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Words From “The Voice”: A Q&A With Steve Blum

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By: Stephen Crane (Photo: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Chances are if you've played a AAA game in the past few year's you've heard a voice. Some might call it "the" voice, as you'll find it everywhere. It's the voice found in Call of Duty, Command & Conquer, Dead Island, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and more. If you've had dealings with Grunt, Wilson, or the Shadow Broker in Mass Effect 2 you'll know the voice quite well.

 

It turns out that voice belongs to none other than Steven Blum. After finding the impressively large body of works, I decided to get in touch with him and ask a few questions about his experiences as a professional voice actor and what it's like voice acting for video games vs. other entertainment mediums. Here's what he had to say.

Armed Gamer – First, let’s start off with a short introduction. How did you get into voice acting?

Steve Blum – By accident. Back in the late 80s, I was working in the mailroom of a low budget sci-fi film company as a driver and production assistant.  Our boss was a buddy of mine who happened to be casting for what he called a “Japanamation” show.  We always goofed around with stupid voices, and I had the deepest one in the room, so he asked if I’d be interested in giving dubbing a try as a monster ripping the limbs off another monster.  It meant a free breakfast on a Saturday, so I risked it.  I was the only non-actor there, and I thought I sucked, but apparently I did ok.  They hired me on the spot. I worked 26 episodes on that series (The Guyver), at first doing creature voices, but soon I graduated to actual English speaking roles.  I seemed to have a natural knack for it and haven’t stopped since.

AG – About when did you realize that your voice was the voice of a badass?

SB – Just now!   Really?  Cool.  Tell my girlfriend. 

My voice has been pretty deep since I was a young teenager, but unless you count drippy, nasty creatures,  I didn’t get to play true “badass” characters until maybe about 15 years ago.

AG – You have been a voice actor for a number of mediums. How does voice acting in a video game differ from other mediums?

SB – It often hurts more, simply due to the quantity of high volume lines, efforts and impacts.  In most games, we have to be able to crank out hundreds of lines in a session, sometimes voicing several different characters and dialects in a session with no time to prepare anything.  Ya gotta be on your toes and ready to shift at a moment’s notice.  I need to be flexible in other mediums too, but in terms of fixing crap that other people didn’t anticipate, gaming’s where we really earn the bucks.  Recording Original animation (for cartoons) is more like a radio play.  We get to work off of other actors, doing full scenes, with a pretty good sense of story arc and sometimes even the luxury of seeing a script the night before.   It’s a lot of fun and most of the actors have done comedy and improv, so the rooms can get pretty wild.  Anime is usually done one person at a time like games, but adding in the technical aspect of matching lip flaps of Japanese actors or characters.  The new trend in game recording is MoCap (Motion Capture) and / or VoCap (Voice Capture), where our bodies and /or our faces are digitally recorded along with our voices for exacting, more fluid animation.  Lately, I’ve actually done some cast records with crazy camera helmets for games.  I personally prefer to be alone, at a regular mic for that.  Since I’m not an on-camera or stage actor, I find the helmet and having to use the body a hindrance to my performance.

AG – About how far along in production do companies start recording voices, or does it vary depending on the studio?

SB – It varies by project, by studio, by script, by financing, by production and development facilities, etc… It can be years of voice recording before anything is animated or it can be weeks before release that they’re rushing last minute voices into the mix where everything else is done.  And they rarely even let us know those details.

AG – When recording, do you get to see the animations you are voicing over?

SB – Sometimes, but most often no.  For games like Final Fantasy, a lot of it is already done and we’re matching Japanese lip sync.  For things like Call of Duty or Transformers or Mass Effect, we see a picture of the character (if we’re lucky) – but have to completely rely on the director for context.

AG – When you first are working on coming up with a distinct voice for the character, how much information are you given? Do you know what the character looks like or its history, or do you keep trying voices until the director/producer tells you it’s good?

