Voice acting for video games

In today’s guest post, Yuri Lowenthal (who voiced the Prince in 2003’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time) talks about the special challenges of voice acting, as opposed to acting on camera.

When Yuri, Joanna Wasick and I came together in a sound studio for the first day of voice recording on POP:SOT, we didn’t have animations, animatics, or even concept art yet. While the POP team was bringing the world and characters of the game to life on screen, two actors first needed to make them real in their imaginations. The Prince and Farah began as voices in darkness.

I cherish voice recording as a special, thrilling, and terrifying moment in game production. Having experienced it from a writer-director’s point of view, I asked Yuri for an actor’s perspective on the process.

Yuri Lowenthal is an actor who lives and works in Los Angeles. You may have heard/seen him in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Afro Samurai, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Ben 10. He is married to actress Tara Platt and easily stalked at @YuriLowenthal. And if you’re nice he’ll tell you the exciting story about the time he met Jake Gyllenhaal.

People often ask me: “What’s harder? Voice acting or real acting?” I’ve heard it so many times that I hardly get offended anymore. Almost hardly. I mean, I get it; the person speaking is really trying to say: “What kind of acting is more difficult, the kind where we just end up hearing your voice, or the kind where we end up seeing your face?”

Well, let’s break it down:

For on-camera acting, I generally get the script in advance, time to talk with the director about the character and what his or her vision is for the project, maybe do a little research, put on a costume, work with some props, walk around the set, rehearse with other actors, and take time to break down the script so that I can bring you, the viewer, the best performance I am capable of.

For voice acting, I generally show up the morning of the recording, am handed a script, and after about 5 minutes (if I’m lucky) of discussion with the director (or sometimes writer) about the project, we get down to business so that I can bring you, the viewer/listener/gamer, the best performance I am capable of. Will my performance be judged less harshly because I didn’t have the niceties that an on-camera or theatrical situation can afford? Absolutely not.

As a voice actor, I have to jump in, scan the script, get as much info as possible in a short amount of time from the people involved and make choices on the spot — but stay flexible in case my choices aren’t in line with what the client needs. I have to pay extra close attention to the director, because they usually have a LOT more information about the story and characters than I do. And I’m alone, empty-handed, in whatever clothes I grabbed out of my closet that morning, in a room about the size of the closet I grabbed my clothes from, standing in front of a sensitive microphone that will pick up every little sound — voluntary or involuntary — that I make. And the only thing I can count on being there for me is my imagination.

Not that I don’t use my imagination when I’m acting on camera; but in the booth, it’s my most powerful weapon. In the dark, by yourself, you have to create everything — which, when you look at it, can be either terrifying or immensely empowering. For fear of otherwise dissolving into a gibbering puddle of panic, I choose “empowering.” You have to. You must bring a certain confidence into the booth with you, because no one else will be there to prop you up, and the client rarely has giant wodges of time for you to “find” your performance.

To be a good voice actor, you have to be a crack actor. A cool voice will only get you so far. Years of theater gave me a huge jump on voice acting. And you know what? All the voice acting I’ve done has made me a better on-camera actor.

Now, I’m not saying one or the other is better. I love both, and I absolutely love showing up to do a voice acting gig and not have to get there at 5am for makeup and wardrobe and then sit in a trailer for a couple of hours while they light and rehearse until they’re ready for me to come out and say three lines of dialogue. Instead, I can roll into the studio at 9am and be out by 1pm, sometimes having finished recording what is, in essence, a whole movie. And I didn’t even really have to put pants on.

On the other hand, sometimes I love getting into a suit of armor and hitting another actor with a sword.

(As I watch my video game work segue from voice acting to sometimes full performance capture, I see the two worlds on a collision course. But that’s a story for another day.)

When I’m voice acting, you don’t get to see my face, so it ceases to be a question of whether or not I “look the part.” If I can sound like it, I can be it. You don’t see a lot of working voice actors getting cast because of their looks. Once again, you have to be a good actor. Not just a pretty face. Or even Persian.

Posted on Sep 21, 2011 in Blog, Film, Games, Guest Post, Making Games, Prince of Persia | 2 comments

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  1. 9-21-2011

    Great post, Yuri!

    It’s amazing to me how many people think that “deep pipes” mean an automatic career in voice acting. I haven’t had the success that Yuri’s had (and I’m still itching for my first video game gig – too bad the A-listers are starting to encroach there as well ;-p ), but I’ve been doing commercials and industrials for over 20 years now as a sometimes lucrative second job.

    From time to time when it comes up that I do voice work two things inevitably happen: 1) The person I’m speaking to assumes that I’m making bank in a cush job (it can be cush, but rarely, for me, has it led to big bucks), and 2) they want to give me a cd/mp3 of their husband, uncle, cousin, or the neighbor’s au pair reading scripts. Now, first of all, I have a hard enough time securing my own gigs let alone actively trying to promote them over me. But, honestly, having a deeper voice than God is worthless if you have zero performance skills.

    I know a successful voice actor locally who has a relatively high pitch center, but he’s much sought after because he can deliver a great interpretation every single time, turns on a dime following directions, and has mastered complete control of his instrument.

    • 9-21-2011

      Hey Chip, I’m not a casting director or anything but I’d love to hear your demo.

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