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Friday, March 1, 2024

How the Team Behind 'Far Cry 6' Finished a Game in Lockdown

In March 2020, game creators at Ubisoft’s Toronto studio had just finished wrapping up the “primo moments” of Far Cry 6’s scenes with Breaking Bad’s villain Giancarlo Esposito and Coco’s young dreamer Anthony Gonzalez when Covid-19 became very real, very quickly. The borders between the US and Canada were about to shut down, and the team was anxious to bag the footage they needed before getting the American actors safely and quickly on a plane back home.

The first-person shooter game hinged on performances of the A-list actors, Esposito and Gonzalez, who play Anton and Diego Castillo, a president-dictator and his son from Yara, “a tropical paradise frozen in time.” Esposito and Gonzalez made it out of Canada just before the first lockdown, but Ubisoft was still facing a dilemma. The game’s release was set for less than a year away, and the whole opening scene—arguably the most important sequence of the entire game—hadn’t yet been shot. The game was already five years in the making and there was a lot at stake to figure out.

Only a few Ubisoft employees were allowed back in the office the following Monday to collect the footage they had just captured, and it was jarring to see the studio, including a 12,000-square-foot soundstage, empty. “It looked like the scene of a crime or a zombie apocalypse,” says Navid Khavari, Far Cry 6’s narrative director. Everyone had left their coffees on their desks in a rush to get out. Khavari and his team knew they had to get the edit out to animators ASAP, but the big question was how they were going to wrap up the rest of the game during a pandemic.

No Free Pass

Video game motion-capture requires precision and a lot of time and patience. After all, the length of filming and dialog that goes into one game can be the equivalent of five or six seasons of a TV show. It also demands collaboration of large teams working in close proximity. So how do you translate that during a pandemic?

At first, the team came up with an idea that relied on 15- to-20-year-old motion-capture techniques, where elements like facial expressions were only roughly animated. But they quickly nixed that plan. “We just knew that that wouldn't work,” says Grant Harvey, the game’s cinematics director, otherwise known as the director on set. “This is a triple-A game that is coming out in 2021, and it has to look that way. People aren't going to give us a pass. So we started to dig into how to shoot.”

By June, the lockdowns had lifted to the point the production team could allow 10 people on set, albeit with numerous health and safety protocols. But when you’re dealing with pre-pandemic numbers of 30 to 50 people on set at a time including camera crew, directors, animators and actors, something had to give. The production team decided the best option was to start shooting with four actors at a time. But of course many of the scenes—from a crammed smugglers’ boat to a bloody street protest—called for many more than four actors. Plus, some of the actors were now stuck in the States or in different cities in Canada and couldn’t travel. So how could the team pull it all off?

Making Remote Work a Reality

Anything that could feasibly be done from home now had to be. Those who weren’t needed on set watched remotely through 10 different video streams. Performance-capture director Tony Lomonaco figures that's one change that worked in favor of the team members, to the point where he expects that even after the pandemic is over, people will continue working from home, including quality assurance (QA) engineers, who could suddenly take part far earlier in the process. “It was great because you actually could have people who don't normally come down to the shoot now be involved,” he says.


Many of the audio recordings could also be done from home, as long as the actors were well equipped, trained, and supported throughout the process, says audio director Eduardo Vaisman. In modern video games, there are both narrative-driven lines as well as AI-driven dialog that emerges in gameplay. In the case of Far Cry, say you have a soldier or NPC (nonplayer character), saying “reloading!” or “running for cover!”—these parts are easier to record because they’re not synced to a specific picture or facial animation, and all of the actors have to contribute to it. Once the company developed an in-house tool to record people remotely through an encrypted internet connection, it proved to be a smart solution.

Even in remote audio sessions, the dynamic of the direction didn’t change. While recording, the actors—working from Canada or the US—would be in a simultaneous video meeting with the directors, getting feedback like, “Now you're on fire. Aaaaah! Now you’re more on fire! AAAAAAH!”

Once the restrictions started to loosen, the team could reopen recording studios with minimal staffing, such as one voice engineer separated by a Plexiglas shield from one actor saying his or her lines.

