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?
That's 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 there's no glitches in stilted performances, that everything flows, that the characters sound like they're 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. It's kind of like that with the voice actors as well. It's 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, they'll record scenes with the actors simultaneously in the same room. It seems to get some good interplay going. What is the reasoning behind it?
It's 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 don't 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 it's 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 it's the best way to go. When we do original animation in the states, we do the same thing: radio-style. Well, it's a little different for us. We do where each chapter is marked individually, and it's up to the engineer to throw faders to bring each individual mic, he has to follow the script. It's a little more complicated.
You're all together?
Yeah. And everyone's 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 didn't 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 haven't 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 that's 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 can't 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 you're getting in a professional setting is never quite up to snuff in a home studio, unless it's a pro home studio. So probably not for broadcast, there really is a difference in the quality. But that - I'm 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 90's and how we're recording now. That's really true.
I'm 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. There's 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 you've got a game like Shrek. Of course you wanna have Mike Myers doing the friggin' thing -
Right, right. He's gotta be the green guy.
It's gotta be him, or else it's stupid. But I think in the case of an original game, you really don't need that.
I think that's a really good point. I would like to hear that more often! You know, it's 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 that's sort of geared for that - now I'm thinking in terms of animation and so forth, not just strictly games - and often we feel disappointed that we weren't given at least a shot, or we weren't even in the running.
I feel that's 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 it's 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. There's 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 aren't 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 celebrity's schedule doesn't allow, and they sometimes feel, to me, that they're in over their heads. Because there's 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 aren't voice actors.
With games specifically, do you find that you get scripts beforehand, or in this case, do them, since you're also directing? My perception is that's usually not the case.
It's usually not the case, and it's 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. It's very difficult to undo a performance that's set rather than creating a performance from scratch with an actor that's malleable and ready to be putty in your hands, and you can shape it. It's really really tough though, when actors - we've 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 it's really important for us that everybody comes in as a blank sheet.
I wonder if some games don't really have proper voice direction. With some I get the perception that there's no actual vision for the project, and it's a bit haphazard. It's happening less, but only with big budget games. But still, you get some ridiculous things going on, and I just wonder why, because it doesn't have to be that way.
Certainly there are titles I've worked on without any voice director at all, it's just the creative team, and I always think that a little risky, of course, but I'm 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 you're in in the moment.
I think sometimes games are almost regarded - everyone would say this, but it feels as if they're almost regarded as a technical beast; an animal that is broken down into technical files, and it's extremely voluminous. In many cases it's 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 you're in thousands, ten thousand lines, twenty five thousand lines per game, you're tackling key volumes of material. So sometimes, the performance can be looked at a little more technically instead of creatively.
But it's 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, that's 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 it's 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 preparation's critical. The more the actor understands the scene they're in - of course, it's almost like working with green screen as an on-camera actor.
So you're imagining your worlds, you're imagining your weapons, you're 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 they're in, I think ultimately the better the performances are. That's really important.