Interview

Interview with Eric Jacobus

Some time ago, I stubled upon a video like this one:

This may not even be the most amazing one of those, since Heihachi Mishima has not the most visually inspiring fighting style (those enjoying Tekken know).
However, a number of other videos by the same performer, Eric Jacobus, followed, quickly covering most of the characters in the Tekken roster, and even characters from other fighting games, such as Street Fighter, Virtua Fighter, and so on.

When I started working on fighting games, I was following this video series thinking that Eric was re-enacting movelists out of fun. However, at some point I watched this:

…and I understood that Eric is a professional performer, actor and stuntman. Moreover, I already knew his work since at that time  I was playing God of War (and still am – yes, I’m slow), and the movements of Kratos were Eric movements. I was immediately interested in the point of view of a professional who is able to both mimicks existing movements of specific characters and create movements around a specific character. I won’t get into much detail here, but the two sides mirror in a interesting way the functions of mirror neurons, in that they both code performed movements and movements that are perceived when performed by others. The most interesting point, however, is that what you know about the performer intentions (being you or another person) affects your perception, imagined intentions, and performance, mimicry included.

As such, I wrote Eric and asked for a few rounds of questions/answers, to which he generously agreed. Here I report the interview.

 

Hello Eric, and thank you for kindly accepting to be interviewed. I think this will provide some interesting insight.

Alan: Can you describe your job and roles that you cover as a professional martial artist?

Eric: Hi Alan thanks for the opportunity. My primary role is as an actor, stuntman, and action designer for film, TV, and video games. My higher goal in this is showing how average people can create using the tools that are available on the market, and using tech as a tool without being sucked in by it.

Alan: How many games did you work on?

Eric: Probably 10 or so by now. My first was Mafia III and the next big title was God of War in 2016. I’ve done small parts in The Last Of Us 2 and Spider-Man as well as some titles I can’t talk about at the moment.

Alan: Speaking about your contribute to games development, do you work exclusively with motion capture? If not, what are the differences in working with or without motion capture?
Eric: I started out only in motion capture, but I’m moving more into development. The tools out there give us the chance to take this technology into our own hands without relying on studios to create interactive content, but we have to grasp what’s there first, and that requires looking forward. If your eye isn’t on the market, you’ll only be in the here and now, which is a fleeting moment.
Alan: Do you know whether Tekken, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Soulcalibur use motion capture or not?
Eric: I don’t know whether Street Fighter uses much, but the rest definitely do. It’s standard procedure for many games now. Otherwise an animator has to do it by hand.
Alan: I know that you studied mirror neurons at an amateur level. How did this help you in performing better?
Eric: I studied mirror neurons because I was fascinated by the simple question: what drives us to mimic one another? How does perception reverberate through the brain and create action in our bodies? What they found in mirror neuron studies was that our motor neurons fire when we perform an action. And when we witness another person (or some entity that we believe can reciprocate) perform that action, those same motor neurons fire. And if that person or entity intends to do an action, and we can perceive that intention, those neurons fire in the same way. Whether our motor system acts on that defines so much of who we are. If you see someone dancing, do you want to get up and dance? Or do you clamp down and prevent yourself from dancing? These things might be what ultimately differentiate extraverts from introverts. As an introvert (bordering on Aspergers), I’m very good at mimicking others, but I usually hate doing it, so I’ll do math in my head to prevent myself from mimicking them and create mathematical patterns as a distraction. However, when I’m told to mimic a video game character, I do it without hesitation, and I can do it exactly how they need it done (physical limitations aside). Studying this has helped me greatly as a motion capture performer.
Alan: Speaking about mirror neurons, and their role in defining who we are: I had the opportunity to play God of War (and I’m still playing it at the moment of writing), and I would like to try to compare the effect of mimicking Kratos and mimicking other characters. Being a long-time Tekken player, I enjoyed your garage videos in which you performed the entire movelist of a number of fighting game characters. However, I guess mimicking martial arts videogame characters might be very different than a character like Kratos, and I am specifically referring to two things: a) the effect that the personality and story of the character has on the performer and b) the potential long-lasting effect that the mimicking experience has on the performer. Regarding point a): did you study or played in the same way in preparation for the Kratos motion capture and in your IRL video series? Regarding point b): it is known that many actors inherited parts of the personality of the characters they played in their life…did you experience anything like that?
Eric: They told me the story for God of War during my first day of work there. “You’re playing a bearded man protecting your son.” Having a family of my own and fighting to keep a roof over their heads, I was already in character, so there was no need to mimic anything. It’s difficult to act naturally when you’re just mimicking. It’s one or the other – either you enter pure sensory mode and let your mirror neurons feed your motor system (something extraverts are good at), or you internalize a thought kernel and process it until you’re convinced it’s your own (which is believing a lie and then retelling it like it’s a sacred truth, but that’s how you act), and then you react to stimuli using that kernel. Something might need to trigger the kernel. When I did Blindsided, it was closing my eyes, which helped me shut out all the distracting visual stimuli and just focus on acting. But for Kratos, I’d just think about my own son and that’s all I needed to be the character.

The processes for Tekken IRL and God of War mocap were similar in some ways. In Tekken IRL it’s an almost OCD-like process trying to mimic the moves exactly as they appear on screen. It’s like key-framing your own body parts – the left foot goes here while the right hand goes this way and makes this gesture. Once you get all the key frames into “muscle memory” (which is just a relay back into the mirror neuron network) then you cycle that stuff around until it works with your mechanics, and then it becomes natural. For God of War it was similar. The game engine required the foot placement to be this way, and the right arm had to be in this position for this many frames. From there we could tweak timing and distance and all that.
As for inheriting a personality from Kratos… maybe my beard is a subconscious mimicry of the character. Doing in-game mocap like that gave me a new way to move on camera. Every attack can have a thousand variations now, and there are these categories for the varieties – recovery, antic, in-point, power center, silhouette. I suppose that’s part of my personality. I’ve done these mocap sessions that totally deplete me for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. On one 5-day in-game shoot, not for God of War, I pulled my quad in the morning of the first day of shooting. The rest of the week required shooting a huge navigation move library in a horse stance position. Lots of prayer and total dependency on God were the only ways I made it through a week of that, and the quad pull let up on the last day so I could do sprints. I dunno how to explain that, except that I let it go to God and He just took care of it so I could do my job. I’ve taken the mocap process and created my own business with it, and I find myself bulldozing through business meetings with total conviction. So if I can get through those insane mocap shoots, then I can get through anything.
Alan: Are you a player? Do you play fighting games? If yes, which one/s is/are your favourite and what do you look for when approaching a fighting game?
Eric: The last time I played a game in depth was with Fallout 3 in 2008. I had a moment of clarity when I noticed I had logged 105 hours and been unemployed for 8 months. Since then I’ve played some smaller games like Journey and sometimes play some Tekken 7, but I’m terrible at fighting games now. Please don’t challenge me to a match if you see me online.
Alan: Thank you Eric, this was very insightful. Good luck for all the awesome work you are doing!
PS: of course I will challenge you if I see you online 😉

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