Sometimes in the afternoon, or in the evening if a shoot goes long, the stuntman and self-described truth-seeker Reuben Langdon will make a cup of something called Bulletproof coffee. The drink — developed by the Silicon Valley millionaire and biohacker Dave Asprey — consists of black coffee, two tablespoons of butter, and two tablespoons of MCT oil, which Langdon describes as a high-grade coconut oil “that does good things for your brain.” He used to get raw butter, but has since switched to Kerrygold, which is sourced from grass-fed cows in Ireland, after he learned that the raw butter in California showed low-level traces of radiation from the Fukushima fallout.
Langdon can flip, tumble, and fall from heights of 30 feet on demand. Some of his stunts play out in the real world, though most take place in virtual ones through a process called motion capture, wherein physical movement is abstracted into lines, curves, dots, and data later used to animate 3-D models.
Unlike Andy Serkis, a mocap performer who played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and has become practically synonymous with the idea of the actor you know without seeing, Langdon is a subcultural figure, someone whose name doesn’t mean much to most people but means a lot to a few. His résumé is a mosaic: bit parts and star turns, candy commercials and blockbusters. He has worked on projects as marginal as Latin Dragon1 and as big as Avatar, where he did motion-capture stunts for the movie’s hero, Jake Sully. Much — if not most — of his work is in video games. A lot of what he does now didn’t exist when he started out, and a lot of the work he did starting out has taken on the rosy glow of a bygone era, where real-live superheroes risked all for the dazzle of a good take. Trace Langdon’s career and you see a shift from people being people to people being machines, from one performer doubling another to one performer standing in for a multiplicity of roles, outfitted in pixelated skins taken from digital libraries like shirts in a closet. Langdon is thoughtful about his work but doesn’t trip on it. “Just think of it as the evolution of makeup,” he says.
He and I are standing in the kitchen of Just Cause, a media and production company Langdon cofounded in 2001, run out of a warehouse just south of Venice. I have driven out from Alhambra to see a mocap shoot for an upcoming movie, but the shoot, it turns out, is so red-taped that not even Langdon is entirely sure what it is. “Usually the video-game guys are more secretive than the movie guys,” he says, but that’s about it. Instead we make Bulletproof and bide our time.
Langdon is 39 but treats age as a flexible condition. Sometimes he seems 90; a placid, monklike presence who speaks of the universe’s interconnectivity as though it were a truth so settled in him not even death could shake it. Then, suddenly, he is 12, discussing what he thinks is cool about spaceships or what might make a fight sequence even more awesome, his voice dropping into the campy exaggerations of kung fu. Though his face is almost never shown onscreen, it is handsome and matter-of-fact, like a falcon’s. Witness his headshots, where his red-blonde hair is styled to make it look as though he has just swooped in through an open window.
Bulletproof is not what I expect from coffee, or what I want, really. It dulls all the bitterness and edge. It is beyond coffee, or maybe uncoffee, but I drink it because Langdon made it for me and because I trust him to have at least a few interesting ideas about the future.
Langdon grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, where he fell in love with a cartoon called Robotech. The show, which aired for three months in 1985, told the story of a series of wars between planet Earth and a race of humanoid aliens called the Zentraedi. Langdon liked Voltron fine, but it was Robotech that touched his heart. “They had relationships, girlfriends,” he says. “It wasn’t Tom & Jerry. It wasn’t nonsense.” He pauses, then admits that it probably was still nonsense, but it was more salient nonsense, especially to an elementary-schooler wondering if all the crazy feelings he was feeling were what other people were feeling, too.
One afternoon he was at a Star Trek convention when something in a vendor’s booth caught his eye: a TV screen, playing a show that looked like Robotech and felt like Robotech, but was dubbed in Japanese. He asked the man in the booth what it was. “Macross,” the man said, going on to explain that Robotech was more or less just the American version of this “Macross” thing, which was not from America at all.
A scattering of stars joined in constellation. “I realized that there was this one place that had everything I loved,” he says, “and it was called Japan.”
In high school, he enrolled in Japanese classes at the local community college and took a job at a duty-free store in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where he scanned customers’ boarding passes for Japanese names and practiced conversation when one turned up. A couple of nice Japanese women he worked with even made him a sign, which he kept out on the register: Nice Young American Looking for Homestay Opportunities in Japan.
