When Ellen Dubin is asked to describe her profession, it sounds like an anything-goes performance of the lungs — guttural, deeper-than-the-ocean grunts, cackling shrieking squeals, and blood-curdling screams.
“I actually pulled my groin during a voice job,” says the veteran multi-award nominated voice actress, referring to her video game gigs. “Voice work is physical work – If I’m not doing the action, it’s just not going to work.”
With recent credits that extend from films like “Dune” to massively popular game titles such as “Skyrim - The Elder Scrolls” and “Fallout 4,” Dubin says video games have a unique measure of difficulty for performers. It’s the only place where on a given day, she’ll be chasing a zombie or acting out an injury in a single session.
“These worlds can take you to some crazy places,” says Dubin who sips on some throat-soothing lavender tea in Toronto just days after straining her voice in a demon role. “Aside from one, I’d say that every single game I’ve worked on has had some kind of vocal strain.”
In a recently published survey conducted by the Toronto chapter of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) in June 2021, video games were quoted as being the most vocally difficult and potentially hazardous area of work a voice performer can take on. Of the 264 respondents who have done voice work, 73 per cent felt video game sessions involved extreme vocal work, with 38 per cent experiencing fatigue. Nearly 20 per cent reported finding it hard to recover normal vocal quality after a video game job.
Voice acting is considered an essential human component of an industry that’s projected to earn $204 billion by 2025, according to a market report by Lucintel. As advances in photo realism continue to turn non-human characters into a growing phenomenon, Canadian performers say they are being asked to adapt, often juggling multiple personalities that cover both humans and creatures alike.
“Watch us in a booth, and you’ll catch us moving like idiots,” adds Dubin. “If I’m a lizard or queen, I become them physically and later, I’m usually exiting these booths sweating.”
D’Arcy Smith, a former actor, and current dialect, voice, and communication coach for active performers likens it to exercise.
“Singing requires things like agility and control while video games require bursts of aggressive activity,” says Smith. “It’s the difference between a marathon runner and a weightlifter.”
Vocal experts such as Smith make sure performers are in the position to do what they do well on set. This includes pre-emptive coaching about the demands of vocal extremes, the nuances of how a particular action should sound from a performer’s diaphragm, and the best methods for recovery, whether it be rest or bodily exercises.
Ivan Sherry, a voice actor who has worked closely with both Smith and Ubisoft Montreal, says he might be expected to perform between 60 to 100 lines per hour depending on the job — often cold reads, which doesn’t allow for much preparation.
“A voice director once told me that 50 per cent was a rough estimate of actors who can’t get through a session,” says Sherry. “It’s either the challenge or their voice that can’t make it through.”
Dubin adds that the idea that performers can work on lines in advance is often a misconception. Game developers, concerned with protecting their intellectual property, will often ask performers to sign non-disclosure agreements, which puts voice performers in the precarious situation of taking on scripts that are given to them at the very time of the job. While this is frequently common with various other forms of entertainment, it presents specific challenges when the extreme vocal demands of video games are taken into consideration.
“You have to do a full-fledged emotional performance in one or two takes,” says Dubin. “There are sometimes hundreds of lines, and they don’t have time to wait for you to learn how to act.”
In the case of younger performers without as much brand recognition to their names, this pace puts an added amount of pressure to keep on working even when their vocal health may be put at risk. Still, according to the survey, nearly 28 per cent of respondents considered turning down a session over the impacts on their voice.
“A lot of us have just wanted to please,” says Sherry, who like every voice performer interviewed, loves the work in a way that far outweighs the shortcomings. “Young actors want to keep their jobs, so there’s always a danger in believing that they can keep going without issue.”
Industry group Entertainment Software Association of Canada is aware of ACTRA’s survey and its findings, said Paul Fogolin, vice president, policy & government affairs, in an email. While unable to provide an official statement, he said “the health and wellness of their employees and contractors” is always top of mind for gaming companies the group represents.
ACTRA says working with the industry and the employers is key to moving forward.
“Ultimately, ACTRA Toronto is eager to create an industry consensus around these best practices to protect performers from injury, extend their careers and reduce workforce attrition,” said Karl Pruner, director of communications at ACTRA Toronto in an email. “We want to encourage the industry to see video game performers as a valuable resource that should be managed sustainably through best practices.”
Some of those best practices include providing at least a 10-minute break for each hour of vocal stunt work; engaging a voice coach for actors new to this type of work; and for an actor, not booking sessions within 48 hours of each other.
“I just think everyone needs to educate themselves about what this job actually is and we need to advocate for ourselves,” says Sherry. “You run for four hours, your legs are going to tire just like your lungs. These are our muscles, and we need to respect them and treat them just as well.”
Noel Ransome, The Canadian Press