Here’s why actors matter

posted in: Creation, Games, Media, Publishing | 0

There’s a possibility of a SAG strike against the video game industry.  At issue is a SAG contract that will govern the terms of contacts between individual members and video game developers.  I’ve seen some comments on the web over the past few days, and it makes me sad and angry how some of them are going.

Some people, even gamers, are taking a stance that it doesn’t matter.  “Who cares; they (the developers) will just get other people to do the voices.”

Yeah, no.  That comment showcases a profound ignorance of how acting – and voice acting is acting – works, and what it brings to a project.

Wil Wheaton wrote up a fantastic illustration of some of the nuts-and-bolts issues that go into voice acting.  His focuses a lot on the drudgery of spending all day reading things into a microphone, and he’s extremely right.  It sounds easy to just say stuff, but when you have to ‘just say stuff’ for eight to ten hours, including some of that ‘saying’ taking the form of screaming and yelling and other things that abuse your voice, it’s less easy.

Additionally, something I feel Wil sort of glossed over a bit, is that acting is not an easy thing.  It’s just not.  So many people think it is, kind of how so many people think writing is easy.  Both are skills, both require practice and experience and even talent to do well.  Acting should be something everyone can easily grasp as being something that not just anyone off the street can pick up and go on with.  But, sadly, it appears that’s not the case.  Let me take a quick stab at it.

Go on Youtube.  Click through some amateur videos.  I really shouldn’t even have to give you examples; the amateur vids are everywhere on Youtube.  Let’s ignore the technical issues with most of the videos; like bad sound and editing and so on.  Let’s just focus on the on-camera ‘talent’.  How many of them aren’t good on camera?  Hint; it’s most of them.  They use verbal tics and stutters; the ums and ahhs and hmms and balks that most people sprinkle unconsciously into their speech.  Most of them also lack presence and charisma, even when all they’re trying to do is talk to you about their beekeeping or cooking hobby, about their favorite game or movie, or simply just introduce a segment of cool stunts they filmed over the weekend.

Now go on Youtube and dial your search focus down into some amateur fiction stuff.  The student films, the college groups shooting fan fiction, the up-and-coming animators showcasing their resume reels.  How many of those have good acting?  How many of them have wince inducing ‘acting’ up there on the screen for you to suffer through?  Here’s the answer; most of them.  It’s beyond obvious.

Let’s digress into good acting for a moment.  The art of acting is diving into a role and losing yourself in it.  You have to make the performance come naturally, seemingly without effort.  And it’s not all fun and games either.  Even a bog standard soap opera requires characters to display a range of emotions, without letting the performance dip into melodrama or forced emotion.  Can you cry on cue?  Believably?  Because actors have to.  And not just the once; take after take, each time without seeming to be faking it.  Can you summon rage – bone deep, fist clinching rage – on cue?  Again, take after take?  Can you project doubt or confusion or happiness or pride or concern?  On cue, not when you’re ready?  When the director calls action?

It’s not easy.  Anyone who flippantly says it is has missed the point and is making themselves look foolish.  Can you duplicate Tom Hanks’ performance at the end of Captain Phillips, where he breaks down into uncontrolled tears at the realization he’s somehow managed to survive the ordeal of that story?  Can you duplicate what the actress playing opposite him had to do, standing there and trying to portray a professional and compassionate Navy medic as an acting legend dissolves in sorrow, over and over for each take?  Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl, Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction, Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, Jamie Foxx in Ray, Kate Hudson in Almost Famous, Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny; the examples just go on and on and on.  And if you want to object at my using examples for the ages; go into each and every one of the films, and pick out the people who share scenes with those actors.  They all had to not only play something for their fellow to act against, but also had to hold up on their own against it.

