Remember when you could get away with having your programmers and testers read the lines for the in-game dialogue? Well, those days are over. Way over.
A full, rich entertainment experience on today's platforms demands high-quality, professionally produced audio assets. Key to the audio quality is the voice-over (VO) - if its quality is not up to par, your audio will fall flat, dragging down with it the overall production level of the whole game. To remain competitive in this arena, game producers are turning to the tried and true techniques of voice-over production as honed over the decades by Hollywood's traditional media and entertainment companies, and finding ways to borrow Hollywood's people and processes.
This article focuses on the latest Hollywood production methods being adopted by game producers to create better voice-over assets. From getting the right start by ensuring that you have a well-polished script (because paring the world's best actor with a poorly written script leaves you with nothing more than bad entertainment), to securing the ideal actors at below-market rates, dealing with the unions without dealing with the unions, directing professional actors to capture your characters' personalities, all the way through to systematically managing the dialogue files, there are tricks to adopt, pitfalls to avoid, and tips to remember that will help ensure optimal quality, cost containment, and sticking to the schedule. The seven secrets of VO production provide for greater efficiency in the acquisition of voice-over assets while enabling higher quality, cost savings and time savings in the production process.
The Secrets of VO production
Each of the seven sections that follow is introduced by an issue that represents a typical pitfall or dilemma facing the voice-over producer. Each of the seven sections is accompanied by a process diagram that demonstrates where the topic being addressed falls within the VO production process. The problems are then resolved through recommendations, and the solutions are summarized in the seven secrets.
Issue #1: Where does good VO production begin?
Secret #1: It all starts with a good script.
The surest way to produce disappointing VO is to record from an unpolished script. Though scriptwriting is commonly not considered part of VO production, nothing has more impact on the quality of VO output, and nothing causes more blown schedules and budgets in VO production. The fact is that no amount of casting magic or acting talent can make up for a bad script. A small upfront investment in contracting professional screenwriters to polish up script dialogue can save multiple amounts of time and money during and after VO production. It will also lead to a much more convincing entertainment experience.
Game producers need to make it a priority to get each script to be the best it possibly can. They also need to recognize that dialogue writing is a complex craft, best practiced by trained and talented professionals, and that such professional writers can add value to any script.
Issue #2: How do you prevent pitfalls through the VO production process?
Secret #2: Thorough and complete preparation before casting commences.
Inadequate preparation before the casting process is another common cause of problems, disappointments, and overruns in VO production. Proper preparation requires first taking the time to find a casting director who matches the needs of the project. Then it is the producer's responsibility to prepare and deliver a complete and well-organized information package to the casting directors before they begin casting. Such a package consists of information including:
- A complete and final script
- A breakdown of the script, including:
- Number of characters
- Number of actors
- Lines per character
- Types of VO (dialogue, ADR, fight sounds, walla, etc.)
- Types of readings, e.g. single or ensemble, etc.
- Number of characters
- Effective auditioning materials, including:
- Extremely detailed and thorough character descriptions
- Celebrity archetypes
- Voice descriptions
- Audition scripts
- Extremely detailed and thorough character descriptions
- A timeline for the project
- A qualified list of talent and production resources
This information enables: (1) the casting director to negotiate more effectively for more talent availability at better prices; (2) the casting process to move forward much more quickly; (3) reduced or elimination of fixes through pick-up sessions; and most important (4) voice-over tracks that bring characters to life in a way that matches the vision of the game creators/producers. A small upfront investment in the time it takes to assemble materials and create a clear and concise plan will prevent many problems further down the road. A good casting director will guide the production team through preparation of the right information.
Issue #3: Union or non-union acting talent?
Secret #3: Don't shy away from union actors.
There's a common misconception that union talent is expensive. The decision to use union or non-union acting talent affects the cost of several phases of any VO production project, in addition to the talent fees themselves. Even though the fully loaded talent costs for union talent (including agents' fees, payroll taxes, pension health and welfare contributions, signatory and payroll services) can be 1.5 to 2 times that of non-union talent on an hour-by-hour basis, it's also important to examine the cost implications throughout the rest of the VO production process.
In the casting phases, casting non-union talent takes significantly more time. Union actors are readily reached through their union-franchised agents. Non-union actors have to be sought out in never-certain ways. Seeking out appropriate non-union actors is a time-consuming process, adding significant cost to the casting work. As a result, casting non-union talent typically costs more than casting union talent.
In the recording phase, recording non-union talent takes more time. Because non-union talent does not have the experience of union talent, the recording session will inevitably require more takes and move more slowly between takes. This adds up to greater costs due to more studio time, and longer session times for talent. Non-union talent also typically requires re-casting and re-recording due to the un-expected nature of using talent that has less experience. Non-union sessions often require a greater budget due to studio expenses and talent time.
In the editing phase, editing costs are higher on non-union audio files. From sorting through more takes to cleaning up breathing and extraneous noises, there is more work to be done in dialogue editing. As a result, the editing job for non-union dialogue typically costs more.
VO project phase Cost; union vs. non-union
Casting Non-union costs more than union
Talent costs Union costs more than non-union
Recording Non-union costs more than union
Editing Non-union costs more than union
The talent costs are generally the most expensive line item, so these cost differences do not weigh equally. Still, overall project costs for VO production are generally at least 10-20% more expensive with non-union talent.
In addition to cost, other issues to consider include:
- Time savings. If the project schedule is an issue, using union talent will save time in all of the phases outlined above.
- Quality of talent. The economics of the acting profession ensure that the best actors at every price level are union actors (if an actor does not join the union, he/she will forfeit significant income, experience, and exposure.)
- Celebrity access: Using non-union talent in a title will prohibit the use of any recognizable celebrity actors.
