BEST KEPT SECRETS FOR VOICEOVERS
By Lani Minella
Metamorph At Large
(Pro-Motions Production Company) After doing over 300 game titles, 365+ voices, casting, directing and writing for all platforms, I am still amazed at how many people do those things the hard way. Guess what? You can have gobs of fun, get the best voiceover talent and not be bogged down with “Hollywood” hype. Let’s dispel some myths first:
1. It’s okay to save money and use in-house people for voices.
In house talent who are not actors or professional voice people will inevitably sound dead, take 10 times longer to record because of all the mistakes, and take longer to edit in post.
2. Use a Hollywood casting agency or send your needs to talent agents who will supply you with just the right group to choose from.
Agencies deal primarily with radio, TV, and largely with commercials. Games have entirely different requirements. All casting and talent agents have are headshots and cassettes that feature ads or narratives. Many don’t know what their actors can do, nor are they expected to be good judges of great acting ability. They send out pics and tapes based on whose picture fits the description or whoever’s tape they happen to have. You might get their house CD with everyone doing one voice with “Today, shop at Sears!” commercials on them. When acting and/or voicing games, voice-over actors need to do things more emphatically and sometimes with expletives not found in real-life. For example, on the “Die Hard Trilogy 2″—as voice over characters we all had to make different noises when dying by a bullet, a grenade or a rocket launcher in 1.5 seconds or less. Other games have voice-over talent making attacking noises, which differ from using a club, a fist, a flame-thrower, acid venom, sword, or even unleashing a psychic force. No “traditional” actor who has not done games can effectively sound like he is dying in lava versus having his throat slashed unless you use a good director and an actor who takes direction well.
3. Use celebrities to give your game notoriety and marquee value.
This is like presuming that starving Ethiopians will be better nourished by rice boiled in Evian water. Gamers are not going to buy a game because a star’s voice is in it. But you sure can waste huge wad up front and maybe even royalty points later on when you sign legendary acting talent. For example, one major company had a list of possible talents they wanted to go for to voice their lead cartoon character, which needed to sound like a 16-year-old boy. Their wish list included over 20 names from Stephen Baldwin to Ray Liotta, and even Dennis Miller and Freddie Prinz Jr. It is doubtful that you could get any of these people for less than $75,000 and it could cost over a million easily with a cast of celebrities. Compare this to the minimum union day rates for good, non-celebrity talent and you will wince.
4. Spend most of your money on music and sound effects. – Whatever is left can go to voiceovers. Also, wait until all else is done before thinking about recording the voices. I always get those last-minute panic calls from people who need something yesterday, but still do not have the script finalized. They ask how much it would cost to get everything done – or they want me to give them a general quote for no specific amount of dialogue so they can formulate a budget. This is like asking an airline reservationist, “How much does it cost to fly somewhere? I don’t know where or when yet, or how many are travelling, but could you give me a rough idea?”
voiding time delays and major budget overages is easy… if you do a bit of work before you start recording voices. First, start by finding a good scriptwriter. They can help you create at least enough dialogue to cover one level of the game. Next you’ll need to also decide on approximately how many characters you will use and roughly how many lines they may say. Then set your schedule – how soon do you need this done? The more rushed you are, the more your budget will suffer. Then nail down your technical specifications: what format do you need your lines recorded on? Also, do you have your own in-house sound person or will you need the lines edited, processed or mixed with effects? Finally, at least try to have a file naming convention for the dialogue lines prior to your first session. The less your outside company has to do during the voiceover session, the more time and money you save.
HOW MUCH WILL IT COST?
So now that we’ve dispelled a few myths, let’s look at the other big question on most people minds when it comes to voice over talent – what’s it going to cost? This of course depends on what you want to do, but let’s start with some specifics.
First the big question – should you hire union or non-union talent. The main thing you buy with union talent is experience – which can be invaluable when the clock is ticking in the recording studio. In the early days of game development, the two main acting unions (the Screen Actors Guild or SAG, and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) didn’t have a clue as to what they should charge for interactive titles – so naturally they charged premium fees (“…A video game is sort of like a feature film – charge them that…”).
