Who was there: From Naughty Dog, there was creative director Amy Hennig, cinematic production lead Taylor Kurosaki, and lead cinematics animator Josh Scherr. These three were accompanied by members of the acting cast, including Nolan North, who plays Nathan Drake; Emily Rose, who does Elena Fisher; and Richard McGonagle, the actor behind Victor Sullivan.
What they talked about: While the panel was largely focused on the motion-capture techniques behind the Uncharted series, one consistent theme was the importance of Naughty Dog's collaborative spirit within everything the studio does. Hennig stressed early on that any member of the development team has to "check their ego at the door" when they come on board, which leads to an environment where staffers feel comfortable bouncing ideas off one another in a free-spirited work environment--an atmosphere that Naughty Dog has previously called "messy and chaotic in a good way."
Hennig suggested that the key to Uncharted's success is that this sort of team mentality doesn't exist purely on the technical side of the game's development; it applies to the actors as well. "So much of what we do is about nuance and humor, and you're not going to get that with actors acting alone in a booth," said Hennig. What Naughty Dog does is film in-game cinematics with every actor together on the same motion-capture set, simultaneously capturing both full-body animations and vocal performances for everyone involved. This contrasts with the more traditional approach where motion capture and vocal recordings are done separately, generally one actor at a time in a sound booth.
"It's just common sense," said Hennig. "It's something that I'm so glad our industry is finally coming around to, realizing acting is about reacting. It's about getting them together, getting them to know their characters and getting to own their characters. The reason [these actors'] characters are the way they are is that they've inhabited them. And because I've worked with them and known them for five years, I can write the characters and hear their voices in my head...especially Richard's laugh."
Early on, there were challenges with this approach. According to Scherr, the actors had to put a lot of faith in Naughty Dog while shooting the cinematics of the original game because of the starkly minimal nature of the motion-capture sets and the fact that there was no in-game footage to use as a reference point. And not only that, certain traditional acting techniques didn't really apply. At one point, Rose asked Scherr where she needed to stand for a particular shot, only to be caught by surprise when Scherr said it didn't really matter. They could make her stand wherever they wanted in postproduction.
One interesting note about Naughty Dog's preferred motion-capture technique is that unlike another notable PlayStation 3 action game, Resistance 3, the motion-capture sessions intentionally leave out sensors on the face to record facial animations. The reason, according to Scherr, is flexibility. Leaving facial animations up to the postproduction animation team allows Naughty Dog to mix and match the best full-body take and the best vocal take and then splice them together after the fact.
With each subsequent game, the actors have become more comfortable with this method of storytelling. In fact, to make the postproduction animating process easier and more flexible, the motion-capture sets have grown more minimal with each game. According to Kurosaki, for one of the jeep scenes in the original Uncharted, Naughty Dog wheeled in an actual vehicle onto the motion-capture stage to help the actors with the scene. Now the vehicles in Uncharted 3 are shot on little more than a few chairs pushed together.
The on-stage banter between Naughty Dog and the actors suggested that the motion-capture technique isn't the only thing that's become more casual. One video Naughty Dog showed the audience during the panel began with a shot of the actors on stage in motion-capture suits, acting out a complete scene from the game. However, the video ended with an extended montage of the actors standing around making comically strained grunting noises for additional audio material to fill out the game's action scenes. This second half of the video earned hysterical laughter from the audience and helped show that the relationship between developer and talent is so comfortable now that the former has no issue with teasing the latter.
"We laugh more than you can imagine," said North in reference to the loose atmosphere that the actors work in during these capture sessions. "I'd love to give you some technical speak, but it's just professional play time."
Quote: Before Naughty Dog rolled the video of the actors in their embarrassing skin-tight motion-capture suits, McGonagle quipped, "If any of you are wearing glasses, this will look a lot better without them."
The takeaway: There are a lot of hurdles that go into making a great video game, but Naughty Dog has shown that having fun and maintaining a casual atmosphere can go a long way toward reaching that goal.