At the time of its announcement, it was easy to assume and dismiss Far Cry Primal as another quirky off-shoot from the main series. It’s developed into so much more than that, taking you back to the Stone Age with many parts of the game rooted in what we know as prehistoric life.
A big part of recreating the time period and the people that live there falls to the story cutscenes. You can read our preview or watch our hands on with the game, but we also spoke to David Footman, Cinematics Director on Far Cry Primal, about just what it took for Ubisoft to weave this prehistoric tale in the way that they have.
TSA: Thinking back to when the game was announced, I think it took people by surprise that this is a much bigger project that Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon was. It feels like a similar offshoot from the main series, but at what point did you decide that this was going to a bigger game, akin to Far Cry 4?
David Footman: So this game was a co-production between Montreal and Toronto, and at Toronto, we took on all the cinematics for the whole game. So by the time I got the game, it was already huge!
When I got the call, it was, “Oh my god, this is what we want to make! Can you guys help?” And when we saw what the genre was and everything, we were super excited to put a team together and do it. […] We were going to do a game in a completely different language, and set in the Stone Age, so it required a lot of research.
TSA: One of the things that really sticks out right from the very start is that point, of it being a completely foreign language and needing the subtitles on to be able to follow the story. Is it an invented language, or something that’s rooted in history?
David: The core team at Montreal, found two linguists from the University of Kentucky that had doctorates in ancient languages – Andrew Byrd and Brenna Byrd. That’s their life’s work and they’re teaching courses down at the [University of Kentucky], so when we called them up and said, “Hey, do you want to bring this to the whole world?” it was sort of a dream come true for them.
They actually designed the language for the time period, based on everything they know, and they gave us three variants of the language. They coached the actors over Skype to help them learn the language, and they were actually on set, helping us to realise the language and pronounce it all properly, to make sure we nailed it.
I think it adds a huge arc to the fantasy. It pushed us to make the scenes and give them as much of what I call “see-say” as possible. We would add gestures and tension to the scenes, and the goal was that, if the subtitles didn’t turn on, would you be able to kind of figure out what the scene was about? To let you visually be able to understand what the emotional transactions are, without looking at the subtitles.
TSA: Yeah, that’s something I felt was much grander and more theatrical, that there is a lot of this body language and signing. That was obviously something very important to bring these characters to life.
David: I think, early on when we were trying to figure this out, we asked ourselves, what is “Primal”? What does it mean to be primitive?
If you look at all the media that’s out there, with all the movies and everything I’d see on TV, I think people had a tendency to go very primitive, very ape-like and unsophisticated. When we were making the game in 2015 – when I got onto the project – there was a lot of research out there that suggests that early mankind was actually very sophisticated and had a good grasp of language.
The public fantasy was that these were cavemen, like you see in cartoons, and that there’s dinosaurs – literally, that’s the public fantasy – but the reality is so far from that. So it was about tipping your hat to that and understanding the fantasy, but figuring out how we were going to realise them.
We had animators that were working from Plains Indian sign language, which was a sign language from the western United States and is really well documented. We also looked at sign language in Europe, in Africa, and there are similarities between all of them, believe it or not.
We didn’t want the actors to be working with their hands the whole time, but instead we wanted to be able to underline big changes in the scene with a gesture and language. That’s something we felt really strongly about early on, so we worked with the actors to weave in movement and gestures into the performances.
David: So we had a chance to work with Terry Notary, who was the movement coach on Planet of the Apes, and he played a whole bunch of the apes and is also working on all the Marvel films, and whatever. He was so excited about the project that he came out and did two workshops on weekends while he was on those movies!
He blew everyone’s minds, because you ask yourself, “What does it mean to be Primal?” and what it means is giving up your prefrontal cortex. That’s your modern brain, where you’re thinking about tomorrow, about yesterday, you’re anxious, there’s tension… and Terry said that no, these primitive people are in the now, they’re in another part of the brain.
So he allowed us to work with the actors and strip away their contemporary mannerisms, to find a common foundation for all three tribes. It sounds kind of artsy-fartsy and weird, but the actors actually looked different from the beginning of the workshop and the end. They sat differently, like when you meet somebody who’s really confident and connected, and it’s this awareness that they have.
We had a foundation for all three tribes, which was super cool, and then we have what we call a tribal signature, and that was a starting place for each actor. I think that was huge, because it was a starting point that helped us really achieve that fantasy.
When you boil it down to their movement, we could be really specific about, like, the Udam who are inspired by neanderthals. They move through space with deep crushing footprints, ferocious posing and trying to scare off their enemies…
TSA: I didn’t really let them get that close… I was picking them off from afar.
David: [laughs] That’s a good idea!
Then you have the Wenja, who are balanced and connected, and the Izila who are floating above everybody, and dissolve from movement to movement. They’re very elite and above everybody. We took all of that to create these signatures, and put that into all of the characters.
I’d never done that before, so for me it was a dream come true. All of the actors, everyone would’ve paid $20,000 just to go. It was one of those seminars where you’re like, “This is going to change my life!”
TSA: I can imagine it gave them such very different processes to go through to get into character.
One of the big differences between this game and previous Far Cry games is how you interact with the animals. You get to interact with them a lot more, tame them and build partnerships. It’s also the first game where hunting animals and using them for resources makes sense…
David: Well, I can tell you where it came from. When we were studying that time period, it was right around then that men and wolves started working together.
We read a bunch of articles about how there was this co-dependent relationship, and that’s how it got started. They were working together because it benefitted both man and wolf, so in a sense, they had tamed the wolf.
I think that the whole hunting thing fits perfectly in the Stone Age, and I also think having man being hunted by animals in the world changes things. It’s small, but it changes everything about the world.
It’s not something that we explore a lot in our cinematics – we’re really all about the characters and trying to bring all the antagonists and the tribes to life – but it’s something that’s like a blanket over the game, with the fear of nature that’s all around you.
TSA: Have you had any part in helping to build up some of the mannerisms and the behaviour of the animals? Because I find it fascinating that, even though they’re wild beasts, they’re still very relatable creatures and have a lot of the mannerisms that you expect from cats and dogs.
David: Oh, it’s cool. There’s a team in Shanghai, and I think there was a team in Toronto that was working on the animals. It’s a whole different kind of animation.
I don’t have many people on my team that have experience with quadrupeds. Every time I’ve been on a game and we have to do a horse, I just go, “Oh god… who can do a horse?” [laughs]
It is a really big deal, though it’s not something where I have a ton of experience. They had a great team, bringing the animals to life. We did have a few animals that we used in our scenes, but we used a special animator just for that, who had experience with quadrupeds and knew how the systems worked in the game so they matched up.