Interview with Chris Borders - Game Developing

Erik Bethke: Would you provide a short background on yourself and what role you play in voice-over work in the game industry? Where did you learn to do voice-overwork?
Chris Borders: I started working in video game voice-over (VO) back in 1995 as a VO editor for Interplay Productions. I edited VO recordings and attended many VO recording sessions for Interplay on such titles as Star Trek: Judgment Rites, Stonekeep, and Descent. Shortly thereafter I was quickly promoted to the title of VO supervisor simply because we were developing more and more titles and needed someone to handle all the VO work that was coming in. My job was to oversee all aspects of VO development for Interplay games including going over the script and characters, setting up auditions, hiring a VO casting director, studio director, and recording studio, scheduling VO talent, setting up union contracts (SAG/AFTRA), attending the sessions, and organizing the material for editing and implementation.

Being no one at the company had ever done this job before (and mostly relied on outside contractors), it was quite an undertaking. I literally had to almost start from scratch. First I started bare knuckles, making connections with the best possible people I could find in the VO industry. I spent many hours on the phone every day “schmoozing” with various Hollywood talent agents, VO directors, and recording studios.

After a year of doing this I realized I could do much of the talent casting and some of the lower budget titles’ studio direction myself. Eventually I took on the casting and studio directing for some major projects myself, and I only hired a contracted director when I couldn’t take it on because of overlapping projects.

I now cast and direct the majority of all Interplay titles including the very successful Baldur’s Gate series which has received many high-praised reviews for its high-quality voice-over acting.

What range of budgets are you seeing for voice-over work in today’s games from low to high?
Most of the games I work on have good budgets that allow me to hire better than average VO talent and some celebrity film actors. However, I occasionally have to work with much smaller budgets that can sometimes affect the quality of the VO acting. On Baldur’s Gate II I had to cast as many as 300 character roles with a budget that was better suited for 30 character roles. This became quite a challenge for me, being I wanted BG2 to have the best VO possible.

I however managed to pull a few strings and pull it off. Typically I see most game VO budgets ranging from $20,000 to $100,000 depending on how many characters are in the game, how much dialogue there is, and if the producer calls for celebrity actors.

What in your opinion was a goodvalue? What was simply overspending?
In the past before I became a director, I noticed that when poor quality actors were hired to save money it always ended up costing more in the long run. Thus, budgets had to be raised to accommodate better actors to make the part work. This is, in my opinion, a huge waste, being the work had to be done twice thus costing more, when just hiring a professional actor in the first place and recording it once would have saved studio cost, director cost, editor cost, not to mention having to still pay the poor quality actors (that will never be used in the final production) their session fee.

However, just hiring a bunch of famous celebrity actors so you can have big names on your title is not always a good idea either. Most great games (unlike motion pictures and TV) don’t rely on famous box office actors to make them sell. I will hire a celebrity actor mostly because I know it will make the character part really shine due to that actor’s abilities. And if the game player recognizes that actor’s voice while playing the game, then all the better.

On the other hand, if you are making a game based on a famous motion picture or TV show, etc., then it might be in your best interest to hire the same actors (if obtainable) that originally acted in the film, TV show, etc. This will make the gaming experience similar to the original product. But again, one must use discretion when doing this, especially if the original actor will cost you your entire game budget. All in all, I try to hire experienced professional VO actors that fit the parts well. There is a huge amount of talented VO actors out there. They may not have recognizable names that the general public will know, but they will do the job well and will not cost your entire budget.

What preparation should the developer and producer have on hand before they approach you for voice work?
The most important thing to start with is a good script with well-defined characters. This is half the battle. One thing I have seen over and over through the years is a great game with a poorly written script. I heard this great quote by rock singer Iggy Pop that I always use when asked about why some scripts should be rewritten: “A stale waffle with a bunch of syrup on it will still taste like a stale waffle.” In other words, if the script does not read well, no actor on earth will make it better. Of course, many game developers don’t always have a prolific scriptwriter on staff. For this reason I suggest contracting a professional “script doctor.”

A script doctor will take your script and make it better for an actor to read so it sounds more natural or funnier (depending on what type of game script it is) and will not change the main idea that the original writer was trying to achieve. Also, have a budget in mind. If you don’t know how much it will cost to record the VO, your designers may create a monster. In other words, designers will add voice-over parts as much as can fit into the games’ system limits. If you don’t have enough money to fulfill this much VO, things may have to be greatly refigured, taking up valuable development time. If you already have a rough idea of how much money it will cost to accomplish what your designers are designing, you will be better prepared in keeping on track and on budget.

What preparation do you do? How do you plan the voice-over work? How do you do the casting for the different roles?
I first start by meeting with the development team to discuss the title and to give them an idea of what kind of budget they will be looking at based on what they are trying to achieve. Once I have character descriptions I can start the process of casting actors. I do this two different ways depending on the title and how much time I have to complete the VO work. If I know exactly what the designers are looking for and have little time, I can just cast actors that I know will work well for the various characters. On the other hand, if the designers have very intricate character descriptions or don’t exactly know what they are looking for, I will set up voice auditions so they can listen to many different actors voicing sample lines for each character. This will take slightly more time, though the end result usually is dead-on to what the character designer was thinking originally.

