Tokyo Motion Capture Artist Chuck Johnson Sheds Light on the Artists We Never Hear About

Born in Michigan, USA and based in Tokyo, Japan, Chuck Johnson is an artist of many talents. In addition to being an actor, stuntman, film producer and, more recently, a promising director, Chuck Johnson is also a veteran motion-capture artist who understands the industry and this creative field exceptionally well.

Chuck began his training with Olympic Taekwondo in his early teens. With dedication, hard work, and a lot of passion, he succeeded in receiving his black belt in just two and a half years, and became the Michigan State Junior Olympic Champion less than a week later.  In 2004, he began his actor’s journey appearing as a featured martial arts extra in Godzilla: Final Wars, and soon transitioned into dramatic acting in addition to action and stunts.  Nowadays, he has an extensive list of appearances in more than 100 films, TV shows, video games and commercials between the US and Asia, and  he can speak, read and act in both Japanese and Korean as well as his native American English.

As a  motion capture artist in Tokyo, he has played a wide range of main, supporting and even non-human characters in some of the world’s biggest video game franchises. 

An interview with Chuck Johnson

Q: So, as a veteran actor and stuntman, and more recently, producer/director,  you have a wide breadth of experience in the entertainment industry. How did you get into doing motion capture?

Chuck: I got into motion capture almost immediately after completing a utility stunts training course from the International Stunt School in Seattle, USA. At the time, I had already been acting and doing fight choreography in Japanese action movies for several years, but I decided it was time to learn a wider range of skills, so I went there to learn how to do other stunts (high falls, repelling, fire stunts, wires, etc).  At the time, I really couldn’t afford to go,  and I ended up maxing out my credit card just to make it happen.  That isn’t something that I would recommend to anyone, but the first big job I got after stunt school was playing background soldiers in Metal Gear Solid V. That was a year’s worth of work, and it paid off that training 2 or 3 fold. I’ve loved MoCap ever since.

Most actors have to constantly hustle for work. And when you are a small and relatively unknown actor,  long running jobs are really rare. In film or television, as an actor you only get that when you are a main character, or as a stunt person, only when you are doubling a main character. When you do MoCap however, your face and body is never actually seen in the final product, so unlike in a film, instead of playing one small role, you can play a multitude of roles in the same project. Of course, for the main characters, they still want outstanding and dedicated actors just for that one character, but multiple smaller supporting roles, or extra roles can be filled with the same individual. At least that’s how they do it in Tokyo. In MGSV, I was probably 25% of all of the soldiers in that game.  I can’t even tell you how many times I would die in a week, haha.

Was that why it became one of your specializations?

That was definitely part of it.. As an actor in  Japan, MoCap work is some of the best work you can get. Much more so than movies, actually. The reason is that out here, unlike in the states, video games are a bigger cultural export than movies are. Japanese movies are almost always exclusively for the domestic market, but the video games are made for world-wide export. This not only means way bigger production budgets, but consequently, working with better directors, actors and production teams, etc. That isn’t to say that there aren’t Japanese films that go abroad or that there aren’t great and talented people in film and television too; only that the standards seem to be consistently higher for video games.

Q: So what is a day like on a MoCap set?

You always start off the day getting your suit on, and then having your sensors checked to make sure they are accurately placed on all of the moveable joints of the body, so that every motion; even slight movements of the fingers can be tracked while you are acting. It’s the subtle movements that really brings characters to life,  allows the audience to find their “suspension of disbelief”, and makes the characters feel like real people. Even when they are completely computer generated.

This is one of the reasons that the standard for MoCap actors has to be high. Basically, they have to be able to act through a filter. The sensors on the suit may track the movement, but there is always a small bit of data lost, and not everything you do to add richness to a character will be conveyed, so you always have to act through that.

Anyway, after you suit up, and get your sensors checked, if they are doing facial capture, they may draw lines all over your face, and then attach a rig to your head with a light and a camera attached to it.

