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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

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John Sweeney
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.