You know him as Naruto‘s Gaara, the voice that breathed life into Kain Highwind, and the Irish thugs in Uncharted 3. You may even recognize his talents in the Velveeta Cheese commercials. English voice actor and director Liam O’Brien sat down with DualShockers to talk about what goes on behind the screen, in the oft-overlooked department that isn’t rendering explosions or crafting battle systems.
O’Brien’s performance roots are grounded in the theater; while performing in New York City, the opportunity to do voice acting threw itself at him. “I met a guy while doing a play in Cinncinnati and from there it was down the rabbit hole and into wonderland,” the actor told DualShockers. From there O’Brien took anime dubbing jobs in the city, and immediately people noticed that the man had a knack for it. “I thought it was dumb luck, but some people just have it.” From there he moved on to Los Angeles and everything began to snowball.
For the last five years, O’Brien has exclusively worked with video games and animation. He now does voice direction in addition to script adaptation and voice work, and has adapted over 150 anime episodes, around 15 Japanese game scripts, and has written for several western games.
As it were, life in the recording booth isn’t as easy as we think. Actors typically record alone in a booth — group recording sessions are very rare — and read lines off of a massive Excel spreadsheet. Voice acting requires very precise timing; actors must make sure the words they are speaking mesh with characters’ mouth movements in gameplay. But that’s not the only challenge. “The only thing holding you back is your imagination,” O’Brien said. “The picture is there and you have to possibly rip your heart out or get revenge or fall in love, but you have to do it in 1.7 seconds. Rhythm and timing are very important.”
Unless, of course, you’re recording things like small pain reactions. “There are so many nuances to it; there’s no really preparing for the small things. Your director will say something like, ‘Clench your abs and make it sound like you got punched in the gut.’ They need to make you feel the vocabulary of pain.”
“I jokingly tell newer actors that the secret to good pain and attack sounds is a combo of bathroom and sex sounds,” O’Brien added with a chuckle. “It works.”
Theater may have been where he got his start, but O’Brien swears that preparing for physical theatrical roles and voice acting roles are radically different beasts. “In the theater, you’re screwed if you don’t prepare. You have to repeat the same performance every night. After doing a voice over for, say, Modern Warfare, your voice is totally thrashed. You could never do that vocally for theatrical performances night after night after night” the actor asserted. “With theater, you also have to memorize your lines — with voice overs you can just go in and read from the spreadsheet. With minor chats and short commercials, you need to just go off the cuff. Background Soldier B doesn’t have much of a backstory, so you shoot for an archetype when you record. But as for the big stuff — like an animated series like X-Men, you want to read more, do some research. That’s what I did for Nightcrawler, even though I was a huge Nightcrawler nerd already. You should learn something more about what you’re doing.”
O’Brien cites Nightcrawler (X-Men), Gaara (Naruto), and Illidan Stormrage (World of Warcraft) as a few of his favorite roles. “I’m kind of a skinny little white guy,” he laughed. “Fifteen-year-old me would be flabbergasted to know I’m getting cast as these big hulking guys.” Recently O’Brien lent his voice talents to The Lord of the Rings: The War in the North as Elrond’s twin sons Elladan and Elrohir, and to Uncharted 3 as a score of Irish thugs.
Voice directing has also become a passion of O’Brien’s; he has worked on Resident Evil 5, Resident Evil: Darkside Chronicles, and Ace Combat 6 to name a few. “With voice directing, you go to a lot of meetings to discuss what the intent is for the game. You give notes for what you’re looking for, then you bring in one actor at a time and show them finished CG or pictures of actors in motion capture suits running around a gym pretending they’re in a helicopter or on a mountainhead, and you direct their emotions. You make your way through another massive Excel file and get every single little line of dialogue recorded.”
The methods for voice directing a game are as variant as games themselves. “Every game is its own beast,” he said, “particularly now with the cinematic brilliance that has been happening. Everyone is doing it differently. Top-tier AAA titles that have cinematic cutscenes… those are very challenging. But if it’s JRPG Number 7 and it’s mostly character portraits and sprites, you’ve got more leeway as to what is acceptable because the picture isn’t really moving.”
Working in Resident Evil 5 was particularly challenging for O’Brien, who voice directed for the game. “It was hard because we were doing facial capture and because we needed it, we weren’t allowed to record one line at a time. We’d have to do six or seven lines at a time for a 40, 50, 60 second shot, and the voice and face had to be right at the same time.”
“I’m closer to being a hard director,” O’Brien said of himself. “I’m not a one-take guy. Generally I will go until I feel it’s right, and sometimes we get frustrated and have to keep going.”
O’Brien has done adaption work on the Bleach and Naruto anime series as well as Resident Evil: Darkside Chronicles and puzzle-horror-adventure Catherine. “[With script adaptation], you get a raw translation and you have to rework it to make it say essentially the same thing and still sound good.” O’Brien knows a little Japanese, but typically the raw translation is done before the script is handed off to those who would rework it. “I’ve worked in and around Japanese language enough to learn bits and pieces. I tried to self teach, but that only gets you so far. I learned just enough to confuse producers I work with into thinking I knew Japanese.”
Script adaptation has its trials and tribulations as well. “There are lots of cultural jokes that just will not work in English. You think, ‘How can I translate the meaning of this obscure Japanese flower festival that happens in March for people in Kansas? What do I make it about?’ And occasionally you scrap it and go for something similar.”
“There are also Japanese lines that take one second to say but take 5 seconds to say in English. You’ve got to harness your verbiage and rewrite or rework it to say it in a different way, to stretch it out or shrink it up. The more detailed the animation, the harder your job, because you can see every lip curl and clenched teeth when a character speaks. It has to match. You slide words around and rearrange thoughts; you think of something that encapsulates the same meaning in the same way,” O’Brien said.
“I’m good with dialogue. It comes from ten years in theater and ten years doing voice overs. I’ve been speaking English for a living,” he added with a laugh.
For Catherine in particular, O’Brien was called in to rework dialogue in the cutscenes. “It was a hell of a lot of fun to work on. It was great to sit on a toilet and talk to my best friend through a wall. Sex-comedy-horror is not a popular genre, so there was no question it was really something special. We knew it when we walked into the booth.”
O’Brien’s favorite games include BioShock, the Uncharted series, Metal Gear, and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. He wears his participation in a media growing leaps and bounds as not only entertainment, but a way to tell stories, with pride. “BioShock is art, it makes use of art, literature, philosophy, and thought. It’s the future [of games as a storytelling medium.] I don’t know how long it’s going to take, but what we’re leading to now is the holodeck from Star Trek. Many games are art now. It’s hard to look at Uncharted and look at the sweeping vistas and awesome art direction… I was grinning like an idiot playing, it is so well crafted.”
“I don’t think movies will ever go away, but I think there is going to be a lot more gray area between them and games. Our global attention is going to be split away from movies and a lot of time will be spent running around in our own personal movies. Everyone thought this about movies and now there are college courses devoted it. Games are headed that way too,” he added.