The history of Uncharted according to Naughty Dog: from inception to Deception
After the casting was complete, the production itself could start. North and his fellow stars soon realised that Uncharted’s approach to motion capture and performance was far more complex and integrated than usual for games. “A lot of developers – perhaps from budgetary concerns – will get actors in just for an afternoon,” says Lemarchand. “But we don’t think that’s the right way to do it. We believe the best way to do it is to get the actors involved right from the very beginning.”
“We rehearse,” puts in North, stressing his words to demonstrate that such luxuries are unheard of outside of Uncharted. “We get a full day of talking it through, blocking it out – much like you would a television show, or a film.” “What’s very important for us is that it gives the actors the opportunity to contribute their ideas,” Lemarchand says. “Quite often somebody will come up with a line on the spur of the moment that we’ll then incorporate into the game, and actually change the lines on the printed page.”
Production takes place in a blank, empty studio stripped of everything bar cameras, actors and crude props. These days the team occupies a hangar-like space on the Sony Pictures lot, but early on they were in LA’s House Of Moves, a motion-capture facility also used by survival horror Dead Space. North consistently likens the process itself to theatre, which is similar in its makeshift sets and in the amount of work – and freedom – it presents to the actors.
Although theatre actors don’t have to wear the suits. “Ten pounds of crap in a five-pound bag,” remarks North dryly, of his first time in the skintight motion-capture one-piece. “Sometimes we have to go back to loop ourselves – it’s called ADR,” he continues, referring to additional dialogue recording done after the initial video session. “There was one time – I had it burned [in my mind] – it was a brown motion capture suit. And I could barely look at it. I needed to cut down on the cheeseburgers, and go for about a 40-mile jog.”
With the production up and running, and the studio busy designing the framework of the game, the missing link was how the two would come together. A new expertise developed within Naughty Dog, focused on integrating performance data into the Uncharted engine. North sees the area as “very crucial to this game”, while Lemarchand explains how the hand-animation skills from Naughty Dog’s earlier titles came into play, with animators working closely to live video shot on the mo-cap stage. “They can see exactly what the actors are doing, down to very tiny details in their faces, and then reproduce that with hand-animation for the finished game,” he says.
Their work is so good, according to North, that not only is it responsible in large part for Drake’s popularity, but is also capable of confounding family members. “My wife has watched the game, and she says, ‘You do that.’ By the time we’ve got to Uncharted 3, I’ve seen animations that even to me are a little uncanny.”
This particular area of development – the fusion point where performance meets programming – is one to which North was particularly drawn when researching his behind-the-scenes book, Drake’s Journal.
For North, it revealed essential similarities between the various crafts that underpin Uncharted’s astonishing quality. “The one thing I’ve learned is that the collaboration we have on that mo-cap stage is mirrored at Naughty Dog, with the designers and programmers and artists. You go to the office and you see them jumping over the cubicles and running around,” he says.“There’s this idea that game developers talk about, which is that in order to make fun, you have to have fun,” adds Lemarchand. “I think that’s what everyone likes about working with you, Nolan – that you’re genuinely into the subject.” “Well, that’s what they say about Richard,” replies North. “He’s genuinely into the subject matter, and he rarely wears any pants.”