With our caustic presidential race dominating the news, and a standoff in Dakota over human rights vs corporate rights taking “second chair,” it might be hard to summon the attention or energy to get passionate about a video game voice actor strike too. However, if you’ve ever been entertained, excited, comforted or moved by an animated show, movie or game then you have voice actors to thank. Whether you know it or not, their performance mattered to you then and their future should matter now.
#performancematters is the hashtag supporting the actors strike for a fair contract for video game performance actors.
This article is not short so in the interest of “dessert first” the most important part is the first paragraph and video…
For those who are unfamiliar with voice actors, I like to describe “Voice Acting” as having all the challenges of acting without the benefit of facial expressions, body language, fame, fortune or job security. But “voice actors” now are called on to do even more than that with no additional benefits, credit or even workplace safeguards. Most video games now employ motion capture to their cgi. What this means is that the “voice actor” is also acting physically, often in stressful and sometimes dangerous situations, but under a contract meant for reading lines a little at a time in a studio over the course of the years that it took to make the animation or video game. What the movement seeks is more about basic rights and fair compensation and representation. I got to interview one of these talented actors at the very first MegaCon Tampa Bay last weekend. Between the interview and his Q&A show, I got the basics and had to say something. I wanted to get the content out quickly so please forgive the lack of ‘intro’, effects, overlays, etc.
This is why #performancematters should matter to you…
2-minutes from SAG-AFTRA on #performancematters…
15 minutes from Steve Blume on #performancematters…
Now, heres my story…
When my wife and I were the age of our children, cartoons were for Saturday morning. Since I grew up in Chicago we had the added benefit of live children’s programs which included some cartoons each morning before school. I got to wake up to the Ray Reyner show, kind of a morning kids news show, and the Bozo the clown show. The Bozo Show was a big deal in Chicago, audience tickets took years to get. It had a variety of entertainment including the “Bozo Buckets” game where two young audience participants got to compete for prizes. At the time voice acting was limited to a few cartoons from a few production companies and the occasional puppet (like Howdy Doody.)
Furthermore, we didn’t see a video game until pong and I was in junior high (middle school) before we had Atari. By then we also had a few cartoons airing in the afternoon.
My favorite was G-Force.
Much to my dismay, my children know “G-Force” as the more recent talking hamster movie.
But this generation of children has been weaned on a steady supply of increasingly more realistic and interactive animated characters. Before the evolution of computer graphics, the ability to create animations had the physical limitation of time. “Voice Actors” likely didn’t have the same grueling schedules because animated characters had to be drawn by hand, and redrawn over and over. Depending on frame rate that can be 24-60 drawings per second of film.
Walt was famous for speeding up the process by using layered cells. When I was in first grade we had a guest speaker (a parent of one of my classmates) who worked for Hanna-Barbera. He showed us the process where there was a bottom layer of film that acted as the backdrop and The characters were made up of multiple sheets of mostly clear plastic. The next layer would be the body and above that, individual sheets for each arm and leg. This process was essentially the same as stop motion animation, just done with layered sheet of cells instead of a three-dimensional figure. He then explained that once they were satisfied with the movements, special actors would give life to the characters without the benefits of being able to use facial expressions or body language. He then held a picture of Yogi and boo-boo in front of his face and acted as each independent character using only his own voice. I was sitting on the floor, with this guy only a couple feet away from me and remember still being amazed that it was just one person doing both different character voices. I was thoroughly impressed by this ability and started trying to mimic the voices of some of my favorite cartoons from then on, starting of course, with Yogi & Boo-Boo.
By the time I made it to junior high I had quite the mental portfolio of characters I could “do.” I did announcer voices, horror movie voices, Fred, Barney, Dino and a small selection of the most popular Warner Bros. and Disney icons. Unfortunately that was about the time where it wasn’t cool to do cartoon voices in class and my parents certainly didn’t want to hear them at the dinner table. Regardless, in my house you went to school to get into college, to get a ‘regular job’ (preferably one that made a lot of money), period. So from junior high on I focused more generally on trying to mimic accents. Once puberty hit I found it was far more effective to walk up to a girl using a British accent than talking like Mickey Mouse or Goofy. I also did French and southern but none of them very well, which was fine because I often broke character quickly out of guilt that I was deceiving someone. But I never made the mistake of thinking that my “passable” Mickey or fake southern drawl was the same kind of performance given by a professional actor. I still do voices at times but I wouldn’t buy a video game voiced by me.
