Performance Matters: Interview with Veteran Voice Actress Lani Minella

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Intro by Josh Bray, Interview By John Sweeney 

We re­cent­ly had the hum­bling op­por­tu­ni­ty to speak with voice pro­duc­tion vet­er­an Lani Minella af­ter she of­fered her view on the on­go­ing ker­fuf­fle be­tween SAG-AFTRA and the video game in­dus­try in the com­ments of our ar­ti­cle on the mat­ter. Those who don’t know that name by sight are like­ly to rec­og­nize her by voice as she has such char­ac­ters as Ivy from Soul Calibur, Nancy Drew from near two decades of com­put­er ti­tles in the character’s name, and Urdnot Bakara/Eve from Mass Effect 3 un­der her name.

That’s just the tip of ice­berg that is her credits.

Lani also found­ed AudioGodz in 1992, a voice tal­ent and pro­duc­tion agency, so she has long term and in­ti­mate knowl­edge of voice pro­duc­tion from the ground up. We are proud to of­fer her views on the in­dus­try and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of an up­com­ing video game in­dus­try strike by SAG-AFTRA.

Her views are not new­ly formed ei­ther. A 2004 New York Times ar­ti­cle on the video game voice act­ing in­dus­try (that is a pret­ty great read, by the by) states,

Ms. Minella de­bat­ed whether a star cast alone ever led to an in­crease in game sales. She prefers to cast by voice abil­i­ty rather than by fame. ‘A good movie ac­tor is not nec­es­sar­i­ly a good video game voice,’ she said. ‘They might just be good for marketing.’”

In the same New York Times ar­ti­cle, au­thor Tim Gnatek suc­cinct­ly sums up what is far from a black and white mat­ter in re­gards to the actor’s union and as­so­ci­at­ed costs.

Professional voic­es bring an­oth­er Hollywood di­men­sion to the game in­dus­try: unions. Many of the ac­tors, culled from else­where in the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try, are mem­bers of the Screen Actors Guild or the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which have strict rules for ac­tors’ treat­ment and pay. Studios look­ing for voiceover pros must of­ten be­come SAG or Aftra sig­na­to­ries to se­cure pro­fes­sion­al tal­ents, oblig­ing them to use union tal­ent ex­clu­sive­ly for that project. Going union is a gen­er­al as­sur­ance of qual­i­ty, but it can be cost­ly and controlling.

To save on the costs as­so­ci­at­ed with us­ing star tal­ent, stu­dios will of­ten look for lesser-known ac­tors who are tal­ent­ed in mim­ic­ry and in enun­ci­at­ing with emo­tion, even for film-inspired char­ac­ters that al­most cry out for the fa­mil­iar voic­es of the stars who played them in the movie.”

For those not keep­ing score, that means the de­bate whether brand name ac­tors ac­tu­al­ly in­crease sales or not, and the ben­e­fit of unions in the video game in­dus­try, has been go­ing on for over a decade.

With the cur­rent me­dia black­out on the is­sue from the folks at the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble, we are pleased to of­fer Lani’s vet­er­an view on the matters.

Many peo­ple may not know who you are, but they will know your voice. Would you in­tro­duce your­self for those unini­ti­at­ed and tell us a lit­tle bit about what you do?

Hi every­one and thanks for tak­ing a look. I’ve had a lot of jobs in my day but be­gan do­ing some morn­ing dri­ve ra­dio gigs, pro­duc­tion, pro­duc­ing, writ­ing in the late 80’s.  Always do­ing the celeb sound alike, I was hired to im­i­tate voic­es from the Fern Gully movie when this com­pa­ny was pitch­ing the Laser disc to Magnavox and Philips. They had me do hun­dreds of voic­es for children’s CD roms as inan­i­mate ob­jects and I asked who else did this? They didn’t know but sug­gest­ed I go to trade shows. Started with Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas 2 yrs, then Electronic Entertainment Expo for 13 yrs and Game Developer conference‑2 yrs.  Found out it’d be eas­i­er to land en­tire projects for game devs if I was a one stop shop so I found­ed Audiogodz Inc in 1992 and thus be­gan all these ti­tles worldwide.

Voice side 1You’ve been in over 500 ti­tles and pro­vid­ed a stag­ger­ing range of voic­es; do you have any favourites from this ex­ten­sive back-catalogue?

I love do­ing any­thing cre­ative and the bet­ter scripts al­ways are more fun to deal with. From very male or crea­ture sound­ing end boss­es and char­ac­ters from Blizzard (Succubus, Banshee, Harpy, Medivac Pilot, Dropship Pilot, Zerg Queen, Zaela of the Dragonmaw etc) to the in­fect­ed Bloater, Runner, Clicker in Last of Us, to Eve in Mass Effect 3, Nancy Drew for 16 years, Ivy in Soul Calibur, Sindel and Sheeva in MK9, and tons of char­ac­ters in Star Trek Online, Neverwinter, Rouge the Bat (Sonic Adventures), the hive­mind in Warhammer 40,000:Dawn of War II, Night Mother and Nocturnal etc in Skyrim, and so many more fun ones.

