Monday, April 12, 2010

The Fantastic Mr. Drake

By Kirk Hamilton

This weekend, I finally watched Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox. If you haven't seen it, I can't recommend it enough. It's brilliant. The film has (rightly) earned accolades for its intricate, beautiful set- and character-design, as well as its equally impressive writing and animation. It certainly didn't hurt to have George Clooney, Meryl Streep, and Bill Murry bringing their A-game to the voice-acting, either, and it helped that they had such killer material to work with. Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach really outdid themselves, as did animation director Mark Gustafson and production designer Nelson Lowry.

I've also been replaying Uncharted 2 over the past week, and I'm struck by some similarities between the two works, particularly in their approaches to voice-acting and characterization.

Though at first glance they may seem dissimilar, Uncharted 2 and Fantastic Mr. Fox share one important aspect - both are animated works that feature a bunch of small, really well-done character moments. Hell, Fox is practically one big "small character moment." During a particularly nice bit, Mr. Fox's son Ash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) and his visiting cousin Kristofferson (voiced by Eric Anderson) are forced to share a room. Ash is jealous of his cousin's natural athletic talent, so he's mean to him until Kristofferson starts to quietly cry in the dark. Feeling bad, Ash climbs down from his bed and, without a word, switches on his model train. Kristofferson crawls out from where he was crying and the two sit there, silently watching the lights of the train as it circles its tiny track. It's a lovely moment, and one of many throughout the film.

Uncharted 2's lead writer Amy Hennig and character animator Jeremy Yates aren't working at quite the same level as Anderson's crew, but the game's character interactions are impressive nonetheless. Somewhere around the middle of the game, Drake explains his plan for a trainyard assault to Elena, a former flame with whom he's been suddenly, unexpectedly reunited. As he talks, she keeps cutting him off with incredulous interjections. "Wait, wait, listen!" he says, "You never listen." He goes on to describe how he'll sneak aboard the train while she steals a jeep. As he elaborates, Elena quickly cottons to the plan and starts murmuring various points of it back to him as her eyes dart about the trainyard. "Yep, get the jeep, mm-hmm, and come and meet you... with the getaway car." She reaches the conclusion before he does, and cuts him off, "Okay, yep, got it. Got it?"  He's taken aback - after all, it's his plan. "Yeah, I've got it..." "Okay," she says, "go!" And with that, she's off, leaving Drake looking after her with a bemused smile on his face. It's remarkable how subtly the scene conveys their whole vibe as a couple - all the little ways that they annoyed each other during their relationship, how well they work as a team, and of course, how much he still loves her.

Before I played Uncharted 2, I had never seen an interaction like that in a video game. (And if you haven't played the game, I actually found it online.) By now, it's no longer a mystery how Naughty Dog pulled it off - much has been made of how the Uncharted 2 team had the game's voice-actors perform their own motion capture, recording them together on a sound-stage in order to get naturalistic performances. Interestingly, I heard an interview with Wes Anderson in which he talked about doing something similar with Fantastic Mr. Fox. To get the voice performances he wanted, he put all of the actors together in an enclosed, underground space and recorded them all talking, laughing, arguing and cussin' together. Both approaches eschewed the traditional method of having actors record their voice-over parts separately in the studio, and both approaches were crashingly successful.

I can't help but get excited by those sorts of techniques, and by the leaps and bounds that animation, motion-capture, and voice-acting have made over the past few years. Paradoxically, what excites me most is how those huge leaps allow for the smallest of interactions to be accurately recreated. Now that games like Uncharted 2 have begun to adopt Hollywood's top animators' most effective characterization techniques and merge them with immaculate gameplay and narrative design, my mind soars at the thought of what's to come.

I mean, can you imagine if Wes Anderson were to make a game? Or Brad Bird? Because I sure as hell can.


Jay said...

Wow, I never would have thought to compare movies and games in terms of those "small character moments", but it's one of the few traits that you actually can use to compare the two that seems more impervious to the apples/oranges argument of different media. Nice insight!

As gamers, when we talk shop we almost always rely on those character moments to help illustrate the awesomeness (or lack thereof) of whatever title we're going on about. I mean, there's a pretty strong similarity between this scenario and the film geek lauding or criticizing certain memorable scenes. It turns out, maybe we can be friends after all.

On a sidenote, Baumbach and Anderson have seemingly built their entire careers on those small character moments and it's gotta be what I love so much about their work. It's hard to fathom just how Wes Anderson might focus that talent into a game if given the chance but it hardly matters. I'm sure it would be cussin' great regardless.

ps - Willem Defoe stole the show for me in Mr Fox. His cajun, rat-fu character was *perfect*.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Yeah, when I was writing this, I realized that I was comparing a film and a game in the one way in which it's sort of an easy comparison... in terms of the game's non-interactive cutscenes.

So many animated films (and, certainly, games) still use exaggerated expressions to convey what the characters are thinking... even Pixar movies, for the most part. The exception being Brad Bird's films. I'd be interested to see what other movies recorded their v/o work with the actors all together - I'm sure there are others, and wonder if they're similarly successful.

And I'm with you on Dafoe the rat. It took us forever to place his voice (a recurring theme throughout the movie). Seriously cool. *snap*

Michael Dunbar said...

Really interesting post. I hadn't drawn that comparison, and I love The Fantastic Mr Fox (and all of Anderson's work). Uncharted 2 also captures other interactions seen in Anderson's work. If the scene you describe is indicative of the one-on-one moments, then you may be willing to accept that games are also capable of achieving one of Anderson's other key tenets: the aesthetic. In Uncharted 2 in the village with the yaks, patting them and kicking the football around are great examples of aesthetic that builds character. Just a thought.