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Industry Voices: Casting Voices, Creating Characters with LA-based Game Director, Randall Ryan

Updated: Jul 12, 2023

We recently hosted a live Q&A with BRAVA founder & CEO, Melissa Thom and LA-based games director, Randall Ryan, who has contributed to popular video game tiles including Chivalry 2, Hearthstone, Cobra Kai: Dojo’s Rising and Lord of the Rings Online. His legacy work spans World of Warcraft, Deer Hunter, Transformers and more. A cut down, edited version of the talk appears below.

Table of contents - Click on a question to navigate directly to it.

Melissa: How did your background as a musician and performer influence your transition into voice casting and directing?

Randall: My musical background is pivotal to my current role. While I wasn't trained as an actor, my engagement with storytelling has always been profound. As a songwriter, crafting a narrative was the core of my work, which has undeniably carried over into my current field. The realisation that I had a knack for directing, however, came as a surprise. It was an unexpected skill, giving me a sense of impostor syndrome.

But an incident with a fellow actor and a good friend of mine gave me some clarity. She was struggling with a long soliloquy during a session. Interestingly, she's also a singer. To help her, instead of providing a line read or syllables, I sang the rhythm of the speech, as if giving her an idea of a jazz riff. It worked, she understood, and that moment made me realise something crucial: I hear dialogue as music.

That incident was probably not the first time I had applied my musical instincts to direction, but it was certainly the first time I had recognised it. I began to pay closer attention to this, realising that this musical instinct is fundamental to my direction style. I genuinely believe that without my musical training, background, and inherent instinct, I wouldn't be able to do what I do today.

Melissa: What was your experience like as a director without formal acting training?

Randall: I have to say, initially it made me feel like an impostor. I didn't start as a director, but began with voiceover work in our music house. We hoped that doing voiceovers might attract clients back to us for our music, which had larger budgets and longer timelines, but was harder to sell and secure.

At first, I was unsure of my abilities to direct, so I hired directors and studios, trying to position ourselves as a music studio rather than a voiceover one. However, over time, as I listened to other directors, I found myself questioning their decisions and decided to try my hand at directing less critical jobs. Gradually, those went well, and I started taking on larger projects, albeit still hiring other directors for significant roles.

While I learned from these directors, I noticed similarities in our approaches, which boosted my confidence. I also had the chance to learn from Andrea Toyias, who allowed me to sit in on sessions while casting for Blizzard, which was an invaluable experience.

As for how I feel now, I've begun taking acting training, not because I aspire to be an actor but to enhance my directorial skills. I perceive a potential conflict if I were to audition for my own casting calls, which might seem improper. So, I am focused on being the best director I can be, using my unique blend of skills and experiences to guide my approach.

Melissa: Talk to us a little more about your current acting training and the reasons behind that?

Randall: My response to that is rooted in my experiences as a performer and musician, having spent 15 years on the road. Even so, there's still a different dynamic when you're in the booth, the lights are on, and you have an audience. Understanding the language that resonates with you, recognising what throws you off your game, and generally comprehending what actors go through are crucial insights that improve my directorial skills. The more I understand these dynamics, the more effectively I can communicate with actors, creating a safer and more understanding environment for them.

This understanding of safety extends beyond merely stating its importance, but empathising with the discomfort of feeling unsafe. While I'll never truly know what it feels like to be in an actor's shoes, this experience brings me closer.

Melissa: Many of our members are keen to know about the projects you've been involved with. Could you talk about some of the most prominent works you've contributed to and share some of your experiences working on them?

Randall: When I consider the substantial projects I've been part of, they tend to blend into one another. Interestingly, the 'biggest' jobs aren't always the ones I look back on with the most pride. They often become exercises in management, as is the case with a project I'm currently embroiled in. This particular assignment involves travelling between Atlanta and LA, and then onwards to England, directing on location because of the particular preferences of the actors involved, who are accustomed to face-to-face direction. Gillian, my co-director, is also participating in this whirlwind schedule, flying out to Vancouver to work with additional actors. In such situations, the actual directing becomes almost routine, as the logistical challenges become the forefront of your thoughts.

