Learning from the Masters
By Anna Rettberg
Casey Muratori
If there’s one thing we take seriously at Molly Rocket, it’s everything. We don’t “horse around” at the office. We know that “fun” and “failure” both start out the same way, and since we can’t tell which we’re going to get after the “f”, we’d just as soon not have either. Coincidentally, that’s why we don’t come to work on Fridays  —  because that also starts with “f”!
So when I say that we take game development seriously at Molly Rocket, you know I mean it… if for no other reason than that it does not start with “f”. That would be “fame development”, and I don’t know what that is, but from its lexical construction I’d assume it has something to do with self promotion.
Anyway, the point is, as a consequence of this unwavering dedication to extreme seriousness, Anna and I undertook the visual development of the character art for 1935 with levels of solemnity rarely (if ever) found in the game industry. This lead us far beyond the normal canon of animated videogame “performance”, and required many months’ intense study at that most holy temple of Thespis: the American cinema.
We thought we’d take some time today to give you a small taste of what we learned.
We begin with the father of modern cinematic drama, Orson Welles.
Being as it is about historical organized crime, many of the characters in 1935 are male, and no doubt had a certain natural authority to them. How else would they have maintained standing in the criminal underworld? As we tried to capture that natural charisma and manner of speaking, we found great insight in the performances of acting legend Orson Welles.
After dissecting his performances down to the smallest detail, we found there to be three key ingredients to his signature delivery:
First, he always let the other actors make the first move. Even if he had to wait for ten, twenty, even thirty seconds in stationary silence, he found it critical that another actor begin the scene. He knew that strong delivery comes in response, not initiation.
Second, he felt that no amount of surprise was too much surprise. When his character was presented with information that was unexpected, he let the audience feel that sense of upheaval viscerally. He drew out the gasp. He broadcast it with his eyes, his eyebrows  —  his whole face. He always made it genuine, and this brought the audience into the world of the character in a profound way.
Third, whenever Orson referred to an object or element of the scenery, he never assumed that the audience knew where it was. He always touched it. He used his natural physical dynamism to help the audience understand that the dialogue refers to a specific item. In particular, his favorite technique was to use the meaty inside part of his index finger to tap repeatedly on the point of interest, letting the considerable heft of his hand lead the audience’s attention right where he wanted it.
For insight into how Orson Welles brought all three ingredients together to create his iconic performances, I highly recommend studying the raw footage of his famous “French Champagne” scene from Citizen Kane 2. By comparing and contrasting multiple takes, you quickly get a sense for just how powerful each element of his performance is, and how it builds through subtle layers:
But despite his mastery of delivery, it’s true that Orson Welles’ vocal characterizations were always limited. No matter the role, he always sounded like  —  well, he sounded like Orson Welles. Since 1935 is a game that features a number of real historical figures, we felt we needed to dig deeper into the art of method acting and study a leading man who knew how to truly become the character, capturing every vocal nuance, every quirk in pronunciation…
For all of cinema history, nobody mastered the art of vocal imitation like the great Kevin Costner.
One of the best examples of Costner’s flawless vocal work is in the Academy Award-winning drama Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. In one crucial scene, Costner  —  British by birth  —  had to deliver an intricate, spirited monologue as the rogue Robin Hood, who is, of course, historically American. Through the entire scene, you can only catch the slightest hint of Costner’s British accent poking through, while nearly every line comes through in flawless American English. Just how difficult it is to really act while maintaining an accent foreign to one’s own is brought into sharp relief during the monologue when some of the other British actors deliver their lines, and they don’t sound even slightly American:
But of course, both Welles and Costner were traditional leading men who delivered classical performances. Not all scenes are written as well, and not all material is so well defined. Since the complex subtexts we’re going for in 1935 are subtle and the script will often be filled with ambiguity and nuance, we felt we should compliment our studies by looking at some innovative performances.
As any film scholar will quickly tell you, no leading man brought more ingenuity to complex scenes than the great Nicolas Cage.
It’s one thing to say that you’ve mastered the art of delivering the lines you’re given. But what if those lines just aren’t working? That’s where the work of improvisation master Nicolas Cage becomes uniquely illuminating.
One of Cage’s signature techniques was repetition. In this classic scene from National Treasure 3: The Burning Doll, Cage found that the climactic scene was falling flat. Sure, the audience would know his character wanted to find out how the titular doll got burned. But they wouldn’t feel it. So he decided to improvise the scene and say the line repeatedly, driving home the point that his character was not merely interested in knowing how the doll got burned, but very concerned:
And of course, who could forget his riveting portrayal of David Barker in Bearing Down, where he and provocative director Zack Snyder decided to bring the central metaphor of the story into bold relief by having Cage deliver his entire performance from inside an ill-fitting bear suit. Initially derided by Paramount studio heads as making “absolutely no sense whatsoever,” even they eventually came to see the brilliance in the choice after seeing rough cuts of now-classic scenes such as this one:
According to several members of the crew, though it’s hard to imagine the film without it, the climactic roundhouse itself was apparently an improvised addition to the script made by Cage at the last moment that caught costar Molly Parker, “completely by surprise.”
For obvious reasons, we felt like this couldn’t wait until Monday.
We hope you enjoyed this behind-the-scenes look at the depth of research that goes into the production of 1935. As we wrote the post, it became painfully obvious that we could not in good conscience withhold it from you, the reader, for even a millisecond more than was absolutely necessary.
So rather than release it on Monday, as per our usual, we decided to put it up right meow, so you could enjoy it all day and all weekend.
You’re welcome.