Celebrity Gamers and the convergence of Hollywood and Video Games

The Epic Conversation, With Dead Space’s Gunner Wright

The Epic Conversation, With Dead Space’s Gunner Wright

Jan 22, 2013

 

Editor’s Note: The beginning of this story is a condensed wrap of Gunner and I’s conversation focusing around Dead Space. I would highly suggest reading the full interview below it, all 3500 words! I know, I know, this is why we added the condensed version above.

 

Dead Space is a game about fear. Talk to anyone about fear, and they’ll generally respond with answers ranging from their fears of animals, to financial ruin, to clowns. It’s a topic that’s very personal to us, yet shared universally. Everyone is afraid of something. Even people that seemingly have no fear.

Gunner Wright is a man, who upon meeting, seems to have no fear. He’s a ruggedly handsome man, who’s done his fair share of activities that people might think as too dangerous, or too scary. “I started riding motorcycles when I was three years old,” he told us, learning on a tiny Honda QA 50. His dad was a racer, so it seemed inevitable that he’d take up the sport.

He raced for quite a few years, before making the transition to a career that wasn’t as physically dangerous, but could be potentially financially dangerous: acting.

“I thought it was a promo,” Wright says of his time starting out in Dead Space 2, his first foray into the franchise back in 2010. “My commercial agent sent me out and I read the side, and I saw that it was sci-fi. I don’t remember if I knew it was a video game or not, but I went in and auditioned for it, got a call back and then about 2 months later I booked the job.”

This turned out to be an amazing opportunity for Gunner. He had landed the lead role of Isaac Clarke, the game’s main protagonist. “We didn’t start filming Dead Space 2 until 9 months later, because it took them so much time to enter me into the computer system,” he recalls of the waiting game he encountered at the beginning.

The success of Dead Space 2 lead to the inevitable next installment of the series, Dead Space 3, which features the return of Gunner as Isaac Clarke. He gets to continue in his battle against the Necromorphs in the upcoming release.

Dead Space does a good job in the fleshing out of the character of Clarke. Gunner himself notes, “I like Isaac Clarke because he is, in a lot of ways, a normal guy. He’s an engineer, he’s not a Halo military badass. He’s a guy who’s probably really good at what he does, he’s just been thrust into some extreme circumstances”

With the use of motion capture technologies, the ability for an actor to lend his voice as well as his bodily movements to a game is an amazing step towards adding in those truly emotional aesthetics.

In the past, animators had to sit laboriously to make life-like movements for character models, which can now be done through almost puppet-like digital processes.

Gunner gave us some insight. “For instance, the gun is some kind of PVC pipe that’s black taped around. It’s not like when you’re on a movie, you’ve got all the cool props where you’re driving the car or flying the spaceship. I always look at it like the essence of what acting is all about, or just being a kid. You really do just use your imagination.

“You rely on the director for that as well. He might tell you, ‘Ok, off the volume (that’s what they call the area that the cameras can read) coming in is going to be a Necromorph,’ so that’s really what you’re basing it off of: What they’ve already blueprinted in game, thats where your eyeline is, that’s where you play in.“

Playing in an empty warehouse would be meaningless without a story to tell.

“If you don’t have story, whether its a film or a game, all you have is a bunch of chase scenes and explosions,” he explained. “I think that some great writers are coming to the plate with gaming and a lot of these writers are coming from film. Game production companies are hiring just so they can make sure that they have that story down pat and connecting those dots.“

But beyond being a gaming professional, Wright takes on the other side of the controller during the off times.

“I wouldn’t call myself a ‘gamephile’, but I love to game. I’ve been cracked out on Borderlands 2… I just finished with a filmmaker buddy of mine, Will Eubank. We just finished the first round of Borderlands 2, and we’re on the second round and I’m playing Zero, the ninja.

“I’ve picked up Call of Duty, it’s awesome, it’s just very very real, it’s insane. But they’re two different worlds, BL2 and CoD: One’s not taking itself too seriously, and the other you feel like you’re part of the mission.“

For gamers hotly anticipating Dead Space 3, due out February 5th, Gunner has this to say: “In Dead Space, its not just about killing necromorphs, its is about the story, and it is that escapism, and you are on a ride. You’re controlling that ride, but Visceral and EA are taking you into this world, and I can tell you right now, the world that they built for Dead Space 3 is going to blow people’s minds.”

 

Read the full interview below, it’s quite massive:

You took on the track before you took on acting. Tell us about your motorcycling history.

I started riding motorcycles when I was 3 years old, I had a little [Honda] QA 50. My dad was racing; that’s how I got involved in it. He’s always had a passion for bikes. He ended up working for American Honda Motorcycle Company, where their head office is in Torrance, CA, and basically I raced in Florida until I was 21, and he got promoted to the corporate office, so my whole family moved out to Los Angeles, which is a blessing, because hindsight, being an actor, so many of my peers have to go back east to see family, but for me I’m so blessed because I live in the Hollywood hills 45 minutes away from my mom and dad and probably an hour and a half from my sister and her husband and her kids so LA really is home despite the fact that my business is also here.

