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Ask the Experts: Voice Acting in Games

Ask the Experts: Voice Acting in Games

February 26, 2008 | By Jill Duffy




Is voice acting for video games a viable career? And how does it work? David Sobolov, a voice actor in EverQuest II, Call of Duty 4, and other games, shares his knowledge in ‘Ask the Experts,’ a biweekly advice column on sister web site GameCareerGuide.com. Gamasutra is also running this breaking in column.

For more information about getting into the video game development industry, visit GameCareerGuide.com.

Dear Experts,
I’m an aspiring actor, and I’ve been told my voice has presence, so I think I might be qualified for video game voice work. How do I get work as a voice actor? Is it competitive? Is having a good voice enough?
Smooth Talker


Dear Smooth Talker,

Voice acting is extremely competitive, and you have to be able to perform a variety of roles without much preparation. The more experience you have performing, the more skills you'll have to draw from when someone puts copy in front of you and expects a world-class performance to come out of your mouth on the spot!

I would suggest that your first step, if you haven’t done it yet, would be getting some formal training or community theater and improvisational training.

Next, put together a demo of what you might sound like if you were hired for a job. Voice demos have become very specialized; different demos are produced for different categories of voice work. But the main two that voice actors need are a commercial demo and a character demo. The commercial demo focuses on TV and radio commercial reads, while character demos show off characters one might play in animated works or games.

Marketability

To convince an agent you’re marketable, you need to show her you can handle a variety of work. It’s best if you're willing and able to do as many types of voice over gigs, and play as many characters as possible. If you “only do characters” or “only do commercials,” very few agents will take you. You have to be willing to do it all!

Having a good voice is nice, but mainly the job is about how well you can perform in certain categories of voice acting, and how many crazy characters you can make up on the spot.

I did voice work on EverQuest II, and I had to create 23 different characters. One day I was asked to do seven of them in less than two hours, which is not as easy as you might think!

If your goal is to build a career, rather than just take the occasional job, you need to hire an agent who can connect you to work that pays professional rates, negotiated collectively for all professional performers of scripted entertainment by the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). SAG contracts cover captured performances for television programs as well as commercial and industrial films, interactive games, and all new media -- that about covers most of the career-sustaining and well-paying gigs. SAG’s web site has additional information.

Most union voiceover work that can really sustain a career is found in places where there’s a lot of production. Los Angeles is the biggest voiceover production center in North America, but there’s also a decent amount of work (and professional agents to represent you) in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and Austin.

Hiring an agent isn’t easy. They won’t take you on just because you showed up on their doorstep. You have to have your demos made first.

Your demo has to be great. Make sure a currently working pro produces it. He or she should be someone connected to today’s marketplace. Don’t rely on a cookie cutter demo house that’s been churning out the same demo since 1985. With your professional demos, some performance experience, and hopefully a bit of acting or improvisational training, you’ll be ready to go out and give it a shot.

Another good thing to know about voice acting is that being typecast isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Every voice performer has his or her brand. For example, I’m known for my villain roles, but I've played all sorts of characters over the years. There are usually one or two types of characters that every performer becomes known for. When you first start out, someone is going to hear something unique about you, and if that gets you in the door to this business, there’s no harm in that.

How it Works

Often, people wonder whether voice actors read a script or memorize lines. Typically, there’s no memorization, and sometimes you don’t even get to see the script before you arrive in the studio.

Voice actors tend to be hired for four-hour sessions. If the job is a commercial, then you’re done in one day. But for video games, an actor might be called in for several sessions to complete the work.

Animated shows, which can have characters similar to those in video games, usually require one day’s work, then a follow-up later for “pick-ups” (fixes and extra lines) and, of course, the obligatory “efforts” (sounds of battle, pain, jumping around) that your character makes.

You can make your living voice acting alone, but like any other profession, you have to work for it. Voice acting is show business, and nothing in show business is a “gimme.”

I love the huge variety of roles I play. It's the best thing about this work. You never know from week to week if you’re going to play a hero, a villain, or something in between.

I wish you all the best as you pursue your career.

[David Sobolov is professional voice actor who performs roles for video games, commercials, and animation. His game credits include Lt. Vasquez in Call of Duty 4, Krall in Unreal Tournament III, and a lead role in the next game in the Halo series. He’s also worked on commercials for Liquid Plumbr and Ball Park Franks. Sobolov also serves on the New Technology Committee for Screen Actors Guild.

If you have a question about working in the video game industry that you’d like to see answered on Ask the Experts, email it to theexperts(at)gamecareerguide.com. Please note: GameCareerGuide.com does not editorially endorse specific academic institutions, so don’t ask us which one is best!]


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