The 'Inside The Voice Actor's Studio' session, part of AGC's Game Writers Conference was intended to provide writers with a perspective from the voice actors who have to bring the dialog to life. A panel made up of voice actors, directors, a writer and a casting director all talked about the experience of taking a game script into that soundproof booth and hopefully making magic.
Joseph Staten from Bungie was the moderator and kept the conversation moving pretty briskly. He started out with the usual introductions and asked them to talk about what made a good voice acting session. They all agreed it was most difficult to work with little direction, and they all said they truly appreciated when the writer could be present at the sessions.
Preparation Before Action
Debbie Mae West (Meryl, Metal Gear Solid) works on many different kinds of projects in Los Angeles and said, "Generally speaking, as a voice actor we may be reading ten different things in the day and very rarely do we get to meet a writer or director." So she enjoys game projects where a group shows up to help provide direction to her performance.
She said, and the other panelists agreed, that the experience for the voice actors can be solitary and confusing. Since game scripts are so long the actors don't get a chance to read through the whole thing before going into the studio, as they might with a commercial or even an animated show. West said it's really helpful when she can get a three-page summary of who her character is and how it fits into the game.
Ryan Wickerham (Thief: Deadly Shadows) is a voice actor and writer from Austin, Texas. He agreed that a summary ahead of the recording session can be very valuable, and said that even more helpful is seeing an image of the character or an animated sequence of the character moving around. He says his approach is to use that summary and image to prepare several different approaches to the character before he gets to the studio. That way the director - if there is one - can choose which approach to take, and it provides a range of delivery throughout the session.
West explained that a typical game recording session involves the actor doing their best to read a line from the script, then looking up to the group outside the sound-proof booth, where they might see everyone talking to each other or waving their arms emphatically, which the actor can't tell if it's a positive or negative response, or even if the group is in agreement. Usually the only feedback the actor gets after this silent discussion is a simple "let's try that one again."
Wickerham described his experience being brought in to do early voice work on Area 52 saying he really enjoyed the experience, because there was more room to try new things and improvise since not as many assets had been locked down at that early stage. The developers were just looking for someone to fill in the audio track, getting a temporary tone in place. This gave Wickerham the freedom to use his whole range with lots of feedback from the writer and director.
Making It Up As They Go Along
This led to a conversation among panelists about improvisation in the studio. Marianne Krawczyk, writer for God of War and the Sopranos video game, said she really enjoyed when she could collaborate with the actors on the dialog. She said sometimes it was useful to get down the "ugly" line so the actors could see the intent, but then work with a group to find the best line to fulfill that need. She said it was especially nice to work with the Sopranos actors who knew their characters so well.
Dawn Hershey, a casting director with Blind Light who has worked on many game titles, agreed that in cases of established properties with well-known actors it can be an excellent experience to have celebrities doing voiceover work. However, most of the time a celebrity brought in just for the sake of their celebrity usually isn't worth the expense. Many of them don't have much experience doing voice-over work, which is very different from appearing on-screen. She also said a lot of games lately have also been looking for a more "realistic" sound, rather than a cartoonish tone, and this can be difficult to get across for someone not used to working without body language.
Flint Dille, writer and voice director for Chronicles of Riddick, Batman and Superman agreed. He provided one example where a game he was working on originally planned to use Robin Williams, but at the last minute he was replaced with Jimmy Stewart. Both fine actors - they have very different styles, and some of the script really didn't work with the change.
It Takes Forever; There's Never Enough Time
Dille also said there were essentially two different kinds of recording sessions. One where the game developers understand how important good voice acting can be to the final game, bringing in a voice director and actors early with enough time to play around and get the script right, and those who essentially view the voiceover as an inconvenience and get annoyed by it. He said these companies often don't devote enough time to the process, so actors and directors have to stick exactly to the script and work through it as quickly as possible.
Either way, his advice for writing good dialog was to start several steps prior to that point, making sure the characters are deep in a good narrative. "It's not about the dialog," he said. "It's about the story. One flashy line after another doesn't add up to good dialog. You have to have something to talk about."