The first time stuntwoman Amy Johnston worked with Naughty Dog, she performed motion capture for Nadine Ross in Uncharted 4 and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. Her task—to portray a mercenary who could kick Nathan Drake’s ass—was suited to her skill set. The daughter of a kickboxing world champion and a third-degree black belt martial artist in her own right, Johnston is an expert at telling a violent, non-verbal story with her body. It made sense that Naughty Dog brought her into the fold again, this time to do crucial work on The Last of Us Part 2.
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Johnston has a history of performing stunts for big budget projects. On film, she performed stunt work for Captain America: The Winter Soldier (as Black Widow), Iron Man 3, and Suicide Squad. In video games, she performed stunts as Lara Croft in Shadow of the Tomb Raider and The Black Cat in the PS4 Spider-Man DLC. She also performed movements as Spider-Man in the core game, because the animators wanted some additional, flexible actions in Spidey’s repertoire.
Spoilers for The Last of Us Part 2 follow.
On her first day working on The Last of Us Part 2—a partnership that lasted approximately eight months—Naughty Dog described the combat, characters, and world of The Last of Us Part 2 to Johnston. They showed her what had already been shot; several motion capture actors had already been working on the game for some time.
Johnston performed most of her motion capture work as Abby, although she also performed movements and stunt work for Ellie, Dina, Yara, Lev, and many NPCs, including some of the male characters such as the massive Seraphite who attacks Abby in the burning village, and the massive Bloater that attacks Ellie and Joel during the second flashback.
For cinematic cutscenes that required action, Johnston alternated with the dramatic actor on set. But when the actors weren’t there, which was most of the time, she performed the movement and actions while listening to the actors’ recorded lines over a loudspeaker.
Johnston worked most closely with the game’s animators. There were “combat days,” where she had to perform a variety of martial arts moves, usually in coordination with another stunt actor. It’s here that Johnston was freest to improvise.
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“That’s what they brought me in for,” Johnston told Kotaku. “For most of the knife work and kicks, they let me do what I wanted. Most of the time, they would tell me they needed a Point A to Point B attack, followed by a 1-2 attack. And then they allowed me to do what made sense [to me].”
“There were a couple days when all I did was throw, because Ellie was throwing molotovs and bricks,” said Johnston. “I probably threw about 800 times that day, with just my right hand. From ‘crouch,’ to ‘jumping forward,’ to ‘going backwards’—all from different angles.”
Entire days were focused on Johnston ‘dying’ in multiple positions: prone, supine, aiming, and not aiming, in every possible permutation. There were days when she fell, over and over again, after jumping and intentionally missing a ledge, or crashing into it. Johnston also had “movement days,” where the actress performed walking cycles for many characters, for hours on end.
“It’s very important that the characters have a certain feel when you press the control stick forward,” said Johnston. “You want them to feel human—not too fast and not too slow. So first, we worked on getting that right.”
After Johnston and the animators agreed on a walk cycle, she acted it out multiple times with different transitions, so that a character could pick it up from whatever their current speed was. Then, Johnston created sprints and jogs, which the animators shot from every angle so they could connect it to every other angle, at every speed. She’d walk at a 45 degree angle with her chest forward. Then she’d walk at a right angle. Then, she’d do a 180-degree turn.
Johnston listed multiple complicating factors that she needed to be constantly aware of. Some characters were left-handed, for example; others were right-handed. Some had long legs or strong upper bodies, which made them more or less adept in different environments. One character might have had a kink in their neck, which prevented them from turning a particular way. All of these movements—the walks, plus other mundane acts of crawling, climbing, and ducking into cover—varied in correspondence to in-game events.
“The walk cycle is different from Seattle Day 1 to Seattle Day 3,” said Johnston. “This is the first game I’ve ever worked on that was so specific with emotion and injury. When Abby had an injury, we had a new walk cycle, and the same with Ellie. So throughout the different scenes, we kept track to make sure we were at the right moment at the right time, so that we wouldn’t break the immersion.”
