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Audio from Machiniplex Forum on Directing Voice Actors

                                     20+ people sat around the campire

Our March Machiniplex forum proved to be very enjoyable and informative. With about 20 people in attendance, Chantal Harvey, Phil Rice and I discussed methods and ideas on "How to Direct Voice Actors for Machinima". We were also fortunate to have Lorin Tone, Chantals main sound designer/director in attendance and he made many excellent comments throughout the forum. My thanks to him for coming.

We basically approached the Director's job chronologically from how to find actors all the way through to cutting the recorded takes that an actor sends you for the part. I had to leave about an hour and a half in, but Phil took over for the last 45 minutes (thanks, Phil) and it was lively all the way to the end.

                                                      Chantal Harvey 

Our forum was so successful that we are planning to continue discussing the topic in April. We plan on focusing on practical issues like mic technique, equipment to use for recording, software and specific directing techniques for working with non-actors. We'll announce the date in a few weeks (probably late April).

Thanks to Ben Grussi, we were able to record the audio for the forum, so if you weren't able to make it on Sunday, you can listen to the whole thing right here. The audio quality is only marginal, but it is certainly fine for basic listening. About cassette tape quality. Once we get better at it, we'll improve the quality so bear with us.

I've broken the 2 hour event into two parts for easier listening. As I've pointed out, the main speakers are Chantal Harvey, Ricky Grove (myself), Phil Rice and Lorin Tone. You may also find that some of our comments contradict Iains ideas, but that's just fine as everyone works differently. The important thing is that
we are all passionate and thoughtful about directing actors and editing sound.

Here's Directing Voice Actors Part One:

You can download the file (mp3) here.

Here is Directing Voice Actors Part Two:

You can download the file (mp3) here.


Also, Iain Friar (excellent director of films like Clockwork and the recent Embers) was unable to attend as our guest, so we have invited him to our next forum in April. In the meantime, he provided me with a series of notes on the topic that I'd like to share with you here (thanks, Iain). There's a download link for a .doc version of the notes at the end.

Where do you find voice actors?
Usually I ask friends. But rather than simply asking everyone I know I tend to  consider each role and decide in advance who I'd like to play the role. I take into account the fact that  none of my friends are actually actors, and therefore I try to make sure that the roles are as similar to them as possible. I never ask anyone to pick a role. 

In this way I've built up a core of people that I can use regularly. The more I work with them the more confident I am in advance that a particular role will suit them.

What sort of characteristics do I think make a good amateur actor? It's all about not being afraid to throw yourself into the role, to take a chance, and being willing to try different approaches for each take. And being to accept feedback! Using friends means that there are fewer chances for misunderstandings to take place...

When considering your circle of friends, it's usually fairly easy to guess who'll perform well in front of the mic. It's the ones that have been involved in amateur dramatics (of course), those that have been involved with youth groups (because with children you have to get a bit theatrical sometimes), school teachers (who also tend to be good at projecting their voices!) People that have played live music too - they tend to be fairly self-confident which is ideal.

Another approach is to contact a local amateur dramatics group. Usually these groups will have plenty of enthusiastic volunteers, and they have the advantage of acting experience. The disadvantage is that you'll be working with people that you don't know so well (if at all), and you're not guaranteed to get professional-level performances. 

From a director's point of view, you want to ensure that every line is spoken as clearly as possible. This means that if an actor makes a mistake during the recording then it's no big panic; just pause for a second (to make it easier for editing out the mistake later) then deliver the line again. Ironically, it is much harder to get an actor with theatrical experience (eg. amdram) to do this. The reason is because on stage if an actor fluffs their line then they will try to "rescue" it - either by adjusting it as soon as they realise their mistake, or by simply ignoring it. This is the exact opposite of what is needed for voice recording though, and in this sense, it is sometimes better to use less experienced actors. 

 Is it a good idea to use non-actors?
Absolutely. In an ideal world you'd be able to work with the professionals. But back in the real world, you'll be surprised at some of the performances you can get from people who are not professional actors. I also think that as a machinima director I am by definition an amateur, and nothing more. 
How does the director present the character to the actor when you are thousands of miles away from each other?

Personally I prefer to direct my actors in person. But if I'm asking an actor to "self-direct" then I think there are a few things you can do to help;

1. Provide the whole script, even if it's for a minor role. The actor needs to understand the context of their part. They need to understand who the other characters are, and how any interactions should manifest themselves.

2. Provide a detailed description about the character and their behaviour- what their state of mind is

3. Use lots of examples. The chances are that any character you have devised will have similarities with well known people, so use comparisons ("Like Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino", "like Sigourney Weaver in Alien" etc.)

