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Q&A: Wendee Lee Talks Voice Acting In Games

Q&A: Wendee Lee Talks Voice Acting In Games

September 28, 2007 | By Brandon Sheffield

September 28, 2007 | By Brandon Sheffield
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One of the least-interviewed or discussed areas of talent in the game industry tends to be the voice actor - extremely necessary to bring added character and context to games, but relatively seldom dwelt-upon.

Therefore, in this exclusive Q&A, Gamasutra's Brandon Sheffield speaks with Wendee Lee, one of the most prolific American voice actresses in gaming and animation.

Though she's got over 200 credits to her name in anime dubbing, she's also done quite a bit of voice acting in games, from Soul Calibur II to Grandia III, Neverwinter Nights and EverQuest II.

Having recently completed the voice and voice direction for the American localization of Bleach: Shattered Blade for the Wii and Bleach: The Blade of Fate for the DS, both slated for release in October 2007, Lee spoke to us about the process and challenges of voice work in the game industry, the development of voice acting in games, and the epidemic of celebrity actors doing voices in video games to mixed results.

How do you find voice acting for television or anime differing from games?

Thats a good question. With [the anime Bleach], we have more of a concern of matching the Japanese original performance as well as the synchronicity so we have a really good blend from picture to audio, and that theres no glitches in stilted performances, that everything flows, that the characters sound like theyre playing off each other.

But we are, in fact, recording each chapter one at a time. I always compare it to recording music, so you lay down your bass, and your drums, and then you do your overdubs, and you add the vocals. Its kind of like that with the voice actors as well. Its a pretty intimate process, just one actor at a time. And then you build all the tracks, and eventually they all get mixed together.

Why is it often done one-on-one? Sometimes, in Japan, for instance, with certain projects, theyll record scenes with the actors simultaneously in the same room. It seems to get some good interplay going. What is the reasoning behind it?

Its a cost efficiency concern. But primarily, the Japanese are recording in a much different way. They actually record quicker than we do. The whole cast is present. What I hear from my counterparts is, there are two microphones.

The females take one mic, the men take the other, they run picture in real time, and they take turns stepping up to the mic and trying to nail the performance to picture, and then they dont go back and nuance and tailor the performance as much as we do.

We have a lot of competition for dialogue replacement, ADR, what we do, with other English-speaking countries as well. So its really important for us to be able to deliver efficiently, really high quality work, and to do it as professionally as possible. So we just have found over the years its the best way to go. When we do original animation in the states, we do the same thing: radio-style. Well, its a little different for us. We do where each chapter is marked individually, and its up to the engineer to throw faders to bring each individual mic, he has to follow the script. Its a little more complicated.

Youre all together?

Yeah. And everyones present. For the most part. When I was recording Megas XLR for Cartoon Network with Steve Bloom and David Deluise, we would be present together generally, but often it was a big cast, so they would bring in villains and a second team at a second half of the day so everybody didnt have to wait through the process.

I know studio time is really expensive. Do you ever consider eschewing the whole professional studio setup thing and doing it in your basement? Or, just a foley room in Sega or something like that?

Wow. Whoa, uh, no I havent thought of that! But as a singer I can relate to that, because I have a home studio, and many actors do, and we are now at a point where we send in audio files for auditions quite often and just self-direct our auditions from home, so thats sort of an advent for that technology, and a lot of people have garageband, and have other programs, ProTools, and so forth.

But ultimately, most people cant afford the $5000 microphones and the incredible sound crew thing, and the whole link with the sync package, the beeps that come with it that queue us when to start. Generally what we find is some home studios are spawning, and they can be competitive, but still the great warm sound that youre getting in a professional setting is never quite up to snuff in a home studio, unless its a pro home studio. So probably not for broadcast, there really is a difference in the quality. But that Im wondering, can I?

Yeah, like what if everyone came to your house?

Yeah. Or what if I live on an island somewhere and I just phone it in? (laughs)

They've only started to hire real actors for games in the new millenium, like with Grand Theft Auto 3, so these concerns are new to gaming, aren't they?

There certainly has been a big change in the way that we recorded in the 90s and how were recording now. Thats really true.