You must enjoy the canyons, and California’s enviable riding environments?

It’s the best motorcycle riding in the world, for the weather, for they way that they treat motorcyclists here, from San Diego to San Francisco… and I’ve ridden dirt bikes and street bikes literally all over the world.

I’ve got a sports car, a scooter, and a motorcycle… and I have an audition later, and I know that I can make it there by taking the scooter. I’m not even going to get into the car. I have a Suzuki Burgman 400, it’ll do 105mph… it’s almost like an automatic motorcycle. I also have a KTM 690 Enduro which I recently retrofitted with Paris-Dakar kit for the freeway. I love it.

I can’t ride motocross right now or off road too much because of my schedule, so for me, just getting on the bike and going to grab coffee or to a meeting… Just yesterday I shot a commercial for Dead Space 3 and I rode the KTM. It’s my little way to stay on two wheels.

Do you ever get back to Central Florida?

I miss it. I was in Miami to shoot a commercial back in September. That’s usually how it works for me. If I go to Florida, most of the time, its usually Miami for a shoot. I have a lot of friends in central Florida. Great memories growing up and racing motocross.

You’ve got that Suzuki, next time you come out call me, you can ride the Burgman… there’s a lot of places to go, but what’s synonymous with LA is the Rock Store in Malibu. It’s a great windy road where you oversee the ocean. There’s an old diner there where they’ve shot everything from the A-Team to every 80’s TV show. That’s where everyone goes on the weekends.

You are Isaac in Dead Space, How did you end up working on DS?

I thought it was a promo. My commercial agent sent me out and I read the side, and I saw that it was sci-fi. I don’t remember if I knew it was a video game or not, but I went in and auditioned for it, got a call back and then about 2 months later I booked the job. Thats when the producer Kate Latcher gave me the backstory of who Isaac Clark was and the franchise. In some ways it was even better, because it was so innocent. There are so many jobs and companies that you want to work for, and this one, I didn’t really know what it was. It was such a cool blessing in disguise. It was my first time ever doing mocap and being a part of a video game process.

We didn’t start filming Dead Space 2 until 9 months later, because it took them so much time to enter me into the computer system and render and do all of those things. it was actually half way through the process, I thought they had recast it.

You were like ‘What happened?’

Yeah. ‘I booked this job and they’re not talking to me!’ It’s really a long process, in some ways like filming a movie, because you’ll do a week of motion capture that has to get put into the computer system, all the art people and sound, and lighting, everybody’s working on just that one sequence and it could be 3 months before you’re called to do another portion of the game.

With Dead Space 3, they already had my likeness in there, they could tweak him, add some age, change hair color… kinda the hardest part, in some ways, was done. It didn’t take as long a time as DS2.

How did you like the motion capture process?

It’s really bizarre. Any prop that you have in your hand whether it’s a gun or something like a spaceship, everything is blacked out and boxed, because they don’t want that specifically in the game.

For instance, the gun is some kind of PVC pipe that’s black taped around. It’s not like when you’re on a movie, you’ve got all the cool props where you’re driving the car or flying the spaceship. I always look at it like the essence of what acting is all about, or just being a kid. You really do just use your imagination. You rely on the director for that as well. He might tell you, ‘Ok, off the volume (that’s what they call the area that the cameras can read) coming in is going to be a necromorph,’ so that’s really what you’re basing it off of: What they’ve already blueprinted in game, thats where your eyeline is, that’s where you play in.

What do you like the most about your character?

I like Isaac Clarke because he is, in a lot of ways, a normal guy. He’s an engineer, he’s not a Halo military badass. He’s a guy who’s probably really good at what he does, he’s just been thrust into some extreme circumstances, and at the end of the day, its that human trait of survival. When we were doing the table read, Chuck Beaver, one of the producers, had given me a couple of characters to get some inspiration from, and one of them was Bruce Willis’ John McClane. He is kind of a bad-ass, I mean he is a cop who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and, of course, having to protect his wife, so there was that element of ‘you’re hanging on by a thread.’

Anything specific from your Dead Space experience that has stuck with you as an actor?

Kate was really awesome in allowing me to do, though it sounds so funny, some of my own stunts. Some of the fun stuff of dragging me across the floor or mimicking an oxygen breach, where you’re being sucked out and you’re trying to just hang on, and clamoring. That was obviously a lot of fun.

