the critically acclaimed AMC drama Mad Men, chances are you'll recognize Aaron Staton from his role as the affable advertising executive Ken Cosgrove. But if you're a regular GameSpot reader, you'll likely recognize Staton from something more. Staton is the star of Rockstar and Team Bondi's upcoming crime thriller L.A. Noire, one of our most anticipated games of 2011. Playing police officer Cole Phelps, Staton is essentially the poster child for the impressive new MotionScan performance capture technology that's been responsible for the bulk of the game's buzz thus far. We had a chance to chat with Staton over the phone last week to see what his experience with L.A. Noire was like.

GameSpot: Before you got involved with L.A. Noire, what was your concept of an actor's role in video games?

Aaron Staton: Well, I started playing video games as a kid. I played Atari; lots of Pitfall and Space Invaders…and then Nintendo. Now I play Xbox primarily. I guess I sort of became aware of the actor's role or presence in a game…probably like in the last five years or so. I can say the first Max Payne was probably when I became aware of it because, you know, there's the story and everything is integrated.

GS: What convinced you to get onboard with L.A. Noire when you heard about this game initially?

AS: I had a conversation with [L.A. Noire writer/director] Brendan McNamara about the world of the game, the concept, the character, and he sent me some test footage of the MotionScan technology. Just being a part of this groundbreaking fusion of performances…it's not that actors haven't been involved [in games before], but just the incorporation of the physical performance in a game, combined with some of the stylistic elements and the story…I think it's kind of a new genre in a way. And it's going to utilize those performance aspects throughout the gameplay. I found that all intriguing.

GS: With video games being one of the younger forms of media out there, was there any initial concern on your part moving from a critically acclaimed TV series to a video game? And, how that move might be seen by traditionalists as a step down?

AS: To be honest, no, because more and more those lines are blurred. I mean, the last Call of Duty game…if you look at the cast…it's Ed Harris and Gary Oldman and Sam Worthington. It's not like this avant-garde, undercover form of media, you know what I mean? It's not so separate anymore.

GS: Now that the project is complete, how would you say that the full experience compares with what you were originally expecting from the outset?

AS: Much bigger, I would say. Even though I knew going in, it was a lot of material, I guess I hadn't heard the 2,200-page script number. But even so, I think just ultimately, it was bigger than everyone expected really…because the MotionScan portion of the process was three months of consecutive time. But then, we went back, and for the next six months or so, we'd sort of pick up days or weeks here and there just to fill out the world even more. As things were pieced together, they realized that they needed a broader palette of reactions for the infinite number of things that could happen. They needed an almost infinite number of reactions or what have you from the various characters. And so, I think we all just sort of discovered that fusing these two things together…that it was bigger than anticipated. I don't think anybody really could have said going in, this is exactly how it will go. So, I couldn't have been briefed entirely…you know what I mean?

Staton seated in "the rig," the nickname for the MotionScan performance capture seat.

GS: The pictures and the footage that we've seen of you in that MotionScan chair look kind of intimidating. It's this bright white room and you're in this orange T-shirt, and you've just got these dozens of cameras surrounding you. Do you remember what went through your head when you sat down in that chair for the first time?

AS: Yeah, the first thing I thought was, "This is bright!" And it was! [Laughs] But the first thing I thought, well…the door is closed and I realized, "Wow, this is definitely an isolating experience." Like you said, it's literally just you in this room, and you've got 32 cameras, and you've got Brendan on the other end of the microphone. So, we would have dialogue back and forth, but there was no [other actor], and the cue was a beep or a shouted cue of "action." So, there wasn't the dialogue exchange, and for a game that's based on interrogations, so many of those cues are physical…as players will see playing the game. A lot of that was a challenge, sitting in the chair and sort of trying to imagine those cues; whereas on a set, be it film, TV, or on a stage, there would be an actor present to give you that cue.