After graduation, he gathered his savings and bought a one-way ticket to Narita International Airport, outside Tokyo. It was the first time he’d been away from home.
He spent two days sleeping on airport benches and drifting through the terminals with a growing hunch that he had made some colossal error. On day three he reached out to a man at Camp Zama, a U.S. Army base in Kanagawa Prefecture — the only person who had responded to his sign at the duty-free. The base took him in and gave him work. “I was surrounded by Americans,” he says, “but at least I was in Japan.”
With the help of a Japanese sponsor, he managed to get an apartment in Tokyo, where he subsisted in part on modeling jobs. “It was a welcoming culture,” he says, “especially for a blond-haired white guy.” His goals then were simple:
- Find a place to flip off of a wall.
- Do Jackie Chan stuff.
His big break — or crack, at least — was on B-Fighter Kabuto, a Power Rangers–esque show in which otherwise ordinary people put on bionic suits and save the world in confusing, third-act bursts. Langdon played an exchange student named Mac Windy. In one scene, he materializes out of nowhere in the middle of a basketball game only to nail a bank shot in slow motion; in another, he eats a mountain of sushi while what sounds like a John Philip Sousa march plays in the background — a farce of the American golden boy. “It’s so bad,” Langdon says, adding, “it’s so good.”
Traditionally, Japanese action clubs — where young martial artists are trained, in part, to become aware of how to fight for the camera — expect loyalty from their charges. “If you work at Toyota, you’re a Toyota guy; if you work at Honda, you’re Honda for life,” Langdon explains by way of analogy. B-Fighter Kabuto made him a novelty, almost an accessory — “Mac Windy, token white guy,” he says. They were amused by him. (Langdon — professional without seeming slick and not above embarrassing himself for the sake of a joke — is genuinely amusing.) Though he’d never studied martial arts before, he was able to drift from school to school, cherry-picking ideas, dabbling without ever having to commit. “Luckily, they never beat me with sticks,” he says, without elaboration.
Langdon continued working in Japan, and eventually in Hong Kong, where his attitude toward the social hierarchy of the film business soured. “The director could be a complete asshole and piss on everybody, and it’d be OK,” he says. “But it’s not OK.” It was in Hong Kong that he met Takuya Shibata, his future partner at Just Cause. Together with a writer named Shotaro Suga, the three dreamed of breaking away and making a movie called Messengers, in which a hero … whose cells are encoded with top-secret information … has to fight his way from point A to point B for extraction … with immeasurable perils in between. If he were to die, the valuable code would die with him.
They loved the concept in part because it was a way to make action without guns, because, as Langdon explains, “in every action movie, we’re always looking for an excuse to fight without guns. In the modern-day world, there are guns, and pow, you’re dead.” Langdon seems only half-aware that the story’s conceit — of a person whose body becomes a shell for the transmission of data — mirrors his own life.3
Initially, motion-capture work was an expedient — a way for Langdon and Shibata to get the money and credentials to make Messengers the way they wanted to make it. Japanese video-game companies like Capcom had been drawing on Japanese movie stuntmen, later voiced by English-speaking actors; Langdon and Shibata figured the process could be streamlined. Efficiency was the goal; quality was almost a happy byproduct. “We wanted to make the process more cinematic,” Langdon says — less like video games, more like movies.
Langdon’s first mocap job was for a game called Resident Evil: Code Veronica for the now-defunct Sega system Dreamcast — part of an already popular series that combined complex puzzles with the brainless task of slaughtering zombies. Langdon did most of the motion capture for the game’s hero, Chris Redfield, described by the Resident Evil Wiki as a possible victim of post-traumatic stress disorder who cares deeply for the lives of innocents, and by one of the series directors more simply as a “blunt, tough-guy type.”4
The project used a system called magnetic capture, in which performers wore a suit covered with receivers that were connected by wire to a central transmitter, which created data by measuring the distance between it and the receivers. The transmitter was basically a giant radio, blasting powerful frequencies to everyone in range. “We could only be in the room for two or three hours,” Langdon says. “You’d feel like someone punched you in the face, or like you just woke up.”
