In 2020, the gaming industry like many others had to adjust to life in a pandemic. For developers and creative teams alike, this brought the challenge of home working, inevitable game delays and, unnecessary pressures from the gaming community.
A time where people seemingly lost appreciation for all of the hard work that goes into crafting a gaming masterpiece or that favourite franchise. This has never been lost on me, nor should it be lost to any of us within the gaming landscape. The arts have suffered massively during the pandemic, limiting the creatives’ ability to work, to create and thrive, to share, and to deliver on their passion.
In gaming, we often find that so much focus goes on frame rates, resolution, and visuals that the amount of work and creativity that goes into other crucial areas of game making is overlooked. One of those key areas is Performance and Motion Capture and Voiceover, where characters’ movements and personalities are brought to life by the actor, something that Neil Newbon knows all about.
As 2020 was nearing its end, I had the great pleasure of catching up with the very talented Neil Newbon. I wanted to learn more about his background, his career, and what led him to the very area that he specializes in, Performance Capture, Motion Capture, and Voiceover.
Born in Solihull, West Midlands, Neil attended Central Junior TV Workshop as a teenager and went on to train at the National Youth Theatre and Giles Foreman Centre for Acting. Neil has many projects to his name in Film & TV and now well over a decade in the gaming industry.
Some of Neil’s Gaming performances include Astarion in Baldur’s Gate 3, Both Elijah Kamski & Gavin Reed in Detroit: Becoming Human, Nikolai and Nemesis in Re3 Remake, Sniper Elite, and Zombie Army.
Neil has worked with Developers such as Ubisoft, Sony, Square Enix, Rebellion, Bungie. His contribution to the industry and a variety of much-loved franchises is immense.
Q: You are well known for multiple projects in Film, TV, games. Can you tell us about yourself in your own words?
“I always knew that I wanted to be an actor, When I made the decision, I was about 14 or 15. I went to Central Television Network and that was my first real taste of what storytelling professionally could look like and it was a need, not a want. I’ve been a geek all of my life, playing role-playing games, always the games master, always the DM (Dungeon Master). I think that’s because I have an incessant need to share and be a part of telling stories. What I like most about storytelling, even if you’re playing a creature or an alien is that they are humanized. For me, it was always a draw, and most of the things I’ve done in life has always led me towards it, which is interesting.
I’ve done a lot of TV & Film, I’ve been an actor for 20 years. I’ve gone all the way from comedy to horror, I even did a soap opera, Hollyoaks, which was great fun. So, I’ve tried kind of everything, which I think is an aspect of my life, a part of me, that I want to try everything, experience as much as you can. As an actor that’s great because I can play all these different characters and step into all these different lives, even if they are borrowed for a short time. I get to learn all these different skills and skillsets.
In terms of gaming, I’ve been experiencing Squadrons in VR, which is just incredible, being able to pilot an X-Wing in conjunction with VR makes it really feel like one of those things that you can tick off the bucket list. I’m a massive Star Wars geek.
I’ve also been loving Among Us, it’s everything wrong with human paranoia, suspicion, and judgment, it’s brilliant. I have had a bit more time with lockdown and am exploring Wasteland 3 which is my favourite genre, Isometric RPGs as well as the buggy but still enjoyable Cyberpunk 2077
Q: With a clear background in acting within Film & TV, Theatre, what was it that attracted you most to work in Performance cap & VO within the games industry?
“So, I went into performance capture about 10 years ago, when nobody wanted to do it really. There were about a dozen of us in the whole of the UK, and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration, maybe bar one or two which fluctuated each year, but there weren’t many of us. It was interesting because it was super creative. People from different backgrounds, some people were actors, some were gymnasts. So, from that period, there was a small group of us that worked together all the time. We were all gamers anyway, we all loved the idea of free play and pure acting. As a lot of people know now, performance acting is a happy combination of theatre and film with a lot of imagination sprinkled in, and a lot of wild 4 dimensional, moving the camera around, moving you around, manipulating your body, it’s wild.
For an actor that’s great because you get to be in the volume, the whole time acting. The second they turn the cameras on you are acting, no matter where you are in the scene unless you have to go to the edge of the volume and put your head down to show that you’re not even present anymore at which point they shouldn’t be using your data.