GS: So how did you get over that challenge? That situation where you're not able to see the guys you're talking to and you're not able to examine the dead bodies? At least, I assume, you didn't use a fake serial killer victim.

AS: [Laughs.] Just time, honestly. With anything, as you go to work every day, the first time you make a commute, it's like, "This is really long." And then, you make it for a month, and then you realize what routes are going to have the most traffic, where the spots are going to be, and you make a playlist and head out the door, and you sort of build it into your day. And it's the same thing, I think, with any sort of job or process. Once you're comfortable in it, it becomes routine. And that's not to say the challenge went away, but I, at least, came to know what the challenges would be. So, that's the part that became routine. It's just knowing that I would have to be creating that stuff and the tricks to do it. Just trying to figure out what worked, what [I] would read, where to play certain things, where the eye lines were, and trusting Brendan on the other end of the mic to tell me that it was working out.

GS: A lot of people might see some similarities between Cole Phelps and Ken Cosgrove from Mad Men in terms of them being…

AS: It's only the tie.

GS: [Laughs] Right! But you know, these likeable all-American guys in this period setting. Is there anything about Cole Phelps that you think is going to really surprise people that are used to seeing you on Mad Men?

AS: Actually, the characters are worlds apart. I mean, you mentioned a couple of things that connect them, and I guess they both look like me. [Laughs] But ultimately, they really are worlds apart. Cole Phelps has some complex things to prove, and Ken really doesn't have much to prove. I mean, he really is pretty comfortable. You know, things sort of seem to work out for him, and Cole Phelps is by nature someone who could never expect something to work out. So he has to work at it diligently and, I think, to his detriment at times. And just to put it broadly, there's a darkness around Cole Phelps that isn't around Ken. And that's in part the world and the nature of these crimes, and the weight of the war, and things that he'd seen, and things that he's been a part of. But then, also, there's this desire to atone for those things. But also, I think this desire to do good and to do right is maddening in a way.

GS: What sort of reactions did you get from friends and family when the first L.A. Noire trailers started coming out?

AS: Well, immediately, I was getting texts from game-playing friends, and they were just real excited. I think (a) for the game, and then (b) to see me in it. And I think people were just surprised to see how much, you know, it looks like me. I mean, it is me. Then, I got some texts from a few people that didn't know that I was doing it but did as soon as they saw the trailer. At least initially, people were just really blown away by the technology of it and not only recognizing me…but to say, "Hey, and I recognized so and so," or, "I worked for that guy," and such and such.

GS: Are you prepared for that first moment when you're out in public and somebody walks up to you and says, "Hey, I know you. You're that guy from L.A. Noire!"

AS: [Laughs]You know, that'll be such a trip. I definitely think that that would be the first time anybody would have ever been recognized from a video game. I guess we'll see. I don't know. I got texts from people who knew me, who recognized me in the game…but to think of the reverse, you know, somebody who didn't know me, is wild.

Staton as Cole Phelps, the World War II soldier turned Los Angeles cop.

GS: Now that you're done with this game and everything's wrapped up, what would you say you've learned about video games as a medium after working on L.A. Noire?

AS: The scale of it really…it's just so much bigger than I thought. I'd sort of seen them as a consumer lined up on the shelves and waiting for sequels and things, but to realize what goes into it. And before I was ever there! I was a part of the last year and a half of…I could be wrong on the number…but I think it's somewhere around a seven-year process at this point. And, you know, I think a good portion of that has to do with technology catching up to the size of the story. But that's just a long, long process.

GS: There's sort of an ongoing debate in our industry over video games about whether they can be considered an art form these days. One of the vocal opponents of that idea is actually Roger Ebert, who has very, very adamantly insisted that video games are not an art form. After everything that you've put into L.A. Noire and what you've seen of it in action, where do you see yourself in that argument?

AS: Well, I think the biggest indicator as far as how [L.A. Noire] is perceived is its admission to the Tribeca Film Festival this year. I think that's a pretty big indicator of where we're headed; if not, where we might be…and just graphically, with the way that these consoles are improving and the technology. But "art" is such a funny word. I don't know if you've seen Exit Through the Gift Shop, but it's such a subjective sort of thing or term.