Voice acting is no different from ‘acting’, except it’s entirely verbal.  These days, even that line is vanishing in the video game industry; games like The Last of Us were entirely acted, using motion capture to take the actual actors and animate them into the game.  And I challenge anyone to tell me with a straight face that The Last of Us would have been ‘just as good’ if Jane from Accounting and Bob from Marketing had been brought in to play Ellie and Joel.  Go on, I dare you.  And let’s make it easy for you; let’s ignore the ‘artistic’ argument and just focus on sales.  Try and construct a debate position that postulates The Last of Us would’ve sold even half as many copies with unskilled and/or mediocre actors in the lead roles.  Go on.  My email is twenty-four/seven, so knock yourself out.

The same goes for Mass Effect, and the last three Grand Theft Auto games.  Just about all of Bioware’s roster, including their MMORPG Star Wars The Old Republic, which shipped with nine complete single player stories, with branching good/evil storylines throughout that probably make each character’s storyline count for three or four per.  I could pull up Wikipedia and start listing examples, but I shouldn’t have to at this point.  More and more video games are launching with full on cinematic stories.  As much as I hate that we even have to use the qualifier, here it is; more and more games these days have ‘real’ stories.  Not afterthought stories, not hack stories, not almost stories; full on stories with living breathing characters.  Those stories took real writing and require real actors.

Now, to be fair, if you’re talking about a first-person-shooter that just needs a handful of actors to shout lines like “come on” and “get down” and “enemy sighted”, then fine.  I might even agree with you that Jane and Bob from inside your dev studio are probably all you need for that.  If it’s a puzzle game and you just need some cute animal like noises to go with the cute animal animations when puzzles are solved, sure, okay; cheap out.  But if you’re launching a full story game, you need qualified actors.

SAG is a guild of professional actors; those who act for a living.  While it’s silly to insist each and every SAG member is awesome at their job, I think it’s even sillier to say they’re not worth paying professional rates for.  When someone’s good at what they do, you pay for the talent.  If you don’t, you get what you pay for.  And when it comes to acting, I’ll just point to something like . . . porn again.  Yes, porn.  We’ve all seen adult films that toss a little bit of ‘real acting’ into their scripts.  Those of you who have actually watched a couple of scenes like that (when you weren’t skipping or fast forwarding through them to get to the naked parts), tell me how many of those scenes had acting that you bought.  Go on, raise your hands.  No one?  Bueller, Bueller?  Thought so.

The issue of voice acting does come up in the writing and publishing field; audio books are a thing, and they don’t happen without someone to serve as the voice in the audio part.  If you’ve ever heard some introverted author struggling through a reading of their book, you should know what I’m talking about here.  While most books might not require a world class talent, with the matching payscale, it’s equally wrong to assume audio book consumers won’t mind if someone completely lacking in acting talent gets behind the microphone for the reading.  Because, trust me, they do.  They have.  They will.  Voice acting is acting, and it doesn’t work if the voice doing the acting can’t act.  That’s not just anyone.  There’s a reason we call them actors; because they can act.  Jane and Bob are nice people, but they’re probably not actors.

Some people who’ve heard of SAG’s vote and possible strike have protested that the programmers and other technical staff deserve more money.  I agree.  But SAG represents actors, not programmers.  It’s up to the programmers to improve their lots.  Nothing’s stopping them from getting together and negotiating en masse.  Also, the SAG proposal is structured to only kick the back-end revenue demands in at certain sales levels.  The first, if I recall correctly, is at two million units.  So this won’t break any indie developers who are trying to build themselves up; unless one of those indies has a breakout game.  At that point, we’re back to deserving shares and spreading the wealth.

I support SAG in this.  Video games are making more money than ever before.  GTA 5 clocked over a billion dollars in revenue in seventy-two hours.  A billionThe Last of Us has sold more than eight million copies; and at $59.99 each, even allowing for Sony’s cut for the Playstation license, that’s a ton of cash.  None of it deserves to go to the actors who made it the masterpiece it is?

What happens if professional acting talent isn’t available in the gaming industry anymore?  We, the consumers, suffer.  It’s just that simple.