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Uncharted 3: Who Is That Man?

An interview with Nolan North, the voice behind many of your favorite video-game characters.

Uncharted 3

Nolan North is one of the most accomplished — and omnipresent — video-game actors in the world. His special gift is bringing peppy wiseasses to life: Nathan Drake in Uncharted, Desmond Miles in Assassin’s Creed, the Prince of Persia in The Prince of Persia, as well as, quite literally, hundreds of other characters. How good is North? Those of us who play a lot of video games have probably clocked weeks with his voice inside our heads, and yet, somehow, none of us wants to kill him — an astounding fact that only emphasizes North’s apparently effortless likability. He recently spoke with Grantland about how he felt watching Harrison Ford play Uncharted 3, digital makeup, his new book, and his aborted first career.

So how does it feel to be Indiana Jones in the minds of everyone born after, say, 1987?

If only that were true! But it’s funny you mention this. I don’t know if you’ve seen the commercial of Harrison Ford playing Uncharted 3.

I did.

I was sitting with my son watching it. My son turned to me — you know, I was in awe — and said, “Wow, Dad. Indiana Jones is playing you.” Harrison Ford has always been one of my favorite actors. I grew up with Han Solo and Indiana Jones, and Regarding Henry is one of my favorite movies of all time. So, yeah — if that were true, it would be really cool. Just to be mentioned in the same sentence as Harrison Ford is cool.

Watching the Harrison Ford video, I thought his eyes were filled with a strange kind of puzzlement as to why the last Indiana Jones movie was not nearly as good as what he was playing.

A lot of people weren’t sure about that one.

How attached are you to Drake, and is that attachment different from the attachment you’d have to a live-action part?

Well, I treat it like a live-action part. In Uncharted we do the scenes the same way you would do a film or television show. The motion capture — the performance-capture process — is what makes such a difference for this franchise. So I don’t approach it any differently. The other actors and I go in and rehearse scenes together and then we go in the next day and perform. Andy Serkis had a great quote about how annoyed he would get when people would say, “Oh, you’re the voice of Gollum.” He would say, “No, madam. I am Gollum.” He maintains that performance capture is no different from any other acting, except that he wears digital makeup. For all intents and purposes, everything you see Drake do is me. It’s my personality, my sense of humor, my movements. But I’m wearing digital makeup.

When you auditioned for Drake, did you have any idea what you were in for, or was it just another game gig?

I knew it wasn’t just another game gig. On the first audition, there were people in the sound booth with me. I asked, “Are you guys going to stay in this room with me?” They said, “Yeah. Don’t worry about the script. We want you to move around and use the space.” I thought, “What the hell is this?” So it wasn’t just another game gig. The motion-capture process was how [Uncharted‘s developers] Naughty Dog were going to push the boundaries. They said, “This is going to be full motion capture. Performance all the way through.” It wasn’t just go in, read your lines, thank you so much. I remember getting invested in it and thinking, “This could be great.” I had no idea it would be this popular; I don’t think anybody could have predicted that.

Let’s talk about the Naughty Dog process. Very few video-game developers hire the same actors to do voice acting and motion capture, and hardly any bother with rehearsing. As games rely more and more on performance, it’s kind of staggering that more developers don’t engage with processes that even the average high school play makes central.

When we did the first Uncharted, we weren’t able to capture the audio with the performances. We would go back and do A.D.R. — Automated Dialogue Replacement — in which you would hear yourself and then repeat your line. Even when we were doing that there was a slight disconnect, because you were trying to recreate a performance. So take that disconnect and multiply it by someone doing a performance and hiring other actors to come in and do motion capture. They’re walking around and trying to react when you’re saying these things. Nine times out of 10, they’re going to do too much. I could be having a conversation with you and say, “Hey, we need to go over there.” That doesn’t mean I’m going to point. It could be just a nod, something very subtle. Gamers have become savvier; they’re more sophisticated and they want good performances. When you don’t do performance capture alongside voice capture, there’s always going to be this disconnect. Game designers are amazing at what they do; they’ll still make a great game. But I think the one thing the Uncharted franchise has proven is that, if you can get the budget — if your parent company allows you the budget — and you can really take the time to do it right, you’re going to get a better product.