Shooting Layers on Layers (on Layers …)

Actors doing motion-capture still have to shoot dynamic scenes and practical stunts, which wasn’t an easy ask during a lockdown. The solution lay in a technique already in their tool kit—developed from having to shoot every scene featuring the main player character Dani Rojas, even pre-pandemic, with a “master” take plus an “alt” version. That’s because to play Far Cry 6, gamers must either choose the male version of the main character, played by Sean Rey, or the female version, played by Nisa Gunduz.

(Harvey had used a similar technique on a TV show that he directed, Orphan Black, where one actor portrayed more than a dozen clone characters.) Essentially, the Far Cry 6 team had to reshoot these alternative scenes to the playback of the master scene. For example, if Rey was playing the male version of Dani in the master, the crew would have to reshoot it with Gunduz playing the female version of Dani.

During the pandemic shoots of Far Cry 6, the experience came in handy for adding people to scenes and stitching together performances. Not only were the Covid shoots limited to four actors per scene, but they each had to take turns speaking their lines while donning the performance-capture helmet to track their facial animations. The rest of them had to wear personal protective equipment such as masks and face shields.

“You end up with layer upon layer,” says Harvey. “So if we shot one scene that had seven or eight characters, plus some stunts, plus the two Danis, there would be at least nine layers in the scene that we had to then put together afterwards. It was mind-blowing.”

Embracing Awkwardness

Playing a character in a virtual world—and being dressed head-to-toe in performance-capture gear—already requires a lot of imagination. Even pre-pandemic, Gunduz or Rey (the two Danis) would have to act in these alt shoots, where they’re giving it their all while only hearing the playback of the other characters. Other actors would be there, but they would be just mouthing along, and there would be holes that Gunduz or Rey would have to fill in. The process was painstaking, but the actors got used to it.

To do an “alt” version of the scene, the actors listened for audio cues—specifically “beeps” and “boops.” If they heard “beep-beep-beep,” they had to say their line. If they heard “boop-boop-boop,” they had to hit a physical mark, whether a big movement like catching an object in the air, or a subtle shake of an arm because one of the other characters had hit them. “It’s very musical in a sense,” says Gunduz.

But it could also be super awkward, to say the least. One upside was that Gunduz and Rey already had practice acting under those constraints. Gunduz describes the role as at times the most challenging but rewarding of her career.

“It's very extreme,” she recalls. “You're in a revolution, fighting against a dictatorship, brutality and oppression and things that I've obviously never seen in my life. And you’re doing it against the grey backdrop of the empty soundstage with the helmet’s lights flashing in your eyes. It’s not easy.”

The actors also put their egos aside when it came to filling in as “surrogates” for other actors who couldn’t travel to set. “They were so generous about helping the other actor perform and interpret the script together,” says Harvey. “It was incredibly heartwarming.”

Still, the team had to find creative ways to make it work. LA-based actor Alex Fernandez, who plays guerrilla mentor Juan Cortez, needed a body double for some of his scenes, but he delivered his dialog in such a unique way that the directors knew they had to shoot his face and voice remotely.

Moving Forward

In wrapping up Far Cry 6 during the pandemic, the directors walked away with confidence that they had pulled off the impossible. Still, that doesn’t mean Ubisoft would fall back on these workarounds. “Doing remote voice would be a step back to when they used to shoot cinematics. You would almost do it like a radio play, and I can’t see us going back to that,” says Khavari.

Other advances will be embraced in the future, pandemic or not, says Lomonaco. These include the high-quality streaming of numerous feeds on set that allow motion-capture technicians to be present like the “the voice of God” during a shoot. The QA process, which involves verifying the quality of the data captured, will also continue to be done from home.

The pandemic also opened up the possibility of working with more talent around the world, whether it’s brainstorming with international writers on a virtual whiteboard or doing remote table reads with actors in Toronto, LA, or New York. But the physical studio will always be where the real magic happens, says Vaisman. “Technology is not much of a barrier now, but human interaction and synchronous communication and creating the best atmosphere for the talent to perform is the next challenge.”

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