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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?

Thatís 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 thereís no glitches in stilted performances, that everything flows, that the characters sound like theyíre 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. Itís kind of like that with the voice actors as well. Itís 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, theyíll record scenes with the actors simultaneously in the same room. It seems to get some good interplay going. What is the reasoning behind it?

Itís 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 donít 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 itís 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 itís the best way to go. When we do original animation in the states, we do the same thing: radio-style. Well, itís a little different for us. We do where each chapter is marked individually, and itís up to the engineer to throw faders to bring each individual mic, he has to follow the script. Itís a little more complicated.

Youíre all together?

Yeah. And everyoneís 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 didnít 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 havenít 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 thatís 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 canít 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 youíre getting in a professional setting is never quite up to snuff in a home studio, unless itís a pro home studio. So probably not for broadcast, there really is a difference in the quality. But that Ė Iím wondering, can IÖ?

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 90ís and how weíre recording now. Thatís really true.

Iím 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. Thereís 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 Ė not voice talent, like, acting talent, and they weren't necessarily the best fit for it. Unless youíve got a game like Shrek. Of course you wanna have Mike Myers doing the frigginí thing Ė

Right, right. Heís gotta be the green guy.

Itís gotta be him, or else itís stupid. But I think in the case of an original game, you really donít need that.

I think thatís a really good point. I would like to hear that more often! You know, itís 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 thatís sort of geared for that Ė now Iím thinking in terms of animation and so forth, not just strictly games Ė and often we feel disappointed that we werenít given at least a shot, or we werenít even in the running.

I feel thatís 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 itís 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. Thereís 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 arenít 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 celebrityís schedule doesnít allow, and they sometimes feel, to me, that theyíre in over their heads. Because thereís 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 arenít voice actors.

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

Itís usually not the case, and itís 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. Itís very difficult to undo a performance thatís set rather than creating a performance from scratch with an actor thatís malleable and ready to be putty in your hands, and you can shape it. Itís really really tough though, when actors Ė weíve tried this as well, many years ago Ė memorize dialogue in advance, because you definitely memorize it in the way that you would say it, not necessarily your character, so itís really important for us that everybody comes in as a blank sheet.

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

Certainly there are titles Iíve worked on without any voice director at all, itís just the creative team, and I always think that a little risky, of course, but Iím 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 youíre in in the moment.

I think sometimes games are almost regarded Ė everyone would say this, but it feels as if theyíre almost regarded as a technical beast; an animal that is broken down into technical files, and itís extremely voluminous. In many cases itís 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 youíre in thousands, ten thousand lines, twenty five thousand lines per game, youíre tackling key volumes of material. So sometimes, the performance can be looked at a little more technically instead of creatively.

But itís difficult to take, especially in a title that has a large cast Ė we have a large cast Ė 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, thatís 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 itís nice to work really closely with the team Ė 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 preparationís critical. The more the actor understands the scene theyíre in Ė of course, itís almost like working with green screen as an on-camera actor.

So youíre imagining your worlds, youíre imagining your weapons, youíre 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 theyíre in, I think ultimately the better the performances are. Thatís really important.

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