4. Use visual aids too. For example, if you've already built some sets and have your puppet/avatar ready then take some screenshots. If you have a particular idea as to any specific post production effects then include them too - if your actor can see what the character can see then it will help.

How to direct an actor virtually?
The Moviestorm workflow means that you don't need to capture a live performance as such. Rather, you need the audio components so that you can create the performance as if it were live. So this approach is different to SL for example. In terms of virtual directing, it doesn't really exist for the Moviestorm approach; if you're not there to direct in person then make sure you give as much assistance in advance (as above), to allow the actor to self-direct.

One alternative idea (which I've never done) would be to listen in to the recording via Skype for example. That would allow for immediate feedback to the actor, but I would worry that the additional technical complexity might actually hinder the whole process. I would consider this approach if the actor felt they needed that interactive feedback.

Helping the actor record clean audio
For me, this is one of the most important considerations. If I really had to make the choice between a lacklustre performance that was low-noise and a thrilling performance that was full of pops, hissing, and humming, I'd take the former. It might make for a less convicing delivery but I personally hate (HATE!) noisy low-quality recordings. And, if you have dialogue between one actor with noise and one without it just makes it obvious that these people are not actually in the same room as one another at all. This may be machinima, but I do think you should strive for professionalism wherever possible, and sound is the one area that is overlooked by machinima directors, that actually isn't too hard to fix.

The first rule is: Prevention is Better Than Cure!
Start with the mic; don't use a gaming headset - it'll pick up your breathing and the the end result will sound like you were recording down a phone line. To record, use a decent condenser mic. It doesn't have to be expensive, and if you're planning on doing voice acting regularly it is a basic tool for the job. 
Make sure the it doesn't pick up the sound of the cooling fan or power supply on your PC. 
Make sure there are plenty of soft surfaces around; hard surfaces create echoes. If necessary get under the duvet for the recording.

Use headphones - it's amazing what you'll pick up. You can take them off once you've set your levels - I think it's important to be comfortable when you're performing. Of course, you probably won't notice the headphones as you sit hunched under the quilt.

Record with as high settings as possible; e.g. 44mhz stereo. You probably don't need it, but if you're processing sound you're basically taking away from the purity of that sound which means that the quality will deteriorate. Also, there may be parts of your process that you're not completely in charge of - for example if you upload your movie to a website - that movie is going to be processed and compressed in some way that you cannot control, so better to put as good quality into that process as possible.

I'm a little loathe to recommend specific hardware and software for recording because there's is so much choice out there, but I have found a product that I absolutely swear by: the Zoom H2 handy recorder. (Please note that I'm not in any way connected with Zoom, but I love this little machine).

The Zoom H2 is a stereo condenser mic which records in WAV format directly onto an SD card (same as a digital camera). I have a little tripod stand for mine, but it also comes with an adaptor which lets it clip into a conventional mic stand. You can plug it into your computer and use it as a USB mic, but the real beauty of this machine is that it works completely standalone too. So, if I'm recording someone I can arrive at their house, put the mic on it's stand, plug the headphones in and we're ready to go. It has plenty of settings for quality, sensitivity, etc. plus it will record surround sound in 4 separate channels (I've no need for this but it's good to know that I'm not at the limits of the device!) The real beauty of this machine for me is that my regular actors are spread out over a wide geographical area so it isn't possible or practical to bring them together for recording. With this device I have hardly anything I need to take. It means I don't need the PC switched on to record - so no noise from the cooling fan, and I can use it to record my own foley sounds. (as I did in Embers). Amazon sell these for about £150. 

Sales pitch over.

Working with non-actors to get a good performance
For someone who hasn’t acted before it can be a bit daunting stepping up to the mic for the first time. 
Assuming that you have provided the script in advance and they’ve had a chance to familiarise themselves with the role you’re ready to begin. I don’t usually insist that they’ve learned their lines verbatim. In fact, I prefer them to be familiar with the lines but not able to deliver them without the script in front of them. I’ll get to this a bit later.

So, start by making sure they’re comfortable. Give a demonstration as to how the recording will take place, and a little explanation as to what is going on. Possibly, (probably) they’re not really interested in the technicalities of it all so you don’t need to go into all the nitty gritty about what you’ll be doing in post production. If the actor is in my home for the recording then I’ll often fire up the software to show them what the set looks like (even if it’s still under construction). This will help them to visualise the scenario that they will need to act out.

Then “get a level”. This is of course a standard part of the process to make sure the sensitivies in the recording equipment (hardware or software) are set correctly. But it also serves another purpose; it gets the the actor to approach the mic and begin talking. Ask them how they got there, what they had for lunch, any plans for the weekend etc. it will help them defocus on what is unfamiliar, and focus on the familiar and therefore relax a bit. Plus it lets you get your levels right!

