Bringing life to game characters

Brandon O’Neill. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Brandon O’Neill. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
The ODT’s  Ben Allan talks to actor, voice and motion capture (MoCap) performer for video games Brandon O’Neill. 

What was your pathway into voice acting? How do you find it shifting between work for theatre and film, and games?

My pathway was a little odd. I wasn’t actively pursuing “voice acting”. For Destiny, my agent initially sent me a breakdown for an audition for an unnamed project in the Seattle area calling for a “Space Thief” I was like ... that’s me! I did two on-camera auditions — that felt very much like a film audition. I had no idea that they were looking to use me as a voice and performance and expression model for [original Destiny character] Uldren. Heck, I filmed for more than two years before Uldren even had a name.

[There’s] not a huge shift required to adjust from theatre to voice-over (VO) to film other than the size of your performance. In theatre you’ll hear the phrase “Louder, faster, funnier”. While it’s not always the rule, it helps when your intentions need to be understood at the back of a 2000-seat house. In VO and film a more subdued or subtle performance is needed. When the camera or microphone is in your face, there’s no need to vocally “project”. In mocap, many times they’ll want more dynamic physical action that at times can be connected to a body very different from your own.

Was it difficult to adjust from stage/screen acting when you started?

I found my experience as a theatre actor was key to being successful in the performance capture or motion capture space. Knowing how to connect text to movement was a big plus. Mocap is like theatre, in that you get to rehearse and play and you have to use your imagination in an almost completely empty space, but it’s also like film, in that you have to be aware of camera angles.

Crow in a scene from video game Destiny 2.
Crow in a scene from video game Destiny 2.
Doing full “performance capture” is rare in the video game world. Many times, the actor voicing the character is different from the person doing mocap. Uldren/Crow is the only character that I do both for. That’s why I feel particularly connected to him. He even shares some of my physical features.

I have had to do MoCap for other voice actors’ performances as well. I did much of the Destiny and Destiny 2 MoCap for Lance Reddick’s performance as Zavala. (by the way ... Lance, love your work, dude.)

What sort of context/direction do you get for your voice work?

We always work with a director in VO. Kevin McMullan has been my guru for reinventing Uldren as Crow. In the VO sessions he’s with me every step of the way making sure to get the writer’s and story creator’s intentions right while allowing me to discover and create new takes on the character that maybe they didn’t consider initially. Usually we’ll be recording for content in upcoming seasons and that stuff is top-secret, so yeah, I get a comprehensive update on the story before I start recording.

While recording, I visualise myself in the world of the script. On a spaceship or a battlefield, in an intimate room. I also try to visualise the other characters in the scene, and most importantly I try to hear the written words in their voice. Most of the time if we share a scene with other voice actors, we don’t have the luxury of hearing their performance during recording. So we react “as if” they’ve just said the words on the page. It’s tricky. That’s where the director is key. The director can say ... we’re not going to have the other actor yell there, so you don’t need to react as if he’s yelling ... then I can change my performance to match their overall plan.

How do you get yourself into character for voice work, but also for motion capture — especially non-human characters?

Getting into character for [alien mobster] Spider was unique. The biggest difference between working on Uldren and him was that for Uldren, I am creating movement at the same time as I’m recording VO. It’s all live and happening at the same time.

But for Spider — I had to act to someone else’s voice performance. Robin [Atkin Downes, voice actor] had this fantastic performance as Spider. Full of breath and grit and comedy. After hearing this, reading the words, and seeing a rendering of Spider, he was easy to visualise. I was able to “don” him, if you will, and he rolled out in the moment. It also helped that they velcroed a big spider belly to my mocap suit!

What's a typical motion capture session like?

Mocap Sessions are usually full work days, eight hours. We’ll break it down into cinematic scenes for the principal characters. Do the whole scene at once. Usually with discussion first, so everyone understands the shots, then rehearsal in the MoCap volume, then we shoot. It usually requires several takes to get everything they want. Any other bits and pieces are done at the end. Say the volume is only 50 feet — but your character in game walks 200 feet — you need to do several passes at walking to get enough info for them to use in game.

Brandon O’Neill working as Spider.
Brandon O’Neill working as Spider.
It can be physically very taxing. If you jump up from a crouched position to shoot over a boulder enough times, your quads will start to burn! While filming MoCap for one scene, they asked me to flip in the air on to a foam mat to capture info on what a body might do if it was backhanded by a Taken Fallen Captain (or whatever that was). That one hurt!

The pandemic has obviously meant Destiny studio Bungie doing a lot of work from home, yourself included. What's that experience been like for you?

Covid has put a hold on the mocap sessions for me but it has expanded the VO. I have had to reinvent Uldren as the Crow using only my voice. He’s the same vessel but with a completely different world view. His voice couldn’t change that much because it’s the same voice box but his attitude could. A big writing challenge and acting challenge.

Add to that doing it all from my own home. In a way it’s nice. I can wear my pyjamas and not care what people are thinking about Crow with a Covid beard. On the other hand, it’s a huge pain. Recording VO requires relative silence in a controlled environment. A house with single pane windows, on a busy street, with two dogs and two kids is not what I would call “controlled”.

We’ve had to stop sessions for barking, garbage trucks, loud neighbours, people mowing their lawn and even just rain. I also have to set up my little home studio every time. It’s not ideal but I’m not complaining.

Is it weird watching your own performances in the game?

It’s fun to watch the cut scenes in game. Normally that will be the first time you get to see all of the elements come together. Before that it’s just basic renderings and storyboard elements. Music most importantly — that’s the element that brings the chills.

Spider in a scene from Destiny 2.
Spider in a scene from Destiny 2.
Voice actors get called upon to create new characters (are we right in spotting that you did some voice work for a new character in a secret mission for the game recently?) How do you approach trying to create a whole new character with just your voice?

Yes, you get the scoop! That was indeed me as Unknown Guardian – Katabasis. Truth be told, I was put on the spot at the end of a Crow session. I had no idea they wanted me to try to voice another character. They said “we want you to try something for the last part of the session”. And they sent me the script right at that moment. I had limited background on this character so it was kind of a guess. I had a few minutes to look it over and then we started recording. It’s never ideal in that scenario but that’s the gig. You’ve got to be quick on your feet and make decisions in the moment. I had no idea whether they’d use the stuff or not. Happy they did.

What's going to be going on with Crow in the future? Give us a hint!

Ha ha ha! Bro, you KNOW I’m under that non-disclosure agreement. I mean, you Kiwis are far away but not THAT far. Nice try. I’m certainly excited to see where Crow’s redemption arc might take him. It’s a worthy story and one I think players and fans are hungry to follow. I absolutely love the 80’s Tron vibes of the new artwork on Season of the Splicer. I think the future is bright for Destiny. With the rules of physics being bent with magic — literally ANYTHING could happen.


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