Playing Isaac Johanson in Deliver Us Mars
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Playing Isaac Johanson in Deliver Us Mars

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Deliver Us Mars blends planetary exploration with storytelling that makes use of a talented cast of motion-captured actors. This includes performers Ellise Chappell as Earth’s youngest astronaut Kathy Johanson, and Neil Newbon as her father Isaac Johanson, with the story following Kathy as she journeys to Mars to recover stolen ARK colony ships. The game is a sequel to 2018’s Deliver Us the Moon, taking place a decade later.

Neil Newbon has long been a part of the acting world in video games and beyond, best known to players for characters like Karl Heisenberg in Resident Evil Village and dual roles Elijah Kamski and Gavin Reed in Detroit: Become Human. Alongside playing Isaac in Deliver Us Mars, Newbon also served as the title’s performance director, drawing from his long experience with motion capture. Newbon is even the co-founder of Performance Captured Academy, a training facility for mo-cap actors.


Related: Deliver Us The Moon Review: A Largely Satisfying Leap For Mankind

Neil Newbon sat down with Screen Rant to discuss his role of Isaac in Deliver Us Mars, performance directing, and his history with video games as a whole.

Screen Rant: With this game, how would you describe your character? And how do you think they compare to some of the other big characters that you’ve played?

Neil Newbon: This character was one of the most challenging to play because he’s closer to me than I think most of the characters I’ve played in the past has been. He is a single dad, and I’m a single dad. I’m a co-parenting single dad, specifically. He has two daughters, and one daughter that he specifically dotes on very much. I have a daughter that I dote on very much. He has aspirations to do great things, and a big part of my life is fulfilled by being a creative. I have ambitions to keep creating for as long as I possibly can, and there’s a drive to that. There’s also a sacrifice to that, I think, that I understand with him. A big part of him resonates very directly with my experience.

There’s also a lot of stuff about him that is not me, which is good. I think the character has this incredible intellect and this huge expansive mind, but he also is emotionally quite weak. He’s quite emotionally fragile and very sensitive, but also not very well-equipped to deal with his own emotions. He’s a bit of a coward at times, which is interesting to play. As an actor, I don’t judge my characters. I’m just trying to take stock of where they actually are, the things they do, and why they do these things. The wants and needs; the objectives and super objectives of the character and that kind of stuff; the thematic aspect of the piece. I play them very truthfully and honestly and with great love. The audience is there to judge the character; I’m not.

I always had in my head as an actor that he’s kind of a tyrant in a cardigan. The reason I say that is not because he’s a bad person, not because he’s a dictator, like some of the awful dictators around the world at the moment. But he’s so driven that he’s willing to sacrifice things that as a dad, as a human being, you shouldn’t sacrifice. But he is also a nice guy, in many ways; he’s a loving man, he’s a loving father, and a very affectionate father in many ways. He just is trying to do what he thinks is right. But he’s unwavering in that, so he’s a very complicated character in that way. I see him as this tyrant in a cardigan because he’s just unbending in what he thinks is right, which is a very dangerous position to be in, especially as a father. It’s very dangerous to be like that.

I think you have to have conviction, and you have to sometimes look after people as a dad, and you have to be selfless as a father. And you have to be strong as a human to be a good parent. But he goes beyond that; he goes to the overriding legacy of creating a new civilization, which is effectively what he’s doing. The first story, we see that the scientists have left Earth with these things called the ARKs. We don’t know what they’re for, but we know they’re super important. It’s a very complicated role to play.

I’ve played complicated roles before him. I’m currently playing Astarion in Baldur’s Gate III, who’s a very complicated and very fun character. He’s a very interesting character that I’ve been with for about three and a half years now. So, that’s not difficult for me. It’s not a challenge for me, per se. I actually relish having multifaceted, layered characters. But this character was challenging because there were so many things that very much hit home. I had to honor his choices as opposed to make choices that I would make. I’m not saying anything that most actors don’t know; it’s not a huge secret of acting to do that. But I think it’s important that we be honest ourselves as actors and artists, when we’re looking at a character’s fictional truth. We have to play it truthfully, and not let our own preconceptions or misgivings about morality and life and what is right or wrong. We honor the choices and stand by the choices of the character, even though we know the conclusion.

Those moments, you have to play without any knowledge, and you have to honor and love the character. You try as best you can to fulfill their life truthfully. It almost sounds like a cliché when actors say truthful living or something, but it’s not a cliché. Clichés are basically truisms. They’re true to life, so it might sound like a cliché to someone who doesn’t understand acting methodology, perhaps. But it’s absolutely true. It’s all truthful in a fictional universe. To do that, you have to go in without judgment.

