Chilling with Kevin at the Blacklist launch party.
A few months ago, I went to Ubisoft Toronto’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist launch party. When I was there, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Kevin Secours, the principle force behind the fight choreography in Splinter Cell: Blacklist. At the party, I chatted with Kevin about the possibility of an interview in regards to his work on the game. We agreed to chat after I had reviewed the game and had some time to let the awesomeness sink in. This is the result.
What was your process for preparing for this role?
When I was first brought in for Mocap, I was already a fan of the game. So, before showing up, I spent a lot of time on different forums to see what the fans were saying. I also read all of the books in the series and really tried to get a handle on Sam Fisher’s approach. He was known for adopting Krav Maga combatively but I wanted to go deeper, to get an idea of his history, to flesh out his combative character a bit more. People that perform at that level in my experience are rarely limited by labels or purely stylistic considerations. I also wanted to get a perspective on where Sam was coming from, philosophically. I needed to know what drove him to do what he did to get a handle on how he would move and fight.
How did you get ready for doing a MoCap “shoot”?
The first time I did MoCap, I had no idea what to expect so I basically just showed up and did my thing. It became painfully apparent that I was used to working with contact with my students and not control with stunt men, so that was the first lesson I learned on day one.
After that point, prep would usually include getting ideas or scripts from Ubisoft, or scenarios we would encounter. I filmed a lot of material for them and sent them demos of a lot of different contexts to see what they liked and also what was possible. I went through a few Blacklist journals, where I just filled the pages with ideas and choreography. It helped to have an art background – there was a lot of doodling.
Kevin encouraging his student (Renick Darnell-Martin) to talk to the hand.
How easy was it for you to get the rest of the cast up to speed?
It really was quite simple getting the cast up to speed quickly. I had a great host of stunt partners to work with from Stephane Julien to Max White and so many others. These guys are seasoned professionals. They do the majority of the work and ultimately are the ones who make me look good. They were also great collaborators and contributors and incredibly capable on so many levels that complemented and challenged my skills. The actors themselves were a dream to work with.
Naturally I worked most closely with Eric Johnson, who plays Sam in the game. Eric is a perpetual student. He just threw himself into the role. He was playing the old games, reading the books, talking with fans. He was so committed to making this the best splinter cell ever, so naturally I felt a tremendous commitment to give him everything I had to help him achieve that. Beyond that Kristjan Zadziuk, the animation director, was a perfect coach. He had such a clear idea of what he wanted and he was really able to get the best performance out of me. He refined everything that I did and helped me understand the process. David Footman as cinematic director was another key part. He trusted me fully, and that means more than I can express. It was just a great team to work with.
Were there issues that someone had that you helped them overcome?
I think the biggest issue that I had to contend with was balancing tactical with “tacticool” – everyone wanted real world tactics, but they also need to look believable and truthful. In some situations, a quick shot to the throat would do it in a real situation, or perhaps a fast break; but then, in the game context, it just seemed anticlimactic. You might just thumb spear an eye and slam a guys head into the ground in a real situation; but if you start doing that in every situation, it makes for a boring experience for the player. So the first challenge was variety.
I felt pretty comfortable with this, but Kristjan definitely was able to pull more out of me than I expected – so he was instrumental. A second issue was that so much of my training has been dedicated to refining and compressing my movements so that they look more natural, more casual – almost accidental. When you get into a game context, you need to open that a lot more to be readable. You need to punctuate the flow so that the viewer has a better chance of understanding of figuring out what is happening. I learned a lot from the stunt crew, the directors and the actors about rhythm and timing in a dramatic context. This was huge for my personal development.
Kevin teaching students in Melbourne. The subject: Gravity Can Hurt Sometimes.
So, you have never really done stage fighting before this point?
No, this was my first experience with stage work. I was very lucky to have a village of excellent teachers. The stunt men were all world class and they helped me to adapt my game very quickly – and all of the actors knew exactly what they needed from me so it was really easy to just spill out my knowledge.
As a teacher, it is your job to ensure that you equip your students with the right tools. In a combat situation, it is never certain what you may be up against. Do you have a single go-to defense that you equip your students with (or at least a small set)? Do you have a go-to attack that you teach?
