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How to Act in Video Games: Noah Watts, ‘Assassin’s Creed III’

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How to Act in Video Games: Noah Watts, ‘Assassin’s Creed III’
Photo Source: Noah Watts/UBI

Noah Watts is a Native American TV, film, and theater actor who’s best known for his onscreen roles in “Ringer,” “Sons of Anarchy,” and “Skinwalkers.” But now he’s getting into the interactive world of video games. Watts talked to Backstage about getting into a mo-cap suit and playing a Revolutionary War–era half-Mohawk assassin named Ratonhnhaké:ton, also known as Connor, in the hit 2012 action-adventure game “Assassin’s Creed III.”

I went to the audition, and they didn’t tell me anything about it. So based on the words on the page I just assumed it was a period piece about the Revolutionary War, like a movie of the week. Then at one of the final callbacks they made me sign a nondisclosure document stating it’s actually a game, and it’s “Assassin’s Creed.”

I was excited because I had played the previous “Assassin’s Creed” games. It’s like an interactive movie. When you see a movie, it’s happening to other people and you’re there to watch. But when you’re walking through the scenes of the game and you are Connor, you tend to form a different relationship with the main character and you take these situations a little bit more personally, which I think is great.

In certain moments I’d have to say something that didn’t have much to do with the storyline. I’m obviously speaking to the gamer in that case, so if you understand that, it’s easier. Otherwise you’re wondering, “Why do I have to say this? Why wouldn’t he just think it?” In the back of my mind I know what’s happening in the game and what effect it will have on the player.

Typically on a TV show or film, you do a few scenes a day, and it takes a while for the camera to be set up and for all the lighting to be done. But when you’re doing a video game, you’re in this 360-degree camera setup. You move through the scenes very quickly because there’s no setup time, and there’s really no set changes besides a few pieces like tables and chairs.

At first you feel taken out of it a little bit, because there’s nothing in the room that reminds you of where you are. And you wear this suit that has all these motion-capture devices all over you. They look like little golf balls or marbles. Then you put on a head rig that has a camera positioned right in front of your face.

Before every take, you have to do this “T pose.” You do your scene, and then afterwards you do your “T pose” again and say “Ah, eee, ooh.” You look up and down, left and right, and move your eyebrows up and down. This is a range of motion that gets all of the possible movements of your face, so in case you didn’t give the correct expression when you were delivering a line, they can move your mouth or eyebrows or where your eyes were looking, if they need to.

I build a character with the way he moves, the way he talks, his history, his back story, and all the things that led him to where he is now. It’s similar in the motion-capture environment. You have to go through all those same steps in creating the character; you just don’t have the luxury of being physically on location or having a great, dynamic stage set that helps you slip into it. You have to use your imagination a lot more.

They hired trained local actors to do all the movements for the other characters throughout the cinematic scenes. It made things a little bit easier because you have them to play off of.

I had no idea what he was going to look like in the beginning, because they hadn’t created the character model yet. After about a month, I got to see what he actually looks like. They used my face as a model but changed the way he looks.

I’m not Mohawk. I’m part Crow and Blackfeet. I had to learn Mohawk and east coast native culture, because my tribe are plains Indians from Montana and South Dakota. I got to learn their customs, their ceremonies, and their language. They had a whole sequence in which the character speaks all Mohawk, and they brought in Mohawk tribal people as consultants for the language, their longhouses, how their camp was set up, the clothing on Connor, all of that. So they not only cast a Native American as a main character, but they did it right. It’s an extreme honor. I think it’s something that hasn’t been done.

As told to Daniel Lehman.

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