But as a dad, it’s difficult! I look at some of his choices, and I’m like, “Wow… You did that? Oh, my God, there’s no way I could do that.” Which is a very interesting place to be. I like being challenged. I also like feeling a little bit out of my depth in some ways; out of my comfort zone. There’s a great quote for this. I’m going to paraphrase and mangle it horribly. But it’s something along the lines of, “When you’re in the sea, the second that your feet stop touching the earth underneath your sea and start lifting up and you go beyond your tiptoes so that you’re actually floating… If you feel uncomfortable in that moment, metaphorically, that’s a great place to be as an artist.” It’s a great place to be as an actor; to get uncomfortable and challenge yourself to try and evolve and grow your craft. Because that’s when really cool things happen, I think.

I was talking to Ellise [Chappell] earlier this morning about gray areas in the story. There’s not a concrete, correct thing to do in a lot of situations, which really seems to line up with what you’re saying.

Neil Newbon: I would describe Deliver Us Mars as a psychological family drama with a very dysfunctional family set in the grand opera of space. I was talking to the actors a lot about this, and with Raynor Arkenbout, the amazing writer and Narrative Director of this piece. We wanted it to be real. Obviously, I’m performance director on the piece as well, so we were very aligned when we started our pre-production work together. We knew the tonality that we wanted to try and get from the actors, and also for me as a performer. We wanted it to be realistic; this could actually happen, and it feels real. Yes, there’s a huge, operatic scope with going to Mars and all this amazing technology and stuff like that. It’s only 30-40 years in the future, so it’s not even that far away from where we are now. But it was very much embedded in this family, especially this relationship between Kathy and Isaac.

I think if we went to a melodramatic or hammy and operatic style in our choices as actors, it wouldn’t feel right. It would lessen the impact of the story. There are some very strong messages in the game, as well as it being a fun experience, that hopefully will make people think.

You mentioned you are the performance director for this game, and you have a ton of experience with mo-cap. You’re the co-founder of the Performance Captured Academy. What was it like to work on this from both a director standpoint and an actor standpoint?

Neil Newbon: It was wonderful. I had a great time with everybody from the very beginning. From pre-production with Raynor, who’s a wonderful mind and a great artist as well, he and I clicked. I feel like we literally aligned on the interview to potentially direct. It was really wonderful to have these very strong ideas and a very strong script, and then to start working on that and taking apart these little moments. We were finding ways that we could put this into motion capture and make it work, with all the technicalities that go along with it.

And then for the casting, we spent a lot of time trying to find the right Kathy. Both of us felt that if we found the right Kathy, that’s gonna unlock the casting for everybody else. Once we settled on Ellise, which was a very easy choice from the moment she entered, things really fell into place. Not easily, because I don’t want to be glib about that, but it definitely facilitated us creating this very strong cast. We have some people who have never done motion capture before as well, like Danny Ashok, and others who have done many projects. They are all very talented, so as a director going into this, I wasn’t worried at all really about the experience. We had a great cast that would work really well together, and the challenge of finding how to make zero gravity a thing in mo-cap was super exciting. We managed to do it for 40 quid, which I’m still very proud of.

As a director approaching it, those are the big challenges. How do we make zero G feel real? How’s it going to translate to motion capture? How are we going to then take people who have not done motion capture, allow them to bring their craft to it, and teach them in a very short amount of time the best way of using their craft? And that was great, because we had a rehearsal period and a workshop. I did a movement workshop for zero G, and we worked out how to perfect it. And between us, we all created this movement for space, which was really cool. All the cast researched a lot about NASA, about space astronauts and the technicalities of space; they watched NASA religiously, so as a director, it was really exciting to get involved. The script was already strong, so we knew there wasn’t going to be a huge amount of changes. The excitement of then pulling everybody together and getting their opinions about their characters was glorious.

This is definitely one of the biggest things I’ve done from start to finish. Usually, I come on as an action director or a performance director on very small jobs; like a three-day shoot or something like that. To do two weeks from start to finish of the entire story was a really glorious experience.

As a performer, the challenge of the character was the most exciting thing for me. As well as working with this amazing cast, all of whom are great ensemble players and play really well. I love being in the Volume. The volume allowed me as an actor to become a character actor; I can take my face off, which is cool. I’m able to really stretch myself and challenge myself. In terms of my experience beforehand as a performer, I’ve done a lot of actions and fighting combat or big Jeopardy stuff. To do something that was very filmic, very centered, and very grounded in realism was a really beautiful experience in games.

There have been many games where I have done these moments, but to have the entire shoot be like that was a really wonderful experience. It was more like theater than anything else. We were dealing with a cast of six people, all of them were pretty much together a lot of the time. It was a really fun experience to workshop it, rehearse it, shoot it, and to really explore the character and have the time to do that. I don’t think it differs greatly from the stuff I’ve done in the past, but it was definitely a really wonderful experience.

