In Part One of our behind-the-scenes look at The Last of Us from gamescom 2012, Creative Director Neil Druckmann and Game Director Bruce Straley gave us insight into the inspiration behind the story and emotional themes of the game. Later Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, the two actors who play the characters of Joel and Ellie in the game, gave us a deeper understanding of who the characters are, took us through the cinematic process behind performance capture, and explained how they prepare for a typical day’s shoot.
Naughty Dog community strategist Arne Meyer facilitated a panel discussion with the pair, who has become well known within the videogame community since their involvement in this project. In between chatting to Ashley and Troy we also saw a couple of videos which helped to explain the cinematic process even further, and which we’ve also included in this article along with photos taken at these performance capture sessions.
Troy has a lot of experience working in the videogame industry, he’s played a variety of characters from different series including Two-Face in Batman: Arkham City, Vincent Brooks in Catherine, Snow Villiers in Final Fantasy XIII and Jake Muller in the upcoming Resident Evil 6. Ashley is known for her work on the TV show The Killing, as well as the films The Avengers and Fast Food Nation.
We kicked things off by taking a closer look at Joel and Ellie, the two lead characters in The Last of Us. Troy believes that Joel is very much of a brutal survivor, someone who remembers the world as it was before the pandemic ravaged humanity. For Troy one of the lines from the audition stands out as a defining statement about Joel and helps him to tie himself to the emotions that Joel feels: the line says that Joel has few moral lines left to cross.
Ellie, on the other hand, is a 14 year old that was born after the pandemic and has only ever grown up in the quarantine zone of the city. She has never been outside this quarantine zone, this is the only world she has ever known, and because of this Ashley believes that Ellie is a survivor as well, but a survivor in a different kind of way.
Watch Bill’s Safe House cinematic below:
As you can see from the above cut-scene, the tension is high and, according to Troy, this tension runs throughout the game as they’re running from something (although we’re not sure from what just yet). In the scene Joel and Ellie have gone to a town to find a friend of Joel’s named Bill. Bill, played by W. Earl Brown, is described as “the kind of guy who can get things for you.” Yet even though Bill knows Troy, he doesn’t know Ellie and being a little paranoid he attacks her. Troy says this highlights the trusting relationship between Joel and Ellie, but that the dynamic can change when someone who Bill doesn’t trust is involved. Joel is looking for a car, a simple thing for us, a means of transportation, but crucial for Joel in the game. Troy explained how he likes this scene because it starts with such tension but also has great moments of levity with Ellie’s character being loudmouthed and shows how important these relationships are to surviving this post-pandemic world.
We then went on to discuss what happens once Neil has sent the script to Ashley and Troy. Troy described how Neil is open to sit down and talk about the script, and then walked us through a typical day. Neil sets up a date to shoot a particular scene on, they then receive the scenes a few days before this and go in to do a table read. This gives them the opportunity to talk through the scene and find out certain details, like where this specific scene takes place in the whole story, where the characters are coming from and to just talk out the dialogue. If it’s a scene with just Ashley and Troy then they will be there with Neil for several hours, providing an intimate setting to have the freedom to talk about the lines, the scene and any questions or ideas they may have.
Once both actors are comfortable with the words, they will head to the stage and spend an entire day rehearsing anything from four to five scenes. This rehearsal process gives them freedom to lock in the set and work out logistics, for example where the cars are going to be or that there’s a door to walk through etc. This in turn means that when they shoot the scenes they have the freedom to explore the tension, the dramatic element or the levity, and implement any changes that they think could help sell the impact. Troy pointed out that this is a very selective process because the cinematics in a game are typically between 40 to 90 seconds.
Ashley went on to explain that there’s a lot of collaboration between Neil and the actors, with some things changing after they have done the table reading and talked the scene out. Even though she believes that a lot of it is kept because “his writing is so good and so natural,” they do have input due to them having spent a year and a half with the characters and having a really good idea of what the characters would do.
So, what do these actors do to get into character before they arrive on stage? For Troy being prepared for anything is the most he can prepare himself. He spends time alone and rehearses the lines and the scene, but everything can change when he sees what Ashley is going to do. For this reason he says they prepare themselves by understanding the core of the stories and the characters, trying to understand who the characters are, understanding the situation that they are in, and “being ready to roll with the changes.”
