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Behind the Scenes: Uncharted 2's Unique Cinematic Production Process

As if it wasn’t obvious enough after Among Thieves cleaned house at the Game Developers Choice Awards last night, the Naughty Dog team has made clear that nontraditional thinking can yield phenomenal results. Host to several panels this week, Naughty Dog educated peers on many of their unique design practices including the approach to crafting cinematic sequences. There is method to their madness, and we break down some of the more compelling aspects of their design process below.

Early Goals

Setting broad development goals early is paramount to making a successful game and Naughty Dog took this to heart. Ultimately the decision was made to make Uncharted 2 a story-driven game, with a character-driven story. They established early on that the experience would not be glued together by a loose narrative with visceral plot points.  

Casting Characters
If characters and emotional authenticity are key, casting lead roles is no easy endeavor. Naughty Dog approached the story first by blocking it out as a rough outline, then fleshing out the majority of the scenes organically throughout the development process. The team stressed the importance of this because it allows them to react organically and gives them enough flexibility to integrate new ideas.

Casting became the most important part of pre-production once the narrative was blocked out enough to establish characters. Naughty Dog went about casting for Uncharted 2 in a very non-traditional manner – something more akin to the process of film or television production to ensure they ended up with multifaceted candidates who would be able to perform both motion capture and voice work for the game. The return of Nolan North as Nathan Drake was a given, so the team also had the actors read together to test for chemistry. Anything to make the relationships seem more believable.

Skipping The Storyboards
Surprisingly, Naughty Dog revealed that they don't use storyboarding when planning out their cinematic sequences. Evidently they see the practice as too restrictive and time consuming for the minuscule payoff. Sticking too close to a preconceived idea doesn’t allow for spontaneity during recording and the team argues that some of the most memorable moments in Among Thieves were unscripted.

Setting The Stage
With the cast chosen it was time for the motion capturing process to begin. To start the team created blueprint-like designs of key items that would be found in each environment, then recreated a basic skeleton on the stage to give the characters touch points. Evidently the team put too much of a focus on recreating environments on a one-to-one scale in the first game, and realized that simple platforms, boxes and rails could get the job done this time around. You don’t need much to capture a scene – just focal points for the actors to touch and places for them to direct their gaze.

Rehearsal

An uncommon practice for game developers, the actors had mandatory rehearsals together to work out kinks before actual recording began. Usually done the night before, rehearsal and filming included the guidance of a cinema director brought on specifically to attend to the needs of the talent. This coaxes out better results from the actors and allows the development team to focus on more important issues pertaining to actual game design.

Show Time
The actual process of motion capturing is where Naughty Dog’s approach differs most from other major studios. One key element is that the team works with the actors on an ongoing basis, shooting a couple of scenes every few weeks. This method is more akin to filming a television series than a game, and allows the animation pipeline to remain full. Additionally, the characters become more invested and committed to the project, and in turn, the writers are able to adapt real mannerisms of the actors into the script as the project evolves over time.  

As renting these spaces is expensive, Naughty Dog looks to multitask whenever possible. In order to get believable and organic performances, the motion capture work is filmed on a sound stage. The current standard for voice acting has talent holed up in booths for hours at a time, divorced from the other talent they are supposedly interacting with. According to Naughty Dog, performing as a group and tracking both motion and audio simultaneously results in a better product. This means the cast must memorize their lines, making the aforementioned rehearsal process that much more critical.

To insure they get the content needed, every scene is recorded with five cameras – some close-ups and others with wider angles. Usually Naughty Dog shoots somewhere between 3-9 takes of a particular scene, with additional voice work done if worried about noise contamination during a cut. If there is extra time in the space Naughty Dog will then pad the day by filming in-game moves and various other animations.

Animation
Animation is without a doubt the most time-consuming end of the pipeline. To avoid needless tweaks the actors try to keep several things in mind while performing. Motion capture's strength is nuance, so avoiding grand or exaggerated gestures is key. The team also doesn’t bother capturing fingers, props or elaborate stunts – all are better left to the animation team. Surprisingly, Naughty Dog didn’t capture facial animations for Uncharted 2 because they consider the process inefficient.

While the motion capture and audio approach that Naughty Dog implemented afforded them more freedom, they explained that it also resulted in them becoming a bit too ambitious and ultimately caused a painful crunch near the end of production. Ultimately the animation team needed to rely on outsourcing the last months of production in order to reach their quota. They also admitted that they had to cut a few corners in less obvious places, such as avoiding too many close facial cuts, minimizing scenes with multiple characters, simplifying prop performances and reusing some small animations from other scenes. In the end they completed over 90 minutes of animation – on par with a feature film – in less than 11 months.

While the process wasn’t without a few speed bumps, the approach Naughty Dog implemented was well worth the risk. They ended by qualifying their initial goal – all feedback indicates that they created cutscenes no one wanted to skip.

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