Actors Raise Alarm Over Stressful Video Game Voiceover Gigs: “Your Throat Is Carrying a Heavy Load”   

Canadian actors say they face temporary or even permanent damage to their vocal cords as video game voiceover work has them performing death screams, zombie wails or battle roars for two to four hours in a voice booth.

And they want Canadian-based game developers and video game directors to help local actors more safely get the same intensity of performance to voice complex, fully drawn characters that still constantly howl and scream as they face enemies wanting to kill them.  

“It’s education, training for the actor, training for everybody. It’s a collaborative effort to make sure that the actor doesn’t lose their voice,” Ellen Dubin, a lead voice actor on video games like Fallout 4, Skyrim, Elder Scrolls, World Of Warcraft, Star Trek Online and Agents of Mayhem, told The Hollywood Reporter.

“Sometimes your throat is carrying a heavy load. And it’s not necessarily only screaming, laughing , bellowing. It can be whispering that’s emotionally taxing,” Dubin added. On Aug. 4, ACTRA, Canada’s actors union, released a survey of 260 members that revealed 74.32 percent of those polled said video game voiceover work sessions very often or almost always included loud, aggressive or vocally extreme work.

Ivan Sherry, a veteran of video game voiceovers, including on Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise, said game characters are forever getting stabbed, shot, falling off cliffs or are suddenly engulfed in flames. “The important thing as an actor is to make this stuff as real and true to life as possible. That’s what gamers expect — honest, true-to-life performances,” Sherry added about using his projected voice to raise the dramatic stakes, and heart rates, of game players.

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Actors have to go well beyond shouting in pain in the voice booth by using dexterous physicality as their face is planted in front of a microphone, and all the while try to avoid short-term or long-term damage by shredding their vocal cords.

“You have a to replicate the sound of what it might be. You have to go there, to that place. No matter the training, and that’s vocally stressful,” Sherry added. The ACTRA survey also reported 42.74 percent of respondents said that it took two or more days for their vocal quality to return to normal after a vocally extreme voiceover session, and 27.68 percent had considered turning down a session over fears they might lose their voice, and so future work.

That’s local video game voiceover work in a fast-growing Canadian industry. According to the Entertainment Software Association of Canada, video game companies in Canada generated around $4.3 billion in revenue in 2021, up 20 percent from 2019 pre-pandemic levels — and more revenue than the Hollywood-dominated Canadian film and TV industry combined.

Beyond the availability of work, Canadian actors are also attracted to gaming voiceover work as the lines between what is a Hollywood tentpole and a video game are increasingly blurred. In all, 937 video game companies were identified in Canada, up 35 percent from 2019, with most working in Ontario and Quebec and developing and producing games for the world market.

ACTRA raising the alarm over vocal safety issues follows the sister SAG-AFTRA membership holding a performers strike from October 2016 to September 2017 against 11 major video game companies that ended with a new Interactive Media Agreement. “I struck. I held a placard like a good Canadian because I believed in education,” Dubin, who is an ACTRA and SAG-AFTRA member and regularly works on both sides of the border, recalled.

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The SAG-AFTRA deal included an employer commitment to continue working with the American actors union on the issue of vocal stress. In Canada, Simon Lee Phillips, who has voiced a number of characters in the Assassin’s Creed game franchise, including Assassins Creed Unity and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, argues varying industry awareness of voice safety depends on which game developers you work for.

Phillips points to game developers increasingly providing script breakdowns, and even the scripts themselves in advance, so voice actors have some idea of which one-liners they will be barking or bleating during a session. “I really enjoy working with Ubisoft. They have been open to learning and understanding. Once they know this is something needed by their performers, they generally seem to be meeting them,” Phillips told THR.

The ACTRA survey and union members recommend as measures to guard against vocal chord stress that actors get breaks every hour during sessions, that a vocal coach be part of recording sessions, and that extreme vocal work be left to the end of a gig to ensure actors remain fresh for voicework earlier in a session.

In addition, script breakdowns should detail if extreme vocal work will be part of a session and that voiceover directors need to be trained to allow performers to save their voices and prevent injuries to their vocal chords. Dubin adds agents need to be trained to spot pitfalls for voiceover actor they represent.

“It’s educating agents to say, ‘you know what, maybe spread this over a couple of days if we’re playing a monster or a creature where we have to screech and scream and howl and be killed, maimed or attacked, or fight something,” Dubin recommended.

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