Ashley has a unique challenge in that Ellie has only ever known this post-pandemic world. Getting into this mindset has been an interesting challenge for her, and is something which she continues to work on today. She tries to imagine what it would be like to live in this world, to have only lived in this one city her whole life with so many rules and such a regimented way of living.
Watch the performance capture video below to see what it looks like on stage when Troy and Ashley are shooting a scene. High-tech cameras record the tracking markers on the mocap suits to capture these raw mocap performances.
The actors have a mic and 90 ‒ 95% of the audio is captured on the stage. This means that the movement that you get when wrestling with the door, or fighting with each other, is the actual sound that you hear in the game. According to Troy you can try to duplicate this in a booth but it’s nothing like what you can actually capture on the stage. Troy described how Earl Brown had a cold when they were shooting this scene, so when he says “Am I done” you can hear his chest rattle, giving an authenticity to it because these kind of flaws and imperfections are how we talk in real life.
Troy believes that performance capture is popular in videogames now because the bar is so high and gamers expect amazing things, they want to have a cinematic experience so developers look to performance capture to really bring the characters to life. Some games are done with just voice acting, with a single actor in a booth with a microphone – sometimes these actors get to read the other characters’ lines and sometimes they don’t. When Troy and Ashley work together it helps to develop the scenes and you get a completely different performance and a more organic experience. This in turn lends itself to a more cinematic experience where it’s no longer just one actor doing his thing individually, but it’s a group of actors really developing the characters.
Troy continued to discuss how the bar is set so high right now that developers have to “amaze people constantly just because they expect the unbelievable, so anything that falls short of that is underwhelming.” He believes the result of the hard work, the work of the concept artists, level designers and everybody else on the team, is “mindblowing.” When he saw the finished scene he “knew that everything [they] were doing on the stage, all of the subtleties, all of the nuances, were being captured, and that instilled so much confidence in [him].”
Watch a video of the cinematic process below. The raw mocap data is taken to the Naughty Dog team, cleaned up, and then the next step in the cinematic process takes place. The video shows you six steps in about a minute, it’s basically a “time lapse of video showing over two years of planning, writing, performance, scripting, animation, lighting, and artistry. Then apply more tweaking, more adjusting, and more fine-tuning.”
Troy went on to discuss how he believes it’s a mistake for developers to use cinematics to develop the narrative because it becomes disconnected. In comparison Naughty Dog create a through line of the narrative, not only in cinematics but also through in-game play and in-game cinematic. He used Nathan Drake from Uncharted as an example, when the player is controlling Nathan and moving around the levels he’s still talking to Sully or Elena. The Last of Us has the same thing, only it’s more embellished because there’s so much of that kind of narrative, and so many character defining moments that happen. The player is controlling so they feel a connection to Joel or Ellie by actually controlling these dramatic cinematic moments happening in-game. These kind of moments, and sounds, are not scripted events, and even though you may not consciously be aware of these studio recordings when you’re playing the game, if they weren’t there you would notice something was different.
Even though the story focuses on Joel and Ellie, there will be times when other actors are involved, like in the scene with Bill, and this changes the dynamic of the performance capture space. In Troy’s mind the process is so proven that you can throw any factor in but it’s still going to function just as well. It may well be because of the strong relationship between Ashley and Troy. Ashley was cast first and they went through the audition process to find Joel, but when they met Troy there was instant chemistry and now after spending so much time working with the characters Ashley feels that when they are together in real life they’re still Joel and Ellie.
We learned a little bit more about Joel from Troy, about how he’s been through horribly dramatic things to get to this place where he’s a loner and he isolates himself and thinks he doesn’t need anyone. But the story really takes off when he realises that he does need Ellie, and in that there can be some redemption. Troy singled out the last line of the gamescom trailer where Ellie asks Joel how he knew about the ambush and Joel says “I’ve been on both sides.” He’s been the guy who’s been beaten up and the guy who has beaten up. To Troy this shows a truth that no matter how much we think we can get by on our own, we need people in our lives to help us through the hardships and celebrate the good times.
As we’ve mentioned Ellie has only known the quarantine zone, and she’s been sheltered in the post-pandemic world. Moving outside this zone she starts to see the world for the first time, and there’s a sense of wonderment of the discovery of the real world. She finds value in nostalgia, while Joel is trying to let the past stay buried, another example of the contrast that Naughty Dog is seeking to create in The Last of Us.
To end off here’s the new trailer from gamescom 2012, which mixes content we’ve seen before with new cinematic and gameplay footage.