How has videogame voice act­ing changed dur­ing your time in the industry?

Lengthier scripts but some are still writ­ten pret­ty bad­ly. I think writ­ers of­ten don’t read them aloud first.  More at­ten­tion can be giv­en to char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment some­times.  Still needs im­prove­ment though.

What is the most im­por­tant part of a voice per­for­mance to you?

Acting act­ing act­ing.  Putting more ac­tion in the per­for­mance is need­ed for games ver­sus oth­er gen­res.  Disney and Pixar over an­i­mate some­times bor­ing voic­es which helps. In games we don’t have that over-animation lux­u­ry.  So we need to move our bod­ies a lot more than looks good on a big screen to get that pizazz and ACTION into the VO.

Is there a par­tic­u­lar de­vel­op­er you enjoy/enjoyed work­ing with, one that stands out?

I love them all, but I have to say Blizzard is up high on my list.

I know I’ve heard some pret­ty ter­ri­ble video game scripts, how much is a voice ac­tor held back by their source material/ di­rec­tion and is there much lee­way for improvisation?

Always blame scripts first and some­times we nev­er get to see them un­til we are on the mic. I try to rewrite many if I get them in ad­vance, but many are text on screen sup­port­ed so the client doesn’t want a lot of im­prov if the text is al­ready locked in.

As an in­dus­try vet­er­an what would be your ad­vice to some­one who wants to get into voice acting?

Don’t quit your day job. It’s a lot of work and even hard­er to get your foot in the door. I’m one of the best coach­es around but don’t make a liv­ing coach­ing AND I can hire some­one, which most coach­es do NOT.  So be­ware of spend­ing mon­ey on inane class­es and buy­ing equip­ment that may be overkill.

What are the harsh­est roles on a voice actor/actress’s voice and how do you guard against ru­in­ing your vo­cal chords?

Doing things like the Hivemind voice I did for Warhammer where I’m ba­si­cal­ly vi­brat­ing my vo­cal chords loud­ly made me to­tal­ly hoarse.  Nothing you can do about that.  Other games if you die or have at­tacks, just leave those un­til last.  You can do a pseu­do scream that sounds loud with­out re­al­ly push­ing it, but it’s best to let loose, and your chords will re­cov­er soon enough.

In your ex­pe­ri­ence how much time does it typ­i­cal­ly take to record a set of voic­es for a game?

This to­tal­ly de­pends on how many lines and parts there are.   We use a 125 lines per hour rate and that’s av­er­ag­ing 10 words per line.  This al­lows for di­rec­tion and cor­rec­tion if needed.

You weren’t shy about your opin­ion in the com­ments sec­tion of our “PerformanceMatters & the SAG-AFTRA Strike” ar­ti­cle, go­ing so far as to say “If you don’t like the work, don’t take it.” What do you think would be the ef­fect on the in­dus­try if the voice ac­tors tak­ing part got their demands?

The whole thing is ridicu­lous.  When peo­ple who slave away for months, years, week­ends, don’t get any bonus­es, why should ac­tors who waltz in for an hour or two get a dime? The de­mands I see from this union strike threat are from whin­ing wimps who are prob­a­bly not that ef­fi­cient at get­ting the job done cor­rect­ly and per­haps can’t help a di­rec­tor who might be too green to make things work as they should.

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How much cred­it do you think voice actors/actresses can take for the suc­cess of a game? 

Less than 20%.  Game play is most im­por­tant.  Non bug­gy pro­gram­ming, cre­ative graph­ics, in­trigu­ing script, then voice­work in that or­der. Plus let’s not for­get about TV ad­ver­tis­ing. That inane app with mod­el Kate Upton in Game of War — is mak­ing a mil­lion a day, but they start­ed out with $40 mil­lion in ad­ver­tis­ing.  And a lot of boobage that made Jr. plunk down daddy’s cred­it card for a lot of moolah in mi­cro transactions.

When it was an­nounced a strike was be­ing con­sid­ered, the good peo­ple over at Niche Gamer got some re­spons­es from de­vel­op­ers bor­der­ing on the bru­tal. How do you think this will af­fect re­la­tions be­tween de­vel­op­ers and voice talent?

I’d like to see those re­spons­es.  But the union hype and in­sane claims are so crazy, I would not blame devs for be­ing ticked. Voice tal­ent that be­lieves the union hype should get a dif­fer­ent ca­reer.  And what about the celebs who don’t just voice games, but have lent their less-than-interesting pipes to a game?  How would they not be af­fect­ed by a strike?  The whole thing is stupid!

Do you agree with game developer’s as­sess­ment that voice actors/ ac­tress­es are gen­er­al­ly replaceable?

Sure.  Anyone is re­place­able.  Quality doesn’t de­pend on a SAG-AFTRA card, and just be­cause some­one has land­ed a role, may not mean some­one else can’t sound like them and act just as well.  Depends.  Of course if you have an IP like Star Trek, you wouldn’t want to hire a sound-alike for Patrick Stewart, but you COULD if you had to.

