In a revealing new interview with Adam J. Harrington, we discuss LA Noire, the technology-pushing, chart topping video game from Rockstar Games that has games aficionados and film buffs alike talking. Perhaps unsurprisingly too. Among its accolades, the medium bending LA Noire was the first game ever to be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Adam Harrington takes on the role of Roy Earle, the corrupt vice cop partnered with game’s protagonist Cole Phelps (played by Mad Men’s Aaron Staton). Given the complex nature of the production I am curious to know if Harrington would choose to do another games project if offered the opportunity.
“Oh, in a second,” he assures me. “I had a ton of fun. I had never worked on anything like that before. It was definitely a new experience, and a learning curve. There’s a whole bunch of stuff you have to learn. In some ways this project was very similar to film. In other ways it was very different, but overall I thought the team that brought it together was great. We [cast and crew] all had a ton of fun.
“I had never owned a gaming console before and I got one as a result. I’ve really enjoyed the times I been able to play — to the point that I worry a little bit that somebody’s going to find me in about a week with blood shot eyes and sore hands surrounded by empty pizza boxes!”
This begs the inevitable question. If Harrington has played the game, how did it feel to be partnered with Roy Earle, the sardonic and cynical vice cop he portrays?
“It was very weird when I got partnered with myself,” he admits. “The good thing was, I was familiar with every obnoxious snarky thing Roy was going to say so it wasn’t so much of a shock. But of course, it was fantastic to see the finished product. I remembered all the performances from when we filmed it and it was great to see how it all converted, and how it lent itself to creating that whole Film Noire experience.”
I ask if LA Noire marked Harrington’s debut into the world of motion capture. “Let’s put it this way,” he laughs. “I have never been in a skintight spandex suit covered in Day-Glo green ping pong balls before!”
Harrington talks me through the initial game creation process, describing his motion capture work in ‘the volume’ and the occasional awkwardness of working around those ping-pong balls.
“We filmed the thing in a big giant area they called ‘the volume’ which is this giant black room with a grid pattern all over it and all these infrared cameras surrounding it. We acted out the entire game first as if we were acting out a movie on a green screen stage. But for the first couple of days we were all staring at each other in these body hugging outfits and we had all these weird motions to start and end scenes and I remember just being really really uncomfortable.
“I will say, and I hope this is not too off color for your website, but the tricky thing with those suits is … and I haven’t really read this from anyone who has done it. Maybe they’re holding off … is that you’re basically velcroed into this thing and then they scan you to make sure they know where all the ping pong balls are. So you have to go through a series of motions so the computer can get an idea of how you move and where you’re going so it can calibrate your general shape.
Well, you’re in these things all day long – including lunch and coffee breaks and if you have to respond to the call of nature shall we say, you then have to get re calibrated because the ping pong balls may have shifted. The first couple of days I was very self conscious when I had to come in and ask to be re calibrated because everyone knows where you’ve been. And of course after the first couple of days nobody cares.”
Harrington describes the technique. “So [initially] they film your whole body and you have a beanie on your head so they know which way your head is moving on the day. Then after we had finished all the main photography of the scenes and the motion capture stuff we went back and just filmed the faces redoing all of the dialog from the game. They film your head from the neck up independently from everything else.”
It sounds like a lot of work. “It was a lot of work,” he admits. “Off and on it took a year. The great thing about the fact we were able to act it out like a film already was that when we went back to do the face stuff we could recall what it was like to be with the other actors and not have to prep from nowhere.”
So what was the MotionScan process like? “We were in this – I’m not sure if you’ve seen it – this very bright room like the Matrix. That’s what it felt like. The room was very very bright and it was very cold. They need to keep the temperature down because of all the gear. They put us in an orange t-shirt but in the video [The Technology Behind Performance Video below] you’ll notice I have extra orange t-shirts all wrapped around my arms and body to keep me warm. I didn’t want to be aware of being cold in the room and have that take away from performance. So I just made sure I was toasty warm in there and let it rip.”
“In your fetching orange t-shirt?”
“In my fetching orange ensemble!” he quips.
