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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 “So, do you do real acting too?”

The question is frankly insulting, but she’s used to it, as are most others in her profession. I’ve not done any voice acting myself, but it’s 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 “real” acting.

On camera, you’ve got props, a setting, and the other actors to play off of. In a sound booth, you’ve 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 year’s 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 you’ve never played a Mass Effect game, you’ve probably heard Hale’s voice. Her working relationship with BioWare stretches all the way back to 1998’s Baldur’s 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 she’s had a part in include the co-starring role of Ophelia in Double Fine’s 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.

What’s the difference between recording a game versus something like an animated series?

In an animated series, typically the whole cast is there. It’s usually about a four hour session: it can be more, but typically it’s 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 it’s just you. Unless you’re talking about mocap! Mocap is awesome, and it’s a whole different animal. But in voice recording it’s just you by yourself in a booth. It’s the equivalent of doing a one person show for four hours with a couple of pee breaks. And you also don’t get the benefit of another person’s expression and energy coming at you, you sort of imagine what they say. But it still comes out of your head.

It’s kind of impossible to improvise when you’re recording a game, right? Which I imagine is something you depend on for other media?

[sighs] Yeah...there’s sort of a whole spectrum. I mean, some animated series you get to improvise, and they want you to, and it’s awesome. There are animated series where they don’t; where the writers have it all wound in the way they think is absolutely right. And you do that, that’s your job.

In games, especially BioWare games specifically…because the technical demands are so extensive and so specific, you can’t vary a breath. Like if I’m talking to you and I have…a pause. Like that one. Just a pause. You can’t do that in games right now with BioWare’s technology because that will create a bug in their system, and they’ll need to go back and re-record that. It needs to be exact.

As an actor, that’s a little challenging and a little disappointing sometimes because there’s such incredible life that comes out of that level of spontaneity. But it just means that I’ve 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 it’s 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 you’re trying to make expository dialog sound natural. And it’s my job to find the motivation for that. That’s a little tough sometimes, but I know it’s important in games, because you’re also sort of giving people instruction on the sly.

For me my favorite directors are those who have good timing. There’s a moment where a director communicates with you what’s going on, what they need…there’s a moment that a spark happens inside the actor. And you can see it if you’re 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 ‘em act.

Some directors don’t see it, and they just keep talking and that spark dies. And it’s my job to regenerate that. But when it happens in that organic moment, it’s fantastic.

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

Exactly. And trusting that the seed they’re planting is firing correctly, and that I get it. My creativity is synched up with theirs, and just…let go. And some actors need more explanation and some don’t. 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 don’t trust you, and they try to control every moment. That’s not good. And they also don’t trust the writing. Trust the writing! It’s all in the writing! You’ve got like a Tim Schafer or a Matt Walters, when you’ve 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. It’s a different discipline, I’d 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 we’ve got sometimes some physical manipulation of us that’s going on, if we’re flying on wires or something, we get to experience that.

But with voiceover you’ve got nothing! Your feet are on the ground, you cannot move outside of a little 4x4” 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, what’s 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 can’t. The thing about voice acting, or acting when you only hear the actor…you can fake a little bit visually, if you’re on camera. Say you’re having a bad day and you’re 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. It’s all right there.

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

In an animated script you’ve got either 30, 60, or maybe 110 pages if you’re 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 don’t 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 can’t read the entire script?

I can’t! I can’t for confidentiality reasons even name the projects I’m working on unless they’ve been released. I am not allowed. So I can’t read more than my pages. Sometimes they’ll send me more, which is great, but often it’s just an Excel spreadsheet with the lines and how the lines should be delivered.

It’s not like a film script where you’re seeing your whole environment and the entire world that you’re 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. I’m the little part that puts out the ink, that’s the stuff you see.

There’s a giant machine behind me making that ink happen, which is all the writers and producers and creators. I’m 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 it’s bad. Not the actor, but acting in general. Because you can have a good actor be bad and vice versa.

…and let you do your job.

Yeah! Let’s play!

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