Browsing articles from "August, 2011"

GameCulture Goes Inside the Voice Actor’s Studio

Aug 26, 2011   //   by admin   //   Interview, News  //  Comments Off

This is an Interview with Mark Estdale for Game Culture, on voice acting in video games from March 23, 2010.

Voice work in video games is coming under more and more scrutiny. As games become more involved and deeper productions, the role of the voice actor plays an increasing role. To that end, we contacted Mark Estdale, a casting director and founder of Outsource Media in the United Kingdom. He has worked on games since the early ’90s and pulls no punches about his frustration with existing practices in the industry. He set up Outsource Media in 1996 to bring the audio craft in film and TV production to games. He has worked on such games Need for Speed III, Pac-Man World 3, Wipeout (Fusion, Pure and Pulse), Timesplitters 2, TimeSplitters: Future Perfect, Pro Evo Soccer, Wallace and Gromit’s Grand Adventures, and many more. As you can see from his answers in this interview, he still beats a production values drum:

GameCulture: What is the general process a video game company goes through to get voice actors involved in its project?

Mark Estdale: I’m a casting and voice director, I also provide character and dialogue development support to developers and publishers, as well as coaching professional actors for working with games. Although I started off as an actor myself and occasionally get in front of a mic, my main roles are directing, casting and coordinating voice production.

It is common (and bad) practice to seek voice actors late in the development process when the script is almost finished when “getting the voices in” is high on the agenda. The process: get game working, rewrite voice script to match final gameplay, cast actors, record actors, get voice assets in game and get it mastered before the deadline.

A high percentage of my time is spent talking with dev teams and publishers regarding best practice as this common practice, deemed expedient, doesn’t lead to good results.

GC: Is it usually the developer or publisher that contracts the work?

Estdale: Both do, but as a rule it depends on whether the developer has the competence and staff within the team to manage and assure the quality of the dialogue. But unfortunately, sometimes neither developer nor publisher has the competence and it’s the one with financial responsibility that picks up the responsibility.

GC: How does one become a voice actor and what credentials are necessary?

Estdale: Apart from mime, all actors use their voice but only a minority have the craft skills to be good game voice actors. With games, the demand for voice performance is increasing as is the variety of the work on offer. Video games rival the film industry. Obviously this is good news, but with the good news comes challenges. Game voice work is the most demanding of all voiced media. On the practical front, script sizes can be massive. A typical film script is around 120 pages with just a few hundred lines of dialogue. A game script can be thousands of pages with hundreds of speaking characters and tens of thousands of lines of dialogue. And because of interactivity, the script can be an incredibly complex, non-linear document. The dialogue branches, loops, and converges. If the narrative paths and dialogue are mapped out, the map will look like a complex 3D national road map. Furthermore, production models are changing, for example, with performance capture and motion capture.

In performance terms, games by their interactive nature demand a far greater precision and attention to detail than with any linear production. The non-linearity of interactivity means the audience may spend, hours, days, even weeks with your character. The slightest blemish will be under a microscope. It is the tiniest flaw can shatter the audience’s suspension of disbelief, even if NPC 3,102 blew it.

Add to this the fact that single lines may be used multiple times in different contexts the script may be impossible to follow without complex computer software. If you’ve not had experience with working with this type of script, do a voice in video games workshop, it’ll empower, immerse and enlighten. Check out Utter Brilliance.

To get hired, it is helpful to have a pertinent voice reel. If you have a voice reel break it up into three parts. 1) An advertising reel, necessary for voice agents but not for us. 2) A narrative reel and 3) A character reel to show off your range. Both 2 and 3 are pertinent. Narrative reads are great for showing your ability narration and tutorial work and character samples are great for getting an idea of your ability and range. A good voice reel won’t get you a job, but it will get you in front of a casting director. The key to a good show reel is: “real.” Game characters are real characters under a microscope. It is essential that the actor can get under the skin of a character.

As a casting director, I want to hear the character’s heart beat, I want to feel their thoughts and see the artwork leap off the page. Even if the line is “I need a key,” I want to sense the characters need and their purpose. To my mind, good game acting is very subtle and needs great sensitivity. If you send a cartoon reel, it will get rejected.

