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Q&A: Veteran director Khris Brown on the secrets of great voice acting

Gamasutra speaks to voice director, consultant and game industry veteran Khris Brown to better understand how high-quality voicework in games comes together from a developer perspective.

Alex Wawro, Contributor

July 16, 2014

14 Min Read

Producing believable, satisfying voice acting for your game is tricky business. Perversely, the work of voice actors and directors seems to be one of the most neglected aspects of game design; the topic is too rarely discussed within the industry, and it only bubbles up in popular media when a game includes particularly effective -- or disruptive -- performances. With that in mind, Gamasutra reached out to voice director, creative consultant and game industry veteran Khris Brown to better understand how high-quality voicework in games comes together from a developer perspective. Brown has been involved in the business of video game voice acting for over twenty years. While we get into her experience and past projects a bit in the ensuing interview, you should know that she currently serves as both the creative director for Ubisoft Montreal's Narrative Talent Group and Double Fine's in-house casting & voice director. She most recently worked on games like Child of Light, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag and Broken Age, and in the following edited correspondence with Gamasutra she shares some practical insights from her work alongside teams both large and small.

How did you get involved with voice acting, and the game industry in general?

KB: The first game I ever played was called Wumpus in about 1976. The first game I ever programmed was on a PET computer in 4th grade. We saved them on cassette tapes. I was working in what was supposed to be a summer job at Lucasfilm Games in 1990 and David Fox asked me to stay. My first credited game is Monkey Island 256 -- because 256 colors warranted a "Special Edition" at the time. We were just beginning to explore the concept of "Talkies," and we officially launched the Voice Department in 1992. Our first test recordings were of Noah Falstein as "Bobbin" in Loom. One of Brown's earliest credits is for her performance as hotline operator Chester in Monkey Island 2. Some of my first casting "finds" were people like Roy Conrad for Ben Throttle in Full Throttle and Nick Jameson for the voice of Max in Sam and Max. We also used Mark Hamill in Full Throttle because he auditioned for us, and we were floored by his incredible acting ability. We were lucky to have been able to work with some of the most well known people today at the beginning of their careers, such as Steve Blum (whose first video game role was as "Sid the crazy biker" in Full Throttle) and Tara Charendoff (now Tara Strong, famous as Harley Quinn in Batman and Twilight Sparkle in My Little Pony). I left LucasArts in 1998 to work as a consultant on the Star Wars prequels, and began to take on other clients such as EA, THQ, Microsoft, Sony, and film-related studios like Skywalker Sound and Pixar. I've been casting and directing actors and consulting on story and character for a little over 24 years and feel incredibly lucky and grateful every day.

How do you go about helping actors deliver their best work?

It's all about creating trust and a safe place for the actor to find or create whatever memory or moment they need in order to be true to the script. Technically, I ensure that I'm in a comfortable studio and have plenty of time to work. I use engineers I trust who have recorded voice for games and animation for years. They understand actors' rhythms and needs, and have no desire to be center stage. It's always worth the extra 50-100 percent an hour rate to work with experienced, ego-free

"My job is to say without words, 'It's safe. I'm with you.'"

studios. In a windowless, sometimes dark, sometimes small room for hours, misunderstandings will happen and "vibes" can pile up fast. I keep it light, and am always ready to laugh things off or be the first to apologize, and to move on. We limit the voice on the talk back mic to only one: mine (okay, maybe two if the engineer needs a technical adjustment.) If I have a panel of clients (writer, creative director, producer) in the room, they'll tell me what they think and I will translate it for the actor. This helps retain a consistent emotional lifeline, as the booth can feel quite isolating, even to the pros, and a single voice prevents "opinion dog-piling" that will confuse the actor. I never say snide things like, "That was great. Now can you do it with acting?," or yell at the actor to create a "real moment." Sometimes I'll model the desired energy (which sounds very hippie-ish but is quite real) by telling a story about how I felt in a similar situation. My job is to say without words, "It's safe. I'm with you. Here's a candle. Let's walk through the dark." Brown recommends this Broken Age behind-the-scenes promo clip as an example of the sort of friendly, light atmosphere developers should cultivate in their recording sessions. An essential part of this is also understanding every detail about the world and the script, so that if the actor has a question, I can immediately explain my request. This also allows me to assess whether their interpretation of a line, if it's new and surprising, might even be better than what I or the rest of the team had imagined. In short: know your stuff, be supportive, have no ego, and be ready to laugh. Do not give up after 3 takes. Do give up after 10 takes. We had 27 takes of Indiana Jones saying, "It's a cup full of lava." The actor was exhausted, and we ended up Frankensteining the line anyway (pasting two takes together to create our ideal). I also save "sound sets" (yelling/deaths/battle) for Friday from 4PM-6PM. The actor may have a car commercial that will pay them $60K on Wednesday afternoon. I'm not going to expect them to ruin their voice for $2K on Wednesday morning. Give respect, get respect.

