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The Secret Videogames Lives of VO Actors

Joe Strike uncovers the voice over actors are finding lucrative work in the videogame industry.

Studios like Keith Arems PCB Productions oversees voice casting, recording and sound design for games. Above is its mix stage.

Technological advances in gaming (highlighted by the introduction of Sonys PlayStation 2 and the Microsoft Xbox at the beginning of the decade) have brought with them new creative challenges. Videogaming is evolving and redefining itself as it goes along; the people bringing these self-contained worlds to simulated life are simultaneously responding to and determining and the course this evolution is taking. Both original games and ones based on established movie/TV franchises strive to give players the most immersive, as close to real-life experience possible. The goal of realism on every level from animation to historical detail translates into the need for a new, more realistic style of voice acting.

Prior to [the new Xbox and PlayStation systems] it didn't make sense to invest in professional acting talent, because game-playing was kind of a shallow experience, says Lev Chapelsky, gm of Blindlight, a leading provider of production services to videogame studios. The animation was pretty raw and the music didnt have to be that great. But with that increase in the multimedia capabilities we realized the game producers needed to stop using their in-house recording engineers and animators as their actors some guy from the accounting department reading a few lines into an Apple PC.

Blindlight was well positioned to seize the moment its core group of creatives was once part of, an ambitious, ahead-of-its-time website producing original animation. The dot-com crash took place almost simultaneously with the arrival of the new game systems; Chapelsky and his associates basically stepped off a sinking ship and onto a new, more seaworthy one sailing by.

Icebox was all about doing great entertainment production and testing it out online. We had this fantastic team and all this networking capability in Hollywood. When that thing went south there were a lot of people that didn't want to necessarily step back into their old jobs. So we said, You know what guys, you dont have to go away, lets just re-direct you into the videogame world because theyre going to make this console jump and theyre going to need your services and theyre not going to go away.

Blindlights Lev Chapelsky notes that prior to the next-gen gaming systems, no one invested in real acting talent. But now, game producers dont use the accounting guy to read lines into an Apple PC.

The game producers needed to bring in professional actors. When theyre investing a lot more money into realistic visual animation for the new consoles, bad voice acting from amateurs brings down the whole level of the experience it was the weakest link in chain. Youre kind of throwing away the money youre investing in that animation.

While an earlier generation of hard-core gamers may have enjoyed the cheesy, grunt-n-groan heavy dialog of a first-person shooter game like Doom, the mediums growing audience was turning to more sophisticated games that featured dozens or even hundreds of speaking characters. L.A.-area studios like Chapelskys Blindlight and Keith Arems PCB Productions began overseeing voice casting, recording and sound design, creating a new source of work for Hollywoods pool of voice-over talent. According to Chapelsky, There are two types of talent that make sense for games. The first are voice artists who are not household names and deliver vocal performances in character.

Keith Arem breaks this group down into two subcategories: The ones who do tons of voices, maybe 10 or 15 voices, but, while they have a huge range, they have no one distinctive main voice, and others who do have that distinctive voice, but cant do a lot of other voices. If they try some, theyre too close to their original voices. Whenever youre doing casting its a good thing to balance between the two. Chapelsky adds that these voice artists are typically scale actors and frankly theyre much better at this than the other category, which consists of well-known names celebrities.

A number of factors have conspired to make film and TV actors more prominent in the industry, not the least of which are games based on their movies and TV shows. Improved CGI game animation makes their digital doppelgangers look ever more accurate and lifelike, while effects and virtual environments can be adapted from special effects-oriented films and imported into the games.

PCBs Keith Arem divides voice actors with non-household names into two categories: ones with many voices but no distinctive main voice, and others with a distinctive voice, but not a lot of other voices.

Videogames today are no longer knock-offs, but extensions of the films or TV shows that inspired them, with their original producers and writers participating in designing the games based on their creations. The high profile performers who originally brought their characters to life are taking part as well, lured by the opportunity to further explore a role as well as the chance to share in the profits a game (and their name on the box) generates.

There is a slight problem though. The money paid to a celebrity is almost inversely proportionate to how well they deliver a voice performance, Chapelsky notes. A celebrity is a celebrity not for their voice performance its for their on-camera acting, which doesnt always translate to the recording booth. Everyone acknowledges it: youre paying for the marketing value of their name and the associated likeness.

Arem, whose studio worked on the videogame adaptations of CSI and The Shield (both of which featured the shows original casts), agrees. Just because theyre a celebrity doesnt mean theyll be a good voice actor. Sometimes they dont work well in the studio. Theyre great on camera when theyre bouncing off other actors and being directed on a set where they can get physical and actually perform. But in a voice studio you might have five, 10 or 15 producers, engineers, supervisors and media people on hand. Youre in a soundproof booth listening to your voice coming back through headphones and the only time you can hear them talk to you is when they press the talkback button. It can be very intimidating for anyone, not just a celebrity.

