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On the Acting in Bloodspell



Thom Tuck's performance as Jered anchors the film with
a superb
combination of humor and grit. His voice
perfectly expresses
the wonder and sensitivity
of his character.


Let me be honest here; acting in the majority of machinima films is, unfortunately, very bad. Productions are poorly cast and under-rehearsed, resulting in unconvincing and over-played performances. Add to this the fact that voices are often recorded poorly and you have acting that does not support the story being told; in fact, this kind of acting takes the viewer out of the story entirely. Those machinima films with effective acting that enhance the story are few and far between. Which is why when a film like Bloodspell comes along, with it’s carefully rehearsed, thoughtful and convincing acting work which not only enhances an excellent script/story, but has it’s own style as well, I find myself not only enthused, but eager to share these ideas and conversations about the acting in this excellent film. I've been mulling over ideas since I first saw the original series a year ago. Here I'll share some of those ideas along with a recorded conversation I had with Paul AJ Hamilton (who plays "The Master") and Director Hugh Hancock. Part of that conversation focused on one particular scene which is the cornerstone for the acting in the film, in my opinion.



Paul AJ Hamilton is superb as the Master. His voice work
suggests a
background story that colors every line.

Right from the beginning of the series (and the film), I was impressed with the consistent low-key style of each episode, even in comic scenes. Style in acting is frequently misunderstood as being something artificial or phony, but in my experience it is often the natural result of careful consideration by the director, good use of the actors imagination and effective, fun rehearsals. The end result is a creative combination of acting elements that draw from the shared experience of movies, theatre and, in the case of Bloodspell, role-playing games. Most importantly, the style and content of the acting should serve the story that is being told. In this aspect, the acting in Bloodspell succeeds almost perfectly. There is not a single performance in the film that does not convince you of the scene being played and add to the slow revealing of the plot and the secondary world behind it, not to mention nuances that reveal character.

For example, early in the film, a well-healed townsperson (you can tell by their clothing; another nice touch) is complaining about how "the young people of today have no vim, no vigor, no lust...", just as the main character, Jered (dressed as a woman), bursts through them in his attempt to flee his captors and thereby comically contradicting the startled townsperson. The actor who portrays this characters (Ezra Ferguson) perfectly capture the characters patronizing tone and at the same time avoids playing the character too broadly for comic effect.


Ezra Ferguson (on the left) as the "Old Man" does a
sweet comic turn.

Underplaying a part (the avoidance of “acting” in a broad sense) can be an effective way to create believable characters, but it’s a technique not often used in works of fantasy, which is shame because this style is often most suited to creating more believable characters existing in a fantastic world. Certainly, the Lord of the Rings films used this technique to great effect and I think you can see a slight influence here in Bloodspell.

But, as I discovered in conversation with Paul Hamilton (who plays “The Master”) and director Hugh Hancock, a larger influence comes from the great television series by Joss Whedon, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. You can see this clearly in the script with Hugh’s use of women in strong, central roles, but also in the combination of ironic humor and personal drama, which was the hallmark of that wonderful series.


Charmaine as Carrie and Jehane as Shona play off of each
other beautifully in this Buffy-like scene of subtle
character conflicts




Jehane as Lanni, Caroline as Arianne and Sian as Shona
are each individually characterized as powerful women
with their own drives. Here they make a formidable trio.

While there are many great scenes with women in Bloodspell (the witty “morning after” scene where Arianne, Shona and Lanni tease the hell out of a naked Jered; Carrie's coming home scene, Lanni's betrayal scene, etc), it is the men who stand out in the cast. Performances by Alan Cross as Gad , Russell Loten as the Barman at the Spitted Bull and Alex Mark as Karak add to already excellent work by Thom Tuck as Jered and particularly Paul AJ Hamilton as the Master. Hugh's obvious detailed work with the actors paid off handsomely since the main performances grow over the course of the story and each small part contributes perfectly in advancing the plot. This is no small achievement even for productions with a much higher budgets.




Alex Marx as Karak gives a creepy Machiavellian
performance that suggest more than what you
actually see. His silky voice perfectly captures
this enigmatic character.

