Dean Erickson gives an iconic performance as Gabriel Knight, while The Beast Within director Will Bender tackles the logistics of shooting a 600-page game script.
Written by David L. Craddock
Chapter 4: Movie Magic
Jane Jensen was shaken by the raw emotion Dean Erickson channeled during his audition, and gave her blessing: he would assume the southern drawl and gold medallion of Gabriel Knight for her sequel, The Beast Within.
With his part locked down, Erickson prepped for the role. He read the script several times to cement motivation and situation. Born and raised in Maine, he pulled from dialect tapes and British films to affect an accent similar to the one Tim Curry had used to voice Gabriel Knight in Jensen’s seminal adventure game. His long hair required some tweaking; the crew decided to cut it down to shoulder length. “I never rebelled as a kid, so I started in my thirties, post Wall Street, by growing my hair into a ponytail. The chronology was a bit backwards, but it all worked out okay,” Erickson recalled.
Erickson stepped into Gabriel’s boots and was thrust immediately into a whirlwind of long days and nights. Will Binder and his director of photography, Randy Littlejohn, needed to film ten pages of the script per day at a minimum. Any less, and time and money would be squandered. Any delay, such as actors delivering less than perfect performances, was a waste.
Binder explained the challenges ahead of him. “Production is a very collaborative process and it’s important for everyone to be on the same page. For example, before we filmed a specific scene, I would go over all of the details of that scene, including the blocking with the crew. We would usually start by setting a fairly wide master shot of the entire scene. Then we’d start with the coverage, setting up different angles of the same scene to be filmed. We didn’t always shoot the entire scene from each angle, but we usually shot some coverage.”
Filming at real venues such as Seattle’s Moore Theater, the site where Wagner’s lost opera would be shot, was considerably less complicated than filming in front of a blue screen. Prior to filming, art director Nathan Gams and his wife took two trips to Germany and photographed locations that matched scenes described in Jensen’s script—a farm in Munich, several of Ludwig’s castles, Munich’s shopping district, and dark, creepy woods where Gabriel cornered one of the two werewolves he would face over the course of the adventure. Sierra’s art crew gathered the couple’s photographs and painted in elements specific to the plot, such as puzzle elements Jensen outlined in her script. In the final stages of production, the crew substituted blue screens for digital backgrounds composed from the photographs, creating the illusion that the characters were really tromping across Germany.
Shooting in front of a blue screen was a multi-step process. First, the crew placed tape on the floor so actors knew where to stand and which directions to face. Then, props such as camera stands were positioned so the actors knew precisely where to look, and Binder informed them exactly what or whom they were pretending to be looking at or talking to. “Will [Binder] was great at letting us know what the background was going to look like,” Erickson said. “The team had put in a lot of time making those decisions before we shot our scenes. I always made sure I understood where everything was going to be, so when I looked around, my movements would make sense. I generally had someone or something tangible to which to relate.”
Props lent verisimilitude to scenes. When Gabriel combs through woods hot on the trail of a werewolf, Binder positioned real branches that Erickson could brush aside. The books and candelabras that adorn Gabriel’s library in Schloss Ritter came from prop houses in L.A. or from local shops around Oakhurst. Occasionally, improvisation was required. According to Binder, “Every staircase was built out of blue painted boxes. The studio crew had done this before with previous full-motion video and it was amazing the work they did, quickly building environments out of blue boxes to match the backgrounds that had been photographed. For sequences that required doors to be opened, the crew used a metal armature that the actors could push, and then the animators could blend the background of the door with a photograph that had been taken in Europe, to simulate the door being pushed open.”
To save time and money, Binder shot scenes out of chronological order. During the game, Gabriel and Grace visit and revisit certain areas—Gabriel pays several visits to the hunting club where his friends (and, later, suspects) hang out, and Grace frequents museums and castles, searching for clues that connect Ludwig to the Black Wolf. Binder organized scenes that took place in the same locales and shot them back to back in order to cross them off his list in one go. Several of the challenges he faced were unique to video games. “In many scenes, the actors needed to start and end each scene on a specific mark and in a specific position with a specific expression for continuity purposes because we did not know the next choice the player would make.”
Wolves, supernatural and otherwise, posed their own sets of challenges. Early in the story, Gabriel investigates a zoo in Munich to determine if the wolves on display match the same species as an escaped male and female pair that the police believe killed his client’s daughter. Binder and Sierra hired animal trainers in Los Angeles to bring a male and female wolf onto the set. In every scene involving the wolves, their trainers remained close at hand. Although the female wolf warmed up to strangers right away, the alpha was unsure of his surroundings and took several hours to come out of his trailer. One scene called for Binder to get a shot of the alpha baring his teeth and growling, which could not be blue-screened.