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Naughty Dog gave Johnston biographical information about the characters to make the performances more sophisticated. Take Lev, for example: Johnston’s main goal was to make him appear light on his feet—almost ninja-like in his movement, and fearless when traversing great heights. But during some of his more narrative-heavy scenes, some additional subtlety was required.
“I was informed that Lev was trans, and I learned his backstory so I could understand the character,” said Johnston. “There were scenes where there was dialogue—maybe Lev was talking in the elevator with Abby—and in those moments, it was very important for me to try and understand what Lev was going through so I could emote. Was my chest high, or were my shoulders down? Was I afraid or scared? Was I trying to inspire Abby or lift her up? All those things were very important to understand the characters’ intentions, especially if the character didn’t have any dialogue at that moment.”
The character who Johnston got to know the best was Abby.
“The first character I worked on was Abby,” said Johnston. “Naughty Dog showed me her picture and what she looked like. I was told that Abby was around 5'7; the animators were comparing Abby to Ellie, and they wanted to make sure that the motions when they interacted were appropriate. They gave me some background on Abby, like what she was afraid of and what she liked. They basically spoiled the game for me [laughs]. But that’s important, because then I can really understand the character and give a more in-depth performance.”
When I asked Johnston if Naughty Dog gave her any biographical information that didn’t make it into the game, she said they didn’t. Naughty Dog also didn’t divulge how Abby got so muscular, although Johnston had her own headcanon as to why: that her revenge drove her to be physically capable of what she wanted to accomplish. Abby’s muscularity is why she’s constantly rotating her left shoulder; her upper body gets tight when she’s moving around and jumping. For Johnston, this small act helps to humanize the character.
“We constantly talked about her fear of heights, because it’s a nice contrast [to her physicality],” said Johnston. “She’s so strong; her body was created after a crossfit body. She’s a brawler, and she fights differently than Ellie. Ellie is a little bit more feisty and aggressive. And because Ellie ‘s not as powerful, she needs to be smarter about her movements and be more stealthy.”
This is exemplified by the final fight between Abby and Ellie. Ellie had a serious torso injury, and Abby had lost weight and most of her muscle mass due to her imprisonment by the Rattlers. Both characters were exhausted.
Johnston performed movement for both Abby and Ellie in this sequence, and out of everything she did for the game, this is the work she is most proud of. She reflected the characters’ hatred for one another through the manner in which they fought.
“It’s going to be more scrappy,” said Johnston. “Ellie is going to go for the eyeballs. She’s going to fight dirty. When you’re looking for revenge, you’re not really thinking with your mind, especially if you’re starved and have nothing left in your life. You’re doing whatever you can to get what you need. Ellie’s punches aren’t going to be as powerful, and her attacks are not going to be as precise. And even more so with Abby.”
“We shot that end fight so many times,” said Johnston. “I was working with another stunt performer [Thekla Hutyrova mainly, and others], and the first time we did it, I was a little too energized. We got feedback from the animators and from [director] Neil [Druckmann] that we had to rethink it a little bit. It needed to make sense that Abby was winning here, and Ellie was winning there. They needed to be more tired and injured. So we went back and forth to get that balance. Because typically, you’d think that Abby would just defeat Ellie very quickly, if she wasn’t so skinny and weak.”
Johnston will feature in several high-profile games coming out this year, including Marvel’s Avengers, for which she performed motion capture and stunt work for female characters. Some of that work has already turned up in trailers and preview gameplay. But her eight months on The Last of Us Part 2 is the most work she’s ever done on a single video game title. She cites Naughty Dog as one of her favorite clients, due to their precision.
“They are very specific with most things they do,” said Johnston. “A lot of times, game [developers] won’t know what they want. But Naughty Dog knows exactly what they want and how they want their characters to be portrayed. They’re always giving me backstory, which allows me to understand these characters so that I can better perform them.”
Kevin is an English teacher and freelance writer from Queens, NY. You can email him at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter.