Saturday, November 25, 2017

How to Find Voice Actors For Your Indie Project, Part 1 - Before You Begin

So you've got yourself a video game. No, not from the store – this game you're developing. You've got coding, animation, music, writing, everything you need to make your vision come to life. But you're going to take it a step further – you're going to incorporate voice acting. Words will spew from your characters' mouths, players will hear them, and they will love them. (Hopefully.)

Ah, yes. Hmm. Voice acting. A new beast to be tamed. You conquered coding, you recruited animators, you have a regular A-team going, but mayhap the whole VO thing is uncharted territory for you. Where do you even begin?

Now I know if any agencies or experienced game developers are reading this, they might scoff, throw back their manes of hair (because they're sassy, you see, possibly also from an 80s hair band), and say, “You think we don't know any of this?! You sad, silly little man!” However, a lot of indie game developers just don't quite know where to begin, and even if they do, they often accidentally step on a lot of toes. A friend of mine once lamented that there was no template for indie game developers to hire voice actors, leading to a lot of confusion, misinformation and wasted time. This article is my attempt to correct that.

You may also consider reading Tamara Ryan's own article on hiring voice actors for indie projects, as it offers some new perspectives and insight this article might not spend as much time on. (You remember Tamara - we just interviewed her a month or two ago.)

This whole series will be split into three parts focusing on three different areas - Before You Begin (what to expect and how to prepare), Holding Auditions (rules and guidelines for finding voice acting talent), and Once You Have Your Actors (advice for efficiently getting the reads you need from your hired actors). Today we're focusing on what you should bear in mind before throwing wide the doors to your auditions.


Have more than just an idea. Every so often, I get cast in something that, in the end, never sees the light of day. I know you have this awesome idea for your project (jousting penguins with rapiers and jetpacks?! It's an overnight success!), but don't go riding into the sunset on that particular horse before checking to see if you have reins, a saddle or stirrups. (This isn't Breath of the Wild. You can't just hop on some random mare and pat it on the head for two minutes until it likes you.)

A voice actor's time is precious. It's a common joke that actors are starving artists, and there's truth to that punchline. Many of them work full-time jobs on top of spending what little free time they have left working on their passion. They've already accepted that they're not going to be cast for most of what they audition for. However, it's a different sort of punch in the gut when they are cast for something and the project never pans out because the project creator lost interest or decided they don't actually have the time to work on it.

Before throwing open the doors to your casting call, make sure you actually have some resources gathered (for example, scripts and working game code written) and a plan (like deadlines and funding). Otherwise you stand to get a bunch of people excited and invested in something that dies before liftoff.

On a similar note...

Ask yourself honestly if you really have the time, motivation and ability to see the project through. Mistakes happen, setbacks delay the project. This is unfortunate, but also common. Don't beat yourself up too much if a game takes longer to bring to fruition than you were expecting. However, you do need to anticipate them and ask yourself how much you really want this thing to happen. Is it a neat idea you want to chip away at in your spare time, a labor of love out of your plenty? Or is it something you're firmly committed to, something you absolutely have to create lest you go crazy?

First of all, the passion you feel when initializing your dream project is the honeymoon phase of the wedding. Eventually every newlywed has to return to their ramshackle apartment downtown and put up with the one they're now sworn to, and eventually you'll start wishing you could hang out with your friends or binge Netflix instead of throwing all your spare time into game production.

Secondly, well...loved ones die. Renters get evicted. The innocent break their own limbs and have to pay for them. Partners drop out of the project. No matter how flat and even the way forward looks at first, some obstacle you never saw will blindside you. Those are setbacks. Those are normal. Now will they defeat you and kill the project, or will you acknowledge them as inevitable and keep soldiering on?

