Exclusive: Kyle Hebert Talks ‘How VO Peeps Get Their Game On’

Voice Actors in the News is pleased to officially announce our first “celebrity” guest contributor, voice-over actor Kyle Hebert.

Kyle has long been a supporter of this blog. And besides being a skilled character voice actor, he’s also very active in the fandom. For that reason he was selected as the first to be featured in our “Official Site Spotlight” series, and was the first choice to introduce this Voice Actors in the News premiere feature of guest contributors from the industry.

Kyle even went a step further and graciously accepted an offer to become a staff contributor for the blog. We are honored to have him as part of our staff, and look forward to his future contributions.

That said, we are pleased to present Kyle’s first article with an exclusive, behind-the-scenes view into the world of video game voice acting:

KYLE HEBERT: HOW VO PEEPS GET THEIR GAME ON

I’ve been a voice actor for anime and video games for a decade, but I never envisioned that games would comprise a majority of the projects I’ve worked on.   Playing Pac-Man on my Atari 2600 was a very distinct memory growing up in the ’70’s.   Who’d have thought that interactive entertainment would evolve so exponentially?  The digital age has spawned endless titles that engage the player with complex stories and fleshed-out characters.  This has opened up an exciting new world for voice actors to play in, though without a controller.

A common question I hear from fans is “What is a recording session like for a video game?”   In short, a blast.  But perhaps I should go into slightly more detail.

Many people assume that actors get to play early versions of a game at their session.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  (To be fair, how much work would get done if everyone were just sitting around playing?)  Developers are very secretive, and actors almost always have to sign non-disclosure agreements.  I’ve recorded on projects where characters are codenamed.  Being a gamer myself, I’ve lost count how many times I’ve bitten my lip, eager to announce my latest exploits from the highest mountain.  But being under a gag order has me waiting for months, sometimes years, before a game’s release date.

Present at the session is the director, the engineer, and a representative or two from the game company.  Unlike a cartoon session, actors are recorded individually.  At times, clients who can’t be there in person are patched in over the phone or even web chat services like Skype.  Scripts are either in multiple binders, divided into many subsections, or displayed on a monitor via an Excel spreadsheet.  The director or client describes the plot in a nutshell and a bit about the character(s) we will be voicing.  Nothing quite like waking up and driving to the studio to play soldiers, cops, animals, demons, gods, and/or inanimate objects, and getting paid for it.  (Now, if I could just do this sort of thing everyday.   But I digress.)

With anime, actors see the final product onscreen, but with games there is often little or no visual reference.  This is because the game is still being animated when recording takes place.  Once in a while, I’ll get to see rough versions of gameplay footage, or perhaps a sneak peek at a trailer.  Sometimes I see what my character looks like with an artist rendering.  Sometimes not.  Occasionally, I will have to dub some cutscenes (cinematic interludes between gameplay that forward the game’s story), but those are typically in rough form.  I recall recording on Street Fighter 4 as Ryu, and at most, we only had animatics, which display comic strip style sequences in sequential order of action.  We simply had to hope that our audio would match the lip sync.

Many video games come from Japan and when an English version is produced, actors must rely on a frame of reference other than lip sync.  I will hear a preview of the Japanese dialog in my headphones and then follow that with my performance of the same line in English.  The goal is to match the timing or optimally make it slightly shorter.   Sometimes the script is over or underwritten, and slight adjustments have to be made.  The client approves all the takes, as well as any necessary script changes.   I tend to record each line in sets of two or three, varying each take slightly.  If my character has any fight sounds or reactions, those are recorded after the dialog, as they can be vocally stressful.  For scream-heavy gigs, I always keep a cup of hot tea with honey at the ready, and I go through a LOT of bottled water too.

Sessions can last from minutes to hours, to multiple sessions over the course of a few days.  I recorded for maybe fifteen minutes tops on one huge game title, just doing a few bit parts, and getting paid full rate.  I got the gig after receiving a text message saying, “Do you want to be in Final Fantasy 13?”

I’m rarely cast as a main character and mostly play many background characters due to having a fairly wide range of voices in my arsenal.  This puts the game producers at an advantage because they don’t have to hire as many actors (and thus, save money).  Given my resume is padded with many fighting titles, unfortunately I don’t always leave a session with my voice intact.  I remember not being able to speak after two hours of solid screaming on Wolfenstein and Watchmen.  My voice was still shot the next day when I went in to record a few lines on Naruto.  The engineer noted that I sounded like I had gargled razor blades and we had to reschedule.  Being the main character, Rai’ Uk, on James Cameron’s Avatar for the Wii, I spent four hours speaking the Na’vi language after listening to countless pronunciation references.  This was done half a year before the movie came out.  My character was interacting with Sigourney Weaver, who was recorded via phone patch a few weeks before my sessions.  I was bummed to learn that all of that was cut from the final game, but regardless, I got paid nicely.  And that’s a beautiful thing.

The gamer geek inside of me enjoys another perk (even more than the check clearing) — playing or hearing my characters as the game unfolds, which is icing on a cake cloaked in secrecy.  And now, this blossoming genre of voice over has birthed the creation of a new type of demo that many an actor are adding to their repertoire:  interactive.  But compiling segments for such a demo can prove difficult, given most studios don’t have the time to burn copies of an actor’s sound files.   Thank goodness for Youtube, as many fans upload cutscenes and gameplay featuring hundreds of vocal performances.   Which reminds me, I should get cracking on that.

Kyle Hebert — KyleHebert.com
Contributor: Voice Actors in the News

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