While you are acting, it’s a lot like being in permanent rehearsals for theater. There is no audience, there is no one particular camera you are playing to (the cameras are small and wall-mounted and surround you 360 degrees), the room is bare,  and props are only a loose proximity of what the final product will be. Then if you are doing the facial capture, you are doing all that with a camera rig attached to your head with a bright light shining in your face. It takes time to get used to.

Facial Capture

Q: What exactly is Facial Capture?

Facial Capture is the tracking of one’s facial expressions while they are acting. One of the most fascinating things about CG characters in film and video games is that most characters are combinations of multiple people. For most characters, a Tokyo-based model is chosen to base the character’s face off of, and the body capture/facial capture will also be done here in Tokyo. Strictly speaking the facial capture person and the body capture person can be different people as well; but it’s more natural if it’s the same person doing both because how you speak and how you gesture are usually tied together. Then the data is sent to LA for the voice actors to watch and layer their performance over top of it.  So any given character may be a combination of 2-4 different actors from both sides of the globe. Usually the voice actor is the one who gets the credit for “playing” the character though.

Q: Why is that?

This may be a leftover tradition from the days of when animation was all drawn by hand, so the voice actor was the only person involved in a given character. Or because in film, the dividing line between a character or an extra is speaking lines. Or it could be that it’s just easier for the fans to process if there is only one real person associated with that game character. (Kind of like how there are no awards for stunts at the Oscars because originally it was thought that it would detract from the “magic” of the main actors` performance.) I’m not exactly sure.

Q: As the motion capture guy, how do you feel about the voice actor getting the credit?

It is what it is. As an actor, I feel like you always have to be happy to see other actors get work and see their work celebrated because we are all just hustling. But it would be nice to get credit for the work that we put into creating these characters on our end as well. Even just as “the MoCap guy” I still have to memorize the script, act with intent, and go through all of the same processes in character creation that any other actor in theatre, film or television has to. The only difference is that on this end, our face is never seen, just our expression.

The only exception to this is when the MoCap artist gets to do the voice of the character and/or the character is based off of his or her face. That does happen from time to time, but it’s more the exception than the rule.

Q: What was the most interesting or challenging role you have played so far?

In the game Left Alive, I was brought in to play two different main characters, and then due to issues with one of the other actors in the production, I was asked to take over his role and play a third. So I was three different people in the game at once. That was really challenging, because it meant having to develop three different ways to walk, talk, gesture, at once. In one scene two of these characters actually have a conversation, and then one executes the other, so I actually had to blow my own head off. The Mocap studio we were shooting in had said they had never seen that before, and that was really a highlight of my acting career.

Q: How do you think mo-cap will change film in the future?

Chuck: I certainly don’t think it will ever completely replace film or television, but with the rate that technology is growing, I think the data capture will only ever get more and more detailed,  and the CG will only continue to look less and less distinguishable from reality. Most films now are already half-CG. Even if you look at the difference between the character movement and expression in my first project, Metal Gear Solid V, vs level of realism and expression in the current projects I’m doing, it’s huge. And the more realistic it becomes, the more people will enjoy CG-based projects as an entertainment medium.

The other reason I think it will continue to grow is because MoCap is comparatively easier to shoot. I’m sure the CG generation, story-telling and pre/post production aspects are all equally as intense as massive TV or film projects, but the production and shooting aspect is comparatively really efficient.
If you look at a Hollywood blockbuster, it can take crews of up to 10,000 people to complete, with locations all over the world requiring different local shooting units for each one. Each of these units has to take into account weather conditions, cultural differences, local politics, and a myriad of other factors just to make the shooting happen. Whereas a mocap project -regardless of the scale or where the story takes place- can be done in a single, relatively small studio with 5-10 actors & stuntmen; even if you have a scene requiring 50 people or more. I feel really lucky and blessed to have gotten into this industry when I did, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what the future holds for it.