Unfortunately it seems that many of the executives specifically at the video game companies don’t understand something that I clearly learned when they were still in diapers… #performancematters
Wether those animated characters were drawn with pen and ink on cells in the 1940’s or whipped up at home last night using Adobe “puppets” on a Mac, they all have one thing in common… a human acting behind them.
As animation became more efficient, it became used more widely. With the advent of CGI, we no longer even know sometimes that were watching animation. Now, with motion capture (think Andy Serkis as Gollum from LOR/Hobbit, live vs. animated) even more is required from these actors who are only thought of as ‘a voice.’
First of all, regardless of the extra duty on motion capture, these ‘voice actors’ have always been more than a voice. They aren’t just reading lines into a microphone, they’re acting. They still need to convey all the emotion and vocal tequniques that any actor would to be convincing on screen, yet they can’t use any expressions or body language to convey it. The truth is that voice actors do more with less, not the other way around. And very few of them ever get wealthy or famous. If I listed off the most ‘famous’ voice actors right now I’ll bet few readers would know many of them. The best example I have for this came to me at mega con Orlando last May…
- I was still trying to deal with there being no Star Wars weekends in 2016 so as a writer for Star Wars reporter.com who had planned on making a big splash that month I jumped at the opportunity to at least cover mega con as press. One of my absolute favorites who had become exponentially harder to see, much less meet at Star Wars weekends was going to be doing autograph signings and a Q&A at mega con. Also at that mega con would be a new favorite I met in 2015, Daniel Logan as well as someone who I never got to meet any of the years he was at Disney, Jeremy Bullock the original Boba Fett. It was my great fortune to have several opportunities to talk to, film, and interview all three. Though grateful for how easy it was to interact with the celebrities it gave me a new perspective. Each of these interactions will have its own video on FF (once edited) so I won’t bore you readers with the details now. There’s one example in my article… More Daniel!
What summed up my takeaway on the life of a working voice actor though was James Arnold Taylor’s Q&A. Here was a voice acting legend, one of the few who’s name is known. One year prior he was Celebrity Host at Disney’s Star Wars Weekends, doing multiple shows a day at Disney for tens of thousands of screaming fans, thousands who paid an extra $100/head for VIP seating at the parades and shows and hundreds who paid $400/head for premium VIP access to the same. He had no scheduled autograph signings at all in 2015 over the course of the entire five weekend festival. The small handful of autographed photos that he handed out during some of his shows were precious prizes, occasionally sold on eBay (but not by this fan family). Our son has one of those precious few photos that JAT handed to him during the last show of the last day of what would turn out to be the last Star Wars Weekend and that JAT show closed with a lengthy standing ovation.
Now here it was memorial day weekend in Orlando, a day that would be so crowded at Disney that seasoned veterans like us don’t even consider setting foot on property, and here was James… at the Orange County Convention Center, in a breakout room that would hold maybe 200 but had about half that. One pair even walked out early, not even giving the respect of sitting through the whole 30 or 40 minute show. The Q & A was set up that after JAT’s introductory talk, the questions, written down ahead of time, would be chosen randomly and he would answer the few he could get to. As it turned out, pretty much all of the questions that had been submitted were answered. Some guests got two or three through. There was even time to open the floor to a couple additional questions before delivering his close. To add to my empathy I learned during the show that James big blockbuster movie Ratchet and Clank (from the popular video game) had already come and gone from the theaters. I was excited when I first heard about it not because I knew anything about the characters or the video game but because James Arnold Taylor was going to be a main voice in a full feature animated film. But I didn’t notice it immediately when it hit the theaters and I guess I waited too long to find out. With fans like me who needs enemies, right? I promise James, I’ll watch it on Netflix.
Now, don’t feel too bad for James, he’s been working very hard for a very long time and is one of the fortunate few that has some say in negotiation and has several options when it comes to protecting his rights and his future. It does illustrate the crisis though, when even us fans are ignorant of the sheer volume of work any given voice actor has done before they make it to our ‘radar.’ When I covered MegaConTampa I knew I wanted to see Steve Blum but mainly because he is a voice on Star Wars Rebels. In our interview with Mr. Blum, Karl asked him what it’s like being a newer voice actor and getting to work with ‘famous’ ones. (Karl was referring to people like; James Arnold Taylor, Dee Bradley Baker, Ashley Eckstein, Tom Kane, etc. all voices on Clone Wars.) We learned in Spotlight on Steve Blum that he is far from a ‘newer’ voice actor. Steve Blum, in fact, holds the Guinness World Record as most prolific voice actor! And we who follow and report on such things didn’t even know it.
These people matter.
If it matters to you, join in the conversation.