Part of understanding motion-capture performance is understanding the nature of the media in which the performance is used. If you want to put an ostrich in a movie, you can go to a zoo and rent an ostrich. If you want to put an ostrich in a video game, you have to build an ostrich out of numbers. If movies use CGI and motion capture to make the experience more fantastic, video games started to use them to make it more realistic. Even with a rudimentary system like magnetic capture, the trace presence of a human body — its fluidity, its grace — was a way to trigger primal identification with a character (we wince when we see a good punch) and deepen the level of immersion one could have in a game overall.
Letoya B. Jackson, founder of the Reuben Langdon Fan Club on a popular community-driven art site called DeviantArt, says she first became familiar with Langdon through his role as a character named Dante in a game called Devil May Cry 3, which for her “was a big deal because other than Metroid, which I had played since I was younger, Devil May Cry was probably the first game series I got behind with learning the characters and canon without my boyfriend shoving it down my throat like he did with Final Fantasy 7 and 8, LOL.”
The game, which came out in 2005, was one of the first instances in which a motion-capture performer combined stunts, voice work, and what most people would call “acting” into a single character. The job made Langdon a star, at least contextually.5 “I knew it was an iconic character that I had to live up to,” he says, in part because the producers reminded him constantly. He remembers being told how to squat, how to point his toes — how, even, to position his thumb. The two of them — Langdon the person and Dante the character — have become yoked the way Adam West is with Batman. “It was an honor,” he says, “but I started liking being bad guys after that. There’s more freedom in being a bad guy.”
Part of Langdon’s rise as a personality has to do with the evolving values of video games in general, which over the course of the last 40 years have transformed from cute, non-narrative puzzles like Ms. Pac-Man and Q*bert into experiences that mimic the sweep and complexity of an epic film, or at least attempt to. (Meanwhile, more and more video games — including several Resident Evil titles — are somehow being reverse-engineered into feature films.) In some ways, Langdon met the industry at the moment it was ready for him. RESphenatic, another DeviantArt fan, says “every time we play a game now and the acting feels substantially more natural, we have him to thank.”
By the time he became Dante, Langdon was not only wireless, but could see himself as the animated character he’d end up being onscreen in almost real time — the philosophical identity split of all actors, rendered literal. “It’s like the early days of theater,” he says. “Performers and directors.” Imagination becomes paramount, limitless. In a sense, Langdon’s world is just an extremely high-dollar game of make-believe, where pillow forts become castles and anything is a car as long as people pretend to drive it. “On the post[-production] side, you can get somewhere unique and different,” he says. “But it’s still up to us to bring the room alive.”
It’s a few minutes before nine on a Saturday morning and Langdon is in Just Cause warehouse, running in place. Opposite him is a man named Vince Argentine, who is also running in place. Argentine stops running and begins doing neck rolls, and Langdon starts doing neck rolls, too. This goes on for another minute or so, members of another species locked in mimetic dance, trying to figure out whether they speak the same language.
Argentine is the senior motion-capture supervisor at Just Cause, and has worked with Langdon for about eight years. Today, Langdon will play a large white robot. Two other performers are there, as is a small production crew. Langdon is dressed in a tight synthetic suit and an Under Armour–like performance garment worn to, in the words of the mocap performer Aaron Toney, “keep things from getting too stinky.”
The performers — Langdon, Toney, and a wine barrel of a man named Seth Austin — walk into a dressing room, where they are studded with a series of hollow rubber balls called markers. The balls are about the size of standard-issue marbles, and are covered with reflective material that bounces LED light from mocap cameras back into the room, letting the cameras know where the performers are. Langdon, Toney, Austin, and Vince Argentine discuss where to place the spherical ones, which get clearer data and cost about six dollars apiece, and where to place the hemispherical ones, an older model that the performers joke about finding in the dryer.6
“Are you falling today?” Argentine asks, as Langdon is being outfitted.
“Yeah,” Langdon says. “I’m just a … ”
“Are you falling on your back or your front?”
Argentine gives Langdon a cool look and whispers the word damn.
The markers are held in place by Velcro, which is not a material I expect to see so much of in a room outfitted with a million dollars’ worth of infrared cameras. Still, it serves as a reminder that virtual worlds don’t exist without physical ones — sweat, muscle, gym mats, and trampolines. “Oh,” Argentine says, gesturing to his kingdom, “this whole place is Velcro.”
Most of the studio is taken up by a room called the volume, a 2,250-square-foot space with baffled ceilings and a low row of cameras — 96 in all — lining its perimeter. With their red LED lights on, the cameras look like robot flowers edging a lawn.