One project that remains dear to me, however, is 'Lord of the Rings'. As a PC game, it's been an ongoing journey of continuous updates, rather than large, isolated content drops. It's like a rolling ball that keeps collecting more elements as it goes on. There's a constant process of evolution, but also the need to respect the Tolkien universe, with a Tolkien expert always present to ensure authenticity. We have a wonderful pool of actors that we consistently add to, which keeps the narrative fresh and exciting. It's been an incredible experience to create new stories within this universe, that, while not in the original books, still feel true to the world Tolkien created. The trust we've built with the writers and actors has allowed us to move from mere directing and acting to a more creative, collaborative process. It's truly rewarding. Sessions for 'Lord of the Rings' are never a chore – quite the opposite.

Melissa: What are your top video games that you recommend we experience?

Randall: Undeniably, there are a myriad of video games worth recommending. One such game that springs to mind, particularly from a dialogue perspective, is Red Dead Redemption 2. Whilst it's worth noting that it's heavily male-centric, and not my personal favourite, the depth of the storyline and the quality of the performances are exceptional. However, the game's gender bias did eventually reduce my enthusiasm for it, despite the high-quality production and deep, immersive dialogue.

Another game that still resonates with me, even 20 years later, is World of Warcraft. This game probably played a significant role in shaping my career trajectory. Despite the progression of technology over the years, it continues to evolve and captivate with its profound narratives.

There are so many other remarkable games. The Elder Scrolls series, despite initially frustrating me with the voice acting, boasts fantastic stories. My main issue was that it seemed like a limited number of actors were used to voice a vast array of characters. However, I believe their process has improved over time. As a big fan of the games, my intention isn't to be overly critical; it's more a matter of wanting to enhance the overall experience.

Ultimately, providing the actors with adequate context can dramatically affect the delivery of dialogue. If they are unaware of key elements in the storyline, such as a character's death, it will undoubtedly impact their performance. No matter the quantity of dialogue to record, I believe proper setup is essential to achieve compelling voice acting.

Melissa: How do you approach character creation when you're working with video game scripts? And how does that differ from other genres such as Commercial?

Randall: Certainly, the processes for character creation in different genres, including video games, commercials, and animation, are vastly different. When I began my career in voice-over, I started in the commercial sector, which offers its own unique perspective.

The level of control we have varies significantly based on the client. While some prefer to have their hands in every part of the process, others trust in the expertise of the actors and directors they've hired. However, at the end of the day, we are, in essence, freelancers. The projects belong to the clients, and they're funding our work. If they insist on a certain approach, we must respect their decisions, although we can offer our professional suggestions.

When the workflow is most efficient, I find it's when I can engage with the writers, gaining a deep understanding of their vision. Having the writers present during the session can also be very beneficial, although it's not always possible.

Once we're in the session, my role isn't necessarily to dictate the actors' performances or implement my own ideas. Of course, there are times when I contribute my thoughts, but it's not a rigid, directorial approach like that of Cecil B. DeMille or Orson Welles.

More than anything, my job is to act as a translator—I speak the actors' language to the actors, the writers' language to the writers, and convey the needs of the client to both parties. I'm there to provide direction, to ensure we're on track without veering off course or missing key points.

A common mistake I see is when individuals attempt to bring to life the voice they hear in their own heads through the actor. This approach often falls short as it disregards the actor's unique experiences and interpretation. The actor is there to bring a piece of themselves to the role, to truly inhabit it. We want to avoid them feeling like they have to second-guess what we want, and the best way to do that is by lifting restrictions.

We aim to create genuine, believable characters, not simply read lines. This approach requires a different mindset, even from the writers, who may be used to being very precise with words in other genres such as commercial work. However, in games, writers often have thousands of lines of dialogue to manage, and aren't as concerned about the precise wording or pacing. It's an entirely different landscape.

Melissa: How do you identify the potential in a voice actor to portray a specific character? What qualities do you look for when you're casting?

Randall: This is both a simple and complex task. At its core, the ideal candidate can truly inhabit their character, authentically and convincingly embodying their role to provoke a response in the listener. That's the short answer. But what does it really entail? The evaluation process differs from person to person.

When it comes to assessing potential, I have a distinctive approach. With the agreement of agents, I prefer to get to know actors personally. There's a preliminary vetting process, of course, because you can't spend time with every prospective actor. However, once you've identified promising individuals, direct communication is crucial.

