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The director of the Last of Us explains how to cast a game and get real performances from your leads

The director of the Last of Us explains how to cast a game and get real performances from your leads

The character of Ellie from Naughty Dog’s upcoming The Last of Us has gone through a series of changes since she was originally conceived. The character looks different, for one. The second change is that she’s now more capable and willing to hold her own in violent situations. This shift began when Ashley Johnson, the actress playing the character, stated that she wanted to punch her attacker during a motion capture session. Based on Johnson's real reactions to the script and the situations she acted out, the character of Ellie gradually became more aggressive in the game. This is what happens when you hire actors to bring your characters to life, and not just voice actors.

How Naughty Dog is different

Many games hire voice actors to come in and record their lines in a limited amount of time, and those performances are added to the animated characters. The dire state of voice acting in most games is enough evidence that this process doesn’t yield satisfying results. Naughty Dog has their actors work on scenes with writers from the game. They share notes, build chemistry, and explore the characters together. “What we want the actors to do is be these characters and there’s nothing better than two actors in the same scene at the same time riffing and performing off each other,” Bruce Straley, the game’s director, told the Penny Arcade Report. “We have rehearsal days, we have motion capture shoot days, and there’s a lot that gets worked out through those.” The scripts are written and re-written with feedback from the actors playing these roles, and Naughty Dog allows the actors room to experiment and give thoughts on what the character would do. This is what they learned through the Uncharted motion capture process. One of the reasons the characters in that series are so well defined is that they’ve worked together for years, rehearsing the scenes and giving notes on their performances as the game is developed. It’s a performance, and the voice is only a small part of it. Having the actors work on the scenes together on the same stage is something that’s both expensive and time consuming, but the results are impressive. It also makes auditions even more important. “We have an idea of what this character is supposed to be. We go through the audition process, and we see a lot of people. Every now and then something happens and it just clicks,” Straley said. “We narrow it down, but Ashley Johnson came in, and we saw about twenty different people, and we knew. On the very first take, that was our Ellie. Then we didn’t tell her, we bring her back with a smaller crew of people and we had her do a different scene, and she kept hitting it and kept nailing it, and it was very simple.” Troy Baker plays Joel, the older man in the game, and the relationship between his character and Ellie was built from the two actors sharing space on the stage and working through the script together. Which raises an interesting question: How do you make sure the actors will be available for the sequels? “We take it one game at a time no matter what. We know that the world has a potential for a franchise or whatever, but it really doesn’t matter to us. We’re trying to make this one game the best it can be,” Straley explained. That being said… “We do check certain things. How tight is their schedule? Do they have a big TV gig or a movie career that’s just about to take off and that’s the point where we wonder how we can work this. But it hasn’t come into conflict with this yet.” He refused to deal with the deeper story elements yet, talking about the why when it comes to Ellie and Joel going on this journey, but he did give some clues. “I can say this: Joel is working with a partner in the quarantine zone, smuggling rations cards and smuggling drugs. He’s done these kinds of missions for people before. They’re asked to take Ellie outside of the quarantine zone to meet up with some people. Things go wrong, and his partner asks him the favor of continuing on with this journey. Because of their relationship, reluctantly, Joel is going to continue on.” The characters' relationship will grow and change during their trek across the country, and the characters interact and speak to each other with a familiarity and comfort that's rare in games. They sound like real people who have spent significant amounts of time with each other. The secret to that performance is simple: They are being played by actors who actually have sent significant amounts of time with each other. There are no shortcuts.