Secondly, it is good to know what to expect both in casting and in production. Thirdly, It is essential that you can sight read. You may also need to hold a character consistent for hours, even days in the studio and lastly, having a clear and good repertoire of character voices to call upon is something that a casting director will note, as you will frequently be required to record multiple characters in one session.

The three essentials for games VO work are the ability to sight read extremely well, ability to improvise and to take direction well.

I’ve seen thousands of actors over the years and there are factors that stand out. First, actors who are professionally trained in their craft have a better understanding of their voice, as well as the ability to engage with character with a more subtle focus. Also, there are very few good voice actors who don’t regularly act elsewhere. Actors who are do a lot of character improvisation work either on stage, radio or for film are the best equipped. People who do voice-overs only are not the same breed and are generally lousy for games as they usually don’t know how to act. Unfortunately, they do creep into games and, to my mind, they need shooting along with the dumb asses who hire them.

GC: What is the going rate for voice acting in games these days? Is it different in the UK than in the States?

Estdale: Fees vary depending on the type of production. UK and U.S. rates are very similar. In the UK, it is usual to pay up to £200 per hour plus a buyout of up to £250 for a talented professional actor on a AAA title. This matches the union rate in the U.S., the difference being the minimum session length in the UK is one hour and in the U.S., it’s four hours. There are always actors doing it on the cheap and the cheapskates who hire them can usually be identified by the quality of the voice work in their games. You get what you pay for, but in the end, it’s the player spending hard earned cash to play the game is the one getting screwed. Crap.

GC: How does a voice actor prepare for a role? It’s not like you can see their expressions on camera.

Estdale: Most actors have their own methods; there’s no standard way. Ideally, they know what the character’s role is, what they look like and how the character sounds. They will have been cast so would have a flavor for the character. Some actors will read through a script others want to come in cold and shoot from the hip. Both work. But because game scripts are interactive, huge and non-linear it is nigh impossible for the actor to follow the narrative map without complex software. If the actor is lucky, they will get rehearsal time or at least time for a table read. In game production this is a rare luxury. I advocate it but the opportunities and provision for it is like rocking horse shit. Actors are usually hired too late so cannot bring the full weight of their craftsmanship to bear. I rant about this stuff because to not have it is to jeopardize the quality of the whole production. I think it makes a mockery of the artists craft to hire them late. The consequence is a poorer game and a diminished playing experience.

GC: Do voice actors face different treatment in the game community than on-camera counterparts in full-motion video sequences?

Estdale: Within games, generally, the same actors are used for both in-game dialogue and FMV, especially as more and more games are using full performance capture. Their treatment is pretty uniform.

Unfortunately only few in the game community are fully aware of the contribution an actor can make to a production and the steps necessary to facilitate the actor to gift the game development with the full weight of their craft so it can be a frustrating experience for the actor.

In film and other media, the actor is key and we know what an actor brings to the production. The key factor of how an actor gets treated is down to the awareness, skill and experience of the person responsible for the actors’ performance.

GC: What are some of the problems you see with voice acting in games at the moment?

Erstdale: The biggest problems are caused by ignorance.

Poor dialogue writing: an actor can’t polish a turd. Good acting starts with a good script.

Poor character design: There are too many ill thought out, simplistic and ill defined characters. Acting a cardboard cut-out stereotype character gets a cardboard cut-out stereotype performance.

Poor casting: Casting is a craft that includes looking for fine balance, contrast and conflict between characters to bring narrative to life. Idiot casting has a list of movie actors for the actors to sound alike.

Poor direction: Directing actors is a subtle craft that evokes performance. Bad directing kills performance and evokes wood.

Poor dialogue editing: A good dialogue editor polishes performance, another subtle craft that can make a great performance shine, bad editing is file chopping.

Poor scheduling: Too little, too late is typical, so sadly the craftsmen of character are denied the time.

Poor budgeting: This is not necessarily too little but badly used. Great performances can be done on a shoestring if you know what you’re doing.

GC: In your opinion, what needs to be done to rectify the problems?

Estdale: Education, education, education. To get the best voice results developers need to use the craftsmen and women of character: dialogue writers, casting directors, voice directors, actors, editors and studios. Just before Christmas, I bumped into a well-known head of a leading UK dev studio. He’s a man I respect and someone who I thought cared about character. Although I was just being friendly saying hello, nice to see you’re surviving the downturn etc, he wrongly assumed I was touting for work and his first line was a dismissive: “We’ve built our own recording studio you know.” I was flabbergasted. I’d always thought him brighter than that, but his response in many ways is typical: they dismiss the stonemason because they’ve acquired a chisel.