You can do anything, and they can cannibalise that and put it into another scene, so from an actor’s point of view, it’s quite extraordinary to work like that.
I’m a huge advocate and champion of this work because I think that it’s a new craft form for acting because you have to tread this interesting line. You have a branching narrative, so you have to play the same scene in several different ways, talking to a person that may or may not be the right person, they may or may not be dead, it’s really complicated sometimes but it’s just like a multiverse. Any of these things are possible and you just have to tread the line with making sense of it and that’s why you get such great directors and writers.
Q: Was there any specific educational training that led you to the roles that you have taken on throughout your career and undertake today?
“I trained for a long time, I did 4 years of method, which almost broke me, and then I started doing other techniques. The teacher that I’d like to speak about, well two that I’d like to speak about are Roberta Wallach and Giles Foreman, who were the spiritual successors of what drama centre was. I’d like to give a nod to them because we studied everything that goes into forming actors’ tools and they gave me the confidence of being an actor.
I was working professionally the whole time that I was training, so I started working very early and I realised I needed to train for quite a long time and it never stops because you’re always learning new things. For performance capture, when that came along with games and voice over. We realised it was kind of a new technique and so those of us that started early, when people told us our careers would be destroyed by it and that nobody takes it seriously as an art form, we knew they were wrong because we could see the potential.
Brian Mitchell and Stacey Boiselle at Audiomotion studios gave me my first job on a game called Ghost Recon Future Soldier with Ubisoft, I played 30K from that series. The voice work was done but I did everything else. We got to work with US Navy Seals, and that experience gave me my first taste of the possibility of what you could do. You can do in-game locomotion, mechanics, you can also do the cutscenes, as well as Character study. As an actor, you often will get type casted based on your look as well as talent, in mocap and performance capture you are free of that issue and can be given a role that you would never be cast as in TV and film, so with the exception of diversity, by which I mean the appropriate actors should be cast in line with the characters ethnic background, you can actually play any role within this range from hero to villian.
I now have my performance capture academy, a training facility for performers, stunt performers, gymnasts, dancers, combat specialists, wrestlers, and puppeteers. We train them over a two-day course to learn the technique of pcap and mocap, there are no secrets, it’s not like it’s a big mystery. It’s a technical course and we get people to bring their craft and passion to it and then we show them the craft of performance capture.
Q: Given the experience you’ve gained, what would your advice be for anyone considering a career in performance capture and voice over?
“Yes absolutely, there are several things. Know the actor that you are. There is motion capture, voice-over and performance capture. If you want to do more motion capture and stunts then maybe start looking at getting yourself on the stunt register, not that you need to be on it to be able to do stunts, but you do need to be highly trained at a specific skill or multitude of skills, in which case, spend your money wisely in doing something like martial arts or weapon work.
Now, I would say that you don’t need to complete a performance capture course to get into performance capture, but it does help, and it is a good idea, however having performance skills, a background in acting would be something I would think is a prerequisite. It’s certainly not the case that you wouldn’t understand everything if you hadn’t trained in pcap, I would say, in fact, that’s rubbish. However, it is a good idea and would certainly give you a leg up, but it’s not a prerequisite to have studied performance capture to get a gig.
I have a production company as well and we recently worked on a AAA title for five months, which we consulted, and we were also asked to do the casting for it too. So, we did a casting session, and we weren’t just looking for people that had previous mocap experience. We were looking for all actors that could move and were highly skilled with weapon work, sword word particularly and we found a couple of people that had never been in the volume before.
My advice would be to learn the skills that are relevant to you, if you want to do voice work and you haven’t trained your voice, you are going to need to train and that means knowing vocal warm-ups, learning accents etc. If you don’t know much about theatre, investigate theatre because if you just come from a film background your body may not be that open and free, that is super important, even with the nuance and fidelity being allowed now like film, you still need to know how to move your body. Gesticulation, movement shouldn’t be arbitrary, it should be with purpose and intent.