For the next 12 hours or so, Langdon, Toney, and Austin leap, tumble, and fall. Between takes, they discuss their beats: Who should punch where, how they should punch, how long a combo is too long a combo, and other sundries of performed battle. Occasionally, they shuffle to the sideline and pull out some action figures, modeling their moves the way 10-year-old boys might when daydreaming in their parents’ basement, before cartwheeling back into the volume like the real thing.
What emerges is the grace of chamber music, of movements that, when they fall, seem to fall exactly as they should, telegraphed by some higher balance and sense of symmetry. There is a beautiful moment in which Langdon, Toney, and the director, Ken Ohara, file down a sequence to a series of moves so perfect that it seems to slip directly into the pocket of the universe, and the three break into joyful laughter. This is one of the ironies of motion capture: What happens in the volume is often more amazing than what happens onscreen.
After lunch, I sit with Vince Argentine. Argentine grew up taking acid and hacking phones. He seems to intuit highly technical subject matter the way some people can play songs on the piano after hearing them once on the radio. I point to his motion trajectory curves, a series of data points that graph the performers’ movements in millimeters over time, and ask him what he sees. The short answer is “a lot”: when a performer hits something; whether they’re running, jumping, or at rest; whether their landings are hard or soft. Argentine, who speaks in the lunar drawl of someone who might occasionally forget what month it is, shrugs and says it’s basically like reading the Matrix. “I watch TV while I do it,” he says, his eyes locked on the screen, scanning for hiccups in data. “I have six monitors going. This one is TV, this one is trajectories, this one is downloads … ”
I ask about Reuben, at whose data Argentine has spent incalculable hours staring. “These other guys have very crisp movements,” Argentine says, gesturing into the volume. “Reuben tends to embellish a little more. His acting is” — he looks up in search for a word — “it’s a little more sarcastic.”
Then he shows me a model on another screen — this one a rough skeleton made of colorful polygons — and points to its knees: “He’s also bowlegged.”
Argentine sets Langdon’s skeleton in motion and toggles on a series of lines that create streamlike trails of where certain nodes on the body have been. We watch, momentarily hypnotized. The best is with breakdancing, he says, or ballet, which produce trails that look like blossoms.
At the panels Langdon hosts, we hear about UFOs, GMOs, time travel, chemtrails, astral projection, and a whole host of other subjects most people would not bring up with their employers.
One of the day’s last shots is of Langdon alone. Argentine locks him in and Ohara gives the cue. On action, Langdon begins his walk, a slow, lumbering march. He stops and pivots. The room is silent except for the sound of his voice, which makes a steady dzh, dzh, dzh — the gears of his limbs grinding to life as he crushes everything underfoot.
At some point I notice a grasshopper on the floor near the dressing room. How a grasshopper has made it into a warehouse in a light-industrial area near the Southern California coast, I don’t know. It is a weird animal to look at, legs too big and facing the wrong direction, pieced together by some tired god. Then I shift my foot, and the grasshopper springs what seems like an impossible distance into the air.
CGI is now so common that movies have started to promote their stunts as “CGI-free,” as though it were a food additive recently discovered to be cancerous. About 130 cars were destroyed in the making of a 2013 movie called Getaway, while Need for Speed — a video-game adaptation, incidentally — has inspired tough-guy headlines like “Need for Speed Kicks CGI to the Curb.”
In a well-publicized scene for Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, Tom Cruise — not a stunt double — dangled outside a window of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, 1,700 feet above street level.7 When asked at a press conference what was going through his mind as he swayed back and forth above the silence, Cruise answered, “I hope I don’t fall.”
At the heart of this bluster is a quest for reality. The late Hal Needham, who started his career on a billboard for Viceroy cigarettes and went on to become synonymous with the myth of the American stuntman, once told NPR that he thought CGI took the reality out of the experience. “I just can’t stand it,” he said. “Even as a director, I never did that stuff. We did it for real. I can look at it onscreen and go, ‘That’s B.S. That don’t work. You can’t do that.’ And so I lose all interest in the film.”
