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Video game voice actors worry they're getting shortchanged

As their role expands, many worry that their pay isn't keeping pace with the lucrative industry's growth.

December 07, 2009|By Richard Verrier and Ben Fritz

Uncharted 2, an adventure game recently released by Sony, intentionally mimics the cinematic style of movies like the "Indiana Jones" series. Actors not only performed voices but also acted in motion-capture suits for non-interactive story sequences -- called "cut scenes" -- that totaled about 90 minutes.

"We basically made a feature film at the same time that we made a game," said Uncharted 2 director Amy Hennig, who worked with an experienced theater director to oversee acting. "Good performances are critical so that players maintain an empathetic association with the character who they control."

Largely because of the industry's roots in the software business, video game creators have traditionally been compensated very differently than creative workers in Hollywood. Unlike talent in movies and TV shows, they don't receive residuals, or additional fees for the reuse of their work.

"In our business we're all employees and any upside we get is purely discretionary, so many of us are not going to have a lot of sympathy for actors who want back-end residuals," Hennig said. "That's why we're talking two different languages when we sit down at a bargaining table."

The biggest sticking point in the dispute involves pay levels for a new category of actors: those who perform "atmospheric voices," words and sounds for the incidental characters -- bartenders, soldiers, elves, random monsters -- in war and fantasy games that involve large crowds.

Under the proposed SAG contract, actors would receive a fee of about $800 for performing up to 20 atmospheric voices (up to 300 words per voice) in a four-hour session. Actors who perform "principal characters" -- defined as those that drive the story -- would fetch the same fee for doing up to three character voices, and more than double the amount if they do six to 10 voices during a six-hour session.

Although video companies offered a 2.5% increase in wages, an influential group of Hollywood voice actors has strongly opposed the contract. They contend that the provision would require them to do substantially more work for roughly the same pay and put undue stress on their vocal cords, notwithstanding a provision in the agreement to protect actors against "vocal stress."

"Before, you were doing three characters dying a horrible death. Now you're doing 20 characters dying a horrible death," said Dee Baker, a veteran voice actor who has worked on such games as Halo 2 and Spore, in which he voiced entire races of evolving alien creatures. "Not only will this mean less money for more experiences, it's also going to be a lot more vocally difficult."

Though it seems counterintuitive, game developers say that advances in technology are making actors more important to the production process, not less.

Hudson, for instance, says he hopes that in the future, game makers will capture the facial expressions of actors for the eye and mouth movements of the animated characters whose voices they provide.

That's one reason backers of the agreement -- including negotiators for both actors unions -- argue that the most important goal right now is to give the companies more incentive to hire union talent.

"One of the things we'd like to do is improve the union's footprint in this area of production," said Mathis Dunn Jr., an assistant national executive director of AFTRA. "A lot of employers are not signatories to our contract, and part of the reason is that we can't accommodate their budget. . . . This will keep us in the game."

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