“To get the shot, we bolted a steel anchor deep into the concrete floor of the sound stage. We then cleared the set of everyone except the trainers, Randy the director of photography, a handful of crew members, and me. A steel harness was placed around the wolf’s chest and back, and a thick steel chain was attached to the harness and to the bolted anchor. Once the wolf was secure, one of the handlers placed a covered piece of meat in front of the wolf. We used a long lens and when the trainer lifted the cover exposing the meat, the wolf went wild, snarling and trying to get the meat.”
Showing a normal wolf was simple: record footage, then use it. Portraying werewolves was trickier. “In Jaws, they used a mechanical shark, but there were so many technical problems with the shark that you don’t actually see the shark until later in the film,” Bind said. “So we did the same thing: we delayed showing the wolf until later in the story. This served to heighten the tension of the werewolf scenes. So, the fact that we were not able to show the wolf early was a handicap that we turned to an advantage.” Ultimately, Binder and the crew settled on CGI-enhanced wolves to depict lycanthropes, rendering them larger than their natural cousins.
Even at the center of a hurricane of activity, the cast and crew found time to bond. Everyone resided in houses that dotted the shore of Bass Lake. Dave Plaskett, the production manager, hosted nightly poker games at his residence so everyone could unwind from long days of shooting. On the rare off-day, the cast and crew drove up to Yosemite to hike trails and take in the mountains and waterfalls. Erickson got a lake house to himself and devoted his evenings to reading over the next day’s scripts and catching up on rest. On the weekends, Binder and his assistant directors washed clothes at a local laundromat and sat around discussing logistics for the coming week while washers and dryers churned.
Some relationships ended almost as quickly as they began. Actors were shuttled in, shot their parts, and then caught a shuttle out after just a day or week of filming. “The opera scene was shot on a real stage in Seattle,” said Jane Jensen, who maintained a constant presence on-set to watch the goings-on, though she was careful not to step on his toes. “That was complicated to organize. We cast opera singers in Seattle. We recorded them singing the music in a sound studio. And then we recorded it on that stage with a backdrop.”
The final scene on the production schedule depicted a quiet conversation between Gabriel and Grace on a bridge. After the scene, Binder called for a wrap and took the crew and cast, by that time reduced to the two leads and a few stragglers, out on the town for a wrap party. The occasion marked the last time the crew and lead actors worked together.
“When I wrapped, they continued shooting,” Erickson remembered. “It felt weird to leave while they were still shooting scenes. But after three months or more working on Gabriel Knight 2, it was time for me to get back home to L.A.”
Binder didn’t have many shots left to capture following the departure of his leading man. A skeleton crew filmed shots of Grace’s midnight excursions in Ludwig’s sleigh and started on post-production work: sound effects, special effects, and touch-ups to the background. Robert Holmes, now married to Jensen, composed the game’s stirring soundtrack, poring extra effort into Richard Wagner’s lost opera, which played out over several real-time minutes at the climax of The Beast Within.
The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery dwarfed the success of its forerunner when Sierra published it in January 1995. The characters and story were more intricate than the first time around, and players lost themselves in the fantasy of Munich’s pastoral landmarks and Ludwig’s fairytale palaces. Computer Gaming World awarded The Beast Within five out of five stars and proclaimed it the Game of the Year; the magazine later inducted it into its Hall of Fame. Even the mainstream press raved about the game. Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly praised the writing, acting, and effects. At long last, Hollywood and computer games had finally merged.
Jenson had hoped her fans would take to the setting as wholly as she did. They did not disappoint. “I loved Germany. I think if I can find locations and subjects that I’m passionate about, I try to infuse that feeling into the game. I was really in love with that region at the time I wrote [The Beast Within], and I wanted to translate that passion and romanticism into the game. I never thought it would make people go visit these places, but they do. I got a picture of a woman one time that was great: she was standing with Neuschwanstein in the background; and she lifted up her shirt, and she had a Schattenjäger tattoo on her stomach.”
Binder looks back on the exhausting schedule fondly. “The response from the fans was tremendous. They have created websites honoring the game. They have posted the entire game on YouTube so that people can experience the game all of these years later. So I would like to thank them—not only for their initial enthusiasm for the game, but for the continued support that comes from them all these years later.”
Erickson shared Binder’s sentiment. “It was great fun. I made some friends, and have been in touch with a number of great Gabriel Knight fans.”
Today, players point to The Beast Within as the cream of the mostly-rotten FMV-based crop, and as one of the biggest hits from the adventure boom during the 1990s. Jensen agrees, citing her first sequel as the crowning moment of her early career. “I look back at that game now and think about how insane it was. Phantasmagoria had maybe 10 characters and it all took place in this one house. In Gabriel Knight , I had werewolves, horses, it took place all over Germany, all these characters, different accents, an opera—it was so ridiculously ambitious. Somehow we were too stupid to know that, and we pulled it off.”
Preview for Chapter 5 (To be published 20 November 2015)
As Jane Jensen gears up to write the third installment in the Gabriel Knight trilogy, a new regime and cutting-edge games threaten adventure titles with extinction.
Choose Your Destiny