Once I have a final script in hand and actors have been cast in the various roles, I then proceed to schedule the various actors for work. This is very involved, being I have to schedule the proper amount of time with each actor to complete the part, negotiate the actor’s session fee (within budget), and schedule studio time. Then from there we start recording the parts. This can take anywhere from a couple of hours to a month depending on how many characters there are and how much dialogue needs to be recorded. Once all the scripted dialogue (VO) is recorded, picks are made and the VO files are edited and implemented into the game for testing.

You use SAG actors, right? How does that work?
The term SAG stands for Screen Actors Guild. SAG is an actors union that the majority of professional screen actors in America belong to. So in order for a game company to hire a union actor, someone must be affiliated as a SAG union payroll service or signatory. Many game companies do this themselves, which is very simple to set up with SAG. However, it is not impossible to do it sideways using a SAG payroll signatory service. This service will create all the contracts based on the deals that have been made with each actor’s manager or agent. There are, however, extra fees involved with hiring a union actor. 12.65 percent on top of the actor’s fee is for the actor’s pension and health benefits (this fee goes directly to SAG).

Many agents charge a 10 percent fee on top of the actor fee, being they are the ones who are representing the actor. And of course if you use a union signatory, they will also charge a small fee for their services. AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio artists) is also an actors union that can be used to hire union talent (many actors belong to both SAG and AFTRA). All the rates and fees are the same as SAG.

TOMMY TALLARICO SAYS: A lot of games record with non-SAG actors as well; it’s just a lot harder to find talented non-SAG people to act. Although it may seem cheaper to go non-SAG in the beginning, it could end up costing you a lot more because of the amount of time and takes. For a smaller project couple of hundred lines), you’re safe going the non-SAG route. If you have 500 lines or more you definitely want to consider doing it union. In the long run you’ll be a lot happier.

What happens at a voice recording session? What facilities does the studio have to make it a voice recording studio? How do you evaluate a studio?
When looking for a recording studio to record voice-over, quality should be your first objective. The studio should have a professional staff, state-of-the-art digital recording equipment, and a very quiet and dead sound booth. Things like a nice lounge, good food, and a sexy receptionist are not important unless entertaining your expensive talent is more important to you than the recordings you will get from them. Most of today’s professional voice-over recording studios should have the ability to record voice-over digitally to hard disk or digital tape (DAT), and a sound booth that is designed for VO.

Most music recording studios have ambient rooms so musical instruments like drums and guitars sound better. This is not what you want to record VO for CD-ROM games. If you are supposed to be listening to your VO character in an outdoor setting, recording them in an ambient VO booth will not sound like it was recorded outside, but in an ambient room. And there are no special studio tricks that can remove this “room ambiance” well. However, if you start with a dead room with no ambience, it is simple to later add a room ambience or a stadium ambience using a digital reverb.

The recording process is fairly simple. The actor or actors sit in the VO booth, and the director and recording engineer sit in the control room, usually with a thick piece of glass between them so they can see each other. The actor will talk directly into a high quality condenser microphone and listen to him or herself back with headphones (this is optional s some actors prefer not to hear themselves through the mixer). In the control room, the director has a small microphone that can be turned on or off from a button near the director seat that patches into the mixer so he or she can talk back to the actor to give direction. The recording engineer makes sure all the recording levels are correct by monitoring the session and also watches the tape counter and sometimes takes notes as to how many takes were done per line and what time each take was recorded, so later the editor can reference these recording notes. A good studio will also record the director’s voice as well; this way the editor has a second reference as to what take is what and what is going on in the session. How actors are recorded is slightly different depending on the script and how the game’s characters interact with each other and the player.

In many games, VO characters interact with each other throughout the script. It is sometimes best to record many actors together at the same time. This is known as an ensemble session. Each actor is set up in the booth with his or her own mic and patched into the mixer on a separate recording track. This way the scripted character interaction sounds more natural, yet there is still enough separation to allow the editor to edit the various characters’ takes, so different reads can be implemented. The other type is just recording one actor at a time. This is the most common style of recording for CDROM games, as you are in a one-onone situation and can pay close attention to just one character at a time. This is also a much more cost-effective way to record, being that it is far easier to schedule an actor for four hours (or less) to complete the part versus having to block out a full eight-hour day using multiple actors only reading their occasional parts over that long time span.

How many takes does it require for the talent to get their lines? How much voice work can an actor do in a session?
Generally a standard VO session is four hours as per most actor union rules and regulations. After four hours the talent can charge more for an additional four hours (or less) and is required to have a one-hour lunch break. After eight hours, again more fees will apply and a one-hour dinner break. Most actors will require as little as two takes and as many as ten takes to read the part to the satisfaction of the director. Some actors take longer just because, and some can hit it “right on the head” after the first take. If the casting director and the recording director do their work correctly, there is no reason it should have to go beyond ten completely read takes.

