“My own obsessive-compulsiveness can be an obstacle. If it is a good character role, I will become infatuated with every line, quirk and tic.”
Ryan Cooper is a voice actor from the United Kingdom. His work stretches from a few Skyrim mods to several indie games such as The Old City: Leviathan and Hidden: On the Trail of the Ancients. However, Cooper’s latest venture sees his voice and talents behind John Maracheck, the protagonist of the point and click horror adventure, Stasis. In this official Bit Cultures interview, Cooper delves into the process of voicing a character who undergoes extreme amounts of pain and stress, preparation for different roles and some of the challenges of voice acting.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and what lead you to voice acting?
I live in the peaceful English county of Cornwall. A serious knee injury two years ago put me under house arrest and, for reasons that escape me now, I took up acting in Skyrim mods with a pretty mediocre desktop microphone. The guys over at Skywind thought my audition was good, but that I needed to improve the quality of my recordings, so I went on a costly crusade to upgrade my set-up. Stasis was the first Indie game where the dev did not politely tell me to go away. The Bischoffs [of indie developer studios The Brotherhood] took a chance, and kept me on after the successful Kickstarter when I could have easily been replaced. For that, I am very grateful.
Your performance in Stasis was excellent and reflected the dark atmosphere perfectly. How did you go about preparing for the role of John Maracheck?
The voice actors were asked to study scenes from The Last of Us for an idea of flow between the actors. I saw similarities between Joel and John too, but there are no conscious influences on how I played him. I didn’t want John to come across as a lesser imitation of similar characters. The role was not overly stylised or managed, so I had the freedom to attack it from a unique perspective and put a lot of myself into the performance.
This will be obvious to any serious actor, but it is important to read the script in its entirety if possible before stepping in front of the mike – to internalise the character, reflect on the themes of the story and how the characters attract and oppose each other. Family is the central theme of Stasis, and all three lead characters symbolise this in their own way.
John has an arc, which I look for in characters. It was vital that he be vulnerable, uncertain and slow to harden to the horror. If the player can connect with the character, they then consider the uncomfortable question: how would I cope in this situation? That is the essence of great horrors, they shine a light on our own lives.
John often discovered the gruesome leftovers of the Groomlake’s crew and, not to mention, found himself hurt, scared, beaten, bruised and at one point under a surgical laser. Whether John was screaming in pain or catching his breath from shock, your voice work captured these heavy and extreme moments greatly. What can you tell us about your efforts in helping to create such moments through your voice? Was the voice work as gruelling, stressing or draining as it sounded within Stasis?
The process was grueling, but very satisfying. Being the archetypal every-man, and a husband and father to a young child, John is an instantly empathetic character. The role represented a great opportunity because many parts are more fantastical, or inherently not relatable. I favour roles that I can humanise.
For John, authenticity was crucial; a less than genuine performance would distance the character from the player. I produced upwards of ten disparate takes per line so that John’s tone would be in keeping with Chris’ vision for the scene. Frustration often got the better of me and Chris [Bischoff] wound up with a database of my numerous curses, sighs and lip smacks.
To emulate John hyperventilating, I sprinted around the block before recording. I acted in pitch darkness to put the onus on my imagination and remove visible distractions. John’s tears became my own. When he screamed out in agony, I recalled the indelible memories of past injuries. I even threw up for real!
Your work not only falls in the realm of video game studios, but can also be found within some of Skyrim’s community mods; you play Ogdul in the Interesting NPCs mod and Joto the khajiit in the Helgen Reborn mod. What was it like voicing characters in a mod versus a character from a studio?
As an Internet-based actor, the process is largely uniform regardless of the project. I am yet to physically perform in an ‘away’ studio, though that is set to change over the next year. After receiving the script, there is a back-and-forth with the client over email or Skype. Flexibility is therefore important, as the client may not have a clear vision for the character. Others have such a clear vision that it takes time for you to get there.
With respect to mods, there is less at stake and you aren’t compensated for your efforts. Modding communities though are a great place for aspiring actors to cut their teeth, and a source of consistent voice acting. I would say characters in Skyrim mods tend to lack three-dimensionality, serving as much as tour guides to the player as people with motivations and foibles of their own (notable exceptions being the two you mentioned, as the writers gave their characters more independence from the player). The best voice actors in mods overcome that challenge and inject life into their roles.
Each project you undertake must call for different forms of preparation. Accents, tone and a character’s fluency are some of the challenges I can think of. What have been some of the obstacles you’ve encountered as a voice actor? And oppositely, can you share some of your favorite moments you’ve had in your voice acting career?
