Last month, in Los Angeles, performance director Tom Keegan wrapped shooting on the final mo-cap session for EA Motive's Star Wars: Battlefront II. The veteran director calls it the biggest project he's ever been involved with, as well as one of the most daunting. He's been in the industry for almost two decades; anyone who plays games has surely seen his work.
In fact, Keegan is just old enough to remember a world without video games. Born and raised in New York, he majored in theater at Adelphi University and worked for several years as an Off-Broadway actor and performance artist. In the Nineties, he fell into a job as a development assistant at Hanna-Barbera, where he worked on early Cartoon Network shows like Cow and Chicken, Johnny Bravo, and The Powerpuff Girls. From there, he moved on to Universal Cartoon Studios and, eventually, to Knowledge Adventure, developer of the JumpStart series.
"I was offered this job in kids' educational software, and my boss said: 'Oh, don't leave television. You'll never get back in!'" Keegan tells me. He went to a trusted friend and asked her, "Do you think this CD-ROM thing is gonna turn out to be anything?"
Feeling stifled by his role working on The New Woody Woodpecker Show at Universal, Keegan took her advice and went for it. "And voilà, here I am," he says with a laugh. Following a large acquisition in 2000, he was named the talent director at Vivendi Universal, where he recorded the voice-overs for one of the most acclaimed titles from the original Xbox era – 2004's The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. "There was a lot of politics around the movie," he says. "A lot of times, people in movies get really cranky when they have to do the game – especially back then. Games didn't have as much clout. That was like 2003, 2004. That's so long ago, you know? But it shows you how far games have come, in terms of importance and popularity."
While the memory of working on Escape from Butcher Bay isn't necessarily a fond one, that project with Starbreeze Studios introduced Keegan to Jens Matthies, now the creative director at Swedish developer MachineGames. Three years later, they reunited to make the cult hit The Darkness, Keegan's first project to utilize performance-capture technology. "And we've been collaborating together for almost 15 years, now." Most recently, Keegan worked with Matthies and the rest of his team on Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, which is slated for release later this year.
EA DICE, the studio behind the wildly successful Battlefield series – and the multiplayer component of Star Wars: Battlefront – has become Keegan's bread and butter. In 2011, he served as the performance director for Battlefield 3, and has been a mainstay on the series ever since. "DICE has been a great collaborator and supporter of my work," he says. "I did Mirror's Edge: Catalyst with them, also. It's nice to have a group of people who I don't have to start over at the beginning with. I do a lot of training. There's always new people. But there are so many creative and interesting people in games – storytellers – yet not as many people that have dramatic training. And that's really where I feel I fit in."
According to Battlefield 1 star Jeff Berg, Keegan has a rare talent for getting honest, truthful performances out of actors. "Tom really understands how to peel back the layers of the actor's instrument," he says. "Before our first table read, we all sat on the floor, introduced ourselves, and Tom asked us what our families meant to us and how that would affect our role in the game. This man wasn't gonna accept anything but the best from his actors. We were gonna have to bring our vulnerability to the table every single day."
Karen David, who played Isabel Kruger in Mirror's Edge: Catalyst, had never acted in a video game prior to working with Keegan. "It really felt like we were in a play," she says. "Our morning warm-up sessions took me back to when I was in drama college and when I was in the West End, in London, doing warm-ups with the cast before we went onstage. If it wasn't for the suits we had to wear, and the dots all over our faces and the head gear, I would've thought we were in a theater – not on a special-effects stage."
When EA first tapped Keegan to direct the actors for Star Wars: Battlefront II, he knew it was a big responsibility. "You just wanna be sure that you get it right," he says. "And I made kind of a stupid remark before. I said something like, 'Oh, God, I wouldn't ever wanna work on Star Wars. It would be too difficult.'" Bad experiences in the TV business and working on Chronicles of Riddick, a much smaller property, had made him reluctant to work on that sort of multimedia franchise again. "And then, when I got the opportunity to work on it, I was like, 'Oh, fuck it. This is gonna be great,'" he laughs.
He credits both the actors and the games team at Lucasfilm for making the Battlefront II shoot a rewarding experience. "We ended up with a pretty good script to start with, but also the actors were so great. Janina [Gavankar, who plays Iden Versio], in particular, was amazing. So committed. And when we had some creative meetings beforehand, and we got to the set, Lucasfilm was there, the creative director [Mark Thompson] was there, [writer Mitch Dyer] was there. And so we actually ended up doing a lot of improv on the scenes, and kind of tweaking the script according to what was happening between the actors, and what the actors wanted to contribute."
It felt, he says, like a collaboration – one in which things got thematically richer and more refined as they went along. To his relief, Lucasfilm's quality-assurance team only intervened in ways that helped the material stay true to Star Wars.
"Somebody from Lucasfilm would be there saying, 'No, they can't do that. This is what they would do. This is what's really important in the Empire, this is how the Rebels walk,' all that kind of stuff," Keegan says. "So we had a lot of support. We didn't really have to worry. The parts that you need to get right, there were people there to help. And with such a great and committed cast, it was a joy.
"When you have a game, of course, you can only deviate so much," he adds. "Every decision you make is gonna affect stuff that they've been working on. So you can't make dramatic changes from the script, but you can work the scene. You can shift the scene around in a way that it really works."
Keegan has an interesting connection to George Lucas. As an actor in New York, he spent some time working for avant-garde director and dance choreographer Jean Erdman, who happened to be married to the philosopher Joseph Campbell, Lucas's biggest influence in writing Star Wars outside of Flash Gordon and filmmakers like Sergio Leone and Akira Kurosawa. He recalls going out to dinner with Campbell and Erdman after a play had ended and hearing Campbell explain to him the meaning behind the various symbols on the dollar bill.
As for Star Wars itself, Keegan says he's always been drawn to its very lived-in universe. "It's that scene in the bar, I think, that's the essence of what I've always loved about Star Wars," he says. "The creatures, people having a life, meeting people – the characters. This kind of universal bar where people are talking about having a good time, and seeing the fights and all the things that happen. I think that's one of the most wonderful things about the franchise."
In preparation for the performance-capture shoots, he went back and watched all of the movies again with fresh eyes, analyzing rather than merely appreciating them. "One thing I sometimes do is, I'll watch a movie backwards," Keegan says. "It helps you to see the structure of the narrative. And it was finding the spirit of it – the canon is so large now that there's different spirits to it, and especially in some of the new ones. Rogue One, you know, is a bit darker. But the early ones had a feeling of popcorn-y playfulness. I really enjoyed that."
To hear him talk about the films, you'd almost think he was describing about the creative process: "You just wanna get immersed in it. It always felt like, to me, that Star Wars was about a group of people who were kind of flying by the seat of their pants. 'Well, I'm in this situation, and I'm gonna get out of it somehow.' And that's what I really love about it."