EA/Visceral Games Art Director Ian Milham likes to wind it out at the track when he’s not working on the Dead Space franchise. We recently caught up with Milham (left) and actor Gunner Wright (middle), who plays lead character Isaac Clarke in Dead Space II, at the San Mateo International Motorcycle Show.
By day, family man Ian Milham rises early and joins the legions making the daily commute through Bay Area traffic. Milham’s clean-shaven face and low-key demeanor mask the morbid mind that lurks inside though, one capable of maintaining the mild-mannered façade on his face while inside he’s busy conjuring the next virally infected necromorph who will attempt to destroy Isaac Clarke. Milham unleashes those thoughts at work where he serves as Art Director on Electronic Arts/Visceral Games Dead Space II. Considering the nature of his job, it’s no surprise Milham is also attracted to the adrenalin rush that comes with riding motorcycles. Fast. Like track day at Infineon on his SV650 fast.
When thespian Gunner Wright isn’t portraying Dwight Eisenhower while acting with Leonardo DiCaprio in “J. Edgar” or doing motion capture work and voice overs as Clarke, the lead character in Dead Space II, he might be found flogging a Yamaha Super Tenere on trails around Greece during breaks from a photo shoot for Men’s Health magazine. When we recently caught up with Gunner in the Bay Area, he had just ridden from LA to San Francisco to visit the EA/Visceral Arts studio and to see the new 2012 bikes in the International Motorcycle Show, which also happened to be in town.
Gunner and Milham became friends not long after the actor had the strongest audition for Isaac Clarke and was cast as the lead role in Dead Space II. During development of a game, a process that can take a couple of years, people spend a lot of time together and Milham said that Gunner is such a bike guy, it only took about five minutes for motorcycles to come up in the context of conversation. With the love of motorcycling a common ground, the two quickly became friends.
“I don’t believe we’ve talked about anything else since then. There’s a lot of down time in this business so in between we talk about motorcycles, which is a good way to put everything else out of your head for a while,” Milham said.
As far as motorcycling goes, Milham was a late bloomer and didn’t get into the lifestyle until after college. He grew up around motorcycling, though, because his dad rode off-road and enduro. Milham’s family was stationed in Korea where he remembers his dad doing a lot of cross country riding. Once Ian left for art school in NY, his dad celebrated getting his son
Actor Gunner Wright, who played Dwight Eisenhower in ‘J. Edgar’ and has the starring role in ‘LOVE,’ a psychological sci-fi thriller scored by Angels and Airwaves, loves to ride motorcycles when he’s not on set.
out of the house with a new motorcycle. When Milham came back to visit, his father had a BMW K75 in the garage and was actively getting back into riding. This time Ian was bitten by the motorcycle bug, too, so he took the MSF course and started borrowing his dad’s bike to hone his skills. When he got back from college, Milham bought a motorcycle instead of a car and lived the moto lifestyle for the next few years in Seattle. His first bike was a VFR 750, a sporty, comfortable, reliable bike he did a little bit of everything on, including riding it from Seattle to Key West and back. In the middle of the trip, he made a pit stop to do a track day, stripping off the bags he had on the bike then thrashing it around the track all day before remounting the bags and continuing on his cross-country journey.
“Almost no other bike you can do that with back then,” he said.
Milham currently owns two motorcycles, a Ducati Monster for the street and a Suzuki SV650 for the track. He recently took his SV650 to Infineon where he got to do a track day for the first time with his own track-specific motorcycle. The EA Art Director had done plenty of track days on his multi-purpose VFR and had ridden Ducatis provided at track days in the past, but after a couple of expensive crashes and a hard financial lesson learned, Milham bought his own track bike for less than the repairs to the Ducatis cost him. He admittedly was hesitant to push the Ducatis on the track after the crashes but now rides with the clarity of mind that he’s on his own machine now.
Living in California’s Bay Area, Milham has the luxury of living between two famous tracks, Infineon and Laguna Seca. In 2005, he was “over-the-moon” excited because he had tickets to the MotoGP race at Laguna. His father was even riding down from Seattle on his MotoGuzzi to go to the races with him. The morning of the GP, Milham’s wife went into labor. Needless to say, he ended up at the hospital instead of the raceway. As a result, his baby is called “Valentino.” Just kidding. He does have a friend who formerly was the parts guy for the Pramac Racing team though, so one year Milham got the luxury of a behind-the-scenes tour of Pramac Ducati’s box.
Milham is also fortunate in the fact that his home turf, the Bay Area, is home to some wonderful roads to ride.
Living in California’s Bay Area has its advantages. Infineon Raceway is only 45 minutes away from Ian Milham’s house.
“It’s basically paradise. I’m lucky that from my office I can be in the parking lot of Alice’s Restaurant in 25 minutes,” Milham claimed. (Alice’s is a popular biker haunt at the crossroads of Hwy. 84 and Hwy. 35 in Woodside, CA)
Milham used to work at Skywalker Ranch for George Lucas and says Lucas Valley Road was a hell of a commute. He loves to tour the Santa Cruz Mountains and says he’s had the pleasure of riding all across the country but states it’s pretty impossible to beat Hwy. 1 from Carmel to Morro Bay, especially southbound.