Game developers are masters of game development (sometimes) but they frequently don’t understand the art and craft of performance. It’s a young industry, they will learn and what the future will bring will astound us. From my experience the teams that produce good voice work are simply those lead by senior decision makers who are passionate about, and understand the power of voice (and audio) and they factor into their schedules and their budgets what is needed to facilitate results. They know.

GC: Do you think game companies spend enough time with the scripts and stories they want to create? Explain.

Estdale: Time isn’t the issue, quality is. A billion monkeys will never write a masterpiece. A good writer might.

GC: What is the most memorable voice acting you have seen in a game, or been associated with?

Estdale: Uncharted 2 was ground breaking and deservedly has collected a fistful of awards; I’d love to work with Amy Hening. Uncharted 2 really demonstrates the impact of what getting the production model right can do. It makes my job easier in trying to convince those who don’t understand or believe.

I also liked the flawed genius of Heavy Rain as it gives us a tiny glimpse of what is to come, I know it has been criticized for its voice work, but Quantic Dream has vision and it clearly shows. They get my vote. From games I’ve worked on: Timesplitters: Future Perfect was crammed with magic moments thanks to the passion and vision of the Free Radical Design team and I loved working on Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventures with Telltale Games because the writing was delightful and subtle.

But I guess one of my all-time favorites is Worms. My kids quote them forever.

GC: Give us an example of voice acting gone horribly awry, be it during recording or post-production.

Estdale: Years ago, I was asked to produce voices for Overblood 2 (a PlayStation One game). I read the script. It was awful, translated to English from Japanese by Italians so I suggested rewriting the English to match the stylized Japanese, or making it into an acted comedy or to scrap the whole thing. I was told the script was perfect and couldn’t be changed and that we must do it with seriousness. We squirmed and the actors wept. When the game finally came out we discovered amongst many painfully awful mistranslations that the hand bomb throwing device was a grenade launcher and the whorehouse key level was actually a warehouse. A bit like the classic football team with a clean sheet having clean bed linen in the French version.

GC: Any humorous anecdotes you recall from recording sessions?

Estdale: I should have written a book or kept records, every session throws up some mirth and some embarrassment. Being trapped by unintentional innuendo is usually the killer. I have a recording somewhere in the archive of a session in breakdown, laughing uncontrollably, one word had us locked and we were all in tears for the best part of an hour. We once had an actor crap himself in the booth in a moment of method – an effort too far.

GC: In your experience, what video game companies treat voice actors the best? The worst?

Estdale: Best: Those who value the actors craft. Worst: Those who don’t understand it. But as much of my job is to educate the companies and to protect the actor, whether the company is good or bad, it’s us, as experts that handle the actors so the actors get pretty good treatment however well they are resourced. We’re the buffer.

GC: If you could change one thing in the current way voice acting is done in games, what would it be and how would you do it?

Estdale: One thing is not enough. The biggest need is educating those in control of development to understand what is needed to get results. Throwing money at voice doesn’t help if the basics are wrong.

GC: Anything in closing?

Estdale: I have been somewhat critical. I’d normally spend a bit of time comparing where game development is now to the development of film and TV production. Film nearly took 50 years to mature and be recognized as what it can be today. Same goes with TV but TV had film’s back to climb on and both had the narrative history of humankind to draw upon. The scripts they use are no different to the one’s Shakespeare was familiar with.

Games on the other hand are extraordinary as a narrative form because they represent the first radical deviation from the linear artist/audience relationship, They are the cutting edge of an interactive revolution that will change the way we are entertained, trained and educated. The illusion is their true artistry, the emotional immersion enhanced by the illusion of choice and its consequence is the heart of the magic. This is why I got excited and embraced the industry nearly 20 years ago. The industry is still embryonic. What is yet to come will astound us all. Interactive media are here to stay. Trying to work the magic and controlling the economics has lead to many casualties but the visionaries pick themselves up, dust themselves down, learn and continue with the struggle. It’s a great industry. I love its genius and its youth. What is done with voice isn’t core to creativity. Yes it has value but the beating heart is genius otherwise directed. Every day I still wake up inspired. Things will change.

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