It’s super important for actors to honour the fact that all performance/acting is very much a craft. You can fall into it and you can be lucky if you have natural skills but to be free and understand choices and character work you need to train, you have to. Even if you take the route I had to, where I trained for over ten years racing from sets to classes and getting zero sleep, you have to train. It will allow your impulses to fly and it will allow you to make improvisational choices and to do character studies, to learn scripts properly.
The other advice I would have is to be professional, be on time, be respectful. Realize that it’s a hugely collaborative side of the industry. We don’t have a big them and us in performance capture like you sadly occasionally get in film and tv.
Q: You must have a pretty strict fitness regime to keep up with all the elements that motion capture/performance capture brings, what’s been the most physically challenging role that you’ve undertaken so far?
“It doesn’t feel strict, movement is a part of my work but performance it’s a vocation, I am an artist. It’s not necessarily noble, it is entertaining. We don’t save lives, we pretend to save lives, but we do entertain, and I think it’s a part of you and an important part of culture and the human experience. Training for your art, and it is art, I don’t find it a strict thing. It’s a regular thing, habitual, but I’ve been doing it for 20 years. I’ve been doing martial arts for around 27 years including weapon work, so it’s just a part of my life. I’m very lucky to have a job that requires me to keep my fitness up, so I view it very much as a bonus. It keeps all of us young, to be honest.
In terms of the most physically demanding, there are a couple. The first is Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier, I played a character called Bryn. It’s a really good story by the way, but don’t view it as a game, it’s more like an interactive TV series because there isn’t really any locomotion, it’s just like choices and there are quite a lot of choices.
We had a fantastic cast of incredible actors that I got to work with and the Director, Steve Kniebihly. He and I have collaborated a lot, we’ve just finished our 5th project I think which is great because he’s an amazing director. So, we shot at the Imaginarium with Andy Serkis coming down a few times. That was very physically demanding but it was so much fun. It was super fun, we had to do ape work, a week of study with Peter Elliot, who is essentially the godfather of animal work in television and film and mocapped the father ape, Kahn masterfully.
We spent 6 days of hardcore ape work, finding out about apes, learning how to do social behaviour. We created an 80-word sign language based on American Sign Language and we made it into Ape SL.
It was amazing because it was super physical, your signing, speaking and the whole thing has to come together and on top of that, I was working on the human side of things, where I was working on like 10 different roles. So, it was up there with one of the most demanding roles, however, it was so much fun it didn’t feel like work.
Detroit: Become Human, when I had to play two different characters in the same game which is a real trip, that was extraordinary. We did a 16-hour day once and I was grateful for it because it was a really wonderful experience and the people I was working with were amazing. Getting to meet Clancy Brown was like wow, but he’s such a powerful actor, it was amazing.
Final Fantasy Kingsglaive was another, that was like a year to a year and a half shoot, going to different locations in England and then flying out to Japan to do the last shoot out of Square Enix.
These things are just gifts, I, touch wood, don’t have bad days in the volume, and in 10 years, I’ve never come across anyone I wouldn’t want to work with again in the future.
A lot of these experiences have made me very humble. I know that I’m good and I don’t mean that arrogantly otherwise I wouldn’t be working, but I hope that I have a lot of humility and most importantly gratitude for the work. Because of the memories of how good the work has been and how happy I am with my involvement and the people who put their faith in me to do those roles. I’m still very grateful after 10 years to be able to work still and be asked to work, that for an actor is an extraordinary thing to be able to say.
Q: When working on say, AAA titles, how long on average does the process take to capture everything you need for the game, more specifically when in a lead role?
“That’s completely a piece of string, really. I would say that there’s kind of an average that people try to stick to shoots and it’s usually somewhere between 2 weeks to a month, but it can go longer.
I was on Until Dawn for 5 months, doing full performance capture, not the voice but matching it. So, it went on for longer than I was involved in it. It had already been shot once, then the whole new generation came out and it was re-shot the whole thing again as it was originally on PS3 then on to PS4.
Kingsglaive took about a year and a bit, which started in January 2015 into 2016.
I did a five-month shoot on a AAA project in Hungary, from when we consulted and cast on it. It was the best part of a year. Going over every month for about two weeks at a time.