If you are only used to being on camera and never been in that situation, you can get a really bad performance. In the game the [virtual] camera might be 30 feet away and theyve got to yell their lines. Or they might have a scene with another char and they dont know what the other characters saying. Theyre very talented actors, but a lot of times theyre just not good at voice work. The game developers mightve thought the actor was what they wanted when they saw the film, but they had no idea how to prepare the game for a celebrity.

Blindlights Dawn Hershey thinks projects lose some quality by casting celebrities. Her main goal with them is placate their egos and make sure they dont get mad.

Its sort of on both sides. For us being this larger studio that has to help produce games, I have to help manage the clients expectations and make sure the game developers arent putting celebrities in harms way. The flip side is celebrities need to understand how we do things differently in games.

Dawn Hershey, CSA, is Blindlights casting director and occasional voice director, and her take on working with celebrities is a touch jaundiced: Ill be honest with you. The only thing I try to get out of the celebrities is to make sure they dont get mad and walk off the stage placating their egos. We really miss out on opportunity to get creative material, you just make sure theyre happy, they have water, theyre comfortable. Unfortunately you lose out a little bit on the quality. Without naming names, she and Chapelsky describe sessions where celebrity voice talent reacts to direction with you got it on the first take, you dont need another one, or you dont need to tell me how to get into this character.

Thats when you know you have to stop [giving direction] and just get through the session, Hershey adds with a sigh.

Celebrity talent isnt always a pain to record. Arem raves about working with Michael Chiklis (He had the range and comfort to be able to work in the studio perfectly) on the still-in-development The Shield game, and about his experience voice casting Call of Duty 2.

Infinity Ward, the game developer, and its publisher, Activision, came to us. They said this character should sound like this guy from Band of Brothers, this one from The Thin Red Line or Full Metal Jacket or Saving Private Ryan. They get their ideas from movies and TV shows. The real event was before this generations time. Were relying on these films to give us cinematic feeling of what it was like to be there, the more authentic the better. You look at Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan, those were from my perspective very authentic properties, thats as scary as I could imagine it. Thats what they were going for in the game, they wanted that same experience and sort of involvement.

While casting Call of Duty 2, PCBs Arem sought out voices similar to the actors in HBOs Band of Brothers. To his surprise, he wound casting the Brothers actors for the game. © Activision.

After I sent a request to talent agencies for similar voices, I got an angry call from manager of one of the Band of Brothers actors who was upset that we were looking for a sound-alike; I rep this guy and were offended. Why wasnt my guy asked? We had hundreds of actors in this project and we didnt have the budget for celebrities. The manager was so interested in being part of a big game. He knew about us, our reputation and he was more interested in having his actor involved than in trying to make a huge celebrity paycheck on the project.

The manager got friendly, and the cast was all friends. They had already gone through boot camp together for Spielberg and Hanks under [Marine veteran and Hollywood military advisor] Dale Dye. They were out in Europe and really bonded as real squad would, just like vets from the war. They still keep in touch and have a sort of loyalty to each other. I got eight of the Band of Brothers actors as a result of the first actors involvement. It was like no other production Ive ever seen.

Celebrity talent may earn a game attention and sales, but professional voice artists provide the depth of talent that truly brings a game to life. Because of their immersive nature and realistic CGI animation, videogame voice artistry requires a different skill set than TV cartoons. My feeling is theres an extra level punch needed because its a lean forward, not lean back medium, Chapelsky muses.

The gamers adrenaline is pumping because theyre interacting. They want a higher level of emotional impact at every level. The vocal performance has to be punchier, but it also has to be very distinct from an animated cartoony-ish style of acting where you want an over the top, overly dramatic delivery of the character. That doesn't work in games where you want realism and a subtlety to the acting, with a kind of contradictory over-delivery in some other levels.

When we cast animation actors to play soldiers or NPCs [non-player characters] for a line or two, if theyre dying in those two lines its got to be realistic dying or else you can bumped out of that immersive experience. An over-the-top death, dying like Elmer Fudd might look fine in a cartoon, but not in Band of Brothers.

Between nine and 10,000 lines are recorded for a game versus a mere 200 or so for a half hour TV episode. A normal TV episode can be done in a four-hour session; a videogame takes might four weeks.

The sheer volume (in quantity, not decibels) of dialog in a videogame makes for a daunting project. Dawn Hershey estimates that between nine and 10,000 lines might need to be recorded versus a mere 200 or so for a half hour TV episode. A normal TV episode can be done in a four-hour session; we might spend four weeks recording a videogame. Adding to the stress, the energy level for those lines is usually much higher as well. When youre playing a game and you hear everyone screaming and yelling in the background, we call that battle sounds, efforts or combat dialog. Its actually very straining on actor when hes in booth delivering all those lines in one four hour session.

When were trying to get through 400 lines in an eight hour day, everyones tired and youre hearing the same thing over and over. Yet you have to keep paying meticulous attention to detail so you dont veer off track. You have to keep pace of session up, keep everyones energy up. Its much harder work for the actors in a videogame, especially if youre yelling or delivering lines at a big fat volume over and over and over its very repetitive.

