Gears of War 4's character models are some of the best in the business, with highly-detailed faces and textures that are able to convey subtle expressions. But Gears 4 is a third person shooter, meaning that you spend the vast majority of the time looking at the characters' backs and butts. If the characters have any personality, it's mostly due to the game's voice actors.
In our feature about the making of a big budget video game, we spent a lot of time describing Gears 4 developer The Coalition going through "crunch," the period of time when developers work extra long hours to meet a deadline.
What most players don't realize is that voice actors also work under extreme conditions to ship a big budget game. They might not work as many hours, but at the end of the day they can often come home with headaches and sore throats, unable to do anything but lay down and rest.
"A lot of people think you're just talking into a mic, and that's not it"
At E3 2016, I had a chance to sit down with The Coalition studio head Rod Fergusson and the main voice actors in Gears 4: Liam McIntyre (the lead in Spartacus), John DiMaggio (Bender from Futurama), Laura Bailey (a prolific video game voice actress), and Eugene Byrd.
As DiMaggio explained it, most of what people think of as acting is not that dangerous. It's lines of dialogue and exposition. Where things get hard is what Fergusson calls "combat chatter."
If a game character gets hurt, jumps over a wall, or calls out for help, the voice actor will have to provide matching audio and throwaway lines, with multiple versions for each action, so the game doesn't sound repetitive. Gears 4 is such a big game, with so many actions and variables, each actor has to dedicate hours of recording just to combat chatter. Unlike dialogue, it requires screaming and grunting and in general straining the vocal cords. According to Bailey, who has worked on a lot of video games, about half her time in the recording booth is dedicated to combat chatter.
"A lot of people think you're just talking into a mic, and that's not it," DiMaggio said. "It's a lot of work."
Crunch has been a big issue in the games industry since a much publicized EA_Spouse blog, in which the fiancée of an Electronic Arts programmer chronicled the impact crunch had on their lives. Harsh working conditions at the time eventually prompted a couple of lawsuits from EA employees, which ended in multi-million dollar settlements.
Last year, video game voice actors tried to get similar recognition for their own harsh working conditions, without much success. The Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) tried to organize a strike to fight back against cases where voice actors are overworked, as well as back-end bonuses that are common for movie actors. Though it got overwhelming support from SAG members, the union never followed through with the strike and is currently still negotiating for conditions that will prevent or pay for damage caused by stressful work in the recording booth.
"I don't think any actor in a booth should hurt themselves to do a job"
So far, voice actors haven't been able to convince publishers and movie studios that they deserve the same treatment as, say, actors who do their own stunts.
DiMaggio has been voice acting for over 20 years, and if you've watched a cartoon during that time you're probably familiar with his work. He shifts in and out of different voices and characters as he talks, but when this subject comes up he speaks seriously and to the point.
"I don't think any actor in a booth should hurt themselves to do a job, and I think that game companies need to realize it's not just talking into a mic," DiMaggio said. "There's a lot more to it. They have to be conscious of it. You can't run people ragged. If they can't go any further and you have two hours left, that's something you're going to have to eat. You'll get it, don't worry, but there's only so much we can do."
Since they don't get many protections in their contracts, how much stress they experience in the recording booth changes from job to job. In Gears 4's case, the voice actors said, it's not bad.
Fergusson flies down to Los Angeles from The Coalition's studio in Vancouver to direct recording sessions. Voice actors work in four-hour sessions, but if they ever need a break during that time to rest and drink some tea, they can.
"With film acting you work really hard, but you have to wait for 20 minutes whether you like it or not because someone has to set up a light," McIntyre said. "In the booth you can just go again, go again, go again, and repeat for four hours. In your head you think it's just talking. How hard can it be? But two hours in you're like, I can't speak anymore."
For McIntyre, who's new to voice acting, sometimes Fergusson will give him a break before he even needs one.
"If every director was as giving as Rod is with that, then this wouldn't even be an issue," Bailey said. "It's the people who don't understand that actors they bring in aren't machines and can't just do everything that they ask."
For now, voice actors either have to put up with tough working conditions, or skip the jobs where they don't get treated well, which is not something many actors want to do. Depending on where they are in their careers, they might not have a choice. Before that can change, voice actors have to convince publishers that their work can take a real toll, but so far they haven't had much luck.
"Everyone who thinks this is a bullshit argument that SAG-AFTRA is trying to put forth, I dare anybody to scream and yell for two hours," DiMaggio said. "Tell me how you feel after those two hours. Add another two hours to that. That's a bad day. Your brain hurts."
Correction: This article originally said that voice actors work in two, four-hour sessions a day. A director might schedule to record with two different actors in the same day, but a single voice actor may only work for one, four-hour a session per day. Motherboard regrets the error.
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