There are several reasons for this. Firstly, it's challenging to fully understand an actor's capabilities through auditions alone. Secondly, when I distribute auditions via an agent, there are potential complications. Agents have different priorities; their primary goal is to secure work for their clients, and they may not be as invested in the casting process for a specific project. Consequently, they may send auditions for actors who aren't suitable for the role. This results in a surfeit of ineffective auditions, wasting everyone's time and making it harder to focus on the truly promising candidates.

My solution is to build relationships with actors. This doesn't mean we need to share dinners or deep personal histories, but rather gain insight into their professional philosophies and abilities. For instance, I might send them a challenging audition to assess their versatility. If they're not successful, it doesn't signify failure; it simply helps me understand their limitations and strengths. No actor excels at everything, and part of my job is identifying what they do well and what areas they should avoid.

Ultimately, the aim is to send auditions to actors for roles they feel confident they can excel in. That's the essence of effective casting.

Melissa: How important is training in characters for someone who is a stage or TV actor, but has never taken specific character VO training?

Randall: Training in character VO work is absolutely pivotal, regardless of whether one is a stage actor, a TV actor, or someone who already has substantial acting skills. Observing professional athletes, who despite being the best in their respective sports, all have private coaches, illuminates the importance of continuous learning and refining one's craft. This holds equally true for acting.

Training can take various forms. It could be 'Big T' training, involving the acquisition of new skills or venturing into new genres, or 'Small t' training, encompassing activities like workout groups or voiceover jams. The critical element, however, is feedback. Regular auditioning alone isn't enough, as it lacks the element of external evaluation, particularly from someone whose only interest lies in how well you're performing. This feedback is indispensable. Even a simple affirmation like, 'You're doing great, keep it up,' is valuable, as without external guidance, you're navigating blindly, risking potential missteps that could hinder your progress.

“Here at BRAVA, we aim to stretch each actor, regardless of their level of experience. Whether they've worked on a multitude of video games or none, our goal is to continually push them to the next level. In our sessions, whether one-to-one or in groups, we never settle for just 'good enough.' We seek to expand their limits and capacity, mimicking the high-pressure, fast-paced environment one might experience working with an American director in a booth. The aim is to provide an intense, exhilarating experience that leaves actors both drained and invigorated, eager to rise to new challenges in their careers.”

Melissa: What advice do you have for actors trying to make the transition from traditional acting to voice acting?

Randall: This involves understanding two concepts that may initially seem contradictory. Firstly, you must acknowledge that while you no longer have visual elements such as props, a co-actor to interact with, costumes, or body language to support your performance, you must communicate everything through your voice alone. The challenge lies in using your voice to communicate non-verbal cues, such as an eyebrow raise. This doesn't mean you have to stand still in the booth; your body movements can inform what comes out of your mouth. However, it's crucial to focus on the vocal output, as the rest serves primarily to facilitate it.

Secondly, despite the absence of tangible visual aids, you continue to have blocking, scenes, sets, and costumes — they're just all in your head. Inhabiting a character fully involves visualising these elements in your mind's eye. For instance, if you're going to confront your boss about their mistreatment, you've probably rehearsed the whole scene in your mind, including where they'd be standing and how you'd deliver your lines. This mental rehearsal, though often less formal in voice acting due to time constraints, is integral to understanding your character and their interactions.

Even the simplest voice-over work demands this kind of internal envisioning. It becomes as essential as learning your hand positions as a keyboardist — something you simply can't compromise. So, regardless of the simplicity of the project, you must allow your character to emerge the moment you step into the booth. As mentioned earlier, even broadcasting involves characterisation to a degree — it's just that broadcasters have been trained to speak in a certain way.

Melissa: Why is learning about video game scripts and developing characters within that medium crucial for anyone seeking to improve their performance skills, even if they're primarily interested in other genres or mediums such as commercial work?

Randall: Much like how being a jazz musician can open up one's versatility, even if their mainstay is rock, country, or folk, understanding the nuances of character development in video games can broaden an actor's scope, even if their interest isn't particularly in this genre.

Video games provide a rich ground for learning how to fully embody a character. This skill can transcend genres and prove useful even in commercial work. While receiving directional cues on aspects like beats, emphasis, and intonation is part of the process, having a deeply ingrained character can enrich the performance. If you have a character fully formed in your mind, you can predict how they would react in any given situation. This allows you to maintain consistency and authenticity, even when given external directions that may seem at odds with your initial interpretation. The key is to understand how your character would react and express themselves, making the performance less of reading lines and more of truly acting.

