Splash Damage Directing VO 101
June 19, 2020
NO ONE TRUE METHOD
There’s no single approach to working with Voice Actors that works 100% of the time. It’s a human process, not just a technical one. Sometimes it just doesn’t work: the actor has an off day, or you’ve cast them wrong. But what you can and must do is maximise your chances of success by being well prepared and well informed, which will free you up to just use your ears and make decisions on the day. You are an equal collaborator with the actor. Help yourself help them. You’re in this together.
Before any live session, SD Audio should have already sent over a technical brief to the recording studio. This will detail things like file format, sample rate, bit rate, microphone choice, file levels, file naming conventions, what format for actor reference videos, whether you want delivery all in one batch or as they’re processed, etc. You shouldn’t need to answer any audio technical questions; your job is to keep the game in mind, and direct the actor.
Send over the final version of the script as soon as you can, so the agency can pass it on to the actor to study. If the script’s not final, better to send them as much as you have, so they can get a sense of the tone of the game. Hopefully you have a nicely filled-out casting brief, with key character art and mood boards. Generally, the actor will be working from a hard-copy paper script, because unlike a computer monitor or iPad, they can write notes and corrections on it. The studio will probably print the scripts out for you. Make sure they’re legible. If the actor starts struggling with reads, it might be worth discreetly asking for a new printout in a bigger font size.
The script the actor sees should only have information they can use:
- Unique Line Identifier (absolute, not relative, so it’s not just “fifteenth line from the top”)
- Line text
- Direction/Gameplay Context
Don’t use up valuable page space with WWISE event names, localisation tabs, subtitle text etc.
Read the script aloud before printing/sending it for the actor to study.
What do you absolutely HAVE to get in the can this session? What’s a Want rather than a Need? If the actor’s voice starts failing halfway through, what section of the script do you absolutely need to get recorded? Make sure you know in advance.
You’ll want to spend the first 10 minutes chatting with the actor, establishing a rapport, and briefing them/showing them reference material etc.
Divide the session into 10- or 15-minute blocks and have an idea of where you want to be at each timecheck. If it’s a long, 4-hour session, maybe have timechecks only every 30 minutes.
Only 1 person should ever be giving directions to the actor, and that’s you.
DON’T GRIMACE OR PUT THE ACTOR OFF WHILE THEY’RE PERFORMING
ALWAYS LEAVE SCREAMS AND EXERTIONS TO THE END OF THE SESSION
AT THE SESSION
Get there early, but don’t hang around the recording studio too long before or after your session: they have other clients and projects they need to keep secret. Find a café or coffee shop around the corner. If other staff are attending the session, make sure they know which place you’ve chosen in advance, so they can rendezvous with you even if they lose their phone.
Make sure you’ve fed, watered and caffeinated yourself. Go to the toilet now. When you get to the studio, Turn Your Phone Off, unless the office needs to update you on late script changes.
At the very least, switch it to silent. Ask for the Wi-Fi password. If you have a laptop, check it’s plugged in AND DEFINITELY CHARGING.
THE ENGINEER:YOUR BEST FRIEND
There’ll be an audio Engineer there to oversee setting up the session, placing microphones and music stands for the scripts, making sure the actor’s headphones are at the right volume, etc. They are your closest ally. Find out who they are in advance, introduce yourself to them, learn their name, and call them by it. They’ll appreciate being treated as an equal in this endeavour.
If you have images or audio or video for actor reference, make sure the Engineer can find the folder they were downloaded to and get them to play (they’re in the preferred format as specified in the technical brief, of course).
Always have key art, screenshots, gameplay animations, playtest footage, or the game trailer. Wherever possible use music and/or ambient audio through the actor’s headphones, not just to inspire and inform them, but to also give them something to react to. You might want to have an audio track of combat sounds to shout over. Make sure any such files are findable and playable through their headphones at the right volume.
There’ll usually be a desk microphone for you to talk through the actor’s headphones; the engineer will have one as well. The button is usually a toggle, not press-to-talk. It’s extremely easy to either forget to press the Talk button or leave it on. Remember, the actor needs to be wearing their headphones to hear you.
If you need to sort something out in the control room and it’s going to take a few minutes, tell the actor to take a few minutes’ break. Don’t keep them hanging while you deal with an issue.
LOTIONS AND POTIONS
If they notice the actor’s making too many mouth noises or is too dry (their voice is too dry?), they might suggest the actor drinks some water or hot honey and lemon, or take a bite of a green apple (or, less well-known, a lick of sugar). They’ll sort them out with herbal tea, or hot or cold water. They’ll even order you coffee. The Engineer takes care of all of it for you.
Generally, Voice Actors stand rather than sit, and they have a music stand with their script on it.
