THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOOTH – Jesse Harlin (June/July 2009)

TAKE YOUR VOICE ACTORS OUT OF ISOLATION

AS MUCH AS THE PRACTICES AND tools for Audio continue to evolve with every new game the industry produces, one area of our discipline that remains fairly static is voice. For the most part, voice work in games is patterned after the model established by the animation industry. Voice directors cast roles with an eye toward actors familiar with the idiosyncrasies of voice-over work. The talent is recorded one at a time, in isolation, while standing in front of a microphone with the voice director in the control room at the other end of the talkback mic.

That’s the traditional approach— but there are other approaches to game voice recording that can help to bring much needed realism, sincerity, and believability to your actors’ performances.

A DIFFERENT DIRECTION

» With the performance of cinematic game dialogue moving from one of audio-only into the realms of facial and full-body motion capture, the goal across the board becomes increased attention to realism. Additionally, these changes in technology are driving a secondary change away from solely using voice-over actors, and instead bringing more on-camera actors into the world of game voice production.

To help achieve a more true-to-life performance out of the actors, one step the voice director can take is to move away from the standard practice of recording actors in isolation. Actors are used to not only acting but also reacting to the performances of other cast members. This is particularly true of on-camera actors. Directors can choose to record actors performing together in groups, or to have the other actors present at the session, off-camera. This process is called a cast record. Another option is for the talent director to sit in the same room with the performing actor and read the lines of the other characters. This approach to direction can yield a much more realistic performance because the actors are no longer working in a vacuum, but rather reacting to the performance and delivery of another human being. The vocal performances are often more dramatic, more dynamic, and more convincing.

However, if you’re working with seasoned voice-over actors, this approach to direction will most likely frustrate them more than it will help the process along. Know your actor's skill set and what will get the best performance out of them before forcing experimentation upon them.

A SEAT AT THE TABLE

» Another approach that can be helpful for improving the quality of the voice assets in your game is simply the use of rehearsal. Most voice actors read their lines cold, meaning they’re handed the script when they walk into the session, and the first time they’re performing it is as it goes into Pro Tools. However, in some instances, a great opportunity toward having your cast understand the scope of their characters and how they fit within the larger game is to conduct a table read. A table read is a rehearsal where the core character actors literally get together around a table and read through the script alongside of the voice director, and usually a few key team members such as the creative lead of the project, the scriptwriter, and a producer or two.

A table read is a great tool to use when the game has a group of no more than seven core characters and a fairly involved cinematics script. There’s no point in sitting around and rehearsing AI grunts and barks such as “He’s over there!”—but if your game is centered around a rich story, a table read will help to create a cohesive performance that allows the actors to know the full context of their performances. Again, as with a cast record, a table read works best for on- camera actors, as voice-over actors are much more used to cold reading their scripts as final performances.

BLOCK IT OUT

» Lastly, with the ever-increasing practice of motion capture being used not only for in-game animations but also cutscene performances, voice directors may find themselves tasked with directing both actors
and stuntmen on the motion capture stage. As such, voice directors should consider holding rehearsals the day before a major cutscene motion capture session in order to establish and rehearse the physical blocking of the scenes. Once your actors become mobile, pre-determined blocking becomes a crucial tool in constructing the scene and avoiding awkward or unsuccessful improvisations from your moving characters.

Even if your game won’t include new technologies such as digital facial scanning and motion capture, consider this less-isolated approach to voice recording. Perhaps more than any other element, the current generation of games is pushing the boundaries of realistic virtual worlds. At the heart of any compelling virtual character performance is a convincing vocal. Any steps the voice director can take toward maximizing believability will help to sell not only the character, but also the entire world in which they live. 

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