Voice Actors Struggle in Battle Against Video Game Industry

In Hollywood, there are unseen actors.
In Hollywood, there are unseen actors.

Voice actors are fighting for more money in an industry that pays about $825 for four hours' work. On the surface that sounds like a lot, and a story the Weekly published yesterday painted the workers as part of Hollywood's entitlement problem in Los Angeles, where the median individual income (about $28,000 a year) won't even get you a median-priced apartment.

Income disparity is a serious issue, but the truth here is more nuanced: Many voice actors are struggling in ways similar to the rest of the city. We spoke to three members of SAG-AFTRA's voice actor negotiating committee as the union marks one week of its strike against video game makers, largely based in L.A. They say they're everyday Angelenos working to make ends meet. 

Jennifer Hale, who has performed in countless best-selling video games, including World of Warcraft: Legion, started to cry when she spoke of colleagues who are on the economic edge. She described voice actors more as "Hyundai people" than Mercedes people. Some, she said, could lose their homes. "There are a lot of people getting squashed," she said.

While $825 for half a day's work sounds like a windfall, those four-hour voice sessions are few and far between, according to the negotiators, who are all veteran voice actors. 

"There may be times I work once a month, sometimes two times in a week," said Crispin Freeman, whose work also appears in top titles, including the gaming version of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Legend of Jack Sparrow.  

He said a big title can lead to six or seven sessions ... over a two-year period. In the meantime, he maintains a home audio studio and attends unpaid auditions incessantly. Many voice actors work multiple jobs in the industry, too.

"The three of us are among the more fortunate," said Phil LaMarr, who's appeared onscreen in multiple productions, including Pulp Fiction and MADtv. "I've been fortunate enough to make my living as an actor. What that means is, yes, I have a bunch of other jobs, on-camera, voice-over, television, theater. As an actor you do whatever they will let you do."

While the strike does concern cash — the union has essentially rejected the video game companies' offer of a raise and a bonus for certain work — the voice actors we spoke to said they were also fighting for safer conditions at work.

LaMarr said he was recently suspended from a harness on scaffolding two stories above ground for a voice job. Some productions have voice actors play out the action — "motion-capture" sessions — even though they're not on camera. LaMarr's coworker suggested that a stunt coordinator be brought on-board, which later happened. But it's not mandatory, LaMarr said.

Vocal stress and injuries are real in the sound booth, too, the actors said. Sometimes a big-name actor will ask a sort of stunt double to take over vocally taxing work, they said. But the most common issue is working at max volume, sometimes for four hours at a time.

LaMarr compared the most stressful work to "talking over music for a couple hours" in a bar, except there are no breaks as others participate in a conversation. "The last half-hour of it you're being cut in half by a chainsaw or a sword," he said. "Most video games have violence. You have to help that violence work for the story you're telling."

Hale says she has a colleague who recently had surgery on her vocal chords. Another, she said, "'coughed up blood during a session."

The union wants stunt coordinators on-set for motion-capture sessions, and it wants vocally stressful sessions limited to two hours per day. The actors also described the video game companies' offer of a 9 percent raise up front as disingenuous. The companies argue that it amounts to what the actors are requesting — a 3 percent annual cost-of-living increase. In fact, the actors claim, the 9 percent raise is a better deal for the companies because a 3 percent raise compounded each year would cost a little more. (A rep for the video game companies disputed this description of the proposed raise.)

The firms' offer of a $950 bonus for eight sessions on a title is also a bit of a hollow gift, the actors said, because reaching eight sessions for a title is rare, and because actors who do that much work are often bigger stars who've already negotiated better deals. The union is asking for contingency fees, since voice actors don't make residuals.

The companies, including Electronic Arts, Insomniac Games, Activision and Disney, maintain that they've essentially offered everything SAG-AFTRA wants. "If union members were allowed to vote, they'd approve the package put forward by the video game companies," said Sam Singer, a spokesman for the firms.

"We're offering real money," he said.


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