Best of 2011 (Behind the Scenes): Nolan North (a.k.a. Nathan Drake) talks about getting lost in the desert in 'Uncharted 3'

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As 2011 comes to a close, EW.com wanted to honor some of the hardworking names and faces from behind the scenes for their outstanding achievements. The essence of the videogame medium is action: running, jumping, shooting, dodging, flying. That’s especially true of the Uncharted series, a franchise which has made its name by offering better-than-Hollywood thrills. But November’s Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception took an intriguing turn when — following a fantastical plane-crash set piece — series protagonist Nathan Drake got lost in the desert. No guns, no exciting settings, no enemy except thirst: The player had to guide Drake through an apparently empty landscape, wandering and wandering and wandering. Nolan North — one of the hardest-working voice-over talents in the videogame industry — has played Nathan Drake via an intensive motion-capture process since the series began. Read on to find out how he helped to make something out of literal nothingness. For more behind the scenes access to the year’s best TV and movie scenes, click here for EW.com‘s Best of 2011: Behind the Scenes coverage.

As told by: Nolan North

Lost in the desert! People loved that level! They felt isolated. They didn’t know what to do, or which way to go. The same way that Nathan Drake is feeling. I think that Uncharted 3, more than the earlier games, you got to experience not only what Drake was doing, but what he was feeling.

The animators sent me some footage of Keith Guerrette, one of the Uncharted 3 visual artists, who went to the desert for research and got heatstroke. I got to see how his foot was reacting in that type of hard-packed sand. On the motion-capture stage, we put crashpads on the ground, and they would literally just do cycles of me walking across the stage. “This is when you’re first starting to walk through the desert.” Then they would downgrade it. We did a few passes of just walking. Wiping sweat. Looking left. Looking right.

But then we’d have to do it to the point where Drake was getting pretty tired. Still okay, thirsty but not dying of thirst. And we would keep doing walking cycles of him downgrading, until I was literally on my knees. We did the scene where I collapse. We did stuff where I had to bear crawl up dunes. It was exhausting. It felt like a hamster in a wheel, because you’re not really going anywhere. And that’s how it is in sand. You just feel like you’re spinning your wheels.

I’m not a Method actor, or anything like that. The big thing with this job — with any motion-capture job — is that the actors really have to tap into their sense of play. The world of motion-capture is nothing, and at the same time it’s everything. It’s the closest thing I’ve ever done to my days when I did live theater.

You just sort of imagine: “It’s hot and I’m uncomfortable.” You’re not always wiping sweat when you’re hot. In fact, in the desert, there’s usually not a lot of sweat, because it evaporates before it’s even on your body. I actually learned that when a buddy of mine got seriously dehydrated. We were out playing golf in terrible heat, and he was like, “I’m not that hot. I’m not even sweating.” I’m said, “It’s evaporating before you can even see sweat!”

Our biggest concern with the desert level was: Are fans gonna like this? There’s no shooting. There’s no puzzle-solving. You just gotta keep moving forward, or Drake will collapse and die. They did the testing, and the overwhelming amount of people wanted that level to be longer. And I think it’s because it’s something that [developer] Naughty Dog came up with, that nobody’s ever done. They’re absolutely fantastic at what they do.

Many videogame heroes are invincible. It’s like when Stallone would take a punch to a face and not even flinch. There wasn’t a lot of vulnerability there. It was like he was unstoppable. Drake, when he falls or get hurts or punches or get punched, it hurts. When he’s lost in the desert, it’s okay to for him to let his guard down. He just becomes more human.

For more on the Best and Worst of 2011, pick up Entertainment Weekly’s new issue, on stands now.

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