I know the Uncharted actors get a lot of freedom to ad-lib, which is another thing that’s mostly frowned upon by the average game developer. You guys really get to create, expand on, and inhabit these characters. Could you talk about that — the little things you’ve seen arise in the magic of the moment?

I just wrote a behind-the-scenes book about Uncharted. It really speaks to what you’ve just asked. The thing about the ad-libbing is that it’s part of Naughty Dog’s culture, which is so collaborative. For the book I took a year and spent time with the designers and the programmers and the artists. I really wanted to give credit where credit was due and show people how much work goes into all this. And not just the actors. We get to talk to you and be on TV, but there’s the guy at Naughty Dog, the particle artist, who makes the sand look like real sand. They’re amazingly talented people. Evan Wells and Christophe Balestra, Naughty Dog’s co-presidents, have set up a culture in which they stay just as late, if not later, than their employees. They don’t ask anybody to do anything that they don’t do. They’re fixing bugs while they’re running the company. That collaborative culture spills over into the motion-capture stage. Amy Hennig, our creative director and our writer, is basically the genius of everything that is Uncharted. She’s the one who sets the tone. She never writes a full script at the start. She shows us a few scenes and tells us where she sees it going, but she wants it to grow organically out of our performances. In rehearsal, you might say, “Hey, what if I tried this?” and she says, “OK, let’s try it.”

Graham McTavish plays Charlie Cutter, a pal of Drake’s, a tough guy. During one of the first days we were shooting, we had this alley scene, and he said, “Wouldn’t it be kind of funny if Charlie was claustrophobic?” Amy started laughing and said, “Do that. What would that look like? Let’s try it.” Well, in the game, Drake and Charlie are running down a London alleyway. Drake is like, “Charlie, come on. What are you doing?” He’s like, “All right. I’m coming, I’m coming,” but he goes through the alley saying, “It’ll all be over soon, it’ll all be over soon, it’ll all be over soon.” That was completely made up. We all thought it was funny. Then Amy ended up taking that and … you’ve played the game, correct?

Yeah.

So you remember that, when they get to Syria, Charlie gets drugged and has to go through a tight space again and loses his mind. This turns into a big fight, which is unlike any type of fight anybody in a video game has ever done, because you’re trying not to hurt the person you’re fighting. This whole element that ended up in the game was the result of an ad-lib.

When you go into a project that’s slightly more conventional, or more in line with what most game developers do, do you get bummed out that you don’t have the same kind of creative freedom?

Uncharted is unique. For many games I’ll go in and do two or three sessions and I’m done. They take it back and they make it and then maybe they come back the following year to do some pickup lines and that’s that. Uncharted is an exception to all that. But I can’t say I’m bummed out, because I enjoy the other developers I work for. I do think that Uncharted has set a bar for developers to say, “If we’re going to do a game that relies heavily on cinematics, we really should look at that process.”

This year, in Batman: Arkham City, you played Penguin — with a Cockney accent. I have to ask if that was your way of reminding people that you’re not only Drake or Desmond Miles.

I’m sure you’ve heard people say that I only do one voice. Desmond Miles is my voice but a little darker. Nate is another little side of a personality. But they’re not the same person. Penguin wasn’t my way of saying, “See? I can do other things!” But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t cross my mind. You know, I do six different animated shows. I’m doing one of my animated shows on Monday, and in it I’m doing five voices. Three of them talk to one another and you won’t know from one to the next that they’re all me.

I’m proud of the versatility I’ve had since I was in high school, getting in trouble for all these voices. What happened was that there were so many of these big heroes I played — in Dark Void, Assassin’s Creed, Shadow Complex, Uncharted, and Prince of Persia — and they all showed up at about the same time. It got a little ridiculous. When Portal came out, and I was listed in the credits, people were asking me, “Were you really in that?” Yeah! I did three spheres and some turrets. When the Penguin came along, I got to visit Rocksteady’s studio in London. I saw the artwork and told them what I thought he sounded like — this growly, Cockney accent. So anybody who has a problem with my Cockney accent can blame them, because they were right there not correcting me as we went along.