However, since 1994 AFTRA has created a special interactive, non-broadcast fee schedule that makes using union talent a lot more enticing. For example, here are some minimum AFTRA Interactive rates (naturally these are negotiable by the hour as well as having it depend on the experience of the actor you use)
- $556.20 – for on-camera day players or off-camera performers (up to 3 voices/4 hour day)
- $278.10 – off-camera performers (1 voice/1 hour)
- $185.40 -For each additional voice until you get to six voices or more
- $1,112.40 -6 or more voices/8 hour day
So, what about “Star” talent, getting that movie star to do the voice of your hero? I always advocate talented sound-alikes whenever possible. I have been Sigourney Weaver, Linda Fiorentino, all the Land Before Time dinosaurs, Rocky the Squirrel, Natashia Fatale & Sherman, known Star Trek characters, Hollywood film stars etc. I’ve also cast other sound-alikes for Bruce Willis and the Die Hard cast, and many more titles that cost the game company a few thousand dollars as opposed to millions. Don’t forget that besides the start salary, you can also get the “star” attitude: prima-donna behavior, an inability to get or stay in character, or even bad mic techniques.
Agency charges and other fees
Talent agents charge an extra 15% non-union or 10% extra if it’s a union gig. Most people don’t realize that agents take out the same percentage from the talent’s check on top of what they charge the client. If it is done under a union contract, there is an additional 12.65% charge that goes to a health and retirement fund. Casting agents charge from $300-$3,000 a day to parade people in front of you.
Some casting agents charge for additional days of prep while they call agents to round up people for the cattle call. Casting agents can also charge a percentage of the entire voice budget. At my agency I work with an ever-increasing talent pool of multi-voiced people who have done games and are versatile. I know what they can do and I do spec tapes for clients, giving only the best choices for each part. Some people pay buyouts, meaning an extra fee to be able to have unlimited use of the audio.
Recording the ultra-cheap way
Obviously if you need to scrimp, there are some ways to cut costs, and not sacrifice too much quality, although you may spend a lot more time getting out the final deliverable product. Studios cost between $75- $150/hour depending on if you are going to DAT or direct to computer using Pro- Tools for instance. This price should include the engineer. To save more money, bring your own DATs, cassettes or recordable CDs. Going to acting classes either in the private or school sector may expose you to some eager actors who will work for practically nothing.
Record in a quiet home studio with someone who wants credit and a copy of the game in exchange for his engineering skills and recording equipment (make sure the equipment is good though). As long as the mic is good, the DAT or computer program is professional and the room is sound proofed correctly, you don’t need to go to a posh studio with track lighting, leather couches and a 128 channel mixing console. However, sometimes you get what you pay for; so be forewarned about cutting too many corners! Another budget saver is to use people who do more than one voice convincingly and can stay in character.
ADR-Audio Dialogue replacement, looping, localization and walla groups
This is a specialized area of replacing existing dialogue with other voice tracks. It is done frequently in movies after the film is shot because the sound during the actual take was not clean. Another time this is done is for Japanese anime or foreign films where you might replace a pre-existing foreign language with American speech. Timing is everything here, and I’ve found that it takes a special knack to watch the visuals and speak within the given time parameters while maintaining character. Fees for looping can run the same as for any voiceover but walla is where you record the background sounds, like a crowd in a bar. Walla group talent usually gets paid $50 minimum an hour but again, depending upon experience and session duration.
Child actors & line reads to any actor
This is tricky business, especially since you need to have a parent or teacher present during the sessions. It is rare to find kids with a lot of voiceover experience and even more unusual to find ones who take direction well. Here is where a good director or a producer that knows what he wants is a must. I suggest giving any actor (child or adult) a line read and letting them mimic you, rather than hoping they will come up with the right take. I like to give the director two or three takes that are different: if the director doesn’t like one, the director gives me a line read or we go off in a whole new direction. If you are casting actors, give them a line read as a test to see how well they mimic you, and to make sure that they are not too full of themselves to take direction. Have them die, attack, and scream.Do this to weed out the wimps and the wannabe’s.
Pick-ups and fix it charges
After the initial voice recording session, inevitably there are new lines or changes made requiring another session. If you wish to ask the talent if they will do pick-ups or fixes free, go ahead and ask. It really depends on how many lines you are talking about, if perhaps the talent has his or her own studio and can easily whip out and e- mail a couple of fixes, or if there is an exorbitant amount of new text, expect to pay like a normal session.
The “Phone Patch” method
You need not necessarily fly in talent or pay to transport them to a studio. By using ISDN or DGS you can record between two different studios equipped with those systems. The talent can be in one city and the studio doing the actual recording could be anywhere else. This method can cost in the neighborhood of $250 an hour at each end and that does not include the talent.