So what would you recommend to your fellow developers looking to improve the vocal performances in their games?

Good performance comes from 3 things: good writing, good casting, and supportive directing. Everything begins with the script. I try to get the writers involved in the process as soon as a game idea is green-lit. Even if the game is very simple, the writer must intimately understand the rules of the world. This gives them the freedom to play with that world's boundaries, and those edges can be where the most powerful moments of characterization occur. Throwing writers at a design at the last minute with the pressure to fill in some type of negative space with narrative is pointless. As a player, I'd rather have no narrative than bad narrative. Supporting the writers by involving them at the outset has a greater chance of giving the actors powerful, interesting material to bring to life. With casting, the saying that "directing is mostly casting," is true. I solicit auditions with sides (audition copy) for each individual character with greater than 20 lines. I don't cast from demos (a cut-together sample reel of the actors' previous work) unless I know the actor extremely well. For Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, it was a 5-minute casting because I just plugged in favorite

"Do not get caught in the 'more lines per hour is better' trap. Quality trumps quantity. Cut your line count and make them good."

people who I knew could do the job: Grey Delisle Griffin, Phil LaMarr, etc. It worked because I've known them for 15 years and because Dean Evans, the creative director, was amazing at describing exactly what he wanted. With most other games, casting is iterative, and requires at least a single audition, and at most a studio callback followed by an in-person callback to see how the actor responds to direction (or to the other actors if we're recording "ensemble", which is all the main actors in the room at once). Often, listening to or seeing the auditions will inspire the writers and creative director to go in a different direction with the character. It's an exciting process of both exploration and honing -- you can not direct an actor who does not know who they are into any type of powerful performance. Supportive directing is a long topic. The brief version is to stop worrying about anything related to what people think of you in the role of the director. I often see people at two extremes: indecisive and intimidated (the, "I'm too scared to tell you what I want, so I'll just keep asking for more takes" director) or overcompensating and intimidated (the, "I think a director wears jodhpurs and carries a bullhorn and a riding crop, so I'll be bossy and insulting" director). Both are unnecessary. Take time to review the script (even doing table reads) with your writer(s). Ensure that everyone who will be present (including the actor, if you have time to rehearse with them) knows the "journalism answers" about the script: who, what, why, when and where. The actor must be able to ask the director questions any time about anything. Do your research and be prepared. Understand the emotional motivations of each character. Do not get caught in the "more lines per hour is better" trap. Quality trumps quantity. Cut your line count and make them good. Lastly, if you don't have a VO director on staff, hire a professional video game voice director. They are few, but worth it. They will ask a hundred questions about the script that will often make the narrative, as well as the level design and therefore the game as a whole, more cohesive and compelling.

Fair enough, but many of our readers are small-scale developers who are working with rudimentary recording equipment and casting novice actors, friends and family members. It sounds like good writing and compassionate direction goes a long way, but are there any specific techniques you can recommend, or common mistakes you'd like to help developers avoid?

As you noted, strong writing is essential. Most players bond with interesting characters rather than feeling compelled by a typical 3-act plot structure (as they would in a linear narrative). Good characterization from the writer will give great support to whomever is performing the voice, even if that actor is a beginner. For auditions, with a lower budget, I'd seek out and audition local theater students who are looking for credits on their resumes. Have people audition in person to gauge if you get along well and can co-create together. Directing is mostly casting, and the rest of the performance will only be good if mutual trust exists. If someone is a great actor, but a pain to work with, the session will not flow naturally, and the result will be lower quality.

"A quiet room with insulation is crucial. Many voice actors nowadays will record auditions in a hotel room under the bedcovers with an inexpensive iPhone mic."