Im always curious how the audience perceives, say, celebrity talent versus voice actors, or actors who also do voice-over, that understand that skill that it takes to really put all of your performance into your voice, which not all acting requires. Theres generally much more subtlety for cinema, for film, and I always feel we should leave it to the professionals who do this!

In the case of a game like Yakuza, for instance, and no offense to certain people, there was a lot of big name voice talent in it not voice talent, like, acting talent, and they weren't necessarily the best fit for it. Unless youve got a game like Shrek. Of course you wanna have Mike Myers doing the friggin thing

Right, right. Hes gotta be the green guy.

Its gotta be him, or else its stupid. But I think in the case of an original game, you really dont need that.

I think thats a really good point. I would like to hear that more often! You know, its kind of a problem for voice actors, because in the last 5, 8 years, maybe even longer, more and more celebrities with children want to be involved in entertainment thats sort of geared for that now Im thinking in terms of animation and so forth, not just strictly games and often we feel disappointed that we werent given at least a shot, or we werent even in the running.

I feel thats more of a Hollywood move, to sort of attach names to titles. And they can work out. But often we feel like we could deliver something a little more accurate, and its infringed on some of our workbase.

To no fault of anyone, I think a lot of companies tried the celebrity route. And I think it needed to be exercised to get a feel for how it works. Theres nothing wrong with giving it a shot. But I have to be honest: I auditioned for Shrek as a voice replacement for some of the main characters.

And I think that some of the studios are coming around to understand; one: celebrities arent always available for voicing, and when I was a voice director for live action, the last thing actors want to one their days off is to come in and do their own ADR.

So then to also be tied to a title that requires multiple days in a studio, often a celebritys schedule doesnt allow, and they sometimes feel, to me, that theyre in over their heads. Because theres so much screaming, and fighting, and impacts, and reactions, that are nuances that we have practiced for years and years, and are new to people that arent voice actors.

With games specifically, do you find that you get scripts beforehand, or in this case, do them, since youre also directing? My perception is thats usually not the case.

Its usually not the case, and its for a good reason. As an actor your innate response is to prepare. So you go through the material, read the dialogue, and you develop a certain cadence and way that you see the character being delivered. Its very difficult to undo a performance thats set rather than creating a performance from scratch with an actor thats malleable and ready to be putty in your hands, and you can shape it. Its really really tough though, when actors weve tried this as well, many years ago memorize dialogue in advance, because you definitely memorize it in the way that you would say it, not necessarily your character, so its really important for us that everybody comes in as a blank sheet.

I wonder if some games dont really have proper voice direction. With some I get the perception that theres no actual vision for the project, and its a bit haphazard. Its happening less, but only with big budget games. But still, you get some ridiculous things going on, and I just wonder why, because it doesnt have to be that way.

Certainly there are titles Ive worked on without any voice director at all, its just the creative team, and I always think that a little risky, of course, but Im coming from a very biased view. I trust my director and defer to them and depend on them to help me find and guide the performance and the character in the scene that youre in in the moment.

I think sometimes games are almost regarded everyone would say this, but it feels as if theyre almost regarded as a technical beast; an animal that is broken down into technical files, and its extremely voluminous. In many cases its thousands and thousands of lines of dialogue, versus a script for ADR, per se, which is usually about 200-300 lines, sometimes 400 lines an episode. But when youre in thousands, ten thousand lines, twenty five thousand lines per game, youre tackling key volumes of material. So sometimes, the performance can be looked at a little more technically instead of creatively.

But its difficult to take, especially in a title that has a large cast we have a large cast we spent a lot of time making sure our performances meshed, and that everybody was balanced in performance and dynamics, and that we had great nuance, and all that. But without a voice director, thats tough! Although, you really do defer to your creative team. Sega sent sent Keith down, who worked with me side by side, and we could collaborate together, and always check each other, if there was ever any concern about performance versus technicalities, and how the two go together. So its nice to work really closely with the team but I do recommend, in all cases: you need that creative balance with the director.

What do you think could be better about voice acting in games, and how?

I think preparations critical. The more the actor understands the scene theyre in of course, its almost like working with green screen as an on-camera actor.

So youre imagining your worlds, youre imagining your weapons, youre imagining the way that your combat is going and all of that, so the more information that we have in preproduction to provide for the actors, and to keep them engaged in exactly what scenario theyre in, I think ultimately the better the performances are. Thats really important.

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