Then we do a run through. Just to get the actor into the role. I explain to them that I’m not recording it at this stage. But of course I am – just in case there is a unique moment of brilliance. In fact, there is a school of thought that says you should record everything, but I don’t subscribe to that for the simple reason that if you end up with hours and hours of recordings it will take a long time to review and select what you’re going to use. Better to focus on recording what you intended to record.

Feedback for the actor is essential. If they’re doing a great job tell them. If their delivery is not quite the way you want it then I think you have to be prepared to demonstrate what you’re looking for (which I always find a bit awkward as I’m not a terribly accomplished voice actor). Do remember that the actor is doing something that is unfamiliar to them, and they are trying to help you out, so sensitivity in your feedback is essential!

Fixing poor voice recordings
As part of the auditioning process you need to hear some of the work that the actor has done previously. When you listen, don't just listen to the delivery, listen to the sound quality itself. I have rejected actors in the past simply because there was too much noise in the files.

If you do receive sound files that are noisy then the first thing to do is consider the actor's setup. If the issue is echo then there are probably too many hard surfaces around - the duvet is your friend here.
If there is popping then have the actor adjust the angle of the mic so that they're not breathing directly into it. If they're using something like a gaming headset then I think it will be difficult to rescue.

If there is any hum (e.g. from a PC fan, or electrical equipment in the vicinity of the recording) then it may be a case of using a noise reduction filter in your sound editor. (Audacity has one for example). Personally, I'd say that this is a last gasp attempt to rescue the audio. NR tends to introduce other characteristics which can be just as distracting as the noise in the first place. E.g. when I listen to post NR audio on my PC I hear a kind of deep buzzing. I don't know if it's something to do with my PC, but I really notice it. Also, you can sometimes hear a "tinkling" sound which is particularly noticable when the audio is played through a high-end system (such as in a cinema auditorium).

Using improv
If by improv you mean “OK, you’re in a bar. Tom has just walked up and tells you he’s been fired. Now action!” then I’ve not used it to any great extent. (Although I would love to at some point in the future). However, I like my actors to have the freedom to deviate from the script as necessary. There are several reasons why you might want this:

1. If the actor is having difficulty enunciating any of the lines then they can adjust the words to have the same meaning, but easier to speak. (And this happens very often because when you write a script, the voice is in your head. It’s not until you try to vocalise your script that you recognise some issues with it.)

2. If the actor has learned the script word for word then the delivery can be a little unnatural. Better to let them say it in the way that feels natural for them. In this way you’re more likely to capture a natural performance.

3. As well as being more natural, it can be more believable. For example, Embers is my first movie that is not set in the UK, so I needed to use remote actors. I deliberately selected US based actors because I felt their delivery would be more authentic. The dialogue in my script was written in a way that I thought Americans would speak. But all along, I knew that the actors, who are immersed in American culture, would be able to enhance the script by making adjustments to certain words and phrases.

So, while this isn’t improv in the conventional sense, I do think that it is important to give actors a bit of freedom to “add value”. Of course, there will always be key lines that need to be delivered in a certain way, and I always point out these lines to my actors in advance. 

Files from remote actors
When considering how to get the best results from remote actors it is probably worth thinking about how you would like them to package the recording they send you.

I prefer to receive a single file that has their complete performance (even if it includes mistakes). The reason is that I don’t want them to do one or two lines one day, then a couple more lines the next. If this is how they record then you can be sure the sound quality is going to vary between individual lines, and if this happens within a scene you can be sure that the audience will notice. So, a single complete file will encourage the actor to do a complete run through without changing any settings.

Ideally, I’d like more than one take so I can select the one the I think fits best. I’ve been known to take individual lines from different takes and combine them, even sometimes changing the order. This is only possible if you have a choice of takes.

Another reason for having a single file is that if you are processing the file (e.g. amplifying, compressing, noise reduction), it is far easier to do it on a single file than to have to open up twenty separate files and repeat the process (which can become rather tedious).

You can download Iain Friar's Directing  notes here.

  1. Blogger Russell Boyd | March 26, 2010 at 2:28 AM |  

    Sorry I couldn't make it along to this one, so the audio downloads are much appreciated.

  2. Blogger Richard Grove | March 26, 2010 at 9:01 AM |  

    We missed you, Russell. Continuing the discussion into April, so I hope to see you at the next one. Would like to record every session so that folks who have other commitments can still benefit.

    Thanks for your comment, Russell.

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