GS: Absolutely… how we perceive art and what art means to different people.

AS: Right. Because I guess you could say, well, film is art. But I could probably show you a couple of films that aren't. There's an art to making film, and there's was an art in making that film, but was the product art? I don't know. But is making a film an art? Yes. Is making a video game an art? Yes. Is animating an art? Yes. Is this game art? Is it art? You know, I think so. But I think that it's such a subjective term and qualification.

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95 comments
FreakshowGamer
FreakshowGamer

@Frankvincent It's not 3 discs "long", It's only on three discs for the Xbox 360 version because their inferior DVD-format discs are unable to hold so much detailed content compared to a Blu-ray disc. The game is only supposed to be 10-20 hours.

the_bright_TV
the_bright_TV

this game looks pretty sick iam looking farward to playing somthing new and different u now cant wait only 4 more days

Jayut
Jayut

I like tech of this game. it is realistic and dramatically.

Nodyoxide
Nodyoxide

well, I think it'll be pretty tough for any game to compete with this one this year ..

octotoke
octotoke

this game is gonna be something different...pre-ordered to get extra content

amr_5m
amr_5m

we should thanks the team who make this game not Rockstars, Rockstar is just a publisher :) and hell yeh i will buy xbox360 but i will have troubles with pads bec i like mouse and keyboard :)

amr_5m
amr_5m

why da hell no pc .i am done i will buy x box 360 . and now i don't know what i should do with 500$ pc :) but pc still have exclusives that i like the witcher 2 assassins of kings :)

Alucard_Prime
Alucard_Prime

I wonder if this lucky actor knows what kind of exposure he'll be getting by being the lead in this game. M-A-Y-1-7-L-A-N-O-I-R-E

hotdiddykong
hotdiddykong

I cant wait for this game and by the way it seems, its very promising. However considering that this is an investigation game and not action-oriented like RDR and GTA, this game must be judged different by the mechanics and the Cases themselves. The Looks of everyone to show the emotion will be awesome to the investigative style. If this game gets a high score, I want it to be because of the game itself and not because its a Rockstar game, then it would be biased and unfair to fans of the investigation series following ace attorney, Ghost trick and others.

LOXO7
LOXO7

Team Bondi is just another name for Rockstar Australia. If there ever was. They have used the hands on approach to make games, like the plaster masks in The Getaway and now with "the rig" in L.A. Noire. But this game shouts Rockstar.

Philly1UPer
Philly1UPer

@gamerxxx89 Aww....is the PC Owner Butthurt that Rockstar has nahed you guys when it comes to RDR and LA Noire?

Philly1UPer
Philly1UPer

@gamerxxx89 Mafia 1 was alright....not the best, It got bothersome everytime I would run a red light and have half of the police force on me. Mafia II looked amazing graphically...but The game was straight up shallow. Nice big world, that you couldn't even fully explore like you can in other Sandbox Style Games. No free mode where you can just drive around doing what you please.

ramb1402
ramb1402

Sadly i'll pass, since i want this game for PC. Still no words on RDR for PC which is a total let down... i hope R* realise theres still a market for PC users, so yeah i guess i'll be playing TW2 instead.

sibitheking
sibitheking

1 more day 1 more day !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

genopreetyboyo
genopreetyboyo

This game is hot.. But I think it's time for another GTA 6 original story and all

yasinjoon
yasinjoon

This is going to be epic ,However I'm not going to buy a ps3 or X360. so good for u guys, and I just enjoy trailer & review videos.

brain20035
brain20035

I like this guy! looking forward to playing this game so much! I've been bored with repetitive shooters, action games, etc.