Unlike stage or film acting, which includes the actors physical characterization, a machinima actor creates their character entirely with their voice. Now, it is not always an easy task to get the right feel for a scene while standing in front of a microphone in your street clothes with a cup of coffee. I was curious if the actors in Bloodspell tended to memorize their lines and in conversation with Hugh and Paul, I discovered that they did (for the most part). Combine this with the fact that the Bloodspell cast had to perform their entire roles at least twice (the first performance was lost in a hard-drive crash) and that director Hugh Hancock worked with the actors using visualizations and had the actors work out a background story for their characters, and you have ensemble acting that is so good it rivals many regional theatre productions of classic plays like Shakespeare's “The Tempest”. Moreover, Hugh's spot-on casting of each voice so that it matches the visual look of the character makes audience suspension of disbelief that much easier. And, of course, we shouldn't forget the fact that the acting is only half of the performance since the character's animation must match their performances. Fortunately, Justin Hall, the character animator in Bloodspell, did a superb job in supporting the vocal performances. Even such simple effects like raising the eyebrows just a bit, or having a character blink at just the right time can make all the difference in suggesting that the animated character is alive and reacting to the scene (and the other characters).




Alan's performance as Gad is a superb combination of arrogance,
humor and pathos. He hits the right notes in every single scene.

The acting (and animations) in Bloodspell are two of the key elements which make the story and the world believable. Both director and actors were smart to treat the story seriously, while at the same time not forgetting that there is humor in the characters as well. Hugh at one point in the interview reluctantly shared the fact that the character of “The Master” was partially based on his father (and I suspect other in the cast have their own lives invested in their characters in some fashion). It's this kind of personal involvement that makes the Bloodspell actors so appealing and, ultimately, so moving as well.

......................................................................................................................

I was fortunate to be able to have a conversation with Hugh Hancock and Paul AJ Hamilton about the acting in Bloodspell. You could tell that both Paul and Hugh were still passionate and engaged with the characters and world of Bloodspell even after four years, a point that impressed me. We spoke for almost an hour on how the actors were cast, the rehearsal techniques and the recording set up. Most of these subjects are covered in the first part of the conversation; the second part is a careful examination of a specific scene in the film between Jered and The Master. I'd recommend listening to the first part, watching the scene and then proceeding to the more detailed conversation in Part Two.

Listen to Part One here:






.....................................................................................................................

The Jered /Master scene occurs early in the film, after Jered has rescued a young woman (Carrie) and revealed for the first time in public the fact that he is a blood mage. Since the Master is the one in charge of rooting out and destroying "the blooded", as they are called, he is furious (and frightened) with Jered. Their confrontation on the steps outside of the cathedral signals the start of a conflict with Jered and the Master that will eventually lead to the climax of the film. Paul AJ Hamilton plays the Master while Thom Tuck plays Jered.

As you watch the scene, note how a lightly comic tone to the scene is established by Jered's friend, Arran (played by actor Ian Mulliner, who also has a sad and touching recognition scene with Jered later in the film), who kids him about being very popular due to his capture of Gad's iron arm. Suddenly the Master appears and the the mood immediately becomes much more formal and restrained. As the Master carefully separates Jered from the group, we see his true motive; to excoriate Jered for revealing his nature and to shock him into understanding he must never use his power again. Jered is no fool (despite his looks) and he intelligently debates with the Master who silences him with news that the rest of his raiding party are "no longer with us". At this point, the Masters character is becoming more complex (he is a fascist, but why is he protecting Jered?) as is Jered's predicament. The pace and timing of the actors lines, along with excellent simple character animations give the impression that much more is being said just beneath the dialogue. Eventually, Jered gives in (not really) and we imagine we see relief on the face of the Master.

This scene, placed as it is so early in the film establishes belief in the story and creates both mystery and empathy for these two major characters. Despite the fairly crude look to the character models, I found myself feeling for both characters point of view as the scene progressed, although the Master's motive's are ambiguous at this point. Much of this is due to the fine acting and careful direction by Hugh Hancock, but Phil Rice's ambient sound scape; the slight, high wind and the single cry of an eagle are masterful touches to the developing conflict between these two characters. Justin Hall's simple animations and the beautiful natural setting make this scene one of the most memorable in the film.

The Jered / Master scene:



You can download a wmv version (26mb) here, or a QT version (19mb) right here.

And here is the second part of my conversation with Hugh and Paul where we discuss the Jered /Master scene specifically and how they both created this excellent scene.

Listen to Part Two here:






....................................................................................................................