I pose a question I have also put to Pascal Langdale (star of the BAFTA award winning PS3 game Heavy Rain) about the essence of motion capture and if he finds the process restrictive or liberating. In a previous interview with us, Langdale described the process as almost like giving a live performance. With so many factors involved including filming in two locations, the body suits, the intense MotionScan procedure, I find the idea hard to grasp.
“Well I think what Pascal said is bang on,” Adam says. “For the main stuff. [motion capture]” He explains further by means of a comparison. “I can appreciate what you’re saying too about the suits and all that stuff, but compare it to a TV set. In those situations you’ve got to worry about lights, and where the camera is and then who is being filmed and whose coverage is it and what angle are you shooting. Is it a big wide master shot or is it a tight close up shot?”
“So if you think about comparing it in those terms, when you get in the volume and it’s just you and this room, and you’re driving around in this simulated car made of plywood and PVC tubing that somebody’s pushing, you do have to use your imagination. But at the same time you start at the beginning of the scene and you go through to the end and you don’t have to worry about where everybody is standing, whose coverage is it on (well you can’t get stacked up or the computer can’t see you) or how tight the lenses are, or am I blocking somebody else from the light?”
“In that sense I can see what he’s saying because it does feel like you’re on stage giving a performance. You don’t have to worry about the stop and start for camera. You don’t have to worry about running out of film – or these days running out of memory. Those kinds of things. It does feel like live theatre. It’s a perfect way of explaining it.”
“With the MotionScan, that’s what feels restrictive. It’s just your face. For stuff that’s already filmed, you can’t move your head because they need to glue your face onto your head that’s already been captured. For new dialogue you can move your head but only a certain amount. And of course you’re staring at a painting. [A picture of the Mona Lisa tells the actors where to direct their dialogue in the MotionScan room.] So yes, that can get a little restricting. It was a little more technical and a little harder to get used to. And it was certainly more tiring because it required so much concentration. You could last about an hour and a half to two hours in that room before you’d get swapped out with someone else.”
I am curious to know what Harrington’s reaction was to seeing a digitized version of himself on screen. “To be honest, I didn’t see myself in the game until we got into the face capture later. It took a good chunk of months to film all the big scenes – all the body scenes – and then there was a break. We came back months later to start doing the [MotionScan] face stuff,” he reveals.
“It was in the middle of doing the face stuff that I saw me and I was a little numb at first. It’s such a strange thing to process. I think there’s something people aren’t understanding. On a lot of sites people are saying ‘it was great voice acting’ and ‘the facial animation is the best we’ve ever seen’ and ‘the combination of the great voice acting with the facial animation …’ and so on. I think it’s such a leap in technology that what people are not understanding is that what you’re seeing is exactly what I did. Nothing more. Nothing less. Nobody has gone in and added stuff. Nobody has tweaked a facial expression. What was recorded on my face is what you see in the game. So, it was voice acted but it was all acted at the same time. It was literally like they filmed a movie and converted it into a video game image.”
“The first time I saw it I was amazed at how much it looked like me but I was also taken aback in that it was also a two dimensional avatar of me. In a wonderfully sexy tweed suit with pink sleeves and a blue bow-tie!”
I tell Adam that Roy Earl’s suit was a point of vexation for me. Did people really dress like that? “Yes,” he laughs. “They did years of exhaustive research on this. They found that outfit. That outfit is not created. That’s an interpretation of a vintage style with the brown patterns with the contrasting sleeves. They wanted Roy to be … you know, he’s a Vice Cop. He’s kind of splashy and they needed him to stand out. I loved the outfit. I thought it was fantastic. It was so distinct. You can’t mistake him for anyone else. I think it’s perfect for him. It’s loud. Kind of stylish. And a bit obnoxious.”
“Just like Roy?”
“Just like Roy,” he laughs. “I’m kind of terrified to see what alternates they would have if Roy unlocked a second suit.”
The suits were not the only thing recreated faithfully in the game world, Harrington tells me. “I was playing the game, and of course it’s set in 1947, and I was driving down a street, and even without the map guide for the game I thought, gosh, this looks like Santa Monica Blv. on Sweetzer and it was. I was just blown away by the amount of detail they put into the landscape and geography of it. To be in the game, driving down a street and recognize where I was even though it was 60 years ago is incredible.”
