Doing laps in the LA Fishbowl

Benji and the Art of War

If the last audition I went on results in a booking call from my voice agent, I’m gonna owe my son Ben big time.

It’s like I’m being attacked by
those floating spores from “Avatar.”

I got called in for a mocap game. Mocap stands for Motion Capture; it’s where you get suited up with tights and ping pong balls and move around  on a special set, where they track all  your movements on a computer, a la Andy Serkis in “Lord of the Rings,” “King Kong” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” (“I’m going Serkis” should be a new phrase for doing motion capture; if you run across it later remember you heard it here first.) With most of your props and set approximated on a bare stage, and the need to memorize your lines (though much of the dialogue is later re-recorded in studio) mocap is very much like the intersection between voiceover and theatre. It’s a lot of fun. I’ve gone Serkis (how’d that sound?) on a couple of games, Uncharted 1 & 3, where I’ve played the same character, a swaggering Indonesian pirate called Eddie Raja, whom, I’m told, is quite popular in the gaming universe.

Hey! That’s my move!

For this game the role was a more stoic one; a commander in a Chinese rebel army in the desert. For the audition I lead an ambush and do lots of battle cries. The lines were typical of most action game dialogue; lots of “Get down!” and “Fall back!” and “Protect the base!” On the audition sheet, the actor was instructed to make sure “the dialogue be accompanied by physical movements. Mime action.”

That meant lots of shooting, and getting shot at. The lines were no problem, battle cries are the stock and trade of every voiceover actor today, but I was less comfortable about how my shooting of an imaginary gun came off. I’ve never handled a firearm, and wondered how awkward my form was. Did it look like I was holding an AK47, or watering the lawn? Who should I turn to for advice on weaponry and battle?

My ten-year-old son, of course.

Since the age of five Ben has been able to replicate, with amazing accuracy, the sound of a semi-automatic firing (it has to do with the tongue trilling against the lower teeth; no, I can’t do it). Mind you, he comes from a virulently anti-firearm household— he’s never had a toy gun, never played a point-and-shoot video games, wasn’t allowed to aim a finger at us and go “bang,”— no, he was forbidden from play-shooting in any manner, lest he be subject to long, tedious lectures on “Why Guns Aren’t Fun,” and “How Weapons Hurt People.”

Still, he managed to create firearms out of anything— a tree branch, a plate display stand (the perfect revolver), two pieces of PVC piping, his ever-handy disobedient fingers. When questioned, he wouldn’t call them actual guns (“No! They just stun the people and put them to sleep!”) but we knew what was up. Out of the ether, it seemed, he learned how to lock and load, though more likely he acquired this knowlege from his fellow gun-obsessed school chums.

eeee… this one don’t look
too ticklish…

Doug tried to rebrand Ben’s weaponry by calling them “kissing guns,” or “tickle guns,” but it was a losing battle. And then, in first grade, he saw his first “Star Wars” movie, and it was all over. The lightsaber is a gateway weapon. Soon, we had all manner of staffs, swords and “Pirates of the Caribbean” cutlasses piling up in odd corners of the house. Still, no weapons that fired anything in the house (water guns being the glaring exception) and no shooting video games. Birthday Laser Tag parties? We caved. We still preach against guns, but our finger-wagging is half-hearted at best. We know we’ve been beat.

“And… if you’re reloading a machine gun, what does that look like?”

Yet here I am, asking Ben about the very weapons he’s not supposed to be wielding. He happily obliges. Benjamin’s natural mode of being is in constant motion; soon he is diving, rolling, ducking, shooting. He give me pointers on how to hold my arms, how to take cover, all the movements he’s gleaned from countless “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” episodes. I have to admit: it’s pretty impressive, and exactly what I need for a computer game.

The audition takes place on one of those rare rainy days in L.A. and I have to park three blocks away from the casting office. We all troop in, Asian-types and Middle Eastern types, soaking wet and crammed into a tiny office waiting area. From the couch you can hear the sound of simulated carnage going on behind the closed casting door. Am I really going to be jumping and running around, miming artillery and blockades? I remember what Doug, the ever-encouraging, murmured to me the night before as we settled down to sleep: “Mocap is kinda a younger man’s game, isn’t it?”

Yes, thanks for that, Mr. Wood. Still, he may be right. I’m feeling like the sage Danny Glover, who once famously stated (via those Lethal Weapon movies): “I’m getting too old for this shit.” Yes indeed, Mr. Glover, yes indeed.

And yet, when I enter the room, my inner ten-year-old asserts itself: I’ve got the moves, and, more importantly, the abandon by which I throw myself into those moves. Soon I am diving, rolling, ducking and shooting behind two folding chairs. My two bum knees do not buckle, my lumbar vertebrae does not compact, and it all goes very well. If I am not entirely authentic, I’m doing a damned good impersonation of Benjamin. “Where did you come from?” the casting agent says, in a good way (I think). I want to tell her, “From my son’s imagination.”

So we’ll see. The next night, we are invited to dinner at our friends’ house. They have a three-year-old son who adores Ben, and wants to do everything he does. This occassionally can be a little problematic, given Benj’s prediliction for fight moves, and the mom’s concern about her own son’s entry into the world of weapons. I see Ben showing the little boy a Star Wars clone trooper action figure, but I don’t need to worry. A little while later the little boy runs over to me and wants to show off the trooper. “And this man, if there’s a fire, he shoots his gun and water comes out and puts out the fire!”

Good one, Ben.

I told Ben that if I get this job, I’ll get him something special for his help. Maybe I’ll buy him a Lord of the Rings action figure, or some more Bucky Balls. But no, I won’t be getting him a gun. He seems to be doing just fine without one.

February 1st, 2012 - Still Life Las Vegas


2 responses to “Benji and the Art of War”

  1. Sally Nemeth says:

    Bang! You're dead! is inescapable. And, as you've discovered, potentially lucrative. Oh – and here's a word you should copyright: Ber-Serkis! My gift to you, for living through that acrobatic audition.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Oh, this blog is just what I needed. Wonderful! Laughed the whole way. I could just imagine it all. I've been feeling Danny Gloverish myself lately. The solar flares have been kickin my ass!
    I hope you get it, how fun.
    love ya.

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