“Makes you feel like you’re riding at the edge of the world,” he said.
Milham came out of college when the first PlayStation debuted. In the early ‘90s, computer special effects were still primarily used for motion pictures. The PlayStation’s debut brought along the transition to CDs instead of gaming cartridges, which meant programmers could show much more in games than ever before. Milham got his start in the industry doing background paintings for a video game and his career took off from there. He started assuming greater responsibilities and doing more of the work before eventually he became in charge of the art work in general. After his Star Wars gig, he came to EA to work on a James Bond game and then started on Dead Space in January of 2006 and has been involved in the Dead Space franchise since. Now he’s transitioned mainly to direction, but still gets to utilize his creativity in story boards and 3-D imaging while bringing the parts of the gaming puzzle together as a whole. Besides drawing story boards and directions for scenes, Milham is responsible for explaining the context to Gunner so he can then act it out as Isaac.
“Gunner is the voice, image, the depiction. He’s the star of the game.”
(L) Gunner served in the moto industry before becoming an actor. He raced motocross when he was a teen, then worked for the likes of Axtell, Spy Optics and Honda. (M) You’d be screaming too if you found out you were stuck alone on the International Space Station like Gunner’s character Capt. Lee does in the movie LOVE. (R) Actor Gunner Wright truly has as much passion for motorcycles as he does acting.
This star has followed a rather circuitous route to fame. In fact, he was one of us before becoming an actor, racing motocross as a teen before working with the PR team for Honda’s factory riders. You might say Gunner was born into motorcycling. His dad raced motocross and dirt track and worked at Honda of Leesburg, Florida, when Gunner was young. His father has his own success story, starting at the bottom of the food chain before earning a spot on the sales floor. Now he’s the National Sales Manager for American Honda motorcycles.
Gunner’s first motorcycle was a Honda MR50 his dad fashioned training wheels on when he was three. He started racing motocross when he was about 15 and turned Pro-Am before his family moved from Florida to California when his father got transferred. Gunner had suffered an injury at Gator Back and his racing career wasn’t going as well as he hoped, so he sold his bike when they moved to Cali. Ironically, when he moved to Torrance, he got plugged back in to the industry and soon got faster than he’d ever been before just because of the SoCal scene and the way the embraced the culture.
“The novices in California were like the intermediates in Florida,” he said, which helped him take his racing to the next level.
This would lead to a stint in the moto industry. His first job in California was with Axtell doing in-house sales for Jim Hale. After doing that for about a year, Gunner got on with Spy Optics, where he would toil for a couple more years. The relationships he had established in the industry would lead to a call from Honda who was looking for a young PR guy to travel around with their race teams. He got hired basically to travel with the Honda motocross and road racing teams to help with their PR and had to suffer through rough jobs like traveling to Baja with Johnny Campbell. Wright claims this tenure helped him in his future acting career because he learned a lot about public image during this time. For the next four years he was plugged in at a high level with Honda and would ride with members of the media, Honda factory riders, and Hollywood types.
This led to Gunner meeting David Barrett, whose father was Burt Reynolds stunt double. Barrett was a former pro motocrosser who started doing stunts himself, which eventually led to producing and directing some shows as well. Barrett was working on a program called “Fastlane” on Fox and knew Wright was interested in the entertainment business, so he invited him on-set to check things out one day. After seeing the movie industry from the inside, Wright fell in love with it and credits Barrett for his “invitation to the world of entertainment.”
Soon after leaving Honda, Wright received a call out of the blue from Lou Seals to host a show called “MotoWorld,” which was going to Spike TV. Two or three months into shooting “MotoWorld,” the show went belly up and Wright got a quick Hollywood-style reality check which he said was very humbling. After landing gigs appeared so easy, the next couple of years were rough. Wright had walked away from the motorcycling community and could have gone crawling back to his father for help, but didn’t. His father didn’t understand his gravitation toward the entertainment industry in the first place, and asking for help was the equivalent of admitting defeat. Wright was the proverbial starving actor who would take his guitar out to Venice Beach and play five to six days a week so he could make enough money to live on in between production checks. He refers to this period as his “character building” years as he had plenty of time for introspection.
Soon things started changing for the better as Gunner started landing commercial work. Wright admittedly was still learning the craft and the process, but his listing ship started to right itself. His first big break was a role in “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” by Paramount where he played a Secret Service agent and got a chance to work on a big set next to veteran actors like Dennis Quaid.
Gunner, writer/director Will Eubank (green shirt) and AVA’s Tom DeLonge (in hat) enjoy the fruits of their labor of LOVE at Fantastic Fest.
His career now is at full throttle. Gunner recently got to work under actor/director Clint Eastwood in “J. Edgar,” an opportunity Wright claims was the highlight of his career.