SB – For the most part, the directors and producers come armed with a lot of information.  They usually do their best to give us whatever they have to that point, but sometimes lines and story are being written as we’re working.  We’ve all been doing it long enough that creating the voice isn’t that hard once context has been set.  We’ll play with the voice a bit, but time is always of the essence, so we do what we can to fine tune it quickly.

AG – About how long does it take to provide a voice for a game? Is it longer when you come on to projects like BioWare’s RPGs?

SB – Again, depends on the project.  Some games I can knock out an entire performance in a couple of hours.  Companies like Bioware take their time.  The writing is precise, the team is immense and they take their time to get it right.  Most of my characters take many many sessions to record on those games as they develop and evolve.  I love that, because I feel like I’m a little bit more privy to the process.  And let’s be honest, the more sessions, the more money we make.  In the end, I’m all about quality, so if we have the luxury of time to work with a character, I feel I have the opportunity to give the gamer the most immersive experience possible.  That’s always the ultimate goal for me.

AG – What is the most difficult voice you have ever done for a video game?

SB – Wow, so many of them have been painful! For me the difficulty is more the physical toll than the performance.  Doing howling, screaming  creatures always hurts.  Characters like Brutes from Halo or fighters like Wolverine or Tank Dempsey are always painful, but viscerally rewarding at the same time.

AG – You have provided voice work for more than 200 games in your career. Are there any studios you find yourself preferring to work for, or any that you have a close relationship with?

SB – My closest relationship in a studio situation is with the director.  They’re my friends.  Some of them own studios, some of them freelance at several studios.  I wouldn’t want to name any here for fear that I’d leave some out.  Like I said, I consider them all my friends.   How do you choose favorites? 

AG – What are some of your favorite roles/characters you have provided your voice for?

SB – Also difficult to choose.  Like children, there are no “favorites.” Ones that come to mind would be some of the more recent characters like Starscream, Wolverine, Grayson Hunt (Bulletstorm), Tank Dempsey (COD), Grunt (ME II), Oghren (DragonAge)… but also there are so many from earlier years like Guilmon (Digimon), Yakky Doodle (HarveyBirdman), Spike Speigel (Cowboy Bebop), Green Goblin… the list goes on… I have to make the character du jour my favorite.  If I’m not fully invested in the character I’m working on today, I shouldn’t be voicing him.

AG – Do you play any of the games you’ve acted for? Are there any you regret acting for after playing them?

SB – Sadly I’m not a gamer.  Happily, because of that, there is no regret.  I don’t choose the takes they use, and in most cases I do three or many more takes per line, so if a performance sucks, I can always blame it on them choosing the wrong take.  I just do the best I can with what I have to work with and leave it at the studio and move on to the next project.  It’s the only way to maintain any semblance of sanity. 

AG – Do you have any projects you’re working on right now that you would like to share?

SB – Gamewise, other than Guild Wars 2 – I’m sworn to secrecy under SEVERE penalties, so no – but there’s a buttload of games I’ve worked on coming out very soon.  I am working on a new little kids’ version from the Transformers universe called RescueBots.  It’s a gentler intro to the genre for youngsters.  Pretty fun and great cast.  Sneaks December 17 and officially begins early 2012.  Still working on Transformers Prime, Naruto, X-Men Anime, the Regular Show and many others, so stay tuned.  Recent game releases include Arkham City, Saints Row III, COD MW3, SWTOR…I try to do little Twitter blasts as I’m allowed to (@blumspew), on Facebook or on my website at steveblumvoices.comIMDb always seems to know what I’m doing before I do…

AG – Thank you very much for agreeing to this interview! Are there any last words you have for the readers before we wrap up?

SB – My pleasure, bub, and yes…  Thank you guys and girls for playing, watching, listening.  Without you, I’d be unemployed and I never forget that.  See ya on the battlefield.  Play nice.  Bang.

 

About Stephen Crane

Stephen was hooked by the NES at a very young age and never looked back. He games on a daily basis and is currently trying to climb his way up the ranked ladder on League of Legends! Outside of the video game world he actually likes running and owns a rapidly growing collection of toed shoes. Stephen Crane is the owner of Armed Gamer.

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