Inside the Voice Actors' Studio|
- Nich Maragos, lead editor
Of all the aspects of localization and all the choices a localizer has to make, the most controversial is almost always voice acting. Fans can be very particular and demanding when it comes to the voices in a game-some have even gone so far as to follow in the Japanese tradition of letting casting decisions influence their purchasing habits. But while these voice acting devotees may have heard or read a lot about the acting process from the voice actor's point of view, there's not as much information out there from the angle of the production company. So settle back as we take you through each step of the voice acting process-Atlus style.
Before any voice work gets underway, we need to decide who'll be playing the parts. Like all aspects of the process, our voice studio plays a big part: rather than call up actors directly, we send them a detailed list of character profiles, including their backgrounds, portraits, and age ranges. From there, the studio head (and director) looks through his rolodex of actors and sends us a few suggestions for each part. While he's doing that, we look through our internal database of actors' demo reels as well as our notes on prior roles they've played in Atlus games and come up with our own suggestions.
The tricky part is that for some very specific roles, the samples on a reel might not exactly indicate that they can handle the character, but we can generally trust the director's judgement on which actors are suited to which parts. When the casting is finalized, the studio begins the scheduling process to bring actors in for sessions, and then the fun begins.
For any voice recording project, you need to have a script made in advance. (These, incidentally, are usually Excel documents projected onscreen in the booth rather than hard copies. A hard copy of P4's voice script would probably run to at least 1,000 pages of dead tree.) There are certain things that must be incorporated in the script in order for the recording process to go smoothly, such as: the English line (obviously), the speaker name, comments and directions to the actor (such as "turns around to the protagonist", "read this line as you do sit-ups", etc.), and sound effect info and voice filenames (see "Post-Production"). Lines which are used during movie files will also have timing notes, as well as whether the speaker's mouth is shown onscreen or not-if so, the voice actor will have to be careful to match his or her reading with the visible lip flaps.
Every one of these columns is necessary.
We find it particularly helpful to include the original Japanese lines as well, for times when the actors aren't quite sure what the English line is trying to say, or how and where it's used.
All this information must be put together with as few errors as possible, preferably a few weeks prior to recording. Once you record a line, you're pretty much stuck with it (unless you have the rare opportunity to re-record at a later date) which is what puts the most stress on the production staff. In Persona 4's case, there were about 14,000 lines total, so making the script was a huge undertaking. And with a shorter-than-usual production schedule, we ended up checking and modifying the script until the very last session of recording...
For Atlus USA productions, there are usually four people in the studio during a recording session. (The studio for this particular project being Keith Arem's PCB Productions, which has the most amazing bathroom sink in the world. It's outside this diary's scope to fully express its wonderment, but trust me: best ever.) There's the actor, of course, the director, and two Atlus USA staffers, usually the project lead and a translator or editor. It's one staffer's job to handle the "take notes," the markings on a spreadsheet that indicate which take or read of a line we preferred. (Sometimes we request multiple takes, about which more later.)
We're not even kidding.
The other staffer follows along with the performer on a script, paying attention to possible misreads, typos in the script, or other hitches that could cause problems in the finished dialogue. We'll occasionally have to rewrite dialogue on the spot: either there's a logic problem that wasn't caught while preparing the script, or a sentence seems out of character upon reflection, or a line was edited in a way that turns out to be difficult to say out loud. (This editor guiltily admits to giving a lot of such lines to Naoto's VA, who handled them all without complaint.)
For a less general, more concrete example, let's take Steve Prince's session. We brought Steve in to play the part of Naoki Konishi, one of the Social Links the main character can meet during his year in Inaba. After Steve arrived at the studio and got settled, we worked on "dialing in" his voice for the character by explaining the character's personality and background, which he used as the basis for an initial attempt at the voice. Keith then conferred with project lead Yu Namba and myself to see if there were any changes we needed to make to the character's pitch, timbre, or tone, and Steve then incorporated our suggestions into a second try. Once we were satisfied with the character's voice, we begun the recording process.
Mixing board? Check. Soundproof booth? Check. Comfy couches? Check.
The exact process varies from actor to actor-some prefer to give us a range of takes for each line, which others would rather default to a single take and give us others if requested. Steve's method is the most common practice: he reads each line twice, giving us slightly different inflections and emphases so that we have multiple possibilities to work with. Since we're not an anime studio and can't usually show the actor exactly what's happening onscreen for his lines (excepting, of course, the anime sequences in the game) the Atlus USA staffers provide input by explaining scene changes and context for individual speeches when necessary.
Steve being the professional that he is, his "main" role was finished pretty quickly. Since he also possesses an impressive vocal range, it was easy to plug him into some other "minor" parts over the remainder of his session-one of which, the news announcer, actually had more dialogue than his main role! (It also proved to be one of the more challenging parts, since the news announcer has to say Japanese names and locations in nearly every line. Fortunately, Steve didn't need much coaching on the correct pronunciations.)
Once the actual sessions are over, there's still quite a bit of work to be done on the voice front. Keith's team of editors has to go through the raw session data using our take notes to edit out our chosen takes, and then apply sound filters whenever necessary. In Steve's case, his news announcer needed a TV set effect so that the announcer didn't sound like he was in the same room as the other characters, and an MC at the school Culture Festival had a heavy "outdoor" microphone effect added to his lines. It's a very time-consuming process, and with a game as big as P4 it can take as much as a week or two, but PCB went the extra mile to meet our tight schedule and miraculously delivered the last files only a couple days after recording was finished.
After we receive all the voice files, it's time for us to go through all those takes we couldn't decide on in the studio. For every line where we selected multiple or alternate takes, we usually take a day or two to sit down as a team and listen to all the alternate versions, coming to a consensus for every single line. Fingers crossed that there were no missed lines-the bane of every voiced project-we then send the finalized batch off to the developer to be implemented.
Ash, lemon-scented defender of the booth.
For an Atlus staffer, voice recording can be one of the most enjoyable and relaxed parts of the localization process: you get to sit in a swanky studio with comfortable leather couches, hang out with cool voice actors who'll tell you interesting stories during breaks, and play with Keith's excitable dog. (It wasn't exactly the most relaxing part of P4's production, mind you, but deadlines are deadlines.) Better than those things, though, is the feeling when you leave the studio, confident that you've helped produce an English dub up to the standards of a quality game like P4. Hopefully the fans will judge our confidence well-founded this December 9th, when they get to hear the results for themselves.
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