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The unsung star of The Last of Us Part II had to pretend to be a baby

The unsung star of The Last of Us Part II had to pretend to be a baby


The weird life of a mo-cap actor

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Amy Johnston is carefully perched against the hip of her co-worker for the day, an animator by the name of Marianne Hayden. It’s a strange scene, to say the least: two grown women in a mismatched embrace, one of them decked out in a Tron-like suit fitted with bright orange and green panels. Johnston slowly wags her legs and rests her head on Hayden’s shoulder. “I loved it so much,” Johnston says. “It was very relaxing. It’s nice to be a baby.”

Johnston, an experienced stuntwoman, was helping animators for The Last of Us Part II capture movement for an in-game baby. Rather than suit up a real baby (just imagine the complications there), Hayden had asked Johnston to sub in. A little bit of quiet head bobbing, some long and curious stares — Johnston did it all. Her best advice: move slowly. Very slowly. Nothing looks more nightmarish than a fast baby.

Motion capture work is a crucial part of modern game design, one that allows developers to create more lifelike performances for their virtual worlds. Actors are rigged up in special suits to track their movements; their faces are often dotted with black circles to recreate their expressions. Johnston, a lifelong martial artist, has taken her stunt work from Hollywood spots like mo-capping in the Deadpool movie to work in games. She’s given movement to characters like Spider-Man’s Black Cat and, more recently, both Ellie and Abby in The Last of Us Part II.

In portraying both Ellie and Abby, Johnston found herself acting for two characters with wildly different physiques. Ellie — small, skinny, and quick — “has to be scrappy,” Johnston says. “There’s more emotions going on, there’s so many things that change her fighting style and her movements, even so with her injuries.” And then there’s Abby: built like a tank, muscular and thick. “You have to really find the dynamic and the understanding of the intent, the intention the characters have in those moments [of intense combat],” Johnson says. “How their body feels, how their body moves.” 

But Johnston’s work in Naughty Dog’s game didn’t just apply to its leads. She acted for NPCs, adult and otherwise, and even some of the game’s monsters. “With motion capture, every day is so different,” says Johnston. Sometimes she’s there for “movement days,” where animators track her walk cycles and decide how to build a character from the ground up. “We really have to define who that character is and get those walk cycles and all those transitions,” she says. Other days she’ll listen to recordings of the game’s voice actors played overhead while miming out their movements for big scripted scenes, or fight off imaginary foes. “And then there’s days where I come in and just die, all day,” she says. “Just getting shot in every direction.”

The thing about dying over and over? It’s definitely exhausting but can be surprisingly monotonous. “It’s very strategic and very specific,” says Johnston, explaining that something as simple as death by a gunshot can require variations on position, distance, or movements. Some of her more difficult deaths involved jumping from one ledge and failing to safely land on another. “I was jumping off a platform, running, jumping off a platform, landing on my mid-stomach onto a big pole that was up in the air, then falling off of that backwards onto my back,” she says. “Those deaths were more difficult, more of a stunt for me, because I’m running, jumping, getting some distance, landing on my stomach, and then having myself bounce off of that onto the ground. In different ways.” It’s a very physically demanding job, but don’t worry; actors are at least swaddled in pads.

“And then there’s days where I come in and just die, all day”

While fight scenes are her bread and butter, Johnston sometimes finds herself acting as characters that aren’t even human. “Girl, I’ve been elephants,” she says, referencing one of her experiences working on Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. “They put up videos of elephants for reference, and so I had to learn how to walk like an elephant.” Her experiences are all over the place, including a very strange spot of acting for The Last of Us Part II. In one of the game’s bigger boss battles, players run into an absolute mess of fleshy bits and limbs known as the “Rat King.” At one point, one creature rips free from its sinewy prison entirely and scuttles after the player. That was Johnston, dutifully doing her part. 

“I was the leg portion,” she says. “I was tied to another actor friend of mine. He was the main body, and I was the little guy on the bottom.” To see the actual footage of Johnston at work is like watching a demented game of Twister. One developer holds her right leg, while her left is strapped to the other actor’s. Johnston wriggles and squirms until her bonds are strategically released. She flops to the ground and then springs back up, newly freed and feral. “It really allowed for that tension and that pull that made it look really realistic,” she says of the whole process. 

Any leftover energy she might have from a strenuous set can be channeled into something softer, or maybe you just wind up doing crying jags for a while. It makes her an expert at very strange, specific things. “I threw a Molotov 800 times from different positions,” she recalls of one day. The motion was hard to shake. “I went to bed and woke up throwing. My arm was still throwing.”