Interview: Elias Toufexis – The Canadian Andy Serkis

By now, most gamers know who Elias Toufexis is, if not by his face, then by his signature voice. He has played characters in several beloved gaming franchises, including Rainbow Six, Assassin’s Creed, and Splinter Cell. Of course, he’s most recognized for his portrayal of Adam Jensen in Deus Ex.

Beyond his voice acting, what makes Elias stand out as a top-tier talent is his experience with performance capture, which is the technology many AAA gaming titles and big budget Hollywood films use to give life to CG characters. Having recently moved to California from Canada, Elias spoke with GameCrate to talk about his current projects and his experience in carving out a place for himself in the performance capture field.

“There’s a difference between motion capture and performance capture,” Elias explains. “A lot of people call what Andy Serkis and those guys do motion capture, but that’s actually incorrect.” As Elias describes it, motion capture is limited to body movements and is separate from the vocal performance. He recalls experiencing motion capture early on, working on Splinter Cell: Blacklist. “It wasn’t capturing my face; it wasn’t capturing my voice. It was just me redoing what I had done in the booth and trying to capture that.”

In contrast, performance capture is much more involved, with reference dots painted on the face and a camera and microphone mounted on the performer’s head. “So, it’s capturing everything,” Elias says. “It’s capturing your body, your vocal performance, your face, all at the same time. It’s where most triple-A games are now. I’ve done a few games where it’s just voice, which are still fun…and a lot less work. And you don’t have to memorize it. With performance capture, you gotta know your stuff. But that’s the difference between motion capture and performance capture.”

Virtual Growing Pains

Elias has experienced so much regarding performance capture that it’s easy to think of him as a kind of historian regarding the technology. He fondly recalls the early days when furniture was represented by tape on the floor. “That’s where the table is so don’t step on that because you’re stepping literally into the table.”

“My favorite thing…I just saw an actor do it. A rookie actor. On one of my first (performance capture) jobs my character gets thrown off a cliff or something.” Acting out his story, Elias demonstrates how he screamed as he fell, lowering the volume of his voice during the drop, mimicking increasing distance away from the camera.

The people recording him said, “No, no, no. We’ll decide when your voice fades out.”

“And then just the other day on this game in Toronto, I watched a young actor come in…he got pushed off a cliff and he did the same thing. I was trying not to laugh because I didn’t want to embarrass him.” Elias chuckles at the memory.

The early days were challenging, because the technology was new for actors. Back then there was often a disconnect between the vocal performers and the mocap performers. For example, in Rainbow Six: Vegas 2, Elias did the vocal performance for a character, matching one of the animators who did the motion capture. “And I remember saying to the people doing the voice, ‘You really shouldn’t do this. Because… he’s not an actor and he’s terrible.’ That’s why if you watch Rainbow Six – I don’t know who the guy was, so I don’t mean to downplay his performance, but if you watch my character in Rainbow Six Vegas 2, he does a lot of these openhanded waving bad mocap acting, and I had to match his performance with my voice.”

However, Elias is heartened by the tremendous strides the performance capture industry continues to take. “Honestly, every time I go back, there’s something they’ve added,” Elias explains. “On the first Deus Ex…they just had actual (traditional) cameras really focused on my face and I mocap the rest, and they mic’d me at the time. And in the next we had the performance capture on my face. They had dots all over my face. And there were only a few. There was maybe 10…on my eyebrows, around my mouth, my cheeks, to get little nuances. And then I go to the next game and now there are 60 dots on my face. And…the camera headgear gets a little lighter. They try to make it a little easier for us, so the camera gets a little lighter on us, a little less cumbersome.”

Yet, despite the advances, there are still challenges that Elias doesn’t think will ever go away. “The thing that’s difficult is when you’re in an intense scene, a lot of times you want to be close to the other actor, but you have a camera that’s a foot in front of you and another camera that’s in front of them, so you’re tilting your heads on each side a lot of times, which is kind of frustrating.” It’s come to the point where Elias will specifically request takes without the headgear for more natural physical performances. “I don’t know how they’re ever going to fix that,” he confesses, “because you can’t really put the camera any closer.”

An Expanding List of Credits

Currently, Elias is working on The Expanse, which airs on Syfy, and he’s been part of the show for three years. “My initial job on it was just a character and I guess…spoilers! For anyone who’s reading who hasn’t seen the show, I last about six episodes then I have a gruesome, gruesome death. I thought I was done on the show, which was very upsetting because I really liked it. And I thought it’s gonna get even better, and I think it has gotten better. Even though it started off fantastic, it’s gotten even better.”

