The first time stuntwoman Amy Johnston working with Naughty Dog, she performed motion capture for Nadine Ross in Uncut 4 and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. Her task – to portray a mercenary who could kick Nathan Drake’s ass – was well suited to her skill set. The daughter of a kickboxing world champion and a third-rate black belt 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 a crucial job The Last of Us Part 2.
Johnston has one history of performing stunts for large budget projects. On film, she performed stunt work for Captain America: The Winter Soldier (as a black widow), Iron Man 3, and Selvmordspad. In video games, she performed stunts like Lara Croft in Shadow of the Tomb Raider and The Black Cat on PS4 Spider Man DLC. She also performed moves like 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 about eight months – Naughty Dog described struggle, characters and the 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, though she also performed movements and stunt work for Ellie, Dina, Yara, Lev and many NPCs, including some of the male characters such as. solid seraphite attacking Abby in the burning village, and the huge Bloater who attacks Ellie and Joel during the second flashback.
For film assignments that required action, Johnston alternated with the dramatic actor on set. But when the actors were not there, which was most of the time, she performed movement and actions while listening to the actors’ busy lines over a speaker.
Johnston worked most closely with the game’s animators. There were “fight days” where she had to perform a series of martial arts movements, usually in coordination with another stunt actress. This is where Johnston was freest to improvise.
“That was what they brought me in for,” Johnston said Kotaku. “In most of the knife work and kicks, they let me do what I wanted. Most of the time they told me they needed an attack from point A to point B followed by a 1-2 attack. And then they let me do what made sense [to me]. “
“There were a few days where all I did was throw because Ellie threw molotovs and bricks,” Johnston said. “I probably threw approx. 800 times that day with straight right hand. From ‘crouch’ to ‘jumping forward’ to ‘going backwards’ – everything from different angles. “
Whole days were focused on Johnston ‘to die’ in several positions: inclined, lying, aiming and not aiming in any possible permutation. There were days when she fell again and again after she jumped and intentionally missed a ledge or crashed into it. Johnston also had “movement days” where the actor performed walking bikes for many characters for hours.
“It’s very important that the characters get a certain feel when you push the control stick forward,” Johnston said. “You want them to feel human – not too fast and not too slow. So first we worked on getting it right. “
After Johnston and the animators agreed on a walking cycle, she performed it several times with different transitions so that a character could pick it up no matter what their current speed was. Then Johnston created sprints and jogs that the animators shot from all angles so they could connect it to any other angle at any speed. She would walk at a 45 degree angle with her chest forward. Then she walked at the right angle. Then she would take a 180-degree turn.
Johnston listed several complicating factors that she had to constantly be aware of. Some characters were left-handed, e.g. others were right-handed. Some had long legs or strong upper bodies, which made them more or less skilled in different environments. One character could have had a crack in the neck, which prevented them from turning a certain way. All of these movements – hiking plus other worldly acts of crawling, climbing and ducking for cover – varied according to events in the game.
“The walking cycle is different from Seattle Day 1 to Seattle Day 3,” Johnston said. “This is the first game I have ever worked on that was so specific with emotion and damage. When Abby had an injury, we had a new walking cycle, and the same with Ellie. So through the various scenes, we kept track of to make sure we were at the right time at the right time so we would not break the immersion. “
Naughty Dog provided Johnston with biographical information about the characters to make the performances more sophisticated. Take Lev, for example: Johnston’s main goal was to make him look light on his feet – almost ninja-like in his movement and fearless when crossing great heights. But during some of his more narrative-heavy scenes, a certain subtlety was needed.
“I was informed that Lev was trans and I learned his backstory so I could understand the character,” Johnston said. “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 to understand what Lev was going through so I could broadcast. Was my chest high, or were my shoulders down? Was I scared or scared? Did I try to inspire Abby or lift her up? All of these things were very important to understand the intentions of the characters, especially if the character had no dialogue at that moment. “
The character that Johnston got to know best was Abby.
“The first character I worked on was Abby,” Johnston said. “Naughty dog showed me her picture and what she looked like. I was told that Abby was about 5’7; the animators compared Abby to Ellie, and they wanted to make sure the movements 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 it’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 biographical information that was not included in the game, she said they did not. Nor does Naughty Dog reveal how Abby became so muscular, though Johnston had her own headcanon for why: that her revenge made her physically capable of what she wanted to accomplish. Abby’s musculature is therefore that she constantly rotates her left shoulder; her upper body gets tight as she moves around and jumps. For Johnston, this little action helps humanize the character.
“We were constantly talking about her fear of heights because it is a nice contrast [to her physicality], ”Said Johnston. “She is so strong; her body was created after a crossfit body. She’s a brawler and she’s fighting differently than Ellie. Ellie is a little more feisty and aggressive. And because Ellie is not that powerful, she has to be smarter with her movements and be more insidious. “
This is exemplified by the last match between Abby and Ellie. Ellie had a severe upper body 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 that order, and out of everything she did for the game, this is the work she is most proud of. She reflected the characters’ hatred of each other through the way they fought.
“It’s getting scarier,” Johnston said. Ellie goes for the eyeballs. She will fight dirty. When you are looking for revenge, you are not really thinking with your mind, especially if you are hungry and have nothing left in your life. You do what you can to get what you need. Ellie’s blows do not become so powerful, and her attacks do not become so precise. And even more so with Abby. “
“We shot the playoffs so many times,” Johnston said. “I was working on another stunt performer[[[[Thekla Hutyrova mainly and others]and the first time we did, I was a little too energetic. We got feedback from the animators and from [director] Neil [Druckmann] that we had to reconsider it a bit. It was necessary to make sense that Abby won here and Ellie won there. They should be more tired and hurt. So we went back and forth to get that balance. For typically you would think that Abby would just defeat Ellie very quickly if she was not so thin and weak. “
Johnston will play in several high-profile games coming out this year, including Marvel’s Avengers, as she performed motion capture and stunt work for female characters. Some of this work has already appeared in trailers and previews of gameplay. But her eight months on The Last of Us Part 2 is the most work she has ever done with a single video game title. She mentions Naughty Dog as one of her favorite clients because of their precision.
“They’re very specific with most things they do,” Johnston said. “Many times, games [developers] do not know what they want. But Naughty Dog knows exactly what they want and how they want their characters to be portrayed. They always give me backstory, allowing me to understand these characters so I can perform them better. “