I often use what is called a Phone Patch, where my mic’s signal is fed into the phone directly through the mixing board so it is very clear through the telephone where my client can listen as though he is actually in the studio. At the other studio the client can direct me instantly because his voice is fed right into my headphones. As for all the nuances you listen for, such as technical difficulties or mouth noises, the recording engineer does that during the recording. Run a back up DAT; send the recorded one by overnight delivery and you have a safety tape in case something happens to the first one. NO extra charge is incurred, except your long distance phone bill, which will no doubt be a lot cheaper than ISDN or the plane flights. I have heard producers say they want to see the talent perform, but if you take away the visuals, you are more apt to concentrate on that which is important, the voice.
If you still feel like flying yourself to a studio, or paying for a talent to go outside his home turf, allow money for travel time and prepare for possible delays in air or freeway traffic. Only prima- donna voice talents request being put up in a hotel the night before, unless you do the unspeakable and ask us artistic types to get up too early to start a session. Then we all sound like Lauren Bacall.
HOW TO FIND THE BEST TALENT
If you’ve been thrown into the lions den by your boss, who now expects you to cast your companies latest twitch game, stop fretting and listen up. Here’s some tips on how to find the best voice over talent for your game or as Duke Nukem might say, “I’m about to tell you how to weed whack the wussies and nail down the best pipes your money can buy.”
Put your prospective talent through the following tests:
1. Have your talent do an umprepared or “cold” read of your dialogue. Can they cold read well or does it sound like they are reading? Being conversational is important. Voice actors need to be able to scan ahead while speaking without a lot of stopping and pre-reading.
2. Have them read for at least six lines. While in a character, ask the talent to read the line with a range of emotions. Do they take direction correctly and quickly while maintaining a good attitude?
During their reading, ask yourself these questions:
- Do they stay in character for more than 3 lines?
- Does the talent have a good imagination or a good repertoire of different voice choices that they can pull up in an instant, offering original ideas about what a certain character might sound like? This separates the better talents from the newbies.
- Do they have high energy and staying power? Make them do some screams, expletives and yells in quick succession. If they complain that it ruins their voice, you may want to save them for bedtime storytelling. The more recording you complete without a lot of rest periods, the more time and money you save.
- Listen to see if they enunciate clearly with special attention to word endings like Ts, Ds, Ms and Gs. Many products end up with 8 bit sampling rates, which destroy the clarity of words unless they are almost over-pronounced.
- Do they have good mic technique?
- Do they maintain steady levels?
- Do they pop Ps and Bs? Are there excessive mouth and breath noises? The pros know how to time breaths to make editing a lot easier. The amateurs often turn away from the mic, or smack their lips and forget that their hands slapping against their legs make for unwanted noise.
- Do they visualize their character by using face and silent body movements to assist with expressive vocalizations? We voice actors need not worry about looking like idiots when performing. It’s what we sound like that matters.
One last word on directing.
Doing voiceovers well and giving good direction fall into the same category. Easier said than done. I enjoy being able to give good direction because, as a voice actor myself, I know some of the tricks I use to achieve certain sounds, emotions, or impersonations. Some of the worst direction I have had is by people who try to give too much subtext or silly suggestions. Here is what I mean:
“I want you to be a cross between Daffy Duck and Peter Lorre.”
“Sound like a combo of Bud Bundy of Married With Children and Dean Kain from Superman.”
“She was raised by immigrants who worked hard; she grew up in a mining town; she never had any new toys as a child and now she is afraid of losing her pet iguana.”
I know that some producers/directors feel as if they should let the actor bring his or her own ideas to the table before ever giving them a line read. Fine. Go ahead. But ask for two different takes in a row, and if that doesn’t yank your crank, give that line read!
I hate to hear, “Just do it again.” I want to know how I should alter it. The funny thing is when you perfectly imitate the line read, and whoever gave it to you decides it didn’t work that way. That’s okay. We actors expect things to be tried in different ways until they click. Don’t hold back on criticism or compliments. If actors seem to be struggling, find something good to say about what they’re doing anyway. It just may relax them enough to trash the stage fright and get on with the show.
ASK AND YOU SHALL RECEIVE
Got more questions? Just drop me a line – I will gladly answer any questions or offer consultation on any of your needs.You can also e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. My current website is: http://www.spicycricket.com/audiogodz.html and I am in the process of building a new one. You can page me at 800-357-7040. On behalf of Pro-Motions Productions, I wish each of you all the best.