“Do you want me to do it like the tactical way? Do you want me to do it the redneck way? Do you want me to just come in like an amateur?”
Noshir Dalal is standing in the motion capture studio for a video game and he’s being asked to storm a room. But he needs more context. Is he a trained professional who will be stacking up and checking corners, or is he the kind of guy who will bumrush the building while spraying rounds?
A mocap professional isn’t just someone who knows how to move, it’s someone who knows how to move with intent. It is someone who has studied how others move and can mimic those movements. It’s someone who understands how the mocap process translates into in-game animations, and how technical limitations are married to that process.
Dalal is one of the most prominent people in this profession. While he’s also known for VO (Sekiro) and full performance acting (Charles Smith, Red Dead Redemption 2), he’s also the guy you go to if you want someone who can handle a gun. When I speak to him, he’s working on seven games. “If Sony needs a gun guy, it’s often me, which is a good time,” he says. Trained in Shotokan karate, Isshin-ryu karate, Luohan kung fu, Shaolin kung fu, and “a little bit of capoeira here and there”, he could probably spin kick your head off as well.
As someone who works the full range of video game acting – voice over work, mocap, and full performance capture – he has a bird’s-eye view of the industry and all the different disciplines. But video games have a problem: mocap actors are not credited properly.
In a movie, stunt performers aside, the actors give a full performance. This is the same deal for games such as Red Dead Redemption 2 and The Last of Us, where actors play out their scenes as if it was a theatre production. In games, this isn’t always the case, however. Sometimes, the person who voices the character isn’t their body.
Tom Keegan, performance director for Wolfenstein: New Order, reminisces about working with Brian Bloom (B.J. Blazkowicz): “One of the last scenes in the game, the bit where he’s going to kill the bad guy, Deathshead, at the end. He just had the scene where he says goodbye to his loved ones and he gets on this elevator and he loads the gun – just the way he loaded this gun, the specific movements. He was very familiar with guns – the sense of determination, power, control, rage. It was just brilliant. I was so grateful that we had him, an actor who could physically carry that off in a realistic way.”
Originally the game’s creative director had another actor in mind for the role, but they never reached a deal. That’s when Keegan started pushing for Bloom, who was planned to play a smaller part in the MachineGames FPS. In the end, I couldn’t imagine anyone else as Blazkowicz, and much of that is down to his physical presence. Now imagine if Bloom had just done the movements, rather than full performance capture – body and voice. Would he have got the same credit?
“Unfortunately, right now, the way it tends to work is, at least in my experience, the motion capture actors for a major character end up getting listed under mocap credits, in a big chunk of names with no distinction or delineation,” Dalal explains. “Which is too bad, and I’m hoping that changes in the future. When you take some of these iconic characters, especially in video games where, what do they say? ‘Ninety-percent of communication is body language,’ or whatever it is? That’s a massive part of the storytelling.
“For example, if I’m doing a role where I’m doing the movement and action for it, and then the actor is doing the voice and they’ll capture his face as well for it. When I’m in there, I’m delivering a full performance. I’m saying the lines, even if I have to say them to myself, depending on if they’re recording audio or whatever. I’m going through every single emotion that that character has. Because if I don’t, my body will betray that I’m actually not there.”
Mocap professionals often have a technical knowledge that traditional actors might not bring to a role as well. When Dalal did motion capture for Marvel’s Spider-Man, he knew that he needed to exaggerate his movements for the part of Rhino or his arms would clip through his body. Rhino is a hulking character and Dalal was tasked with finding a way to make him move convincingly without making it look ridiculous and while still retaining his powerful, menacing gait. He also had to make sure the hefty character’s thighs didn’t rub together.
“The horn that he has is, I pictured it like a sidewinder missile, so his movement would be almost like a 2000lb shark coming at you, or a sidewinder missile winding its way at you, which allows him to kind of shift his weight from side to side and keep his legs from clipping while still looking scary,” Dalal remembers. “And discovering moments like that can create a movement that doesn’t make intuitive sense, like right off the top of your head, that can make a character look powerful