Acting wise and emotionally, the scene with Ellie where I’m having to let her go. I loved that scene and Sonita Henry was great, she just nailed it. It’s one of those moments where it’s what you have to choose. Do you choose selfishness, ‘I want her to stay,’ but the selfless thing to do, the noble thing to do is make sure she’s safe and let the cards lie where they lie. And there were more great moments like that with Dead Space 3, without giving away story… the story is so good, the writing is so good in DS3 that if the fans liked that aspect of DS2, they’re really going to gravitate to the story in Dead Space 3.

So what do you feel about games as a storytelling medium? Do you think they’re on par to the other current pop-culture mediums?

Oh, for sure. You know, I just worked with Neil Huxley who was lead art director for Avatar over at Digital Domain, who’s a huge Dead Space fan, and we were talking about it yesterday, matter of fact.

Here’s a guy who, in a lot of ways, designed the worlds of Avatar, he’s a huge gamer. He brought up a lot of great points, there’s an aspect of the film industry shrinking ,the gaming industry increasing, and yet what’s starting to happen now is they’re starting to connect together. Hollywood obviously, how could you not take a look at what’s happening?

If you don’t have story, whether its a film or a game, all you have is a bunch of chase scenes and explosions. I think that some great writers are coming to the plate with gaming and a lot of these writers are coming from film. Game production companies are hiring just so they can make sure that they have that story down pat and connecting those dots.

What are you playing right now?

I wouldn’t call myself a ‘gamephile’, but I love to game. I’ve been cracked out on Borderlands 2… I just finished with a filmmaker buddy of mine, Will Eubank. We just finished the first round of Borderlands 2, and we’re on the second round and I’m playing Zero, the ninja. And I’ve picked up Call of Duty, it’s awesome, it’s just very very real, it’s insane. But they’re two different worlds, BL2 and CoD: One’s not taking itself too seriously, and the other you feel like you’re part of the mission.

I like that kind of Borderland 2 fun, is, in some ways, the type of movies that I grew up with. The adventure and the dialogue is great, I love it.

What’s the hardest game that you’ve ever played?

A lot of ways, for me personally, it was Dead Space 2 *laugh*, because that was the first time that I tried to at least understand… that’s the thing, when I’m acting and playing Isaac Clark, I can’t surround myself or worry about ‘game’. They’re hiring me to web the story line and be the actor. They’ll show me different things on set, aspects of the game to paint the world, so I can understand size and scope, but I really just focus on staying in the wheelhouse of what’s happening in the world of Isaac Clark.

However, after the fact, playing video games for me is also great because you do understand, for example, Borderlands 2 was one where you’re up at 4 or 5 in the morning , you have your headset on, you’re playing with your buddies, and you go ‘Shit, man, I gotta be up at 7!’ Those great games, whatever game that is for the gamer. You get so immersed, that 6 hours goes by, and you hear that a lot, but until you experience that personally, it’s not something that you can really explain until you’ve had it happen to you.

With that in mind, in Dead Space, its not just about killing necromorphs, its is about the story, and it is that escapism, and you are on a ride. You’re controlling that ride, but Visceral and EA are taking you into this world, and I can tell you right now, the world that they built for Dead Space 3 is going to blow people’s minds.

It looks amazing, and scary at the same time. What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever had happen to you?

Oh wow, that’s a good one… Oh! For sure, it was the first time I saw the original Halloween. There was this other time my parents when out of town, I was being babysat by a family friend, and (this sounds so cliche) American Werewolf in London was on, and when that dude turns into a wolf, it’s just like ‘Noooo!!!!’ *laughs* It’s all those typical movies, Friday the 13th, Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It was always that neighbor who was 7 or 8 years older, like the teenager, he had his buddies over, it’s 2 in the morning, and God knows they’re in the liquor cabinet busting out some of dad’s liquor, and they’re putting in these scary movies. His younger brother is my friend, so now I have to watch it with them! Anytime I see them, I never forget. They did their job, I’ll put it that way.

Scared the pants off you, for sure.

Now speaking of scary, you star in Love, this film where an astronaut gets stranded aboard the ISS. That’s the ultimate scare; claustrophobia, and circling miles above the Earth.

That was amazing, that was probably the most cherishable moment of my acting career. We did this long before Dead Space, and it was something that started off very simple. [William Eubanks] and I worked on a TV pilot in 2007, and then about a month later he gets a call from Tom DeLonge from Blink 182 to direct some video vignettes for their upcoming album, Angels and Airwaves. One of those was centered around an astronaut that gets left up on the ISS. But there wasn’t going to be any dialogue, it was really just a look. And he calls me out of the blue and says ‘I’d like to talk to you about, if you’re interested, playing this astronaut for these video vignettes.’ At the time, I didn’t have a lot going on in my acting career, I was hungry and wanted something substantial, versus just the bit part. They bring me on board.