Are there any moments of filming that stand out to you, either because they were especially fun or challenging or funny?

Neil Newbon: I can’t talk too much about the actual script, or what happens in the game. But we all get a real kick out of doing zero G. Doing zero gravity was really exciting and fun, especially when we realized very quickly that it worked really well; fall back than even I thought it was gonna work. That was really fun, because it also was quite early on in the shoot. I think what it did was allow the actors to really embrace the fun of it; embrace the adventure on it. Because there was definitely heavier stuff later, which was a lot more challenging for each actor to go through. And each actor has their own moment of that, which is interesting.

I don’t think anything particularly stands out that wouldn’t ruin the piece to tell you. But one thing I can tell you, because it doesn’t affect anything, was that we did manage to get Raynor into a mocap suit. I got a little bit of time to do pure motion capture, like background world-building stuff, and we got him to perform. People that know him might be able to spot his movements, but that was definitely a highlight.

We wrapped the whole thing about 45 minutes ahead of schedule, which was an amazing endeavor. And that’s a testament to the crew, and to everybody at KeokeN as well; to our cast and to everybody involved. We allowed 45 minutes of extra mo-cap stuff that we hadn’t planned to do, so Jill on the animation side managed to basically go, “What do you need in the game? What can we get for you right now?” We had a real hoot doing that. That was a great way to end it, because all of us were in suits. All of us were doing it seriously, but also kind of f—-ing around a bit and having fun. It was just playtime, and that definitely summed up the shoot.

Deliver Us Mars is an ambitious sequel to Deliver Us The Moon. It’s a cinematic sci-fi adventure game in many ways, but it’s also intimate and emotional. I like to think of it as a handcrafted, filmic piece. For us as performers to have that as the very last thing that we did together, and we were all together in the Volume for it, was really fun. It was a reward, almost; it was really lovely.

Related: Space Exploration Is Gaming’s Next Big Open-World PursuitAs you mentioned, you are big into the geek lifestyle.

Neil Newbon: Oh, yeah! I was a geek back in the 90s, when being a geek meant you didn’t get laid. It was not sexy, hot, or cool. Geek chic was not a thing. You definitely were ostracized, and you definitely were looked at like, “HE plays video games, therefore he’s not having sex.”

It’s interesting because I’m a Generation X kid, so we were feral anyway. On top of that, to be feral and ostracized was an interesting experience. Same thing with games, though. When I started doing games back in 2009 and 2010 in mocap, no actor wanted to touch this with a bargepole. I had agents, past lovers, an ex-wife telling me that it’s not proper acting. It’s not storytelling, and it’ll ruin your career. And all of them were wrong. I was very lucky that I kept with it and focused on it. It allowed me to be a character actor as well, and it was really exciting to see how far that journey has come. It’s also exciting to see that being a geek is very cool now.

What have you been playing lately?

Neil Newbon: Hopefully I’m going to be playing Deliver Us Mars! I modded the crap out of Cyberpunk, and I’ve been playing Warhammer 40,000: Darktide, which was fun. Back 4 Blood is a huge favorite; I just finished doing the DLC.

I make it sound like I play a lot of games all the time, and I that’s all I do. I just work and play games. That’s absolutely not true. I Twitch as well; I basically use my Twitch stream as an excuse to play video games that I shouldn’t be able to factor into my busy schedule. I’ve been playing those games, which is really cool. Really fun.

What genres do you tend to gravitate to, in terms of the ones you play and the ones that you prefer to act in?

Neil Newbon: I don’t have a preference of what to act in. I’ll take anything that people will give me and I’m grateful for being offered it. Occasionally, very occasionally, people have asked me directly if I’d like to be in this thing. But I audition like every actor. And I think it’s important to audition, actually; I don’t think you should ever, “Oh, I’ll just do this.” You may not be right for it, even if you’re really good.

Obviously, there’s a limit to that. I think Postal 5 is not really going to be my bag, for many reasons. That’s maybe one one place I won’t go to. But as an actor, I’ll take anything that’s good. Anything that’s got heart and that people are passionate about, which is the same for me as a director or producer for that matter. My company produces with Cloud Imperium Games, which has been great.

As a gamer, I love strategy games. I love roleplay games, and I love story games. Whether it’s something like Red Dead Redemption 2, which I really liked because I want to be a cowboy, or something like XCOM 2 or Fallout, which I’m a huge fan of. Things that have a narrative as strong as the gameplay, which is also something I’ve seen evolve as an older veteran of voice work. Seeing it go from the game with a tacked-on narrative, “Don’t worry too much. It’s just a fun game,” to people wanting the narrative to be as good as the gameplay is absolutely wonderful. You can have depth; you can have character choices that maybe in the past, people didn’t really know or necessarily want.