I felt that in many ways the character of Roy Earle was the one that was most true to the film noir genre, reminiscent of some of Humphrey Bogart’s earlier work. I ask Harrington if he agrees.
“Well first of all, thank you very much, Jennifer,” he laughs. “I’m going to quote an interview that Brendan McNamara who created the game already wrote. He said he felt Roy was one of the truest characters to the genre. He really was taken from that time period – the racism, the misogyny, the jadedness, the way he talks, the sense of humor and the sense of entitlement. He really is a character drawn from that genre of film making. It’s funny you should say Humphrey Bogart, because Roy Earle was the name of a Humphrey Bogart character from a film. [High Sierra, 1941] I had read some of the classic film noir novels and I definitely felt that he was just written so well and the dialogue was so spot on that all I had to do was just get out of the way and really let the character that was on the page come to life.”
“What I loved about him was that he has a really good sense of humor. It’s dark. I think Roy thinks 5 year olds have an angle they’re trying to play. Nobody is innocent, especially given the world he’s in. It’s not like Roy is at Disney land slamming everyone that’s walking around. He’s in the vice squad and the people that come across his path, even if they’re innocent, they’re somehow involved in whatever crime is taking place. I think his point of view is to rough everybody up just to get to the truth as fast as possible.”
Has the LA Noire experience made Adam a film noir fan?
“I’m definitely a fan now more than I was. I love film noir, but now understanding the structure of how it works and seeing how much the game is playing an homage to it, I’m definitely more of a fan now. I can now understand the genre itself and why things are written the way they are, if that makes any sense. I even saw Vertigo recently. I hadn’t seen it in years. I was blown away by the fact that LA Noire even follows the structure of cinema from that time.”
New downloadable content for LA Noire has been made available as of July 12th, in the form of Reefer Madness, a vice case featuring Roy Earle and Cole Phelps. I ask Adam what every LA Noire fan wants to know. Is there more DLC to come?
“I’m not sure,” he answers honestly. “I think there’s more to come. When we shot the game there was such a huge 2000 page script. And sometimes it got a little blurry what we were shooting.” He laughs. “I remember shooting Reefer Madness. I think there’s more coming as well. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Roy Earle. As to whether some of your readers are happy about that or not, I’m not sure. But it definitely keeps that world spicy.”
When I tell Harrington that Roy Earle is a fan favorite, he seems surprised. “Well we definitely had a lot of fun with him while we were shooting,” he acknowledges.
Adam Harrington was also kind enough to answer some fan questions from forum members.
SteveDeans: “Do you think there is a snobbery in the Industry about acting in Games?”
Adam Harrington: “Well Steve, that’s a really good question. I’m not sure if there used to be a snobbery about being in games. I think there was a hesitancy about the quality of what you were going to get involved in. It could be like being interviewed to work at a new job by a company that hadn’t done a whole lot heck of a lot before. You would be unsure of what you are getting involved in. I think with the way games are going, and with the sophistication, the intelligence and the amount of money being spent on them (so that the gamers are getting a really good quality project) I think that the hesitancy is quickly going out the window. We’re seeing people cross styles of media left right and center now. We’re seeing some actors coming up from video games and getting more work in classic film and television because of it and vice versa. We have Aaron Staton from Mad Men headlining our game. The casting directors of Mad Men were the casting directors on this project. People who follow that show will see there’s a ton of people from that show, including some of the leads popping up in LA Noire. I know they all thought it was an absolute blast to do. Some of them just simply came is as cameos. I think if there was any kind of snobbery or of they were looking down on it they wouldn’t have come on to do that. Everyone jumped on board. There was something like 300 castable roles for this thing.”
:I think you’re going to start seeing it more and more. Definitely with the MotionScan technology performers can come in and really give the audience something that will excite them and interest them. I think actors are going to want to be involved in that.”
Spacecadet: “I’d like to know the differences between acting for TV/Movies versus acting for a Video Game and which Adam likes best.”
Adam Harrington: “Well first of all Spacecadet I love your name! I definitely feel like that sometimes. I think that there are different demands for all three but I think the basis for all of them is the same. Then you just adjust it depending on what’s happening and how close your audience is. For example, adjusting for a close up versus a big shot. When we shot the game we shot it as if it was a film. We came in with that point of view. We knew the audience was going to demand a really strong product with really strong performances so I know I came in thinking of it as a film and planning my performance in that way so that what we delivered was something that people would really enjoy and hopefully appreciate.