My approach is more principle-based rather than technical – that’s not to say that I only teach ideas rather than techniques, but it’s more accurate to say that I teach why something works first, then how it works, and then give techniques as potential examples only – as ideas that manifest the principle. The go-to idea therefore would align with biomechanical efficiency. I teach students ow their bodies work best, how they are supposed to be aligned, how they can maximize their joints for immediate results and longevity. We have a wide range of natural acrobatics that we go through to gain confidence in our own bodies.
So much training attempts to address confidence and assertiveness; but because they never correct the fundamental flaws, you get students who have built massive structures with weak foundations. You’ve seen the type – huge muscles, scary demeanour, vicious technique; but at the core of all of that bravado, that same fear and fundamental insecurity is just waiting to snap. Then you get the people who are used to themselves, and know exactly what they can do at any given moment: the Olympian, the fighter, the spec ops operative – there is a quiet ease in them. It is something tangible. There is no single “look” to these people, but there is always a common energy. So that’s what I start with. I always say that being graceful means being a confident pilot of our own body.
Throughout the learning process,I teach students how to breathe, both cognitively and reactively. Breath is the bridge. It keeps us healthy; it keeps us calm; it optimizes our function. Tactically, my one go-to strategy is yielding. I believe in getting out of the way of things, not blocking or impacting force with force. Yielding works against everything: fist, knife, and gun. You don’t block a charging bull or a car; you get out of the way. According to Lao Tzu, yielding is a quality of life and rigidity an attribute of death. After the storm: trees are uprooted but the grass remains intact. That yielding is the way of the universe, and is something that is known by all but exemplified by few.
But…if you want to get down to a specific technique, it would be chokes. I have used chokes so many times as a bouncer and in security – on bigger guys, angry, motivated, drugged-out critters that had the intent to change my relationship with health and life. Chokes work, they are reliable, and they are humane. They give you time to think and recompose yourself when everything is going out the window. They let you survive on every level. PTSD and combat guilt is something I learned the hard way – you don’t need to be carrying that stress around, so responsible power is very important for me.
Eric Johnson (Sam Fisher) and Kevin – dressed for work.
What is your favourite aspect of Sam Fisher?
My favorite aspect of Sam is his autonomy. I’ve always been very driven to solo train extremely hard while I see that most people struggle with this. People always talk about motivation – they always want to know how to be motivated; but I can only say that it is a primal drive for me. I feel like I am keeping ahead of something. Without training, I am not a full human. I see this in Sam. I see that dark engine in his nature. I think that is what makes his latest development with 4th echelon so interesting, since now he has to learn how to work in a team. A lot of alpha types have tremendous difficulty with this, so if Sam can merge the two aspects without clashing, he will become even stronger.
Next to Sam, who is your next favourite character in the game? Why?
I can really relate to Grim. I’ve had a lot of high responsibility and leadership roles in my life, so I know what it’s like to feel the weight of that responsibility and how that can play tricks with your character or at least your outward persona. I think particularly seeing Kate Drummond (who plays grim) build that character behind the scenes and convey so much integrity and pent-up -yet focused- frustration was a big part of it. I find Grim a very impressive character as a result; and as a player, I would love to see her developed – as a choreographer I would love have the chance to develop a fighting style for her and give her a chance to shine in that way.
Do you have any other characters outside of Splinter Cell that you think are really cool?
My favorite character outside of Splinter Cell would have to be Batman. I think that he has been adapted to gaming beautifully with ever-increasing complexity. I grew up on comic books and Batman had so many incredible story lines like Dark Knight and Year One. Again, I love that solitary aspect and the Spartan self-training regimen. I also really appreciate the moral complexity of a character that teeters on the boundaries of justice and sanity. I think there are a lot of parallels with Sam Fisher. Like Batman, he is not that different from the men he pursues, and the latest installment of Splinter Cell brings this to light with a lot of morally challenging issues – like torture. It hit a lot of buttons in people because it isn’t clear-cut, and I think that duality is an important aspect of violence.
Thanks so much for the chance to chat, Kevin! Looking forward to more of your work in the future!
Also, big thanks to my friend Rei Mirasol, who contributed to this interview.