It’s a familiar complaint: Technology separates us once again from so-called “real” experience. Justin Lin, director of several movies in the Fast and Furious franchise, once told Screenrant.com that while he finds CGI to be a useful tool, “There is something very special and unique when you crash a car.”8
One morning, I call up an old-school stuntman named Diamond Farnsworth. Farnsworth is in his mid-sixties, and grew up as a cowboy in the Hollywood Hills, taking his first job at 18 on a Clint Eastwood–Lee Marvin movie called Paint Your Wagon. Since then, he has performed in a vast array of movies and TV shows, and for the past 11 years has served as a stunt coordinator on NCIS, for which he has been nominated for two Emmys. His father was a famous Western-movie stuntman turned actor named Richard Farnsworth, who once doubled Gary Cooper and rode a horse through the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races, later earning an Oscar nomination as the lead in David Lynch’s The Straight Story. His daughter, Courtney, does stunt work, too.9
Farnsworth’s narrative of movie history follows the arc of technology: horses first, then motorcycles, then cars. He remembers shaky rigs on the Disney backlot, “where they’d just string a cable from one end to another and whip you down there.” Work, then, was a kind of gamble: They wanted to be safe, but they were still just bodies, vulnerable and limited, riding on the backs of fast, uncertain things.
Farnsworth doesn’t have to worry about staking out territory anymore, and regards motion-capture work with the faint suspicion of someone on the homestead watching a stranger come into view over the hill. His one brush with it was in 1983’s Fire and Ice, which used an early form of mocap called rotoscoping. “You’re fighting nothing, you’re jumping over nothing, and then they put in this monster with computers. It was fascinating,” he says, adding, “but I felt like an idiot, jumping over a tail where there’s no tail.”
For Farnsworth, the story of motion capture is in part a story of loss. “In the original James Bonds, you’d have a great opening stunt,” he says. “There was a guy, doubling Bond, who skied off the mountains and kicked the parachute up.” His voice is wistful, as though he were watching the scene fade inside his head. Now, when he meets young people who ask him how they might one day become like Diamond Farnsworth, he gives them simple advice: “Go into computers.”
The stereotype of the stuntman is one of stoicism and resilience — a real-life crash-test dummy with the raw strength and psychological fortitude to stand in the line of danger. Their world is a perpetually exploding one, measured in milliseconds, and we recount their impossible feats the way we might the feats of a war hero.
And though synonymous with action, the work actually took shape in part through silent-era comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, whose performances didn’t accentuate the danger of the job or the bravery of its doers, but their dumb luck in the face of a world ruled by accident. Think of the symphonic confusion of Chaplin’s police chases, or of Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr., peeling himself off the ground in the middle of a windstorm and doing a couple of recalibrating neck rolls before the façade of a two-story house drops directly on him, spared only by the grace of an open window. The image isn’t one of the hero, but of the dope unequipped for the physical world — not a man of power but of comedic powerlessness.
Keaton called these stunts “cartoon gags” — gestures unmoored from character or narrative, whose exaggerations were played mostly for laughs. Reality had never been the point. Instead, it was something wilder and less tethered, a blurring of reality rather than a reinforcement of it — something, to borrow Argentine’s description of Langdon’s acting, more sarcastic.
And despite the precision and quant and rigor of mocap work, unreality remains the grail, the spark at the periphery that keeps viewers dreaming. At some point during my visit to the Just Cause shoot, the Tokyo team protests that a sequence is not quite right. It should be more tekunikaru, they say — more “technical.” Langdon turns to me to clarify. “They don’t mean technical technical. They just mean cool.”
It’s not until I am sitting next to Vince Argentine, watching a loop of Langdon’s robot falling after a virtual collision, that I realize that the director doesn’t appear on Argentine’s screen at all: Without markers, the camera doesn’t think he exists.
Above the urinal in Just Cause’s bathroom is a comic-book-style rendering of Ken Masters, a Street Fighter character whom Langdon has voiced in several video games. The picture is addressed to Langdon and autographed by Jo Chen, a celebrated Taiwanese artist who occasionally works on covers for Street Fighter comic books.
He still goes to Street Fighter tournaments sometimes, and mentions in passing the strange, secret joy of standing next to a competitor who doesn’t know that he, Reuben Langdon, is, in a way, Ken.
Langdon grew up playing the game as Ken, haunting the malls of Georgia in search of competition.10 He remembers the delirium he felt when he walked into an audition and realized what he was auditioning for. “I thought maybe I’d get to be Guile,” he says, referring to a lesser blonde-haired Street Fighter. He still goes to tournaments sometimes, and mentions in passing the strange, secret joy of standing next to a competitor who doesn’t know that he, Reuben Langdon, is, in a way, Ken.
