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Interview: Voice Actress Jennifer Hale On When To Shut Up And Let Her Work

Interview: Voice Actress Jennifer Hale On When To Shut Up And Let Her Work Exclusive

September 2, 2011 | By Frank Cifaldi

[Actress Jennifer Hale (Mass Effect, Metal Gear Solid) has voiced more games than just about anyone. In this exclusive Gamasutra interview, she reveals how directors can get the most out of their talent.]

The question seasoned voice actress Jennifer Hale gets asked most often, she tells me (while rolling her eyes theatrically) is along the lines of ďSo, do you do real acting too?Ē

The question is frankly insulting, but sheís used to it, as are most others in her profession. Iíve not done any voice acting myself, but itís clear to me that the level of discipline and focus required to come across as a convincing character all by yourself in a sound booth far exceeds that of ďrealĒ acting.

On camera, youíve got props, a setting, and the other actors to play off of. In a sound booth, youíve got nothing but an oppressive set of headphones, a voice director, and your imagination.

In the interest of furthering the quality of video game voice acting, I spoke with Hale about the challenges of voicing a game during some downtime at this yearís PAX Prime expo in Seattle.

She was at the show as a guest of BioWare to promote the upcoming Mass Effect 3 (for which she plays the role of the female version of Commander Shepherd, as she has for the entire series).

Even if youíve never played a Mass Effect game, youíve probably heard Haleís voice. Her working relationship with BioWare stretches all the way back to 1998ís Baldurís Gate, and has encompassed games including Planescape: Torment, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and its upcoming MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Other games that sheís had a part in include the co-starring role of Ophelia in Double Fineís Brutal Legend, the lead role of Samus Aran in the Metroid Prime trilogy, and the roles of both Dr. Naomi Hunter and Emma Emmerich in the Metal Gear Solid series.

Whatís the difference between recording a game versus something like an animated series?

In an animated series, typically the whole cast is there. Itís usually about a four hour session: it can be more, but typically itís four hours. The whole cast is there, and the focus shifts from one cast member to another as you go through the dialog.

In a game session, 99 percent of the time itís just you. Unless youíre talking about mocap! Mocap is awesome, and itís a whole different animal. But in voice recording itís just you by yourself in a booth. Itís the equivalent of doing a one person show for four hours with a couple of pee breaks. And you also donít get the benefit of another personís expression and energy coming at you, you sort of imagine what they say. But it still comes out of your head.

Itís kind of impossible to improvise when youíre recording a game, right? Which I imagine is something you depend on for other media?

[sighs] Yeah...thereís sort of a whole spectrum. I mean, some animated series you get to improvise, and they want you to, and itís awesome. There are animated series where they donít; where the writers have it all wound in the way they think is absolutely right. And you do that, thatís your job.

In games, especially BioWare games specificallyÖbecause the technical demands are so extensive and so specific, you canít vary a breath. Like if Iím talking to you and I haveÖa pause. Like that one. Just a pause. You canít do that in games right now with BioWareís technology because that will create a bug in their system, and theyíll need to go back and re-record that. It needs to be exact.

As an actor, thatís a little challenging and a little disappointing sometimes because thereís such incredible life that comes out of that level of spontaneity. But it just means that Iíve got to work harder to create that spontaneity in other ways, in other places, and keep it alive and keep it honest every other way I can.

What should game developers, maybe specifically voice directors and writers, know? What do you need from them so that you can do your job?

For me itís all about story. Story first: deep characters, reality, honesty of dialog and how people really talk. We have to be used for a certain amount of exposition, and that has its challenges, when youíre trying to make expository dialog sound natural. And itís my job to find the motivation for that. Thatís a little tough sometimes, but I know itís important in games, because youíre also sort of giving people instruction on the sly.

For me my favorite directors are those who have good timing. Thereís a moment where a director communicates with you whatís going on, what they needÖthereís a moment that a spark happens inside the actor. And you can see it if youíre really engaging the actor, really looking, you can see when that spark fires. You need to get off the button and let it go. Let them talk, let Ďem act.

Some directors donít see it, and they just keep talking and that spark dies. And itís my job to regenerate that. But when it happens in that organic moment, itís fantastic.

Letting you go when you get it, letting you do your job.

Exactly. And trusting that the seed theyíre planting is firing correctly, and that I get it. My creativity is synched up with theirs, and justÖlet go. And some actors need more explanation and some donít. Some are more intuitive, some are intellectual. So we all work in different ways.

What should game creators avoid? Or I guess another way of asking this, what does a bad director do?

[laughs] They keep talking! And they kill the spark! And they donít trust you, and they try to control every moment. Thatís not good. And they also donít trust the writing. Trust the writing! Itís all in the writing! Youíve got like a Tim Schafer or a Matt Walters, when youíve got those guys going, just trust it and let it rip!

It seems to me that most voice casting is leaning toward using celebrity film actors for voices rather than actual voice actors. Itís a different discipline, Iíd imagine?

Yeah. Voice acting is like film acting on a green screen, but even on a green screen we have each other. We have the other actors to work off of. And weíve got sometimes some physical manipulation of us thatís going on, if weíre flying on wires or something, we get to experience that.

But with voiceover youíve got nothing! Your feet are on the ground, you cannot move outside of a little 4x4Ē space. You really have to keep a strong focus. You have to create your environment, your circumstances, the other actor, what just happened right before, whatís about to happen, what you really really want all lined up in your head. And the demands for focus are enormous.

Some celebrities can pull that off. Some canít. The thing about voice acting, or acting when you only hear the actorÖyou can fake a little bit visually, if youíre on camera. Say youíre having a bad day and youíre just not connecting with the material, you can fake it out. You can do that a little bit with voiceover, but truly the voice does not lie. Itís all right there.

In brief, what should a voice director come prepared with to help you do your job?

In an animated script youíve got either 30, 60, or maybe 110 pages if youíre doing a feature, and I get to see the beginning, middle and end, and so does the director.

The director of a game maybe has anywhere from a six inch to, I donít know, a sixty inch stack of paper to go through to get this whole story right. The workload is enormous. I am counting on them for context, and for every detail I need to know about.

Because you canít read the entire script?

I canít! I canít for confidentiality reasons even name the projects Iím working on unless theyíve been released. I am not allowed. So I canít read more than my pages. Sometimes theyíll send me more, which is great, but often itís just an Excel spreadsheet with the lines and how the lines should be delivered.

Itís not like a film script where youíre seeing your whole environment and the entire world that youíre inhabiting. That would be awesome. But I mean, these guys have so much to do. I describe it as like the head of a pen. Iím the little part that puts out the ink, thatís the stuff you see.

Thereís a giant machine behind me making that ink happen, which is all the writers and producers and creators. Iím just the tip of it.

So it sounds like a good cheat sheet would help.

Yeah. Directors should have a great cheat sheet for the actor, just the facts of the environment. They should know acting a little bit, what it takes to make an environment real, and know why sometimes acting is good and sometimes itís bad. Not the actor, but acting in general. Because you can have a good actor be bad and vice versa.

Öand let you do your job.

Yeah! Letís play!

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