There were exceptions, like Fallout and Elder Scrolls, but by and large a lot of them didn’t really care that much. In the last six or seven years, I’ve noticed a huge change, and the act of the performer for things like God of War is so important. You get Christopher Judge there, or Troy Baker’s performance in The Last of Us, which was obviously completely industry-changing and legitimized performance capture. Troy’s work was so incredible and outstanding, as was everybody’s in that game. Jennifer Hale has been around for a long time doing Mass Effects; these titans of games saw this wonderful change in the audience. They want to be connected and feel completely immersed, and that’s our job. Our job is world immersion, and even background characters add to that level, and they’re super important.

I mentor a lot of actors and stunt performers and dancers, and all of the conversation is how you’ve got to give it 100%. Even the smallest character in the background – and you can look at Cyberpunk as a good example of how it didn’t work – adds to the overriding story. Even if you’re playing some guy walking down the street, if you’re giving a full performance and it feels real, the game is just lifted up. It’s an active story, and you’re the main player in it. That’s pretty exciting.

Can you discuss your character’s actions at the start of the game? What are you most excited for players to react to when it comes to him?

Neil Newbon: The challenge of Isaac, and one the major thing that he does which I cannot fathom as a father myself, is that he decides for what he thinks is the greater good of things to abandon his favorite daughter. He loves Claire, but she’s not his heart; Kathy’s his heart. So he abandons her for what he thinks is the right reason, and it’s a situation that he may not have control over.

I think when he leaves, that’s going to be interesting to see how the audience reacts. When the story progresses beyond that, with the things that happen to Kathy, it’s going to be interesting to see how people feel. Can they understand it or not, and does it make them ask even more questions about Kathy or about Isaac as a father? I’m gonna be very interested to see the reaction of that.

It’s difficult because I don’t get to hear too much of the audience’s reaction to the performance in a game. But if I can, I do sometimes skulk around on Reddit forums and things like that – not to see if people thought my performance was good, because quite frankly, that’s immaterial. But because I just want them to have a reaction to the story and the characters. It’s about honoring the character and doing the best job you can for that character, then you just let the audience make the decisions and tell you how they feel. Even the nitty-gritty, negative comments, there’s a place for them. If somebody genuinely hated this character because of this thing that he did, then that’s my job done.

You want to enjoy the game no matter what, but I find it interesting to see how people relate to these characters. The things that they do are quite fascinating, and it also teaches me more about people. Some people would see it this way, while I might see it in a different way. It teaches me about perspective, and it’s a paradigm. To be able to understand them, you have to have a paradigm shift and jump into their shoes. As an actor, that’s what my job is.

Is there anything else you want players to know about either your character, your work on this project, or just the game in general?

Neil Newbon: Please read the credits of the game. Please understand that the actors tend to come into the cycle halfway to two-thirds through, and sometimes right at the very end. We are the cherry on top of the pudding; whatever culinary metaphor works best. We’re often the last thing that’s added. All of the cast gave 100% and pushed themselves. They were super brave and jumped into doing all this weird stuff with a glad heart and excellent craft work.

But the crew worked so hard on this. And not just the crew in the mocap studio, but the crew and the animators and the devs. I really would love players, if they don’t have a habit of doing this, to watch the credits of the game. Especially if they do that with film. It’s easily skipped. Sometimes it’s just an extra option that you don’t even have to watch at the end of the game; you can just go to a different option in the menu. But watch it because it’s really important to know how many people worked on the game, and who these people are, because they’re with it longer than the actors are.

There are very few game cycles I’ve been involved with where I’ve been there from the beginning. Even Baldur’s Gate, which I’ve been doing for three and a half years, started two or three years after they started their cycle for me. If you do one thing, please read the credits and understand how many people beyond just the actors playing these roles are involved in it. That also goes for performance, because sometimes people do performance capture remotely, and their decisions will be as impactful as the person doing the voice work, because they have to match up to create a complete character.

A good example of this is Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV. I was very lucky to perform a character and do stunts and combat for the film, but I was also given the lead role to do full performance capture for without the voice. That was about a year and a half before they even started to look for the actor they needed to voice the role. It was very much a collaboration between the three of us in that way, even though our performances were recorded, and Takeshi Nozue is such a cool human being that he gave us equal billing on the credits to prove a point.

Likewise, Frontier have been amazing as well, with the support they’ve had for the game and for us. There’s so many people involved in this, and I think it’s important that players do that.

More: Space For Sale Is An Upcoming Interstellar Sandbox Development Game

Source: Xbox/YouTube

Deliver Us Mars is now available for PlayStation consoles, Xbox consoles, and PC via Steam and the Epic Games Store.

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