Hinton00
Hinton00

@thefreeloader I think it was necessary to steal half the cast of Madmen to get the authentic 40-50's take they were trying to get.... They shoulda casted the whole cast imo... but then again this is LA... not NY.... lol

TheFreeloader
TheFreeloader

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

Darth_SupleX
Darth_SupleX

Is PSN getting restored now? Do it quick -_-

acerpg007
acerpg007

Hope Team Bondi gets the credit they deserved as well.

PS3gamer890
PS3gamer890

@HUMAIDSALIM WOW you are the bigest FA* of all time holly FUC* i hope you never play a video game ever again and I forgot to say FUC* YOUUUU!!!

PS3gamer890
PS3gamer890

well rockstar always has impressed us

Jim60360
Jim60360

@gamerxxx89 Mafia was a bad game, just thought you should know. Oh and i think you mean THIS, not DIS. xxx

Philly1UPer
Philly1UPer

Crysis 2 the best looking console game this gen? Sorry Gaming Sites that promoted that term heavily. THIS game is going to be the best looking console game this gen.

F4Remix
F4Remix

This Game Just Looks Amazing I Love How Rockstar Make These Kinda Games,Its Like Red Dead Redemption And L.A Noire Are The Same Thing As GTA 4 Just Set At Different Periods In Time And Different Locations.

gamerxxx89
gamerxxx89

@rangerra ahem ahem sorry sir i noticed lately i ws actually talking to a person who haha who plays mature games like Zelda hahaha

19Gam3NErD91
19Gam3NErD91

gamespot is sure building up a lot of hype for this game, but i don't need it cause i already know how awesome it's gonna be :D

GamerJedi29
GamerJedi29

@gamingboss I would have to disagree with you if Mass Effect 3 hadn't been delayed. There are a lot of great games coming out this year, this is definitely a contender for GOTY

bluedarrk
bluedarrk

This game will be epic then there is Infamous 2, these great sp games will make up for the psn being down.

rangeraa
rangeraa

@gamerxxx89 Speaking of mature...You talk like a child! That being said I agree with you, Mafia and Mafia2 are great games.

franzito
franzito

Too much hype on this, let's see after release.

gamingboss
gamingboss

i hope this game wins game of the year. :)

gamerxxx89
gamerxxx89

well hmm some people think they become mature by playing dis haha funny mafia is epic and will always cm in ma top 5 games and l.a noire is over rated just like other consoles games

flicks09
flicks09

Great interview, a really positive advert for video games and their potential to have a wider cultural impact.

Romeric87
Romeric87

Good interview. The more I look into this game, the more I want it. They are setting the new standard in facial animation - it goes way beyond anything we've seen before. If the reviews are up there, I might have to sell a few things and get this. Damn my bank balance!

i-like-me
i-like-me

@Arther-la-Blunt i dont think this will be like heavy rain the only similarity between is the theme of murders and crime. the gameplay is completely different in this

mer1in79
mer1in79

Love the technology behind this but i hope it doesn't mean a rush to sign up "proper" hollywood actors to star in games i know a few developers will be wasting big money signing up the big names thinking thats what we need but please slow down Gameplays the most important thing not a recognisable face i couldn't care less if i was playing a charactor played by Brad Pitt or an un-known actor as long as the story and game mechanics were good.

zalayetta
zalayetta

Rockstar Games is hot! i cant wait for it, and i wish that this game will be awesome!

Harrymanhunter1
Harrymanhunter1

@HUMAIDSALIM yeah there us no multiplayer.What's the problem with that? Single Player is greater than multiplayer.

jonmar
jonmar

@beanofengland ...Gave you a thumbs up but I think it was Uncharted that really took the motion captured actors to this next level. The facial animations and the body language of those characters were and still are amazing. And in my opinion the way they did that was more impressive than here on LA Noire because they actually acted out every scene with all the actors present. Not just one guy alone in a room. Have to say though I'm really excited about LA Noire and I hope I can get a copy on the day it comes out. It will be awesome.

bluedarrk
bluedarrk

for once the ps3 version doesn't get screwed!