“He was as cool and down-to-earth as you’d expect him to be. The whole set commanded that type of feel,” Gunner said.
In his role as Clarke in Dead Space 2, Gunner says they wanted to give the protagonist a voice and emotion and branch out the game to give it a more cinematic, movie feel. This new direction required inflection-infused voice overs and motion capture images, a process Gunner compared to being a nine-year-old again and playing in a sandbox because you go back to the elementary level of acting.
“It’s like slaying an invisible dragon because you didn’t have anything real to work off of.”
Sensors were placed on his face, mouth and all over the suit he was wearing while he acted out scenes in a room with a bunch of lights and tape on the ground, mapping and measuring his every move and expression. EA would show him the worlds and scenes they were creating on a laptop but beyond a handful of other actors, he was working with material that only existed in the game and the rest was up to his acting abilities.
Gunner’s also been busy promoting his other major project, an indie sci-fi film called LOVE with a score provided by the band Angels and Airwaves. In the movie, Gunner plays the lead character, Capt. Lee Miller, an astronaut stranded in orbit aboard the International Space Station who finds himself completely alone after the station loses communication with Earth. Once again, Wright had to create much of the world and circumstances around him inside of his own mind, traits that carry over to his Dead Space II role.
“That’s the thing with LOVE. We’ll never be able to do a film like we did with LOVE because it was literally made with love. We didn’t know what we were really doing at the time. I was growing as an actor, Will was growing as a film maker, we didn’t have a lot of money, we didn’t even know what was going to happen once it was done.” – Gunner
LOVE was originally intended to be a series of 10 separate videos, but after viewing the first one, Angels and Airwaves’ Tom DeLonge and LOVE’s writer/director Will Eubank realized they had something special and it evolved into a feature-length movie, with AVA composing a complete cinematic score. For the next three years, it was a labor of love as Eubank drafted friends and family to create much of the set, building their own Space Station in the driveway of Eubank’s parents, and Gunner practically lived on-set for long stretches.
“That’s the thing with LOVE. We’ll never be able to do a film like we did with LOVE because it was literally made with love. We didn’t know what we were really doing at the time. I was growing as an actor, Will was growing as a film maker, we didn’t have a lot of money, we didn’t even know what was going to happen once it was done,” Gunner said.
Shooting LOVE also provided an opportunity for Gunner to hook-up with Angels and Airwaves guitarist David Kennedy, another motorcycle junkie who we featured in a previous MC Life article. Gunner says that the first day they were on set, Kennedy showed up on his Triumph while Gunner had his FZ1 on hand. Of course, Kennedy wanted to know whose motorcycle it was, so Gunner asked him if he’d ever ridden an FZ1 before. When he said no, he threw him the keys so Kennedy could take it for a spin. Next thing he knows, Kennedy’s got his own track bike and is doing track days.
Gunner has plenty of good riding stories like Kennedy’s to share. One time he got to ride a Gold Wing around Amsterdam and the Netherlands where he visited the Ten Kate headquarters. While there he ended up riding with a Christian motorcycle gang whose leader looked like a Nordic Viking. About 6’2” and as wide around as he was tall with his hair braided in pony tails, Gunner said he looked “like he was wanted for murder” but turned out to be the nicest guy. They ended up riding to the coast together and developed a strong friendship along the way. It’s funny how the love of motorcycling can break down barriers, be it language or cultural. It truly is a universal language, one that Milham and Gunner both speak.
The last story Gunner shared was about his recent trip he took with Milham to Comic-Con to promote Dead Space II. It was a classic case of role reversal as suddenly the EA Art Director was thrust into the limelight as fans clamored for autographs and pictures and Gunner was relegated to the role of Kato. Granted, he still had his share of fans who recognized him as Isaac Clarke, but Milham was the star for his EA portfolio.
“You cannot believe how much fun it is,” Milham said. “For a lot of these people, it’s their Christmas, it’s their New Year’s, it’s the North Star and everything revolves around it. So often in this business you’re at your desk for so long creating these things that you hope are going to have visual resonance for people. And then you go to do a talk at Comic-Con to keep people up to date on what’s been going on and last time we were there, the fire marshal cut off the line 45 minutes before it was we were even going to start. It’s profoundly rewarding to have all that sort of love in one room. It’s really cool.”
We propose next year Gunner and Ian ride into Comic-Con together like caped crusaders on wicked custom motorcycles. Dress Gunner up in Isaac Clarke attire and Milham is tall, so he’d make a great necromorph. It’d be an excellent way to promote Dead Space III, which we have a strong suspicion is in the works. With Milham and Gunner’s passion for motorcycles, maybe Ian can program in a hidden level where Clarke can speed around the USG Ishimura on a chopper in the next version. I’ll wager Gunner is keen to the idea of being the first person to pop a wheelie while covered in motion capture sensors. Until then, maybe the two can meet at Infineon one day to bang some bars in a friendly track day battle. But leave the necromorphs at home.