James C. Burns may not be a household name, but if you’ve played Call of Duty: Black Ops—and millions of you have—then you are a fan of his work. Burns is the actor behind Sergeant Frank Woods, the Cold War-era super soldier at the heart of the Black Ops saga. With Call of Duty: Black Ops II set to hit stores this fall, we wanted to catch up with Burns to hear about his latest experience in Woods’ virtual skin.
How does this type of performance differ from traditional film acting?
There’s not a lot of difference. The fundamentals of being an actor are the same whether it’s stage, TV, film, or a commercial—it’s all the same thing, just know your circumstances, hit your mark, and say your lines. Where it becomes different is adjusting for the technology involved. You are covering every angle all at once, which means there is a different pressure on you to get the scene right in one take, because you can’t cut away.
What are the unique challenges of motion capture?
The head’s got to be up more. A lot of times in acting, you get your motivation, and your head is down and you swing it up. With performance capture, you have to keep your head up so the reflectors can be caught. With film, it’s nice to have silent moments when contemplating and thinking—the screen loves those—but with picture capture, your emotions need to be out; you’ve got to be demonstrative with what’s going on inside of you.
How has the character of Sergeant Woods progressed since the original Black Ops?
Initially Woods was just this flat-out badass—he’s just the best solider in the world. What he was—and what he is, and remains today—is the ultimate optimist. I interact with my fans a lot, and what I’ve found about Woods that makes him such an attractive character is that he’s never condescending. He is about moving forward, and finding the answer. What we do with Black Ops II coming up is that Woods becomes the emotional core. He has 60 years of experience that he uses to present the perspective of the game. You will recognize the old Woods, but you are going to see a lot of emotional depth that you wouldn’t expect coming from Black Ops.
Who or what was your inspiration for Woods?
I have tons of inspiration. As a child I watched the Vietnam War on TV. I was young, but I remember the nightly news with Walter Kronkite. These images are very fresh in my head, so I’ve always played these characters. My bread and butter is soldiers, cops, firemen—these traditional male roles—so Woods was not an anomaly. We just modified him to fit into Black Ops. Music played a big part in it, too. Before each session, we would have a playlist. I would take music from the ’60s, or music that I would think would fit the appropriate mission, and that’s kind of how we inspired the whole environment. There’s an eclectic array of ’60s music that you could use, but the Stones and Credence dominated the playlists for me.
What should gamers expect from Black Ops 2?
It’s going to be a very original experience. Treyarch has gone to the edge of the universe. This is going to be one of the first interactive experiences where you get to make decisions that affect the outcome. So you could very well be playing at home, and you go and meet a friend of yours, and you are going to have two different outcomes to the game. Everything has been upgraded, from the narrative to playability of the game itself.
What does it feel like to be part of something as big as Call of Duty?
First of all, it’s an absolute privilege to be a part of this. One of my favorite things about working with Treyarch and Activision—and I’m not blowing smoke here—is that they have a commitment to the player experience that is phenomenal. Everything is questioned to make it a stronger choice, and to be around that intensity—I love that. I love teamwork, I love team energy, and I’ve never been in an environment that is so collaborative and intent on being the best. This is the center of the universe in terms of entertainment, and to be a part of that is humbling.