Melissa: In your experience, how much prep time do actors get about the character they are to voice before they enter the booth? I mean, great question, or is it mainly being given on the day with little to no prep time?

Randall: Preparation time for actors does indeed vary, largely depending on the specific project. Like many roles in the industry, voice acting often demands adaptability to a tight schedule. Video games, in particular, tend to be shrouded in secrecy due to non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), which can limit the amount of preparatory information shared with actors. It's not necessarily a question of organisation, but rather one of confidentiality.

I always strive to provide scripts to actors as early as I can, even if they're just drafts. The idea is to offer some insight into the character and the narrative, even if certain elements are subject to change. Early access to scripts allows actors to start familiarising themselves with their roles.

However, the reality is that actors should be prepared for all scenarios. Often, the script or relevant details may only become available the day before recording, or even on the same day. Sometimes, actors may only receive pertinent information when they walk into the booth.

Some actors even relish this challenge, finding it invigorating to receive material just before recording. Such situations can elicit fear or adrenaline, which in turn may unlock a different dimension of their performance, leading to a more compelling portrayal of the character.

Melissa: What's your take on the future of voice acting? What do you think the role of AI should be?

Randall: While it's important not to ignore potential changes, there's also no cause for alarm. As a musician, I recall the advent of MIDI in 1984 and the fear that musicians would be put out of business. Similarly, the introduction of word processing and WYSIWYG editors stirred fears that editors and graphic designers would become obsolete. However, this didn't happen.

What does change, though, are roles at the industry's margins. For example, if your career is largely explainer videos and IVR, you could indeed face significant challenges. However, story-driven projects requiring human emotion remain less likely to be supplanted by AI, due to the intricate, dynamic nature of human thought and emotion.

AI largely operates on algorithms, a top-down, linear form of thinking. Humans, on the other hand, are more akin to quantum physics. We are dynamic, evolving and reacting to our environment and stimuli in real time, often altering our responses within a single sentence. This natural human flexibility is currently beyond the reach of AI.

To safeguard your role in voice acting, it's crucial to hone your ability to imbue characters with emotion and humanity. Being able to pour your soul into a character, to utilise your unique experiences and emotional range, is a form of inoculation against AI's influence. If you can do this consistently, you're years ahead of any potential AI competitor.

So, as AI progresses, it's interesting to anticipate what lies ahead. But we must remember that, as voice actors, our unique life experiences and emotional depth are irreplaceable assets that AI will struggle to emulate.

Melissa: Is there anything specific that you look for in British voice actors?

Randall: The main aspect I search for is, quite simply, acting ability. There should be no presumption that American actors have an inherent advantage. What ultimately matters is the actor's ability to bring a character to life, irrespective of their accent.

Archetypes such as the British villain, undoubtedly exist, and there are instances where scripts lean into these traditional roles: the sexy female, the white male hero, and so forth. Much of this is shaped by the voices in our own heads and the familiar character tropes we've absorbed from the media. That said, there's an ongoing effort within the industry to break away from these stereotypes and to diversify the range of characters portrayed.

Melissa: What can we expect from your in-person Masterclass?

Randall: Even if you're an experienced actor, the class is designed to push you beyond your comfort zone and potentially surprise you with fresh perspectives and methods.

Through the course of the session, I believe that attendees will often find themselves taken aback when we begin to delve deeper into the workings of the craft. In a workshop I previously conducted, I was able to challenge the preconceived notions and ingrained habits of a well-known actor who had joined the session. We examined how he had approached characterisation and made some necessary adjustments. It is vital to understand that every character journey is unique, and sometimes, established methods may need a tweak or two.

The BRAVA Masterclass on July 15, aims to help you truly grasp the essence of your characters. This is an ongoing process and no matter how seasoned you are, comprehending the depths of a character is never a walk in the park. It requires dedicated effort and can be challenging, yet deeply rewarding. Don't expect to breeze through a multitude of scripts; the focus will be on quality and depth of exploration rather than quantity.

If you haven't experienced an in-person session with a character coach like myself or any of the other experts at BRAVA, you're in for a unique experience. It will certainly stretch you in ways you might not expect. Moreover, the shared group experience is invaluable. As voice actors, you often work solo, so group work provides an excellent opportunity to understand how different roles interact and create a cohesive narrative.

Find out more about our Characters in-person masterclass with Randall Ryan.

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