Meet the talent: Aliyah O’Brien

Meet Aliyah O’Brien – one of our fiercely talented mocap actors on Gears of War 4. We caught up with Aliyah to get the lowdown on playing the role of Kait Diaz, weapons training, and pushing physical limitations.

Read the full Q&A below!

Can you tell me a bit about your background? How did you get involved the acting industry?

It all started when I was eight years old and would put on plays and dance performances with my friends in our basement. Between our showcases then and my first professional acting experience at 25, my friend Dave asked me to take acting classes for fun. It turned out a little too fun. You could even say I got bitten by the acting bug!

Can you tell us about your first mo-cap experiences? What was the project, and what did you have to perform?

It was actually with the Animatrik team. I was cast as the lead female in a video game. It was a full facial capture and voice over shoot, so there was lots to learn. Sadly the game never made it to fruition, however Microsoft hired me shortly after for Gears of War Ultimate Edition and then Gears of War 4.

There are elements of motion capture that are so freeing. It feels a little more like theatre, without the pressure of only one take. The 360 degree cameras mean I can enjoy not worrying about eye lines and hitting my mark perfectly. I always love playing a badass!

Can you tell us about the character/s you played in Gears of War and the mo-cap stunts/acting you were involved in?

In Gears of War 4 I play Kait Diaz. She’s a feisty outsider who knows how to handle herself and a weapon. She grew up outside of the COG system and therefore has a freedom and fearlessness that I admire.

I actually relate to her quite a lot! She is free spirited, a little defiant and is always fighting for the greater good. I’d like to think that’s me 😉

As far as acting and stunts go, I can claim all of the acting but none of the major stunts. Although we did do some pretty badass stuff that involved hanging from ceilings, jumping, sliding, rolling, and a lot of running.

Can you tell us a little about your day-to-day work on set?

It is really fun! The team for Gears of War is on of the best teams I’ve worked with and I mean that with sincerity. The Microsoft team, Animatrik team and all of the incredible actors that Chad from StoryLab Productions helped hire were a dream team. We worked together for a couple of years and I pray that we will do more again soon.

A day on set started with hugs, breakfast, suiting up and doing a ROM in (I secretly love the ROM, it’s like a mini dance/yoga workout). Then we discuss our scene with Bonnie our on set writer and Greg our director (both are amazing) and watch a previs (a more basic animation crafted to help get a visual of what the scene will look like). After we are clear we would map it out and do a rehearsal or two before shooting the scenes – until they were perfect. Another bonus of motion capture is there is not a lot of setup time, which means more time to act.

What are the similarities and differences in performing in mocap compared to performing for an acting job?

Similarities: Story telling, character and everything that comes with performing a scene. Most of it is similar in terms of the acting aspect.

Differences: Mo-cap performers don’t have to worry about finding your light, hitting a mark bang on, or being seen by the lens. Yes, you have a map and marks but they are more forgiving. Also you’re not dealing with closeups, it’s just one big master scene so you get to run most scenes from start to finish, sometimes many times because they want that one perfect take – unlike film and TV where they are chopping a bunch of bits together. Mocap requires a ton of imagination because you’re sets are very minimal, you’re not in wardrobe, and sometimes you’re waving a wooden stick around pretending it’s a sword or a knife. I enjoy the freedom and play of it, my inner child is very happy!

What kind of direction do you get for your mocap performance?

It’s quite similar to film and television, except the director goes more in depth with story details because we aren’t working off a full script. We have the scenes, but we don’t have all of the in-between information, so the director and writer gives us the backstory and full picture. Then when we are performing, there is the physicality of marking out the space so it fits within the game, and then it’s all about performance. On Gears of War our director Greg Mitchell was very passionate about the story and was always looking for the right feel from us. I appreciated his enthusiasm and attention to detail. For the most part he just let us play and fine tuned things as we went.

Do you have to train for any of the action sequences beforehand? If so, what kinds of training?

We had a wonderful stunt coordinator on set helping us map out and practice action sequences so they would not only look legit, but also be safe. We also did a little weapons training when we first started. Then there was the general fitness required to do some of the action that wouldn’t have been possible without a healthy dose of yoga and fitness classes outside of the job.

What was the most challenging aspect of this project?

When the project was completed! There were also a few big jumps onto, or off of, very high things that were not a big deal for Kait, but a little scary for Aliyah! There was one day that both Jesse Hutch (plays JD FENIX) and I did gameplay motion capture. The next day we were texting each other to check if we were both in the same amount of pain from running around and battling with the mulcher, which is a very, very heavy weapon!

Are there any limitations for you as a mocap actor – perhaps when wanting to portray realistic action sequences?

Do you mean post lunch while you’re wearing those skin tight velcro suits? It’s very limiting having to skip dessert! There are also physical limitations as to what my body will do though – or be able to learn in a short period of time. For the most part it’s all doable, or if it’s really crazy a stunt performer does that part. Just like film and television, we are portraying real life badasses with a ton of history and experience fighting and using their bodies. The challenge is making it look like we have been doing it that long too and that it’s no big deal.

What was your favourite scene to shoot?

There were so many! One that jumps out immediately was with JD, Del, Oscar and a character played by actor Aleks Paunovic. Aleks is my real life boyfriend, so you can imagine how ridiculously funny him playing my uncle could become. We actually ruined at least three takes because we couldn’t stop laughing. There were a couple other scenes, that I won’t spoil, but I will just say they were very intense and character driven and allowed me as an actor to really play.

What do you like about working with Animatrik?

They are like a family. Honestly they’ve probably ruined me for other studios, but I’m okay with that. They are just so welcoming and fun and really good at what they do, so things run smoothly. Everyone goes home feeling good about what they did. I can’t wait to work with them again!


What excites you about mo-cap today and the future?

What excites me is the possibility. To be able to play a creature, a goddess, or just a human that doesn’t look like you is so awesome! I played several characters in Gears and each was uniquely different. I do voiceover work as well and love it for that reason – not being limited by physical appearance. I’m sure the future holds even more incredible innovation with motion capture. I just hope we continue to use real people to bring it to life.

Is there any advice you would give to someone looking to become an actor in the mo-cap industry?

I would say just be connected to your body, be open, prepared and easy to work with. And be ready to roll around and have a blast!