The following is a gallery drawn from the company of actors in Bloodspell who impressed me with their work, along with the characters they portrayed. I've added some brief comments on each actors work underneath. I'm sorry I couldn't include every actor in the film, but the length of this article would be much to long for a single post. I do send my respects to the company; even if I didn't discuss everyone's work, I certainly admired it.

A gallery of actors in Bloodspell
along with their roles




-Andrew creates an very effective character who is not
what he appears
to be. The slow, somewhat flat delivery
contrasts very well with the
characters helpful and
friendly attitude. The audience knows something
is
wrong, but somehow Jered doesn't quite sense it.
One of my favorite
performances in the film-




-Brother Anoslus is not as simple a character as he
seems. David's performance, especially in the scene
with the Master, is ernest and effective. You really
feel for the poor guy-




-Hugh's comic turn as the slightly sleazy Door
Monster to Karak's home, is very understated and
glib. I was telling Hugh that I was very sorry that the
character died, as he was so interesting and alive.
And it's not often a director can do what he directs
others to do: very good work-





-Jehane plays Lanni very quietly. Even in the
early
scenes you feel something is going on with
her that
she isn't talking about. I like her work
very much.
The betrayal scene in particular was
very well played-





-Ryan's performance as Bram is a nice comic
bit. There is also something odd about the
boy. His voice is strange and I kept
wondering if
he'd appear later in the film as some
kind of
spy or monster-





-"No small parts.." Mike was made for this role.
I like
the actors insistence on being smarter
than Jered.
This was a very nice comic bit that
impressed me
with the timing and matter
of fact delivery-





-Tom's work was helped by very good voice filtering,
but
the blunt, a-rhythmic delivery really gave a
sense of
how violent and depraved the character
of Marrog
really is. Another almost throw away
performance
that was among my favorites-





-A stone-like face and body focused the characterization
of the Barman almost completely
on Russell Loten's
excellent voice. Perfect casting; perfect
delivery. A
simple, strait-forward bit of
comedy that stood out
for me. Russell also did
a nice job doubling as the
character Quaen-


Summing up:

The lessons of good casting, effective rehearsals, use of techniques from various acting methods, lots of patience and an excellent sense of focus are evident in the acting in Bloodspell. Performers like Thom Tuck, Alex Marx, and Caroline Dunford provide the heart and blood for the body around the bones of this well-written story. And the fact that the acting is not “showy” and doesn't stand out on it's own sake, but fully supports the development of the plot, is a great example of good directing as well. Even if you don't have as large a cast, you can still look for actors in your area and audition them. Rehearsing, discussion and fitting the acting to the script should be of prime importance to the machinima director;right behind creating a good script.

Some of the performers were not recorded as well as they should have been though. One or two of the actors voices are not up to the recorded standard of the other voices (notebly the captain in the first scene at the cathedral and the "helpful gentleman"). I know both Hugh and Phil did everything they could to get the voices right, but sometimes with such a large cast and considering so many variables, it's understandable. And fortunately, there was no real impact on the actors performances, so the flaw is slight.

I hope that this article has gone some way to to helping filmmakers (and actors) to understand that good acting is a craft, but can also be an art. It doesn't matter if you are being paid or not. What matters is your attitude and desire. The Bloodspell actors, the director and the animator have plenty of both. I applaud your excellent work.

.......................................................................................................................


Up Next: Close-up look at the final scene in the Cathedral in Bloodspell + the continuing conversation with Hugh Hancock.

  1. Anonymous Phil Rice | November 4, 2007 at 10:36 PM |  

    Beyond awesome. The insights your own experience enable you to bring to the table really shine here, Ricky. I learn so much just from your adjectives as you describe characters and performances.

    Phenomenal work.

  2. Blogger Ricky Grove | November 4, 2007 at 11:04 PM |  

    Thank you, Phil. I'm very proud of this article. I had originally outlined a much shorter piece, but as I began to pay closer attention to each individual actor, I just had to widen the scope and not only discuss specific actors, but why and how Bloodspell got it right. If you have the time, you really should listen to the interviews. Both Hugh and Paul have great insights into the acting process and how it worked in Bloodspell. Paul's comments on the scene I showcase are really wonderful. I sure wish I had his voice when I was struggling with Leontes in "The Winter's Tale". Ah, takes me back.

    Thanks and I hope others find this article as interesting as you do.

