I was curious to talk to a respected video game casting director about her new book and what those wanting to perform in the medium should know.
But first she ordered me to stab someone.
I was at Hollywood’s Jim Henson Studios with actor Anjali Bhimani from video game “Apex Legends” and Disney+ series “Ms. Marvel” and dressed in a form-fitting motion capture suit. Bhimani would be my victim, and she had some advice for a first time Not for the fake sting – there I was alone – but to prepare for a video game motion capture session.
“I wish I had known I had to wear something nice and tight when I set up. Because these, “says Bhimani of the skin-tugging mocap (short for motion capture) wear,” as you can see, are very form-fitting. But you don’t want to wear them without something underneath. So I’m wearing leggings now and a tank top underneath — so, you know, there’s no chafing or anything like that.’
Welcome to video game acting in 2022.
The team at animation and motion-capture studio House of Moves gave me a crash course in motion-capture acting, which is often used in major video games to represent realistic human movements. I would play a stable hitchhiker instructed to walk with a creepy lanky. After 20 minutes of light stretching to capture my basic moves, we were running — or rather slouching. Although we weren’t making a real game and I’m not a professional actor, I had to try and control my desire to exaggerate because I thought I needed big, bombastic moves for animators to play with.
Bhimani patiently reminded me that we were surrounded by cameras, all picking up my subtle movements. “Those guys up there?” said Bhimani, pointing to the cameras surrounding us, “all those guys will catch us.”
Then I struggled with what to say or not to say, knowing that voice would be added later. But Bhimani again said that was the wrong instinct, and to pretend the voice wasn’t captured, which gives the actors the freedom to aurally dictate their movements when they’re not in direct view.
It is expected that I, a writer, would not get ready to star in a video game. But casting director Julia Bianco Schoeffling has seen too many pros approach the medium of video games without the proper preparation. That’s one of the reasons she wrote a book, “The Art and Business of Acting for Video Games,” which mixes first-hand stories with practical advice. It starts with an unnamed celebrity actor who was hesitant to take off a baseball cap in a tech booth (they compromise when flipping the cap). Throughout the book, she covers topics such as union and non-union jobs, nondisclosure agreements, and old-fashioned acting advice for the motion-capture stage.
Some quick notes: come ready to play, because motion capture stages can be barren. But also play some video games before playing in one. And get to know the history of the medium.
Schoeffling is the right person to write about acting in video games, say those who have worked with her. Schoeffling is also the co-founder of the Halp Network, which connects clients with talent on screen and off. “Her broad knowledge of the video game casting industry is absolutely insane,” said casting director Ashley Nguyen DeWitt, “and the fact that she has written this book is truly a gift to anyone who wants to be involved in video game acting and the business and art itself.”
Schoeffling thinks it’s still an overlooked part of the industry.
“I say 2 out of 5 people I tell I’m video game cast will say, ‘Oh, do they have video game actors?’ Maybe even 50% of the time.” Schoeffling says about a medium that she says is still not understood compared to film and television.
“One of the main reasons I wrote my book was to connect everyone with the game industry and make it more accessible and easier for people to understand the nuances. Games are quite clunky and there isn’t really a standard. For actors, there has never been a guide to what to expect, from auditions to showing up on set.”
Schoeffling has been working in the video game space since 2003, starting as a receptionist at Treyarch, a studio known today for its work on the “Call of Duty” franchise, with her casting focus occupying much of the past decade. But Schoeffling has gone through a full evolution, noting that in the early to mid-2000s, dialogue was a final priority. “I basically had to manage Excel sheets, go into sessions, prepare scripts, make sure actors were there, make sure all the resources were included, edit it and get it into play. It was a huge learning curve.”
That’s a long way from today when the annual Game Awards have a category for top performance. Among Schoeffling’s credits are some of the most acclaimed video game acting acting, including major franchises such as “Call of Duty” and “The Last of Us,” among many others. Today, it’s a celebrated art, and older games, like the original “The Last of Us,” are being remastered to better reflect, in part, the actors’ work.
Schoeffling’s book goes back to the origins of voice acting in the industry and describes the earliest examples of voice in games – 1982, Schoeffling writes, when games experimented with plug-in peripherals like the Intellivoice. It also hits other major milestones, such as “Mortal Kombat” in 1992 with the introduction of character-specific phrases and the birth of video game fame in Mario voice actor Charles Martinet. But everywhere, like those she interviews, Schoeffling advocates the power and importance of video game performance.
“I think video games are one of the few performance media… where your audience can be directly influenced by your performance,” actor Noshir Dalal says in the book. “Your achievements can literally change the choices a player makes in the game.”
Adds Bhimani during our mocap session: “It’s a whole new language, and I love that because I really think it’s a fusion of film acting and theater acting and voiceover, all combined in one. It’s a really nice advancement in technology. I like to combine all those, all those disciplines in one.”
Self-published, Schoeffling cites Jenna Fischer’s “The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide” as inspiration, noting that she appreciated Fischer’s directness when it came to practical advice. To that end, Schoeffling will guide a young actor to record a voice demo, as well as encourage them to get a good night’s sleep. Schoeffling’s book deciphers audition language and also tells you to avoid alcohol and cigarettes (“these things affect your voice”). And she encourages actors to delve into important industrial and cultural issues, such as representation.
For example, in our mocap demo with Bhimani, the latter played a role of gender. It was easy to see how tempting it would be to go with whoever is on hand, regardless of race, gender or age, in what will eventually become an animated setting. Yet it is a core passion of Schoeffling to avoid such pitfalls in representation.
Schoeffling briefly states that the video game space was slow when it came to proper rendering, then writes about her own experience helping cast “Tell Me Why,” which made history as the first playable transgender character in a game. “More than ever,” Schoeffling writes in the book, “it is our responsibility as creators and actors to ask ourselves whose stories we should be telling.”
“I think it’s really important that actors play a part in that,” says Schoeffling, noting that the book points actors and the industry to a number of diversity resources, including Queer Vox, a voice actor training academy dedicated to working with LGTBQ actors. “You don’t have to be an arms dealer to play one, but if the role calls for a South Asian person, and you’re not South Asian, is this your story to tell? If the role requires a queer person, and you are not queer, is this your story to tell? That part was really hard. I wanted to make sure everyone read and did things, but I don’t need to educate people about racism.”
There are some issues that Schoeffling addresses but can’t answer, such as the comment that quite a few roles in video games are still ununited, which depending on an actor’s representation can pose a challenge. But Schoeffling does outline options and tries to present advantages and disadvantages. Ultimately, Schoeffling’s book is one of extending a hand, aiming to lead people without much knowledge of video games to the medium. She says she can still have a hard time getting an A-list actor to take a game seriously if it’s not a hefty payday, and she hopes that someday actors will regard a small game the same way they would an indie movie — a showing their overall cache.
“I think it’s great that people see the possibilities in games,” says Schoeffling. “I’ve always been optimistic about games. Just the idea of media convergence and how games are best poised to take the industry by storm and become the head of entertainment. We understand this technology, we understand the nuances, and we understand fanatical fanbases.”
Rabid fan bases? That is a subject to be saved for another book.