After that you might have a very frustrated actor on your hands. Many seasoned VO actors will ask you if they are really the right person for the job if you just can’t get what you are trying to get. And rightfully so, being that actor may have other VO jobs that same day, and it is very hard on their voice to keep repeating the line over and overwhen they may not be the right performer in the first place.

TOMMY TALLARICO SAYS: Remember, a SAG actor can only do three different characters within those four hours. You have to pay extra if you want them to do other characters, even if it’s only a few lines. The other thing you may want to mention is that you can’t mix SAG and non-SAG actors on a project. If you go SAG, everyone has to be SAG.

What is the most unusual thing about your job that not many other people in the industry have much awareness about?
Well in general, the entertainment industry is a far cry from your average desk job. However, there are many similarities as well. On one side I get to work with some of the most talented actors on earth, and I get to hear some really great stories firsthand (sorry, National Enquirer, my lips are sealed).

On the other, I have very detailed schedules I have to maintain; I must keep up a professional outlook, and not every actor is a pleasure to work with (however, this is not the norm). So, when people say to me, “Gee it must be cool doing what you do for a living,” I am quick to remind them that it’s not all what it sounds like, and even I have frustrating days like anyone. Here is a funny story I like to tell about how strange my job can be. I was working on the Interplay game title Star Trek: Starfleet Academy, and we were shooting full motion video on a green screen at a well-known Hollywood set just across the street from Paramount Studios. I had to be up by 4:00 A.M. and on the set by 6:00 A.M., and I was leaving the set by as late as 10:00 at night.

So needless to say I was very tired. We were in the middle of a break and I was looking over some of the dailies, and up walks actor William Shatner from his private trailer/dressing room. Being we were filming Mr. Shatner for this production, this was fairly normal; however, I was in one of those strange (too much caffeine, not enough sleep) trances, and Mr. Shatner (in full Starfleet dress uniform, I might add) starts asking me about the technology we are using to make this game, and at that moment I freaked in my mind and thought to myself, “Crap! Captain Kirk is standing here asking me about technology, what a strange life!”

What trends are you seeing in voice-over work in games?
With the sound quality in games getting better and better every year, gamers are noticing game sound more than ever before. Just five years ago when I started in this business, not one game reviewer ever mentioned the sound in a game, much less gave it a review. Now in 2001 it is fairly normal to read many game reviews on voice-over, music, and sound design. So it is more important than ever for a game to have high-quality VO done by professional actors, rather than just grabbing the 2D artist down the hall and having him record his best impersonation to the portable DAT recorder. My goal is to try to achieve a similar quality that a great motion picture has when it comes to voice-over acting in the games I work on. Though our game budgets are far less than a multimillion- dollar film, it can still be done within reason. I keep reading reviews on what the gamer did not like about the VO, and I try to improve it within the boundaries that I am stuck with.

What are some mistakes you or projects you have worked on made in regards to voice; can you avoid them now?
The biggest pitfall I have to deal with is the VO programming in a game. On some titles the character keeps repeating the same line over and over every time the player clicks on the character. I can’t tell you how often I read a review where the reviewer says, “I got so sick of hearing that character say the same thing over and over, I just turned down the volume to zero so I could finish the game.” I am trying my best to combat these types of problems beforehand with the designers and programmers so this does not happen on future titles. VO programming is getting better, however it is still not perfect.

How do you control the creeping nature of many game projects from affecting your budgets, specifically in requesting retakes or rescheduling of talent time?
It is always tough when you propose a VO budget early for a game and it turns out that you needed more money to complete the VO once it is near completion. I always try to pad my VO budgets best as I can so there is no “we can’t afford any more” from the producer if it looks like a part has to be redone or some of the actors ended up costing more than I anticipated. It doesn’t always work in every case; however, most of the times I have to ask for more budget monies it was because the designers decided to add ten more characters at the last minute.

What was your most challenging game project? Which game were you most proud of?
I am always proud of everything I work on, however a couple projects I am especially proud of are: Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, Baldur’s Gate II: Throne of Bhaal, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, Star Trek: Klingon Academy, Star Trek: Starfleet Command, and Fallout: Tactics. My most challenging project wasby far Star Trek: Klingon Academy. It was a huge undertaking finding as many as thirty actors that could sound like a true Star Trek Klingon. Auditions went on for weeks before I found the right actors. The studio sessions were even tougher. . . “No, no, more Huuq in that line, and more anger!” I even had to fly all the way to Toronto, Canada, to record extra VO and ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) with famed actor Christopher Plummer, who voiced and acted the part of General Chang. Christopher Plummer is a very talented actor! This game took almost a year to complete just my work.

TOMMY TALLARICO SAYS: I think one very important element that is not addressed here is the actual script writing itself!! You can have the best actors in the world, but if the script is terrible it doesn’t matter how many Academy Awards they’ve won. A lot of times the designer is put in charge of writing a script. Unless the designer is very talented, this really shouldn’t be done! The designer could certainly provide a treatment or first draft for a script, but I would highly recommend hiring a proper scriptwriter to at least check over the work. Scriptwriting is a lot harder and more important than most people think!

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