Make sure the actors don’t get too ‘chin-down‘ looking down at script pages, as it’ll corrupt their posture and restrict their vocal range. Make sure the VO booth is clean and tidy for them and that there are pens/pencils available, as well as a glass of water. Experienced Voice Actors are used to managing headphone leads so they don’t clang against the music stand and know not to wear jingly jewellery or have rattly coins in their pockets. Keep an ear out, just in case.
MEETING THE ACTOR
The first 10 mins of the session are meeting and briefing the actor. Before you meet them make sure you know their name, how to pronounce it, and call them by it. Try to project an aura of calm and certainty. They’ll take their energy and tone from you. If you can appear confident and composed, they’ll react to that. They’ll want to know the following:
- Do you look and sound like you know what you’re doing?
- Do you know what you want?
- Can you tell them how to get there?
Don’t feel you have to fill the air with words. That’s their job.
If it’s an audition, be friendly and positive and give them energy to work off. If it’s a longer session, manage your energy and set a sustainable pace. Introduce the game project. Show them the reference materials they want to see. Brief them concisely on who their character is, what situation they’re in and don’t talk about it too much. Get them in the VO booth.
DIRECTING THE ACTOR
Actors can only go on what you’ve told them. If you don’t actually know what you want, they can’t do that for you. Go for something definite to start off with, even if you’re going to change it later.
Only Try To Fix One Thing At A Time
Don’t give five different directions at once. Fix the character, then the tempo, then the pitch, then the intention. Get there in stages.
It’s not unusual for all the lines to come out sounding kind of the same, the same tune, same dynamic. Listen back to earlier takes. Has the pitch changed? Has the tempo changed? Is everyone tired after lunch? Is it all on the rails now, in a bad way? Go back and pick up the pace, inject some urgency. Let the Actor hear the earlier takes and pick up their energy from themself.
GIVING LINE READINGS
Traditionally, in theatre, film and TV, this is a huge no-no. Directors never ever just tell actors how to speak the line. Most actors, if not all, will be extremely sensitive about being giving a line reading. It’s a last resort. However, you might have to resort to it.
Ideally, you can describe the line’s context sufficiently for the actor to get what’s required. But sometimes you have the game situation in your head and the actor just isn’t getting it, and you just need to give them a read. Some top-level voice talents are humble enough to just flat-out ask for a reading. Generally, though, you should be able to give the actor enough information about their character’s situation in the game for them to come up with a compelling read.
In a perfect world, you tell the actor who their character is, and what the situation is, and then they dazzle you with brilliant line readings. Failing that, it’s your job, and your privilege, to guide them there.
The number one most useful thing you can give the actor is more information about their character’s situation. Just giving them an Adjective will restrict their choices. Try to give them Intentions or Situations instead.
If you can’t steer them by explaining the gameplay situation, then tell them it’s a different situation. E.g.
- They owe you a debt and you’re collecting
- This is your first time
- You’ve been waiting for this moment all your life
- This is the guy who shot your mother
- Bored of this now
- Only just keeping it together
- This is just business.
- Like an air traffic controller
- Like a stage manager cuing a lighting change
- Like a middle manager confirming an inventory number
Sometimes you can direct just using technical prompts. Generally this is about Clarity, which you can get by varying tempo, cadence, pauses and speed-ups.
- Tighten it up
- Separate it a bit more
- Not faster, just cut out the pauses
- One for luck
- Put a smile on it
- Bit more energy
- Don’t lose the terminal consonants
You can also change the size of the performance in cinematic terms
- This is a Close-Up, not a Wide Shot
- This is a Medium Shot, not a Close-Up
- This is a Wide Shot, you’re an extra in the background
If all else fails, guide the Actor with adjectives. This can lead to a less authentic, unified characterisation, but it can get you somewhere better fast.
- Cold Fury
How surprised is the character at that moment? Were they expecting to say their line just then? More subtly, does the character’s intent and reaction precede them saying the line? Does the line just confirm their existing state of mind?
Consider the difference between:
(“They shot me!”)
(“OK, I’m alive, I’m applying pressure to the wound, I need to radio this in”)
Enemy unit spotted
(“Where did they come from?!”)
Enemy unit spotted
(“And so it begins. They took their time getting here.”)
This can have the effect of making the character sound more in control, more expert.
Try to avoid telling Actors “sound like this other actor in this thing”, because of the danger of getting an impersonation rather than a performance. But if all else fails, have someone’s performance in something in mind, so you can at least use that as a starting point.
Is the Actor dropping their chin to see the script? Are they cramping their throat?
Sometimes it can help to physically distract or constrain an actor. Make them hold a coffee cup, or two coffee cups. Let them preoccupy themselves physically to free them up vocally.
If they’re doing big exerts (and there’s room without destroying the microphone), let them hold something heavy.
You got this.
Trust your gut.
Make decisions and back yourself.
The actor is your equal partner.
You should all be exhausted by the end of the session.