For other projects, I did something in LA that I went over there about 3 times in 6 months. With Baldur’s Gate, I’ve been working on it for quite some time and there’s still some time to go.
Another AAA that I worked on was Horizon Zero Dawn, which I did several weeks on.
If you get lucky enough to get your script down as we did on Resident Evil 3, we did two shoots over two months, so essentially it was a month’s work split into two. So, if you need to pin down a time for performance capture with maybe stunts as well, something between 2,3,4 weeks is probably an average shoot.
Q: As we’ve said, you have taken on several roles, which would you say have been among your favourite characters and why?
“I absolutely love this guy, (As Neil points to Astarion in his background) he’s become one of my all-time favourite characters to play. He is so much fun to play.
A lot of the work that I have done is supporting leads, which are lead characters but not necessarily the protagonist, usually the antagonist, which means that there is an element of the pressure being off. Those types of characters allow you to be very freeing because you can get crazy inventive.
With Gavin Reed, (Detroit: Become Human) the directors were very generous and sweet about allowing me to come up with some improvised things within the script that weren’t necessarily thought of that we just did it and they kept it which was cool. The script is very well written, very precise because it has to be, so to be able to improvise is actually quite an honour when you realize how meticulous they are with their scripts.
Q: With the emergence of Cloud Gaming, they make games more easily accessible without downloads and installs. What are your thoughts on cloud gaming and is it something you have had a chance to try?
“I’ve never tried it, I’ve been lucky enough to buy a computer once every 6 years and it slowly gets older and older then dies but I guess it’s certainly the future.
I started gaming on Spectrum 48K where I used to have to code my own game and then upload it to a tape player and hope the tape player wouldn’t bust. Even if it did load, for instance, on school days it took about 45 minutes to load, at some point, it would crash and you had to ask yourself the deep question, do I have the emotional fortitude to reload this game or should I do something else with my day?
So, going from that to this, anything is possible, look how far we’ve come in the last 10 years with AR and VR. VR gaming is now a thing and it works.
Q: I think I know the answer to this one, but are there any teasers or insights you can give away regarding up-and-coming projects you’re working on?
“Absolutely not, I can’t. There’s no way that I can tell you (laughs). I will say that there are a least 5 or 6 projects including maybe a film and stuff that’s happening. So, there’s stuff happening or has happened, but none of which I can allude to, but I’ll let you know.
You have to respect the project, if you start leaking stuff or breaking NDA’s it can really screw things up, it also ruins people’s fun and of course, all the hard work that the devs and everybody associated with the game go to, so please don’t do it.
As we came towards the end of the interview, it became even more apparent how privileged Neil feels to be in an industry and art form that he truly loves. He spoke openly about the many people involved with the projects that he doesn’t get to meet. He even encouraged people to take the time to read the credits for the games as we do with films, purely to honour the fact that people have made these games. Neil was clear about actors being cogs in the process, the icing on the cake if you will, because if the game isn’t great to play, even with a great story, it can be tough to get through.
Neil urged gamers to understand the endeavour that went into making games, even if they didn’t enjoy playing them.
He also expressed his pleasure at seeing the indie scene kicking some ass and taking names. He’s a Full BAFTA member and part of the BAFTA Games Crew, which he finds a very beautiful thing helping a lot of people get connected. So, to see so many indie developers get bigger or stay indies, the work that’s coming through is really cool.
One thing that stood out throughout the whole interview was Neil’s tremendous humility and that his passion for his subject matter shone through from start to finish.
Neil has continued to push himself and followed his craft right the way through from being a founder to mentor, consultant and, director with his own performance capture academy and, production company.
In 2019, Neil like many was intrigued by streaming and wanted to give it a go himself, streaming Among Us and conducting interviews with a variety of games industry folk in his #NoBigNeil Interviews series over on his Twitch channel.
I’d like to take this opportunity to extend my sincere gratitude to Neil for spending the time he did with me and I look forward to catching up with him again in 2021.
There’s only one way that we could conclude this interview and it’s by signing off with Neil’s incredible highlight reel. I should add that this doesn’t include all of Neil’s roles because quite frankly there’s only so much you can fit into a 5-minute reel!
So, without further ado, enjoy…