10th Aug 2020

Giving your game its say – how voice directors bring stories to life

By Alessandro Magrassi, Localization Project Manager,
Keywords Studios, Milan
www.linkedin.com/in/alessandromagrassi/

As the video games industry grows ever bigger, encompassing dozens of professional roles and disciplines, you probably have noticed a debate about whether games can be considered a form of art. 

Though the answer is obviously positive for industry insiders, unfortunately, it’s not always the same for those on the outside.

And while there is no definitive answer, this article aims to provide you with a better understanding of the deep artistic value within a video game, focusing on one of its most crucial aspects: voice acting.

In addition, to generate the emotional responses, games need voice actors who are able to mirror those very same emotions that the storyteller is trying to get across. 

However, as good as an actor is and can be, there’s another figure who more often than not resides in the dark that you may not be familiar with. This person is essential to achieving these goals and that is the ‘voice director’.

It’s almost impossible to imagine what the recent Naughty Dog masterpiece The Last of Us Part II would sound and look like without the performances of Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson.

Or can you think of Arthur Morgan, the main and beloved character of 2018 Rockstar gem Red Dead Redemption 2, voiced by anyone other than Roger Clark? Probably not.

But these performances were not the sole result of the actors’ respective talents; they were guided to achieve a specific result. That guidance came from the voice director.

So, what is a voice director? 

A voice director’s role usually starts long before the actual recording session. As obvious as it may seem, all actors of any video game or movie must be first cast in the role.

From Kratos to that grumpy lady you pass by just once in a lost street whose actual name is “Civilian_city_female_4”. That character needs a talent assigned too and casting falls on voice director’s shoulders. 

When it comes to dubbing for video games (the process of replacing the spoken dialogue with a simultaneous spoken translation), casting can sometimes be more difficult than it is for a movie.

“Voice directors are not always provided with all possible reference materials to help them with the casting process, especially for minor characters,” explains Ilaria Bendazzi, audio director for Keywords Studios in Milan.

“Luckily, most times reference materials are good enough for voice directors to get a good idea of what the character will sound and look like in the game: obviously, the original audio is the most important and necessary reference asset that a voice director can have to hand. Without this, there is no way of correctly and safely picking a suitable actor to voice that character.”

With original samples, voice directors can get a good idea of basic yet necessary information, such as the character gender, how old he/she is, what the tone of voice is, etc.

On top of this, character bios and pictures are also extremely useful for casting, although when it comes to audio localization, you may be surprised of how many times directors have to choose without ever seeing the character.

Of course, it also works the other way around and sometimes they must choose basing on just a few written words with the age and gender vaguely stated.

It’s no secret that today’s lead times are tight and localization studios such as Keywords often have the developer’s trust to deliver the best possible adaptation of the game within already complicated deadlines. More often than not, many roles are left to the studios to assign from their pool of local talents.

Director and actor working in harmony 

So, we have seen that voice directors get involved before directing an actor during a recording session. But what do they do when the actress or actor (referred to as ‘talents’ within the industry) steps in the studio?

Most talents are usually well acquainted with voice directors in the studio. This is definitely a pro in most cases, with the overall result benefiting from a good, personal and informal relationship between the two. 

The relationship becomes a key factor when directors feel the need to intervene to artistically redirect the talent as they are dubbing.

Every instruction, every tip, every direction must be conveyed by the director respectfully, with the director being the official keeper of the artistic side of the recording session. Yet, any artistic tips from actors themselves are definitely more than welcome. It’s a team effort.

The voice director provides the actor with all necessary information

During recording, the director is tasked with providing the actor with all the necessary information that can help them deliver the best performance possible with the available assets, artistically guiding through the character.

If it’s the first time the actor is voicing a given character, it will be up to the voice director to brief and artistically guide them through who that character is, what’s his story, what’s his temper, what’s his purpose. This way, the talent can literally get into character and bring him to life in the specified language.

Voice director and actors should be constantly communicating with each other, and a cooperative vibe in the studio is definitely a win-win scenario for both. In many cases, a voice director will have undertaken voice acting roles in the past so will understand the process from the actor’s perspective.

“There is no standard way to become a voice director. However, having an artistic background is helpful for aspiring voice directors,” explains Ilaria. “In many instances, voice directors will have started their careers in acting schools, which provide the artistic fundamentals that are needed when voice acting and/or directing.

“By studying how to act and play roles, people develop and improve their skills, learning how to manipulate their voices through elocution, diction and diaphragmatic breathing – to name a few techniques. By learning how to act and master these techniques, voice directors can then practice them in the recording studio.”

So, as well as a mutual appreciation of the roles, having background information on the game story and on the characters matters: in dubbing and translation, context plays a fundamental role. Lacking context could result in audio localization mistakes, with lines wrongly recorded as they were wrongly translated in the first place due to lack of context and this will result in the actor having to come back to rerecord these lines.

In the video games localization industry, summer is usually very hot, not only because of high temperatures: summer is the peak time in this line of work, as it’s when production runs full steam. Many games launch during fall and holiday season and, and depending on the game scope, summer months are when most of the dubbing happens.

Overcoming adversity in the studio

If a recording session is particularly long and/or challenging, with many shouted lines or efforts needing to be recorded, actors can get tired. Voice directors should consider this when directing, knowing when to take a break and organise the session based on the actor’s needs without compromising on the quality of the final output and overall schedule.

Time constraint is another important parameter to keep in mind: in dubbing, lines can have different time constraints depending on when, where and how they are played in the original asset. 

While for no-constraint lines this is not an issue, lines with stricter timings can be harder to record. 

For instance, if the translation for a time-delimited line is too long in a specific language, it must be changed on the fly during the recording session. It is up to the voice director to quickly and creatively come up with a suitable alternative translation that meets the time requirements for that specific line. 

A control room in a Keywords recording studio

This happens quite often, even during the same recording session and, in the worst cases, can cause long delays. 

For several reasons, there are also cases where reference original audio does not match the script, causing the translation to be out of date. Where possible, the voice director can intercept these lines and provide a new, up-to-date translation that matches the audio reference.

However, this also needs to be done in an ad-hoc manner during the recording session, testing directors’ language skills. 

Conclusion 

Having different professional roles and people with diverse backgrounds is what makes the video games industry so interesting and fluid; it’s constantly evolving and challenging the status quo. 

I believe that video games are indeed pure art, painted by dozens of different artists working across a giant canvas of human disciplines – both humanistic and scientific – such as voice direction. 

We have barely scratched the surface of all the tasks and skills an artistic director has in their repertoire.

However, you now should have a better idea of the complexities involved in accurately dubbing a video game and the amount of work and creative flair that’s gone into bringing these stories to life.


Alessandro Magrassi is Localization Project Manager at Keywords Studios in Milan, having started in July 2017, with responsibilities for arranging and managing multi-language recordings for all global territories.

For more information on how Keywords can help you localize your video games for players around the world, visit our Audio Localization services page. 

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