- More options: There are far more professional union actors than non-union actors, thus providing many more alternatives to chose from for any particular role.
- More roles per actor: Professional VO actors can play numerous characters without any recognition that the voices derived from the same person.
- Taft-Hartley: The actors unions offer provisions that allow integration of non-union actors into union projects without violating union rules.
There are smart ways and not-so-smart ways to save money on acting talent. Among the not-so-smart ways: (1) Restricting the talent pool to non-union actors. (2) Seeking the talent with the cheapest rates. Among the smart ways: (1) Using professional VO actors who can nail multiple roles without anyone ever knowing it's the same person (under union regulations, two additional roles per actor cost not a penny more). (2) Negotiating fees through casting directors with an inside track to talent representation instead of going straight to the agents.
The net result is a better deal with union talent, especially when the quality differential is factored in.
The other issue with union talent is the general discomfort that comes with getting in bed with the union. True, unions can make a producer's job more difficult, burdensome, and restrictive. The solution is very simple: don't deal with the union. Outsource the work to a voice-over producer that does it for a living.
Issue #4: And wouldn't it be great if Tom Cruise played the lead?
Secret #4: If you're considering using celebrity in your game, better do the analysis first.
The videogame industry is abuzz with the debate surrounding the increasing use of celebrity talent in videogames. Developers and publishers alike are pushing for more and more celebrity actors to perform the voice-over roles in their games, driven by vague notions that celebrities should increase both demand for the game on the shelf and the entertainment quality inside the box. Given the high cost of celebrity placement, however, and the disappointing results from several early efforts, the developer community is beginning to seriously question the rationale behind the trend.
A simple method for evaluating investment in celebrity focuses on contribution to profitability. The model for this type of evaluation is as follows:
ROI = (P - C) / C
ROI = the Return On Investment for the celebrity placement
P = Additional profit due to celebrity usage
C = Cost of celebrity
The downside to this model is the inherent difficulty in determining the value of P. That problem itself may suggest additional cause for more evaluative tools and solutions.
A factor in celebrity contribution analysis is also the company's cost of capital as a relative benchmark for ROI. For instance, if the model predicts that the ROI of a celebrity placement will be below 10%, then the videogame production company may have better things to do with capital of this magnitude.
Other qualitative factors to consider in the question of celebrity value in videogames include the well-recognized fact that celebrity actors in games do not draw consumers in the same way that they do in TV and film. Quite simply, a gamer does not purchase a title because so-and-so performs the voice-over of a particular character. Moviegoers certainly do purchase movie tickets because of the celebrity cast, and this holds true even to a significant extent for animated films. And the same argument can be made, though to a lesser extent, in the case of viewership for television programming.
Finally, the videogame producer should also keep in mind that a professional VO actor can always be found to deliver a higher-quality voice-over performance than any given celebrity actor, for a fraction of the cost.
Issue #5: What can make a good actor even better?
Secret #5: Make sure your acting talent is well directed.
A good actor's training typically comes from working in theatre, film, TV, commercial work, stand-up… anything but interactive media. So when actors deliver their lines, they tend to have traditional linear entertainment in their heads, and sometimes they don't get the nuances particular to an interactive production. They may not understand fully the character, or the situation, or the interaction between characters. As a result, even with great talent and a great script, an actor's reads can miss the mark.
The solution? Make sure a voice director with the right experience and sensibilities is in the studio for the recording. A good voice director will also set the pace for the recording, keeping the actors running at their peak while coordinating the operations and logistics of the session. Most professional voice directors are versed in the technical aspects of how a professional digital recording studio works, enabling them to achieve exactly the sound the client is after. They will also know how the editing process works, and can make specific calls in the studio that will improve the efficiency of post-production audio. The efficiencies gained provide a great return on the investment in voice direction.
Issue #6: How do you keep everything organized at the end of the VO production process?
Secret #6: Employ good asset management practices from the beginning.
Walking out of a recording session with hours of raw audio from multiple actors reading a slew of takes for each line inevitably leads to nightmares when it comes time to locate an individual take. Worse yet is the confusion that results when different versions of the dialogue files are mixed and replaced without pre-planning your naming conventions, directory structures and version control procedures. The first part of the solution lies in utilizing the sound engineer from the recording session, whose first-hand knowledge of the recording enables him to sort and label select takes in a fraction of the time it would take anyone else. The second part is to establish a smart system of organizing and naming the dialogue files before the date of record, and sticking to it from then on.
Asset management needs to begin in the pre-casting preparation phase of the process, with file editing specifications, file naming conventions, a system for organizing and keeping dialogue files, quality control procedures, and a plan for tracking and dealing with different versions of the files. Then those procedures need to be maintained through successive process phases - casting, recording (including dialogue editing), and through to final asset integration.
Issue #7: How do you ensure success at every stage of the VO production process?
Secret #7: Take advantage of Hollywood expertise.
Just as game design is a specialty of the videogame industry, VO production is a specialty of Hollywood. Hollywood has been at it for 80 years, so the best expertise resides there. The Hollywood entertainment production industries operate by subcontracting the tasks they need accomplished to specialists who work from job-to-job on a freelance basis, so accessibility is there. And Hollywood attracts way more qualified individuals in the field than it can possibly employ, so there's great value to be had there. Through every phase of the videogame VO production process, Hollywood is a great place to look for help.
Game producers really have two alternatives when they need to find expertise in voice-over production: They can try to recreate, in their game production studios, the immense expertise of Hollywood. Or they can tap that expertise where it currently is.
Summary: The seven secrets of VO production
1. It all starts with a good script.
2. Prepare thoroughly before casting.
3. Don't shy away from union actors.
4. Do the analysis on celebrities.
5. Make sure talent is well-directed.
6. Employ good asset management... from the begining.
7. Take advantage of Hollywood expertise throughout.