With Hollywood lending its voice, are video games the new films?

Gaurav Bhatt
voiceover, video games, The Witcher, Superman, Red Dead Redemption, God of War, Cyberpunk 2077, Rami Malek, Keanu Reeves, Roger Clarke, Christopher Walken, Judi Dench, Morgan Freeman, Ellen Page, Henry Cavill, video game, Doug Cockle, Geralt of Rivia, Mads Mikkelsen, Guillermo Del Toro, Willem Dafoe, VFX, console gaming, motion capture, animation, animators, Eye 2020, Sunday Eye, Indian Express, Indian Express news

Complex plots, crisp writing, choreographed combats, original music and seasoned performances. Are video games the new films?

Even Superman plays video games. Henry Cavill, the last person to don the red cape, famously ignored the casting confirmation call from director Zack Snyder because he was busy playing World of Warcraft.

After an unremarkable stint as the Man of Steel, it was a video game that presented Cavill with a chance to bring another iconic character to the screen. Enamoured of The Witcher 3 — the fantasy role-playing game that pits otherworldly beasts against a hunter — and the performance of voice actor Doug Cockle as Geralt of Rivia, the eponymous witcher, Cavill started angling for the part in the TV adaptation. In December, Netflix released The Witcher to mixed reviews from critics. Cavill’s Geralt, however, managed to floor the tougher bunch — hardcore gamers ready to shred the Brit’s interpretation of a beloved character.

“I’ve played the (Witcher) games a lot. When I heard (voice actor) Doug Cockle’s incredible performance in Witcher 3, that I’ve heard time after time in games, I realised that I could utilise something like that to create a stony exterior,” Cavill explained. “I blended my accent with that gravelly tone, the whisper range that Doug uses, to get the pared-down version.”

What do Rami Malek, Judi Dench, Julianne Moore, Morgan Freeman, Christopher Walken and Ellen Page have in common? No, they are not all Oscar winners. What they have in common is an acting credit for a video game.

In 2010, celebrated American film critic Roger Ebert stirred a debate when he declared that “video games can never be art”. The comment section of Ebert’s website, a regular war zone, blew up. “At this moment, 4,547 comments have rained down upon me for that blog entry... Perhaps, 300 supported my position. The rest were united in opposition,” Ebert later noted.

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Willem Dafoe and Ellen Page in motion-capture suits at a recording session

The decade that followed went a long way towards settling that debate, as millennials grew up and so did their video games. The low art, soon-to-be a $150 billion-industry, has long dwarfed Hollywood, as migrating artistes have entered voiceover (VO) booths and donned motion-capture suits.

British actor and director Andy Serkis, who helped develop the mocap paraphernalia during his turn as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, was shunned by the Academy in 2003 because his performance was technologically-aided. December’s The Game Awards, celebrating acting in video games, lit up approximately 45 million screens and came close to eclipsing the viewerships of The Oscars (29.6 million) and Grammy Awards (19.9 million) combined. The BAFTA gives out its own game awards.

But it’s on the narrative front that major video games have caught up with their reel counterparts. The plots have become more complex, the writing luscious, the combat choreographed, complemented by hours of original music — all anchored by performances from seasoned artists.

Take the case of The Witcher 3 and Red Dead Redemption 2. The former, made on a budget of Rs 580 crore, sold 250 million copies and launched a Netflix series. The latter, with reportedly twice the budget, amassed $725 million (Rs 5,174 crore) in its opening weekend, eclipsing Avengers: Infinity War’s $640-million mark.

The tropes are familiar. Both games feature gruff, reluctant anti-heroes, actions of whom players control. One is a monster-hunting swordsman from a fantasy setting, the other, a gunslinger finding his place in a new Western frontier. Aragorn and John Wayne, if you will. The 60+ hours a player spends with these characters, however, allow ample time for wrinkles and layers.

Doug Cockle and Roger Clark are stage veterans-turned-leading men who have helped shape two of the most iconic video game protagonists: Geralt of Rivia and Arthur Morgan.

Growing up, Cockle was always the gamemaster for his Dungeons & Dragons crew, and devoured the tomes by JRR Tolkien and Anne McCaffrey. “I was a biology major, going for pre-med,” says Cockle, laughing over the phone from his home in Bournemouth, England. “My mom used to say I was always a performer. In high school, I joined the drama society. I would have become a doctor, but in the second year of university, I switched back to fine arts.”

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Roger Clark (in blue) as Arthur Morgan in Red Dead Redemption

Cockle’s introduction to voice-acting in video games was 1999’s little-known Independence War 2. Even though he was not an active gamer and “didn’t even have a computer”, Cockle sensed where the medium was heading. “There weren’t a lot of games out there with masses of voice-acting. Most games still used text for the dialogue,” says Cockle. “So, while I approached that assignment as any other acting gig, I developed an appreciation for video games.”

