We’ve a very exciting Q&A for you this week. It’s rare that we have an actual video game character in the AA offices (bar Mike Pollock/Dr Eggman) so it’s uber rare that we have six! Playing (mainly) Johnny Cage, Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Reptile, Smoke and Noob Saibot in Mortal Kombat, Master Daniel Pesina is true royalty of the retro gaming world. He kindly gave our Adrian this insight as to how Mortal Kombat came about and how he first got started…
Master Daniel, we’ve been watching your moves for decades but can you give our readers a brief background on your how you first got involved in martial arts?
During the 60’s I admired Bruce Lee in the Green Hornet TV Show. He kicked ass!! Later during the late 60’s my older brothers, who I looked up to, took Judo. My father thought it was a good idea for them to learn some self defense and discipline but not be as aggressive as Karate. My father had some brief training in Judo during the Korean War. It’s all about using your opponents weight against himself.
My father thought, at the time, that I was much too young for this. During that time there was really no children classes. Age for training started at 10 years old. I bugged my Dad until he took me in for lessons.
I need to mention my older brothers lasted a month. I stuck with it and later trained my younger brother Carlos/Raiden.
What different martial arts do you specialize in and which area do you consider your forte?
Took me a long time to realize that there are two different types of martial arts, basically. Sport and traditional. The majority of what you see today is sport or sport base. Meaning, people use sport techniques in their self defense. Traditional martial arts are brutal.
I mention to my students that traditional martial arts is about taking stuff or not wanting your stuff taken. It’s a lot easier to take things from a bunch of dead bodies, also, kill everything so that no reincarnation can come back for revenge. A Buddhist theory. On the other hand, I don’t want my stuff taken so I train or hire someone to defend me.
Let me please add, there are only correct ways to apply martial arts techniques, otherwise you break your hand, leg or foot. It’s all about the application. Example, opponent raises his hands like a boxer. Immediately punch the elbow and break it then continue the attack. If you can grab the broken arm and throw him by it. That’s awesome. Get the strategy? I practice traditional martial arts.
I’ve studied with masters who have used their art for combat, taking lives before their’s was taken. Sounds harsh and it is. Old martial arts were for survival.
I have a number of different styles or systems that I have studied. That includes weapons which number about 24. I really enjoy BaGua Zhang, Air Benders use this style, Two Handed Long Sword and spear. I put the rope dart in MK which is used differently than the new version which is a Kunin I believe. That’s used more like a chain weapon lol. I can go on all day. If you need authenticity in your project, I’m your guy! (don’t worry Master, we know we can count on you! – Ed)
Was your role in the awesome TMNT film your first break into Hollywood and how did this opportunity first arrive?
Yes, TMNT II was my first big movie. I need to mention that John Tobais, main creator of MK, my brother and Rich/Kano did a small movie for John’s film class way before MK. That may have been a better break.
Pat Johnson was looking for stunt people at The Battle of Atlanta martial art tournament. He approached Hosung/Lui Kang and he made an intro and he liked what he watched. I was in. Then I introduced Rich/Kano, the ball kept rolling.
You are probably best known for your roles in the amazing Mortal Kombat games as you mentioned there. Can you remember how this opportunity came about and what did you have to do in the interview process at Midway?
My friend John, who I knew before MK from playing Dungeons and Dragons, called my mother up and asked her to have me give him a call. I took my time so John called Rich/Kano and told him to run over to my house and make me call him, LOL, so I did.
He asked if I could help pitch his new ideas for a fighting game to his boss. It would be a small game, 200 arcade cabinets. I said, naturally.
My brother, Rich and I went to Midway after work hours and filmed ourselves doing martial art moves.
His boss liked what he watched and liked John’s ideas. A meeting was set up to meet as a group for this project.
We met for pizza and all of us spoke about the geeky things we wanted in the game including movies and comics we liked. John’s boss was very quiet, not saying or offering much.
John mentioned he wanted it like Enter the Dragon, a tournament themed game.
We all mentioned Big Trouble in Little China, Iron Fist comic book, actually Johnny Cage is molded after Daniel Rand not JCVD like everyone thinks (trivia! – Ed). Think the corporation wanted to change things to get better control of the project later on.
We also mentioned Shang Chi Deadly Hands of Kung Fu. If you look at most of the character design you’ll see the similarities.
When John mentioned Ninjas, I mentioned that I would not work on the game if they were the same main stream ninjas in all the movies. I informed him about the Chinese ninja, Lin Kuei and told him what books to get to have research material.
After that and one more meeting we started the game.
Can you run through the process of how your martial skills and acting was transferred onto a video game cart?
Johnny Cage was the first personality we filmed. Basically John and I were in a room and we recorded every martial art move we could. Different punches, kicks, blocks etc for three days, eight hours a day. John studied this video for about three weeks and came back with some ideas but we could not use any of the footage. We discovered a lot of ideas about lighting and placement when filming with an inexpensive camera. John’s father actually owned the camera lol.
The basic creative process for the first three characters was “we need something cool, what can you do?” or do this and we the actors would expand on it beyond expectations. We were always expanding ideas and doing what was best for a kick ass game. Rich, Carlos and I always knew it would be great. Big egos lol. The special moves were created by the actors and I mostly. I was there for almost all the filming helping create different ways to do the same techniques. If you look closely at the first three characters, their techniques are all different. Later on, when John and Ed took martial arts lessons from me I helped create a cookie cutter mold that other non martial arts could follow. Then, we could just add specialized martial arts techniques to keep it authentic, as special moves. CG took away that idea.