The nature of Langdon’s work is that performers have to surrender the features that make them most recognizable. In another era, you can imagine the framed image on the wall as a photograph of Langdon, maybe a headshot, maybe of him standing with his arm draped around a fan, with his handwriting instead of Chen’s, hanging on the wall of a restaurant or the office of an admirer. Instead, the picture is Langdon’s, a gift from someone who helped illustrate a role that Langdon later brought to life.
Some days, Langdon is not only a star, but the extras, too. In the zombie game The Last of Us, he played so many characters that he no longer remembers them all. There was James, who takes a butcher knife to the neck after being discovered to be infected, and there was Joel, the game’s main character, whom Langdon didn’t voice or perform but did do stunt doubling for. And then there were the nameless hordes that, as Joel, you have to mow down on the way to safety. Langdon spent most of the day dying, a different death every time.
One afternoon about seven years ago, Langdon was doing laundry at his apartment complex in Glendale when he saw a cluster of lights in the sky. They looked like stars, he says, but in the daytime. He set his basket of clothes down and stared at them for about 30 minutes. One by one, they faded away.
Something so improbable would have to make the local news, he thought; maybe even national. Hours passed, then a day. Nothing. This is when Langdon became convinced, in a surge both of logical deduction and pure faith, that the only explanation for what he saw — and why he heard nothing about it — is that the lights belonged to UFOs.
“That’s when the door opened for me,” Langdon says, “but it’s not when I went through it.”
He started reading. The deeper he went, the more incontrovertible the evidence seemed. “You tell me,” he asks, arching his eyebrow. “What travels at Mach 10 and makes 90-degree turns?” He eventually joined up with an activist named Stephen Bassett, who has spent the last 20 years trying to end what Bassett, on his website, describes as “the 65-year government imposed truth embargo regarding an extraterrestrial presence engaging the human race.” In April 2013, he helped Bassett convene an event called the Citizens Hearing on Disclosure, in which six former members of Congress heard public testimony on the subject of extraterrestrial life for five straight days and from 40 different people, including a former employee of the British Ministry of Defence and two retired U.S. Air Force pilots who, in 1980, went into the woods to investigate some bright lights and came upon a triangular craft, which raised up and sped into the sky.
I first met Langdon in February 2014. At the time, he was about to leave for Atlanta to do live-action stunt work on Ant-Man, a movie that temporarily imploded in May and has shuffled its cast and crew dozens of times since. With time on his hands, Langdon began to look at his life. He started going into the forest, running in the hills, chopping wood. “Something shifted in my soul,” he says.
He has since relocated from Los Angeles to a house near the woods outside Atlanta, about 15 minutes from his old high school. For the moment, he has stepped away from the day-to-day work at Just Cause, though he still flies back for shoots and keeps in good touch with Shibata and the rest of the team. His attention has turned to more distant horizons. He spent several months hunkered down at a cabin near Big Bear Lake, east of L.A., helping edit a documentary called Truth Embargo, which contains footage from the Citizens Hearing. He has also been crisscrossing the country collecting material for a project called Interview With E.D., about people who channel beings from other dimensions.11
Between takes at Just Cause, we discuss whether the American spiritualist Ram Dass really gave acid to a Hindu guru (and whether the guru really didn’t feel anything); the experiments of the late Japanese entrepreneur Masaru Emoto, which posit that people can change the crystal structure of water by exposing it to positive or negative emotions; and a self-study book about spiritual transformation called A Course in Miracles, written by a medical psychologist at Columbia University who identified her inner voice as Jesus.
In October, I watch a two-hour-long interview with Langdon on a video-game chat show called Twin Galaxies Live. Langdon, who is accompanied by a bearded Englishman named Charles, spends most of the first hour talking about UFOs, getting deep into what he calls “the peanut butter.” Commenters in the side bar mock him, but Langdon remains good-humored. “If you don’t believe me,” he says, “just do some research.” He leans back in his chair, clasps his hands behind his head, and grins. The host seems by turns curious and terrified, admitting that one of the reasons she loves video games is that it gives her a place to bury her head away from all this complicated stuff. Later, Langdon asks if she ever meditates (she has, a little, but she struggles with ADHD), then, if she has ever eaten mushrooms. She shakes her head no and spins nervously toward the camera as though it might rescue her. Eventually, Langdon submits to video-game talk: Has he played this, has he played that, does he think that this particular iteration of a franchise redeemed the character or dulled it. He remains charming but becomes distracted. This is hacky-sack — fun enough, but neither here nor there.
