Acting in the Digital Age is a series that explores the opportunities and challenges of a rapidly changing industry.
There’s no shortage of acting work in video games if you know where to look for it. But once you’ve secured your first video game role, it’s natural to feel nervous at trying out a whole new form of acting.
So, we’ve sought out key people currently working in the gaming industry to share their best advice for actors stepping into this digital realm of performance for the first time. Here are 10 of their best pearls of wisdom.
1. Go big.
Kate Saxon is a performance and cinematic director for many BAFTA award-winning and nominated video games. She has directed actors including Michael Fassbender, Patrick Stewart, and Judi Dench, as well as working on high-profile gaming projects such as Mafia III, Alien: Isolation and The Witcher 3.
Saxon tells Backstage: “Games often require quite high-energy performances, so that can be more accessible to actors who are used to theatre than film and TV. I don’t mean it needs to be over-the-top – there’s a big difference, and over-the-top acting is bad acting, but voicing for animation does sometimes require a more expansive performance, even when it’s ‘filmic realism’ that the developer has requested.”
2. Watch that voice.
Tom Fyans is an upcoming British actor that recently voiced a lead character in Operencia: The Stolen Sun, a dungeon-crawling game from the Hungarian developers at Zen Studios.
He tells us: “The first thing you discover is that voice acting is its own craft, in the way that screen acting is different to stage acting. Things that may pass as normal on stage would look ludicrous in a film and the same applies for voice acting. The mic picks up the subtlest changes, and you are so close that you have to monitor your voice very carefully. This, however, does provide you with more range to play with.”
3. Speak up for yourself.
Saxon also notes that it’s important for actors to stand up for themselves: “There have been situations in the industry where some voiceover (VO) studios or developers have expected actors to shout for hours on end, creating battle cries. This, of course, rips an actor’s voice and is damaging. It’s important that actors speak up for themselves if they ever come across this. I think the safest thing to do is make sure they or their agent check upfront, and make stipulations about how much shouting the performer is comfortable with. Also, be sensible about looking after your voice: once in a voice session, if you have shouts and non-shout lines, ask to do the shouts last.”
4. Ask for scripts early.
Checking how much shouting will be involved isn’t the only way actors can prepare for a gaming job before arriving on set. Saxon explains: “Getting scripts late for performance-capture shoots is trying for actors as they have little time to learn lines when this happens. For voiceover, this can be less problematic as there’s no line-learning required, and therefore, some developers get into bad habits of only sending them the evening before. This is still damaging as there’s less chance the actor will have had time to read through and prep before the session, so unless they’re great at initial reads, this can compromise the performance. Of course, it’s terrible for actors with dyslexia. So, similarly to my advice about shouts, ask for the script to be sent as early as possible, and if you're dyslexic, let them know upfront that last-minute won’t work for you.”
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (CD Projekt)
5. Do your prep.
Fyans also encourages actors to do preparatory work before getting in the VO booth. And for actors just starting out in voiceover work, he’d even encourage you to practise the craft before you’ve received a script. He tells us: “The best way to learn is to go out and do it. Practise at home, even with your phone’s mic. Pick scenes you like from games or animated films, or even books, and listen back. Soon, you’ll find the measure of your own voice and how to convey the emotion across to a listener. Then, when you’re in the booth, you’ll have an idea of what to do, and you won’t be afraid to really get into it.”
6. Don’t be afraid to move.
And, on how to approach that booth, Fyans has this to say: “I found that physicality was a big help for me. If you watch great voice artists like Mark Hamill work, he contorts his body to match the voice he’s doing. That can really help you lean into the character, and the bonus is, if you look stupid, only the recordist and director can see you.”
7. Voice everything you can.
Saxon, too, notes that voice acting isn’t just about saying the words: “An actor giving a dramatic performance in VO only must never think ‘it’s only the voice’ but rather: ‘the voice is everything.’ By that I mean, if the actor doesn’t embody it vocally, it does not exist. It’s not OK to assume animation will fill in gaps in tone, intention, emotion, or anything else. I would also suggest that in a cinematic scene, perform everything that could be voiced. If your character is running, we need to hear that in your breath. If you’re jumping off a moving vehicle, voice – subtly – the effort sound. These things really bring a performance to life.”
Alien Isolation (Creative Assembly)
8. Get on your feet.
Getting more into the practicalities of recording voiceovers on the day, Saxon says: “I would always advise an actor to stand up in the VO booth – it’s simply easier to keep your voice rooted and your performance energised that way.”
9. Don’t overthink motion capture
Aside from voice work, the other rapidly expanding area of opportunity for actors in videogames is motion capture work. It’s becoming increasingly common for game developers to record full-body performances, known as a Volume. But adjusting to motion capture shouldn’t be a challenge for many actors.
Saxon explains: “I advise that any professional actor will not have any issues with acclimatising to motion capture. You need to get used to wearing a skin-tight bodysuit, so vanity goes out of the window. You’ll also most likely have a headcam on, so you also need to get used to looking past the camera and to the actor you’re talking to. But this is all technical and I’ve never known an actor find this at all tricky.”
She adds: “There are simple things specific to a Mocap Volume, like beginning and ending a scene with a T pose or A pose, but these are merely technical requirements that will always be explained to an actor on a job. I worry that so many actors think it’s some mysterious ‘other world’ of performance that you have to separately train for. That’s simply nonsense. Think of it as theatre-in-the-round, as you can play the whole scene out in 360 degrees. Use your imagination, play, make informed decisions from the script and info you’re given. Inhabit the world and character. Look at whatever designs of the world the director can show you as this will help you. Same with the character art: that will give you many tips as to who you need to create. And make clear physical choices: anything too fussy is hard to animate and doesn’t look as good. To put it simply: make clear, honest choices, and if you’re a good actor, you’ll be a good Mocap actor too!”
10. An apple a day...
And finally, our tenth piece of advice is a purely practical piece of fruity knowledge from Saxon: “If you get a ‘clicky’ mouth,” she says, “take a green apple into the voiceover session – the pectin clears those clicks out. And of course, wear practical, silent clothing! And take jangly jewellery off.”
More for UK actors? Check out the magazine.