Soon not only had Cockle become a regular on the VO circuit, he had also assembled a neat collection of film credits: a role in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers (2001), Tailor of Panama (2001) with Pierce Brosnan and Geoffrey Rush, and Reign of Fire (2002) with Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey. He went on to play a minor role in the first Captain America (2011) movie, but Cockle’s life-changing break arrived in the spring of 2005. “I was called for an audition by a company in Poland called CD Projekt Red (CDPR)... (It was for) The Witcher. I went into the booth, played around, tried my best tough-guy voice. A writer then suggested using Clint Eastwood from Dirty Harry (as a model).”

There were teething problems. The Witcher was the first big project for CDPR, a company started out by two friends on a budget of $2,000 out of an acquaintance’s rent-free flat in 1994. Video games were scarce, but Poland was teeming with indigenous literature. The company acquired rights to Andrzej Sapkowski Wiedzmin fantasy series and hedged all bets on its adaptation.

“The series of books was pretty much unknown in the West,” says Cockle. “The books were in Polish, so a lot of my work with The Witcher I was them trying to describe the colourful world, and the monsters and characters that inhabited it. They were a lot more hands-on for the first game, but it was out of a place of pride and attention for the project.”

What followed was a 10-year collaboration that made CDPR richer by over $1billion, and left author Sapkowski shortchanged. “I was stupid enough to leave everything in their hands because I didn’t believe in their success. But who could foresee their success?” Sapkowski has been quoted as saying. (He signed a new $16 million deal with CDPR last year, his books have since been widely translated and have sold 33 million copies. They were the source material for the Netflix show.)

Cockle now shares his life with Geralt — “the role of a lifetime” and is hounded to do the voice wherever he goes. Since 2015’s The Witcher 3 was a massive game, translated into several languages, CDPR skipped full performance capture. Cockle, thus, only had to provide the voice to the character, the lower-register rasp that became the template for all versions.

“Geralt’s voice was a real push for me. But over the years, it has actually become a more natural register. My voice has been trained to go there quickly and easily. Or, as some people say, I’ve damaged my voice. But I’ve damaged it with consciousness,” Cockle laughs. “I don’t think about doing Geralt’s voice, but there are times when it just comes out of me.”

In January, Roger Clark completed 20 years as an actor. Like Cockle, he too flirted with the idea of discontinuing his fine arts studies, before persevering. The Irish-American actor recalls the first 14 years being a struggle, juggling odd work with catering, bartending and a “disgusting” stint in a chicken factory. His formal drama training was utilised doing “Shakespeare in schools for eight-year-olds”. Later, he worked with a touring theatre group, which also gave him a chance to try out Kathakali in Singapore. A chunk of Clark’s career since has been spent in VO booths. He did hundreds of hours of voiceover for Rockstar Studios’ Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018) for the role of protagonist Arthur Morgan and has stories to tell. “Something as simple as talking to your horse. It needed to change depending on whether you had a mare or a stallion in the game. Whether your Arthur had level 1 bonding with your horse or level 4,” he says, with a laugh.

Clark, however, makes it a point to correct people when they refer to his work in RDR2 as voice acting. “Voicing a character is a tough job. I have immense respect for everyone who’s done it, but my work was mostly performance capture. We acted out everything you saw in those scenes.”

For five years, as Arthur Morgan, Clark led a cast of 850 actors, donned skintight “superhero scuba suits” covered in tiny rubber balls for positioning, his face marked with dots and a camera and a light dangling in front. For hours at an end. All to allow a computer to map every single muscle twitch to an in-game avatar. But a cowboy is only as good as his horse.

“We rode steel barrels as horses. Everything was made out of pipes, scaffolding and tape. Dimensionally accurate,” says Clark. “Sometimes, people forget that what you’re watching on the screen, the physical and facial emotions, the scenes, it’s all actual acting. With a cast, rehearsals, scripts.”

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Norman Reedus during a recording session

The soundstage in Bethpage, New York was the sandbox, and, out of duct tape and pipes, animators sculpted cinematic renditions of the turn of the 20th-century Western setting — sweeping, cruel deserts to menacing swamps, burgeoning towns to dilapidated villages. “All we had was a set. So, sometimes to prepare, we would go behind the desk and look at the screens to get an idea of how the game world looks. That helped us with the acting. Is it night or day? Is it raining? Am I in the snowy mountains? Should I shiver a bit? Is it muddy — should I wipe my hands and shoes? There is a little bit of suspension of disbelief, but the process is helped by passionate creators who gave us freedom and shared their visions too,” he says.

RDR2 released in October 2018 to critical acclaim. Players took control of Arthur Morgan, and could interact with every last virtual character, traversing vistas lifted from American impressionist paintings. During his tale of redemption, Morgan transformed from a one-note heavy in the early goings to a well-rounded tragic hero. Midway through the game, the character is diagnosed with tuberculosis, essentially a death warrant in 1899. So attached had the players become to this fictional cowboy that Google recorded thousands of searches for “tuberculosis cure”.