Now, when Langdon appears at Comic-Con types of events, which happens with some regularity, he gives a two-part panel discussion called “Enter the Matrix,” in which he wades into these new worlds, one PowerPoint slide at a time. We start with a Scientific American article called “The Universe Really Is a Hologram, According to New Simulations.” Then comes a gloss on quantum physics, and an introduction to the idea that all experience is more or less projection. We hear about UFOs, GMOs, time travel, chemtrails, astral projection, and a whole host of other subjects most people would not bring up with their employers.12 Each panel is about four hours long. “I make sure everyone knows that this isn’t Devil May Cry or Resident Evil 5,” he says.
His aims are earnest but his sense of humor seems to have emerged intact. Describing his new calling, Langdon says he not only ended up walking through the door, “I fell down the stairs.”
The morning after the Just Cause shoot, Langdon and I meet on the patio of a vegan restaurant to pick through some details. Quickly we are in cloudier realms. He tells me the Holodeck isn’t here yet but we’re sure getting closer. He tells me his interest in extraterrestrials is partially just an extension of his interest in technology, in fuel efficiency, in the end of war and the mutual advancement of all peoples. Considering all of this, I want to know what his perspective is now on his work — on movies and video games, on the bang-up worlds of fantasy and action.
“There’s all this hoopla about how (video games) negatively influence our children,” he says. “Some people argue against it, some argue for it. I’d always felt like it didn’t matter. People should do what they want to do, and it doesn’t matter. Which is still the point of view I have now, but the difference between now and then is that I know that negativity does influence people. The intention, the fear that comes from zombies showing up and you killing them creates an emotion that I think the world has enough of.”
“You don’t think it’s released or defused by playing the game?” I ask.
“To an extent,” he says. Then he says that while he acknowledges that it’s only his personal belief (an acknowledgement he makes often), he thinks the universe is made entirely of frequencies — the brick wall next to us, the air around us, our emotions, our thoughts — and that negative feelings create negative frequencies that create physical negativity, a transubstantiation by which these hidden things — thoughts, feelings — cross the threshold into the real world.13
Whether Langdon is a visionary or a basket case is a question that can’t be answered. Society has a way of rounding off its edges. Less arguable is that Langdon is someone who seems built to evolve. Sometimes I picture him at 19, pacing back and forth across the floors of the Narita airport, lost, planless, unable to communicate, an even longer road ahead of him than the one behind. He could have reached for the big red button then, or melted into a puddle on the floor, but he pressed ahead. Some people are just free that way.
We talk for about two hours. Something unusual can happen to a person when they stare into another person’s eyes for a while. A deep end opens up, a landscape fathomless and weird and yet familiar, almost natal, a kind of suspended animation. I have this feeling that I don’t matter and he doesn’t matter either. What matters is us. Then a dog knocks over some dishes near the busing station and I am suddenly here again, in Santa Monica, where we’ve been all day.
Later, I think of something he told me back in February: “We can create volcanoes exploding, historical events, Transformers, robots destroying buildings falling from the sky, big tidal waves wiping out cities … but what’s lost [in motion capture] is that moment when the camera looks straight into the eyes of the performer. That has yet to be cracked.”
We parcel out the last of our shared tempeh scramble and our buckwheat-flax pancake and discuss the self-imposed burdens of being human. “A lot of times we go through life bouncing from one thing to the next,” he says, imagining ourselves to be victims of the circumstances around us. And while Langdon still acknowledges that those circumstances are real, he also feels as though the difference between now and then is that now he sees what creates them, what drives them, what makes them move the way they do. Life is more of a ride to him now, more of a video game.
“Typically, we’re driving around and we see from the driver’s seat,” he says. “But in a game, you pull out, and you have this — it’s not a POV, but it’s a third-person shooter. You’re actually pulled out behind the car. That’s when you can finally see the rest of the scene.”
Mike Powell (@sternlunch) is a writer living in Tucson, Arizona.