    -Ricky

  3. Blogger Hugh "Nomad" Hancock | November 5, 2007 at 9:54 AM |  

    Wow. I'm incredibly happy you liked and got so much out of the performances of our (fantastic) cast.

    I'm just blown away by this article. Wow. I've got to go off and be all English and modest now.

    One minor point - the animation in BloodSpell was a mixture of work from Justin Hall, original animations from Bioware, and some fantastic live puppeteering work from our filming crew (Steve Wallace, Ben Sanders, Ross Bambrey, Johnnie Ingram and Chris Cornwell amongst others). The facial expressions and eye movement were the work of Steve Wallace, our TD (technical director).

    I've forwarded this to the cast!

  4. Blogger Ricky Grove | November 5, 2007 at 11:30 AM |  

    Excellent. I was hoping you'd spread the word with the cast. I'd like to hear their reactions. And thanks for your note here, Hugh. I can uncross my fingers now because I was sure I had mis-spelled or mis-identified some of the actors.

    I figured there were more people involved in the animation, but I couldn't tell from the credits. Thanks for clarifying that, I'll make some adjustments to the article when I get home from work tonight and be sure to give the proper credit for the animation work.

    Thanks for your comments and enthusiasm, Hugh!

  5. Blogger Anthony Bailey | November 5, 2007 at 1:52 PM |  

    I will confess, unlike Ricky, I wasn't so impressed by each and every performance - like a lot in BloodSpell, I found the quality of the voice acting to vary pretty widely. Rather than pick at the performances that left me cold, though, I will focus on one of the many highs and loudly join the praise for the steps scene: it's great acting and writing, and the low key tone of the performance is well-judged, making a perfect counterpoint after the opening action.

    Most importantly, of course, I'm disappointed that the article missed out on making the "'Spell casting" pun.

  6. Blogger Ricky Grove | November 5, 2007 at 2:29 PM |  

    Thanks for your thoughts, Anthony. The two of us could probably have an entertaining debate about the acting. You would have to wear some sort of head protection though.

    I certainly did miss the pun (loved the "you'd think this was thursday" line at the bar as Jered was asking about the privys though). Can I nudge you a bit to tell us what it is?

  7. Blogger Anthony Bailey | November 5, 2007 at 4:28 PM |  

    Oh, I wasn't referencing any of the good jokes from the film (of which there indeed a few.) I just meant that you'd discussed the casting of BloodSpell without indulging in the kind of cheap wordplay that I find unduly amusing.

    S'alright, though. You can always do an article on story construction and talk about "letting the Blood flow" or something.

    OK, OK, I'll get me cloak...

  8. Blogger Johnnie Ingram | November 6, 2007 at 1:46 AM |  

    Thank you so much for taking the (obviously extensive) time to write and construct this excellent critique, Ricky - not just because of all the very nice things that you say about BloodSpell, but because intelligent and in-depth dissection such as this is all-too-lacking in the machinima community. I'm blaming myself here as much as anyone - you've shamed me into writing about and reviewing machinima much more than I do at the moment!

    There were a lot of interesting points raised here about the nature of acting, and of voice acting in particular. You and I really must find the time to have a thorough and extensive chat one of these days.

  9. Blogger Ricky Grove | November 6, 2007 at 8:33 AM |  

    Thanks, Johnnie. I appreciate you taking the time to comment on the acting article. Your point about writing "intelligent commentary" really make me happy since that's the entire point of both Machiniplex and this accompanying blog. Jason and Ingrid will be pleased as well.

    I've been trying to get together with you to have a chat about acting/theatre for forever. Let's make it happen, Johnnie. I also want your help in putting together my MechBeth script once I have a decent script to present. Interested?

  10. Blogger pajh | November 7, 2007 at 11:36 AM |  

    Thank you for this remarkably in-depth and frankly flattering article. One thing I've found about machinima is that many people will focus on the novelty of the medium, and as a result the acting often gets overlooked: I'm really glad that you've taken the time to redress this.

    It was good to talk with you about the film.

  11. Blogger Ricky Grove | November 7, 2007 at 11:50 AM |  

    That means a lot to me, Paul. One of my goals in writing this article was to simple call attention to the work in Bloodspell. The novelty factor you mention is exactly what I was trying to look past.

    I appreciate you taking the time to read my article and for commenting. It was indeed a pleasure talking to you as well.

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