Fortunately, Elias has an extensive background in performance capture, which him valuable to The Expanse despite his character dying. “They called me and said, ‘We got this kind of creature. It’s kind of the bad guy of the season. Would you like to come in and play him?’ And I immediately said, ‘Yes.’ But then I immediately panicked because…they sent me a picture of it…and it was nine-feet-tall, and one arm was longer than the other. And I don’t even know how this thing would move…. How am I gonna do this?”

Elias later found out that one of the reasons The Expanse called him back was because of his reputation as the “Canadian Andy Serkis.”

“That’s what they called me,” Elias says with pride but without arrogance. “The Canadian Andy Serkis, which is an incredible compliment. That was the first time I heard that.” But the comparison is apt. Having done so much work in the performance capture space, there are aspects to the technology that only a seasoned veteran understands. For example, Elias recounts a story where he stumbled as the creature on “The Expanse,” causing him to “fall out of volume”, which means that the special cameras capturing his movements weren’t getting all of his body. Realizing this ahead of the production team, who would have caught it much later, Elias simply redid his take, sparing the production a headache in the future.

“It’s little things like that, that an experienced performance capture actor will bring you,” Elias says. “So that’s why people keep calling me in for this stuff. Because they know that I’m gonna know my lines, be in shape, I’m gonna be ready to do my thing. So, when somebody calls me the Canadian Andy Serkis I take it as a compliment, because I do watch everything he does and then I try to get as much background footage of him just doing the work in general…because although that is only 20 percent of my career, it’s something I really particularly enjoy.”

“I did a show called Shadow Hunters, where I play this kind of demon. And it was seven and half hours of makeup. I did five and half hours to put it on and two hours to get it off every day. It was torture. I hated it. The makeup people hated it. It was the worst experience of my acting career. Once I was in costume and I was on set I had a blast, but getting it on…and getting it off, I hated it. But then, in the same month, I do The Expanse, and it’s 20 minutes to get everything ready, and I’m a 9-foot-tall creature. So, I get why so many things go to CG. I love practical effects, but they take a really long time, and (with) CG ‘We’ll fix it in post! We’ll fix it in post!’”

Capturing the Moment: Here and Now

Understandably, the first thing Elias says about current projects is news about Deus Ex, which is that there is no news. “It’s a little disappointing,” he opens. “I thought the game was great. I thought it was too short. And I thought that it was obvious that it was only half of a story. And there was more supposed to be coming. So hopefully we’ll do that, but I’m literally the last person – honestly the last person they tell before they announce it, they’ll call me.”

However, Elias is working on a new game, but he can’t talk about that either. Still, it doesn’t stop him from hyping it up just a little bit. “I can’t talk about that game I’m presently working on, but it’s a big one. It’s not called Hellraid. It’s a very, very big game. So much so that…we’ve been working on it for a year, and I don’t think it’s coming out until 2019, so it’s a big game. And it’s not Deus Ex, unfortunately. I wish it were.”

Before the interview ended, Elias shared his thoughts on whether or not performance capture would ever receive the same recognition in the entertainment industry the way an actor in makeup is regarded. In other words, should an actor get an Oscar for a performance capture role? “I think we’re almost there,” he says, “but a lot of it is the animators and the people who take over after your performance. I wouldn’t give you a percentage, because it varies depending on what they’re trying to get across. Definitely most of it is the actor, but you can take that (performance), give it to the animators, and they’ll improve the performance or capture it perfectly.”

“You could look at John Hurt in the Elephant Man. His performance is phenomenal. The makeup is phenomenal. There is no difference between being put into costume or makeup or being put in a…performance capture suit, because the performance is still your own. You get help with the makeup in case or the animators in case, but the performance is still yours.”

Fans can find Elias on The Expanse on Syfy and other roles on popular shows, like Star Trek: Discovery, but beyond that, he’s simply enjoying living in Southern California after having recently received his Green Card. “I got my Green Card based on this thing called extraordinary ability. It’s mostly used for doctors and scientists, things like that. But there is a section of it for the arts. And basically, you go to the INS and say, look I’m one of the busiest actors in the country, which is true to a degree. I’m certainly not the busiest, but I was definitely very busy. And I show all my press, and I used your article from last time.” That’s right; I played a part in getting Elias Toufexis into the country. You’re welcome America.

“Somebody said to me, ‘When you go to LA, tell them there’s a new Serkis in town.’ Which I thought was a lovely pun, but I would never try to replace him. I just want to work with him.”

Follow Elias Toufexis on his site www.eliastoufexis.com.