We start shooting in Sept 2007, we were only going to shoot for probably 2 weeks, and yet after we started to see the dailies, we realized it was something way more than just [vignettes], it was almost like longer music videos. And Will went back to the drawing board with Tom with a script idea, and the reason why it took over 4 years to make is because there were moments of budget issues… we probably blew most of our budget that first week in Hollywood renting a space station set. I mean, they just killed us on the budget.

They just have those laying around?

Yeah, I don’t want to know what they charged these guys, but Will basically came up with the idea, ‘I can build a better space station than what we’re renting here, on my parent’s ranch in San Ynez, it’s just going to take me 6 months.’ And thats what he did. It took him and his brothers 7 months to build the space station and it probably cost them half of what it cost to rent one. He basically just went to Home Depot every other day, and it was insane. What you see in the film, 99% of that is his space station, not the set that we rented.

Love’s home made space station set.

You’ve got claustrophobia, you’ve got loneliness, desperation, there’s all those emotional aspects that the film deals with. But then love, which is such an amazing universal term, just ties everything [together] in the end.

It was a great experience because we didn’t expect anything… hell, I didn’t expect to finish, and now we’ve toured it all over the world.

This movie reminds me of Duncan Jones’ Moon. This was made before that, wasn’t it?

It was. We were up on Will’s parent’s ranch, at, I don’t know, day 45, and Will’s manager sent him a copy of Moon (which I own now, I absolutely love that film). The day before we had just finished our treadmill scene.

Oh boy…

And Will’s getting this movie that he’s only heard about, and he’s watching [it] right after our dailies, and you can just see him go, ‘Well, they’re two separate movies anyways, they’re not… I mean… like 2001 and Solaris, they’re not the same!’

Those are the types of things that you have to stick with your own idea no matter what comes out before or after. You can’t deviate because of something like that. After watching Moon and having another 6 months of production, it wasn’t like ‘Moon’s coming out, so we have to do this’, we stuck to our guns, the original idea.

What was so cool was Tom DeLonge and those guys they actually cinematically scored the picture, they didn’t just throw out a G chord. They really scored the picture, which I think the music industry side of movie making really picked up on, because it did a great job. It was such a stretch for them as a band to do something like that.

Who knows, in 20 years it could become one of those cult classics.

As long as that kind of passion is put into a project, you’re going to come out with something that is really spot-on.

And that parlays to Dead Space. I was at EA, and it’s basically one whole floor of production crew that’s working on the game, and people are pulling 7 days a week. The sound guy, [when] I was going to do a couple of pick-ups, and he was just leaving, he had been there literally 18 hours working and tweaking on things, and finally they were like ‘You gotta go home, man’.

So what you said about passion, about love, even though EA is a big business, man, that moment when I’m in EA and I’m walking across the floor, as big as EA is, and I know for the fans its hard to grasp, but that’s what I saw, everyone is so passionate about that franchise that’s working on it… everyone’s trying to put their signature on it, and do the best they can because they really do love that franchise. So how can I bring my B-game? I gotta bring my A-game! Because I’m watching what these guys are doing on a Saturday and 7 o’clock at night. Those are the kinds of projects you want to do, with people with that kind of passion. And hopefully, for most of my career, I’ll be apart of those types of films and video games projects.

It goes back to… for me, it was a middle class upbringing, and outside of motorcycle racing as kind of an escape, movies and video games were that true form of escapism. To me, that’s always more interesting than digging up reality. Having to truly creating something from nothing, maybe having visual references, or inspiration or ideas… it’s almost like a concept car or concept motorcycle: there’s visual cues and references, but they’re so avant-garde that they will probably never be made because they’re just so expensive to produce. What can you do? What can your imagination create? Those types of pictures are what I love.

Even Prometheus, think about that visual world, or Blade Runner, or Dead Space… someone created Tau Volantis.

Someone like James Cameron creating Avatar, probably spends a lot of time creating parts of the world that you’ll never see on film, but it’s there for him in his mind so he can tell the story through it. This seems similar to me with games like Mass Effect, where there is a hugely fleshed out world that you might not interact with everything.

Those are the true artists; the actor is only as good as the world that he’s in, and the script that he’s having to go off of. But those guys, my hat is off to them, because they give you that playground to play in.

What do you have coming up in the pipeline?

I shot a movie, which is almost done, called Highway to Dhampas. Dhampas is a little village in Nepal. It’s a really sweet little story, a great cast, my co star is Rachel Hurd Wood (Wendy from Peter Pan). I play a photojournalist. I have to go back to Nepal in January to do one quick pickup, but I think it’s going to do really well, in that world of smaller great story pictures.

How do you take your coffee?

On set, it’s usually black, but I’m not afraid of cream and sugar. But today, I ran out of coffee, so I’m doing the green tea, but I’ll probably hit the infamous Starbucks before the end of the day.

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