Avoid people who are exclusively focused on impressions, mimicry, or accents -- these are not the same as acting. Target people who, in their reads, make you feel something personal and emotionally resonant. If you find yourself evaluating someone intellectually (e.g. "I can see how he made an interesting choice with X"), you're wasting time. Saying, "Holy cow, that person made me feel [happy, sad, creeped out, etc.]," when it's a match for the feeling you want for that character - that's the vein of gold to mine. Most humans innately know when a dog or other person feels "sketchy" or dangerous on the street. Follow that instinct, rather than over-intellectualizing. Once the project is cast, do at least one table read to iterate on the script, but have only one ultimate decision-maker about final line changes, if any. Actors should always be paid for their workshop and recording time, even if it is only $20/hr. Try as hard as you can to find a low-cost but reasonable-quality professional recording studio and engineer. Many community colleges have broadcasting programs -- see if one of the engineering students has a space where voices can be recorded inexpensively. Do a test recording in that space first (even 15 minutes with your own voice), and integrate those samples into the game to ensure there is not too much room tone or other technical issues. In the studio, performers and directors should focus on the actors behaving in a way that feels natural for them. Rather than trying to "act with a capital 'a'," acting is about believing you are who you're portraying, and then being that person wholeheartedly -- resonant performances are honest performances. An actor should not pretend or imagine what it would feel like if their character is heartbroken -- an actor should remember a heartbreak from their past, live in it, and then say the line. I heard an actor say to a director once, "Wait, do you mean that you want me to feel this way in the scene, or in real life?" The director said, "Why do you think there's a difference?" Truth can not be faked. It's dangerous work, and requires courage. Allow for improvisation and natural language changes in the studio, and allow the actor (within reason) to try a few different versions if an alternate read feels more natural for a few lines (not all lines). Don't be married to the way the writer or director "heard" the line in their head. Keep clean, well organized notes in the studio of your "selected takes." They will save many editorial hours. If you're recording a conversation between people, recording "ensemble" (with the actors in the same room at the same time) can be a great way to keep the conversation natural, as long as the actors do not speak over or interrupt one another. I think new voice actors can benefit greatly from the advice of well-known actor Dee Bradley Baker on his Studio Etiquette page. New directors can benefit greatly from an excellent book written for stage directors, Notes On Directing, which has many tips applicable to directing for any medium. Regarding doing good voice on poor equipment or any equipment, a quiet room with insulation is crucial. Many voice actors nowadays will record auditions in a hotel room under the bedcovers with an inexpensive iPhone mic. Dee Bradley Baker's page is definitely my "go to" for how to record under extenuating circumstances, although the myth that we listen to auditions in our car is not accurate for video games and animation -- we're sticklers for audio detail.

So when it comes to voice acting in games, what could we be doing better?

Before we decide to hire actors, we need to figure out if we're really committed to character and narrative in a game, and to be very honest with ourselves about how or if it's truly serving the design. If we're truly committed, then all the steps mentioned above will help. If it's just something to put on the back of the box, I don't believe it's worth the expense. That's coming from someone who was a founding member of the first professional VO department in the industry. I love voice more than anything. I want it to be done well, because it can be life-changing -- I have the letters, and I'm not the only one. But when it's done poorly, it can destroy the experience. Better no voice at all than poor voice. Costume Quest is a great example -- we could have done voice and we chose not to. I still think it's one of the most endearing games of the past few years. A hot topic at the moment is celebrity voice in games. Because I've personally worked with so many celebs, people often assume I'm automatically in favor, but it depends on the situation. A long time ago, someone in a AAA publisher's marketing group did a study about whether having celebrities in games if they weren't already attached to a brand (e.g. John Madden in Madden or Patrick Stewart in Star Trek) was worth the cost. The answer was, "no." The "butts in seats" model (whereby an A-list celeb in a film guarantees a certain amount of box office proceeds) simply didn't apply to games. When celebrities are perfect for a role, the results can be amazing. When they're not, there's a danger that the industry can be seen as trying to take narrative and characterization shortcuts by hiring typecast actors instead of doing the hard work of creating innovative, powerful characters of our own. It can also make us look as though we're trying to assign ourselves borrowed credit and glamour by hiring celebrities. This can backfire doubly when they're wasted on rushed scripts or uncertain direction. If we truly believe in our art, we don't need any external validation. When we put story and character first, the best actors will knock down our doors, and the best scripts will be recorded with laughter and joy.

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