My own obsessive-compulsiveness can be an obstacle. If it is a good character role, I will become infatuated with every line, quirk and tic. I need to imagine myself at ground level in the scene, interacting with the characters around me. If you are just some guy speaking into a microphone in a foam-lined box, critics will call you on a flat performance. You have to be more than that.
Leading on from this, editing rushes it. So. Boring. And because I like to produce multiple takes for the client’s selection, it becomes a major time-sink. As a part-time actor, there are only so many hours in a day I can dedicate to voice work. So you have this wonderful high of producing good takes, then the low of having to chop them up.
Away from the studio, the biggest obstacle is the competitiveness of the voice acting market, even at entry level. Quality microphones are affordable. Indie game developers can get their hands on AAA game engines for no outlay. There are many fine voice actors who will work in indies for little to no compensation. You have to deal with disappointment and be persistent.
In no order of preference, the highlights of my short career include: The Old City: Leviathan. It was here I understood the responsibility of the voice artist, in co-ordination with the devs, to form a fleshed-out character that will engage the audience. There was a theatricality in Jonah’s dialogue, so I interpreted him as a worn-down actor of sorts. How many times has he approached that specific brick arch and launched into the same over-rehearsed soliloquy? For how long has he been shambling that facility like a ghost caught in a self-imposed cycle? Surely way before the player arrived. There is a subtle horror to the role.
Stasis is a massive highlight for the reasons already covered, and also when you consider how far it punches above its weight and the renowned artists Chris was able to lure to the project. I also get to say I have worked in a game starring the mighty Sean Bean (a.k.a. Boromir in Lord of the Rings).
You’re listed as a narrator for an upcoming game called Seven. The game, graphically and in regards to its lore, looks extremely promising. What can you tell us about your involvement with Seven and perhaps what players can look forward to in the game?
Sorry to be a wet blanket, but I know about as much as you do. I narrated the intro for Kholat by IMGN.pro and they have been very kind to bring me back for these lore-setting narrations, told in the style of a commoner spinning a tale over a campfire. There is some very exciting talent on board for Seven, including former members of CD Projekt Red and Marcin Przybylowicz, who recently composed for The Witcher 3.
Do you see yourself working outside the realm of video games? If so, what other ventures would you consider taking?
I certainly wouldn’t limit my performances to video games, or even voice acting. It just seems at the moment that gaming is the go-to place for a voice actor. It is arguably the most popular and accessible method of storytelling right now. It would be great to work in animation, anything that tells a good story with good characters. I am a creative sort and would like to tell my own stories one day.
With more games requiring motion capture and physical stunts, some voice actors are asked to do much more than just lend their voice. Recently, the treatment of the industries’ voice actors have found the spotlight. #PerformanceMatters has found its way across social media to represent the push for greater benefits for voice actors. Some websites even say failure to meet this may result in a strike. As a voice actor yourself, what are your thoughts about the current situation?
I am surprised it has taken this long. Voice actors are often treated as an afterthought when it is they who convey most of the story to the audience. Fans in their millions have formed a bond with Solid Snake as played by David Hayter, or David Bateson’s Agent 47, yet these iconic actors are being jettisoned. It stems from human pattern recognition. We are hard-wired to recognise famous faces. Most people could tell you who plays Iron Man or Katniss Everdeen, but few could tell you who played Franklin in Grand Theft Auto V, a game that made over a billion dollars. Good voice actors are also expected to have range, which adds to this sense of anonymity.
It goes back to the point about the competitiveness of the voice acting market. Studios and publishers may view actors as ‘a dime a dozen’ and therefore expendable. With mo-cap now the norm, the distinction between actors and voice actors continues to blur. It becomes an attractive prospect for a studio to bin a loyal voice actor for a famous movie star whose name will guarantee more coverage.
Hollywood’s assimilation of video games drives experienced voice actors down, in what they are paid and their level of work. I have noticed some top actors lending their talents to mid-to-upper-tier Indie Kickstarters. This in turn affects fledgling actors like myself, who need to break into Indie games to get the experience required to climb the ladder.
And of course as a website dedicated to video games, we must ask: What are some of your favorite video games of all time? And what have you been playing lately?
FPS: Half-Life 2
Story-driven: Metal Gear Solid 1
Puzzle: Septentrion (a.k.a. SOS)
Sci-Fi: Mass Effect 2
Multi-player: Super Bomberman
Recently: still playing Wild Hunt, recently finished Arkham Knight and thoroughly enjoyed it (though it’s time for a major shake-up). Eagerly anticipating Fallout 4.
Lastly, where can readers and fans follow you and find your work?
My website is ryjoco.co.uk, and contains my résumé and links to my recent work. My Twitter: @metaljoemac.