Clark still consoles tearful fans at conventions. “Some ask me if I can cough for them,” he laughs. “This game brought families together. A man or a woman is playing it, their partner looks at the screen and goes, ‘That’s beautiful, what is it?’ Their 70-year-old grandpa peeks in from the corner. I have been fortunate to see so many families who have been through this journey.”

Clark’s own journey culminated in a BAFTA award nomination, and The Game Awards trophy for best performer, handed by Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz. The 38-year-old drew little to nothing from the stoic Eastwood characters. His inspiration was Toshiro Mifune, a regular in Akira Kurosawa’s films. “He had that complexity of emotions that I wanted to bring into Arthur. After all, a player has to spend a long time with this character and I wanted to make him as interesting as I could. But it’s all possible because of this wonderful technology.”

Console gaming and motion capture technologies are not new to India, though both phenomena exist at a much smaller scale. VFX studios have mushroomed over the last few years but are mainly busy propelling Indian films to new heights. Gaming has been around longer, and top studios frequently outsource development to Indian animators. The rich mythology, too, has wooed large game studios, who have adopted the characters and Indian setting for big-budget video games. The characters, though, are reserved for Indian-American actors — no notable Indian talent has managed to foray into the world of video games.

Instead, it’s The Walking Dead (television series) stars Norman Reedus and Jon Bernthal, acclaimed filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, and actors Idris Elba and Mads Mikkelsen, who are the latest to cross over and bag starring roles in games. There’s fear among lesser-known video game actors that they could be phased out in favour of household names. Both Cockle and Clark feel the resulting exposure will benefit video games, though the former recalls the sentiment back in the day that “actors working in video games weren’t doing real acting”. “When I first started doing video games, there was definitely that feeling in the background. But in the last 10 years or so, that’s changed because the games have become so epic and cinematic. Some of these big-name actors are gamers, young enough to appreciate the art,” says Cockle.

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Stuntman Eric Jacobus in God of War

Even CDPR’s long-time employers opted for a Hollywood A-lister in Keanu Reeves, 55, for their upcoming game Cyberpunk 2077; another chapter in the resurgence of the John Wick (2014) and The Matrix (1999) actor. When asked if presence of stars like him helped legitimise video games, Reeves told the BBC: “I’d say it’s gone the other way. I mean Marlon Brando in the first Superman, I remember him saying ‘Okay, so now they can just digitise how I am, my look, and do another performance, and I don’t need to be there’. That idea of the technology of image capture and performance we’re seeing in Hollywood now... the elasticity of a performance is getting complex.”

But is transcending mediums that simple? Emmy-winning actor and Game of Thrones superstar Peter Dinklage’s voice-over work for a recent game was panned by players, and all his lines had to be re-recorded. “A good actor is a good actor. But there are people who are fantastic on stage, but the camera just doesn’t like them, and vice versa,” says Cockle. “The performance capture looks even more difficult. You have to use skills from all three mediums. You have to engage your imagination, you’re not wearing a costume. The headset is adding a bit of weight, there’s a camera in your face. It definitely needs other skills.”

Clark adds: “People with an expansive theatre background can adapt; do one-take scenes without error; visualise and imagine. Sure, some facets can be a little distracting — the camera and the light, the suit. But even Mark Ruffalo does the same with the Hulk.”

With video games emerging as a concurrent stream to film and theatre, the consensus is that talented actors will soon be able to slip in and out effortlessly. Taking an iconic character to a different medium, however, will continue to be a tough ask. “I think Henry’s gonna have to make it his own, a perfect Geralt for TV,” says Cockle in response to the Netflix adaptation. “Everyone will compare it to the video games or to the books. It’s a lose-lose situation. (But) he’s very talented and I’m excited to see his take on Geralt.”

Sounds like a star

Rami Malek: Last year’s Best Actor Oscar winner had two minor voiceover credits, but his big break came in 2015 when he starred in the slasher game Until Dawn.

Judi Dench: Dench reprised her role as Agent M for six video games based on the James Bond franchise, most notably in 2010’s 007: Blood Stone, providing both voice and likeness along with Daniel Craig, who plays the titular character.

Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe: The actors dove head-first into the world of performance capture for the 2013 psychological thriller Beyond: Two Souls. Page was so clued into the gaming sphere that she pulled up a rival game for using her likeness for one of the characters.

Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen and Guillermo del Toro: The actors joined forces with The Shape of Water (2017)-director del Toro and acclaimed Japanese game developer Hideo Kojima for last year’s Death Stranding. The quirky, polarising adventure lived up to
the reputation of eccentric Kojima, who frequently names Dangal (2016) as one of his all-time favourite films.