MJ Lallo is a voice-over artist and director with her own Burbank, California, recording studio who offers a variety of classes to the VO community. She confirms Hersheys description of the high level of energy that must be maintained during a videogame recording session. She points out that in addition, you often have to do a line five, 10 or 15 different ways. It started with instructional CD-ROM games in the 90s. We were teaching kids how to count. If they mess up an answer, the game responded, Im sorry, try again.

Lallo repeats the line in a variety of little mouse voices: sad, encouraging, winsome and so on. You have to keep that kid interested because every time he makes a mistake hes going to hear that voice. You dont want to hear the line said the same way over and over. The challenge is how many ways can you say that line interestingly?

MJ Lallo (left), a voice-over artist, director and teacher notes that a high level of energy must be maintained during a videogame recording session. Actors have to do a line five, 10 or 15 different ways.

The games subject matter may have matured, but the problem of keeping line readings varied and dramatically appropriate remains. Lallo has created an environmental combat track to immerse her students in the actual environment of a Band of Brothers-style World War II game. In the studio they just have a microphone," she said. "They get in there and they think theyre going over the top when theyre not. I have them say the lines again with the soundtrack. Then they get idea of energy involved to do this.

Lallo mentions that casting voices can be a problem when the character breakdown provided by the game developer is vague or contradictory. Itll say, Shes a thousands-year-old queen risen from the dead, etc. what the hell does she sound like? Am I going with the oldy, crusty voice? Then itll say shes a woman with a deeper voice, 30-40 years old. You dont know, youre shooting in the dark.

Its a challenge for talent and casting people what exactly do these people want? Often they want to know the emotional range of the character. Theyll say, Shes in a dark room speaking to herself. The next direction will say, Shes being attacked; they want to know your emotional range in audition.

While tough action babes have always been popular with male audiences, Lallo says that women are lagging behind in their ability to voice these characters. Theyre typically not taught how to take punches, they have trouble doing reaction sounds, especially in long fight scenes. Women have to be really pumped up to get that sense really having a sword and fighting with it.

The feminine is trippy for a lot of women. Now they have to pretend that they are defeating armies, not just ha-there-take that. They like doing it but they havent been taught what it feels like when youre slugging somebody. They just have to learn to embody it a little more what is their aggressive voice? Some women think, I dont want to be seen as a bitch, so I really yell low.

Lallo and Keith Arem agree that the combat games have increased the demand for realistic sounding, non-cartoony foreign accented voices. Agents going crazy to get the Russian guy, the Asian guy, says Lallo, while Arem reports that the makers of Call of Duty wanted it pretty authentic. We had Brits in there, we hired real Germans, Austrians, different dialects, all in the game in their native language no subtitles. We wanted it to be as scary as it was for the Americans who were there for real. They didnt understand what was going on. It was very interesting to hear it because German in particular is a very percussive, aggressive language.

Ernesto Leszek is a London-based, Mexican-born voice-over artist who uses his imagination to create the voices of action characters fighting for their lives in combat games.

Ernesto Leszek is a London-based, Mexican-born voice-over artist whos been called on to provide Latino-accented voices for a variety of projects, including Outside the Wire, a combat game set in the South American jungle. I had to voice several Latino army rebels, so in my mind I put on my army uniform, grabbed a few weapons and ammo and I was right there fighting for my life, just like a game player. I think using my imagination did the trick. It is all about being in the moment and being real to the part. The voice director gave me excellent directions to follow, which helped a lot.

Part of Dawn Hersheys duties at Blindlight is selecting voice directors for the various sessions taking place at the studio. The director she selects to helm a session, depends on the project. Sometimes Ill just look for a voice director who gets through a lot of copy in a day. If a client is a little more particular about capturing an emotion and making sure theres actual acting going on, Ill look for a voice director wholl take a little more time in pulling performances out of actors. Sometimes I hire a voice director based on their relationship with a celebrity that theyve worked with in the past and I know the director is good at placating them. Sometimes I literally just need a body in a chair and it doesnt matter what they do, it just matters that I need someone to sit there, press the button and tell them action. It really depends.

Lallo sees the beginning of the 21st century as, a good time to be a voice person anywhere in the world, with numerous new opportunities opening up not just in videogames, but in broadband and mobile programming as well. Anybody who cant get a gig in voice over is not trying she says, or theyre not good.

For Chapelsky, a variety of factors will affect videogame opportunities for voice over artists. The dramatic experience continues to be more realistic and immersive. With that you need more acting.

On the other hand, some gamers are getting fed up with too much linear entertainment in their games. They don't appreciate game producer making them sit on the couch and watch a 15-minute video segment before they can pick up the controller and start doing something. Theres some feedback from the marketplace on cutting that stuff back and thats where most of the acting is. A great game experience isnt delivered by drama from the characters or the story or the actors. A great game experience is delivered by experience of the player being the star of show.

Joe Strike lives in New York City and writes for and about animation. He has recently completed a childrens novel.