Why would a voice per­former re­quire “Stunt pay” as one of the SAG-AFTRA de­mands lays out?

Another ridicu­lous de­mand.  Hardly any of us do Motion cap­ture with full body. But if you did, a stunt per­son could do it and it’d sound bet­ter if you voiced it lat­er with Audio Dialogue re­place­ment or ADR (Looping)

SAG-AFTRA states “The com­pa­nies also pro­posed they be al­lowed to hire their own em­ploy­ees to play char­ac­ters in video games with­out hav­ing to join the union.” Do you feel that mo­tion cap­ture per­for­mances should be cov­ered un­der SAG-AFTRA, or is it rea­son­able for de­vel­op­ers to get mo­tion cap­ture tal­ent out­side the voice actors?

Voice ac­tors don’t have to do mo-cap. Sometimes fa­cial mo-cap like I did once for Ivy in Soul Calibur V may help an­i­ma­tors, but that’s not go­ing to burst a blood vessel.

In your mind would it be fair for voice per­form­ers to get roy­al­ties when de­vel­op­ers do not?

NO not at all!  And all the prof­its are made from in game mi­cro­trans­ac­tions not game sales. Most are free to down­load nowa­days. And how would you de­ter­mine how much each ac­tor got?  How many lines they had? That sucks.  Some of us who do a zil­lion parts and have a lot more tal­ent than some­one who was the main char­ac­ter and who is a one trick pony, should not get less just be­cause of line count.  The whole idea of pay­ing per­cent­ages to voice tal­ents — not some­thing fea­si­ble or do-able.  Payroll com­pa­nies could not re­mem­ber or tal­ly ei­ther sales or mi­cro­trans­ac­tions and most devs have to pay their tal­ent through union sig­na­to­ry pay­roll companies.

Do you think the move by voice ac­tors to unionise in such a way will make it more dif­fi­cult for new tal­ent to emerge?

There is not a move for voice ac­tors to union­ize.  The union al­ready cov­ers voice act­ing. But I think smarter game de­vel­op­ers who don’t HAVE to hire celebs, can choose not to be sig­na­to­ries and are then al­lowed to hire ei­ther union or non union or Financial Core ac­tors (FiCore means you pay union dues but can work ei­ther union or non union)

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If you could talk to them di­rect­ly, what would you say to peo­ple like Wil Wheaton,  and Ashly Burch who are spear­head­ing the calls to strike?

Get a life. Get a grip. You have no idea what you’re talk­ing about. I’m glad to dis­cuss is­sues with any ac­tor since I’ve been on all sides of the fence, as a cast­ing di­rec­tor, di­rec­tor, pro­duc­er, game de­sign­er, cre­ative di­rec­tor, voice ac­tor, writer, etc.

Most VO ac­tors, es­pe­cial­ly union ones, are not aware of how much the client has to pay a pay­roll com­pa­ny to pay the ba­sic scale check.  Many of those “celebs” com­plain­ing get way more than scale.  If you don’t like that work, stay out of it.  Leave it to those who are bet­ter suit­ed for it.  The claim that a client will fine a tal­ent $2500 for be­ing inat­ten­tive?!  Paleeze. That nev­er hap­pens and a pro tal­ent should NEVER BE INATTENTIVE any­way.  You are hired to hit the ground run­ning when you do voice work. Not sit in your trailor be­tween scenes, stuff your face at the Kraft ta­ble or wait hours while they re­verse light the set or do your make up.  And all the oth­er claims don’t hold wa­ter ei­ther. I think the union is mak­ing stuff up. Also I know union sig­na­to­ry de­vel­op­ers who are not even be­ing in­vit­ed to the bar­gain­ing ta­ble. SO HOW FAIR IS THAT?

The BOARD of SAG AFTRA de­cides on every­thing re­gard­less of how their mem­bers vote.

This is why the Equity Board is be­ing sued by the­ater ac­tors be­cause the union board de­cid­ed to de­mand that the­ater ac­tors who nor­mal­ly don’t get paid any­thing to work small venues, should get min­i­mum wage even if the the­ater has 99 seats or less.   Time for the union and its mem­bers to get a re­al­i­ty check and cope with the real world in­stead of mak­ing all these demands.

Most games don’t have a long shelf life, and resid­u­als for TV shows and movies are tracked every time they are shown. This is not pos­si­ble in games.

Lastly (and most im­por­tant­ly) who do you think would win in a fight be­tween a pi­rate and a ninja?
Arrrr, be garr.  Depends on if ei­ther of them are armed.  A mus­ket would out­do a nin­ja but a sama­rai would slice off Capt. Hook’s hand eas­i­ly.  har harrr

The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.
John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing. He writes long-form ed­i­to­r­i­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games me­dia and in­ter­net cul­ture. He also does the oc­ca­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly col­umn about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our in­ter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven me­dia and sus­pi­cious of un­ac­cou­table au­thor­i­ty but al­ways hope­ful for change.
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