Have a plan. When do you want your game to come out? When do you want the demo playable? How many characters will need to be voiced? How much are you willing to pay the actors? Will this game pay at all, or is it a “portfolio project”? (Rule of thumb: if you're making any money on this game at all, you should pay the actors involved, too. If you're not making any money, feel free to promote it as a "portfolio project.") How will you fund your game? How much funding will it need? If you want actors to sign non-disclosure agreements, what will those look like? Will you pay actors using PayPal or some other service? Will they need Skype, Discord, or some other communication software?

You don't necessarily need to have every single detail figured out before looking for actors, but you do need a strategy of some sort. A lack of details or structure is often frustrating to voice actors who are looking for some order in their busy lives. If you tell a voice actor, “Oh, just send me your lines whenever,” don't be too surprised if weeks or months pass and you don't get their lines. (Yes, voice actors should send their lines in a timely manner anyway, but you left the door open and the dog wandered outside.)

Also make sure you decide up front with each actor how much they're getting for the gig and when they'll be paid. Imagine you were recently hired for a part-time or full-time job somewhere, and at the end of the week when you ask the boss when the paycheck is due, he shrugs and goes, “I dunno, a few weeks from now? A few months? I'll figure it out later.” Remember, this is how voice actors are supposed to make their living. Don't dangle a steak on the end of a fishing line just out of reach and let them starve, man.

Write the lines for actors to audition with, if you're going the audition route. Determine which lines best represent each character in question. Usually it's best to pull from your actual script, but you can even make up lines spur-of-the-moment if you feel they're appropriate. Choose from a varied range of each character's emotions – line one is a peppy introduction, line two is a heated rebuttal in an argument, line three is commanding an army, etc. If there's a scene in the project that you feel is crucial to the plot or character development, try making that an audition line, possibly rewritten to avoid spoilers. You want whoever you cast to sound natural in every place the character is in, especially those big moments.

Try to have no fewer than three lines and no more than six. Less than three usually doesn't paint an accurate picture of the character, more than six is overkill. In fact, six by itself is sort of pushing it.

Side note: improvisation is great to encourage. That said, making your audition “lines” nothing but “just improvise” is about as helpful as a patient telling his doctor his body hurts. Do you want actors to nail the important scenes, the core of the character, or are you just trying to settle for the bare minimum?

Decide if you'll want to direct the actors live or trust them to send in their lines on their own. A lot of indie groups prefer to let voice actors be their own directors and send in their best takes of each line in their own time, provided it's still within the deadline set. Others prefer to listen in on the actors as they perform, offering critique and feedback to help them nail the delivery. Both methods are acceptable at the indie level and are largely up to preference. There are, of course, pros and cons to both methods. Directing the actors live helps ensure that the performance is exactly how you wanted it, and that one-on-one time with your actors can help the project feel more personal and foster relationships. On the other hand, scheduling time with an actor can be hectic since you both need to agree on the same time (don't forget about potential time zone differences, which can be really fun if you're on the east coast of America and your actor is in Australia) and things can come up that postpone the session. Allowing actors to direct themselves in their own time is much more schedule-efficient, but you also run the risk of not quite getting the performance you wanted, leading to either settling (which is a sucky alternative) or spending more time asking actors to redo certain lines, and depending on what you two agreed on for payment, that may require a little more money from your wallet.

When directing my own lines, I like to send devs at least three different takes of the same line to try and cover all my bases. It's still not a guarantee you'll get the performance you wanted, but you could ask your actors to do the same.

Also, if you do choose to direct your actors live, be prepared to use Skype, Discord, or some other online communication service, and let potential actors know they'll need to have the same on their hardware to play that role. Some services let you record the actors on your own hardware as they're performing, but those are few and far between, often costing money and a bunch of hoops to be jumped through. It's not uncommon for the actors, in that case, to just record themselves on their end and send the audio file to you when the session is over.

NEXT TIME: Advice for holding auditions or seeking out voice talent personally. Let me know what you thought of this article; be sure to share it around to help developers everywhere, and do subscribe to the blog for the follow-up articles coming soon. Thanks for reading, everyone.

Click here to read Part 2: Holding Auditions. Click here for Part 3: Once You Have Your Actors.


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