A funny story. Just by accident, I played Uncharted 2 right before I played Alpha Protocol. You play a major character in the first game and a bunch of smaller parts in the second game. So I went from spending 12 hours with this one distinctive heroic voice in my head to hearing the same voice, as Random Guard No. 2, saying, “Hey, I just heard something. Let me go check it out.” I kept thinking, Why is Nathan Drake working as a warehouse guard?

When you go into a session, the people who’ve hired you get three voices for your rate. So if you’re getting paid scale, they get three voices. They actually have to give you a 10 percent bump for a fourth voice, and if you do a sixth voice you have to double the rate you negotiated. But they always get three. So for just about every game I’ve made I’ve played other characters, usually while doing a different voice. I even played other characters in Uncharted 3.

Huh. Who else were you in Uncharted 3?

I’m not going to tell you! Actually, I’ll tell you. Go back and play the Cartagena sequence, with the young Drake. You remember the guard that captures young Drake and has a gun on him and is about to shoot him, but who then gets shot by Sully? That’s me. I did the motion capture as well. [In voice of the guard] “Just close your eyes, it just does a little thing like this, just close your eyes.”

That’s good. And sounds nothing like Drake.

As a matter of fact, none of that was scripted. Amy [Hennig] told me to make something up.

You’ve told me before that you don’t play video games.

I’m not good at them. But my kids played Uncharted for the first time the other day.

I can’t even imagine how odd that experience would be. Is it face-meltingly weird to watch your kids play your game?

My oldest is 11 and my youngest is 8. They thought it was really cool. Neither of my kids likes young Drake. They kept saying, “I’m young Drake. I’m young Drake!” I told them, “No, you’re young … you. You’re young North. You’re not young Drake.”

That’s just beautiful.

The 8-year-old dressed as Drake for Halloween. “Face-meltingly weird.” I like that. You know, I don’t get to see so much of the gameplay, so for me it’s always fun to watch someone else play through it. And it’s such a beautiful game. The 11-year-old’s really getting into it. He’ll be 12 in January, actually, and he loves the story. He writes and draws and has no interest in being an actor but thinks directing would be cool. Maybe he’ll give me a job someday.

One more question for you. Could you share with the readers of Grantland your early beginnings as a journalist?

I got my journalism degree at North Carolina and went to Emerson for graduate school, and got a job in upstate New York in Poughkeepsie at WTZA. The first story that they ever sent me on was about a bear. This little black bear got stuck in a tree at the Woodstock Country Club. I drove over there and didn’t have a cameraman. I had to shoot the footage and set up the sticks and do it all myself. So I’m trying to put the story together — I talked to the pro shop, a few of the golfers — all while the bear was up there in the tree. I was trying to figure out where to set up the last shot, and then saw this sign across the street, a sign that had the name of the next town over from Woodstock. So I did my final shot of the bear and said in voice-over: “Park rangers say he’ll come down as soon as everyone goes home and it gets dark. They’re not going to try to shoot him or tranquilize him out of the tree because he’ll get hurt.” Then I said, “That’s a good thing for him, because he won’t have far to walk home.” With that I panned down to the sign. The next town over was a place called Bearsville. I ended up at a bureau in Piscataway, New Jersey, where I covered “Newark Teen Shot” and “Jersey City House Fire.” It got really depressing. One day I thought, Maybe I’ll try to be an actor instead.

Tom Bissell is the author of Chasing the Sea, God Lives in St. Petersburg, The Father of All Things, and Extra Lives, which is now available in paperback.


Previously from Bissell:
Believe It or Not, It’s Just Me: Batman: Arkham City
Catherine: The Sexiest Video Game Ever
Video Games Killed the Video-Game Star
The Art and Design of Gears of War
Beyond Angry Birds: The many pleasures of iPad games
Press X for Beer Bottle: On L.A. Noire

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