“As to which I like best? I would say I like all three for different reasons. When each of the mediums is done well they each offer something spectacular.”
Magpie: “What is Adam’s favorite role to date?”
Adam Harrington: “Magpie! That’s like saying who’s your favorite sibling? Who is your favorite parent, and why? While they’re sitting right in front of you! [Laughing] I’ll put it this way. Roy Earle is my favorite video game character that I’ve played. So far. I must say, I’ve been really lucky. Everything that I’ve done there’s been something about it that I’ve really enjoyed. I think what I’m most enjoying right now is the response that Roy Earle is getting because I had the chance to make him that way and to make him that much of a blowhard. And considering how on paper he’s not the nicest guy I’m really chuffed that people are responding to him and liking him. I was even flattered when somebody sent me a link to a youtube video where someone had rewritten the ending of LA Noire. It was Phelps running Roy Earle over with the car repeatedly. And I thought that was great because, boy! I just wouldn’t die!”
Jennifer Griffin: “[Laughing] Actually, I’ve never tried that.”
Adam Harrington: “Well give it a whirl. It’s a ton of fun. I make all kinds of crazy noises.
“And only because I haven’t seen it yet I’m really looking forward to The Secret Circle hit the air and obviously working with Nick Nolte was a great thrill and Luck will come out this Fall on HBO and I’m very much looking forward to those two projects coming out.”
Giscard: “What was it like working with Nick Nolte on Luck?”
Adam Harrington: “It was amazing. He was incredibly generous. Very very supportive. I’ll explain it this way. There was this one scene we shot. He had this huge monologue which he did brilliantly. We were doing my coverage first. So he was basically off camera. He gave me 100% every single time when it wasn’t even on him. And that from an experienced actor is a very very generous thing to do. A lot of times they will conserve themselves or hang back a bit. That’s all part of the job. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, but he really went all out and gave me everything. He was kind and generous and supportive and he had a great sense of humor. It really was one of the highlights of my career so far. I’ve watched him for years and obviously the awards and nominations he’s received. It really meant a lot that we could come in and work together as equals. I’m not saying we’re equals but it was awfully nice for him to treat me with a lot of respect and a lot of consideration I told him how much it meant and of course he just laughed it off.”
Giscard: “Did you get to meet Dustin Hoffman?”
Adam Harrington: “We were standing side by side a couple of times but I’ll admit I was a little too … well it was at the end of a very long day. We were both very tired and I thought you know what? I’ll just give the man his peace and I’ll meet him some other time.”
Jennifer Griffin: Are you on Twitter?
Adam Harrington: I am not on Twitter. Not yet.
Jennifer Griffin: What do you think of Twitter?
Adam Harrington: Oh I think Twitter’s great. I haven’t explored it fully. Let me put it this way. You and I having a conversation on Skype is a huge technological advance for me.
Jennifer Griffin: Oh, really?
Adam Harrington: Oh yeah. [laughing] So Twitter is probably down the line for me, and tweeting and getting twitted and all that stuff. It’s just not something I’ve explored yet. I think Twitter’s great. I think one of the most extraordinary things about Twitter involved all the stuff that happened around Osama Bin Laden. I think it points to how amazing this form of media is beyond ‘Hey, I’ve just had a great Latte. Heading to the park.’ It blows my mind what we are able to do these days. I also think it’s a very effective tool for areas of the world that are trying to prevent people from finding out what they are doing. It makes it very difficult.
Jennifer Griffin: I know that sometimes actors and celebrities can be a bit cagey about it. Sometimes I think it can put you in an awkward position where you are available to people and comments.
Adam Harrington: I think, much like the way you use it, it all revolves around the personality. I think you can make yourself available without invading somebody else’s privacy, or offering up too much of your own. I’m incredibly flattered when people go out of their way to let me know that I’ve done something to make them laugh or cry or think because I feel like I’ve done my little bit for the day or the week or the month to help other people enjoy living their lives. I think that people who are interested in following you on Twitter is nothing but flattering. I think it’s down to how you choose to make yourself and make them available.