Did you ever have to fight against other actors while you were being filmed for Mortal Kombat and if so, was there a competitive edge between the other martial artists?
There was always a competitive air with all of us friends. We all competed in martial arts together, at least everyone but Liz on the first game and everyone but Katalin and John/Jax for the second. Would like to mention that Katalin also competed but not nationally like the main friend group.
I had the first idea for the fatality, I wanted to punch someone’s head off (that’s nice – Ed). Then Rich wanted to rip someones heart and eat it but that was a little much (quite – Ed). We settled on lifting it above his head. Carlos wanted to fire someone. The fatalities kept escalating because we wanted our characters to have the coolest moves.
I should mention, it was always friendly and always between us. An outsider comes in and we all gang up on them lol.
You played the roles of Johnny Cage, Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Reptile and many more. Did you try to change the fighting style for each character and if so, which fighter do you feel best reflects your personal expertise in martial arts?
Yes, we wanted the game to be as authentic and not mainstream. Johnny Cage used Northern Long Fist Style, Scorpion used 5 Animal Style and Sub-Zero some Shaolin style.
All the characters personalities come from my personality. This goes with all the actors from the first two games. If you ever get the chance to hang out with Rich, you’ll be like “thats actually Kano”, same thing with the rest. These were the early days, we were not acting. We were being ourselves but magnified. There were little guidelines from John for anything. We were just trying to make the coolest fighting game ever.
Who is your favourite Mortal Kombat character and why?
Johnny Cage because he was the first and father to all MK characters. He really opened the door for the development of MK and ideas of that are used in Injustice.
You did a lot of promoting for the first two Mortal Kombat titles. Can you remember some of the events and stunts you had to perform and do you reflect back fondly?
I reflect fondly on mostly everything in MK. It was fun with friends. I wish I would have not been so trusting of management and the payment issue. Even looking back now, things were fun. There is so much this space is too small to answer. People are welcome to ask me at events I attend. I have a ton of stories and there is nothing like hearing it face to face (we look forward to it).
Why weren’t you involved in any future Mortal Kombat titles after the sequel, and does this ever grate on you?
When we made the game, John and Ed told me explicitly that we would only make 200 hundred arcade games (cabinets). I recall a few times when I jokingly said 201 because I would get one and both of them told me “you crazy? You know how expensive they are?”. When it began to roll, John and Ed told me I would be compensated. Don’t worry. Later on I pressed them and they presented me with a new contract giving up all my image rights. I sought legal advice and refused to work on any more games. My ideas, they kept and a company story came out which excluded how much of the creative process the actors contributed. Sure, the technical side made big strides and were duly compensated, they made millions. The actors when hung out to dry, basically (:( – Ed).
BloodStorm was a top MK rival. How did this opportunity arise and did it feel a little strange working on a competing fighting game?
There was an artist working for Midway named Leif. He would come to watch us film and became a fan of my work. Again, I was there every day we filmed an actor to help with the creative process. BTW, I have some videos to help prove this.
He later went to work for Strata and asked John if he thought I would help promote his game. I was not an employee of Midway and John thought it would be a good way to make some extra money as long as I did not dress up exactly like Johnny Cage, something very difficult to do lol. We went into Ed’s office to ask him how much he should think I should charge. He told me, whatever you think double it.
Shortly after this I started asking about being compensated by Midway for my work on MK and MK II. Management came up with a story of how that game got me fired but really they did not want to look bad. They hyped up the story and said it over and over again until people believed it. I think if John is asked about it he may get in trouble over this because they mentioned this in a lawsuit that came up.
I suggest for readers that have creative endeavors to be careful and always consult a lawyer. BTW, all the actors know this story and agree with me on how it happened.
Were you involved in Tattoo Assassins and if so did you get a chance to work with the awesome Bob Gale?
Ho-Sung invested some money into video games and this was one of them. Ho asked me to help out and him being a long time friend, I agreed. Some of that is blurry because we were working on more then one game at a time. It was a fighting game and I was not completely in charge of action like MK so the details are sketchy.
Are you a gamer yourself, and if so are you a big fan of fighting games?
I like first person shooter games. Spent a long time playing Halo, Call of Duty, Resident Evil etc.
Fighting games not so much. They never fight like I would actually fight but I do play MK with fans. They usually kick my butt or let me win lol. It’s all fun and most of the time they jokingly say, “you’d kick my ass in real life”. I just give them the Johnny Cage grin lol.
How do you reflect looking back on your career in gaming and do you think you will ever be involved in any future fighting games?
I never thought of myself as a pioneer of gaming. I was just trying to make the best fighting game ever. Think that’s what is a plus to projects. I have a lot of martial arts experience and a big personality. On the set of MK, John let me do whatever I wanted and I think this made Ed uncomfortable being number three. He was the boss of MK but in the filming room he was three or four, depending on the actor in the room. This is why it was a great game. Let the best choice for that part of the game have the overriding say so.
I say this because this is what I add to projects. You can get plenty of martial artists but if you want authentic detail and an over imaginary geek, I’m your guy!!
What projects are you currently involved in?
Currently I practice and teach martial arts, attend events both nationally and internationally (retro and martial arts) and I’m writing a book about my personal experiences, MK included. Lots of detail people do not know about the game.
People reading this can contact me on FB Master Pesina, Twitter @masterpesina and Instagram @masterdpesina. Oh yeah, website www.masterpesina.com
If you could compete against any Mortal Kombat character who would you choose and why?
Johnny Cage against the world!! I’d fight all of them. Why?! Because I can kick all of their asses together lol! You Got Caged!!!