Transparency: Two sides of the possible voice actors' strike
Many prominent voice actors including Wil Wheaton, Jennifer Hale, and David Hayter have signed a form with the Screen Actors Guild that will put SAG members on strike against game developers.
These actors are also encouraging other actors to follow in their footsteps. This act could seriously set back some major projects by both big and small studios. As a gamer, journalist, and artist, I am of two very divided minds on this subject.
Good art comes from more than just the time billed
I heard a story one time when I was in school for art. I don’t know if the story is true. In fact, I’d venture to guess that it’s not, but it does illustrate an important point.
A man approached Vincent van Gogh to draw something for him on a napkin. Van Gogh then took out a pen and drew for five minutes, sketching what the man asked for. As he pushed the napkin back toward the man, van Gogh then said, “That will be $5000.” The man blurted out, “$5000? That’s crazy. It only took you five minutes to draw that.” Van Gogh replied, “No, that drawing took me 20 years.”
Van Gogh didn’t freeze time to make the drawing only to pop back in when the drawing was finished. The idea is that the value of someone’s work isn’t the amount of time put into that one piece, but the value of the time leading up to that one piece. The idea is that van Gogh would not have been able to make that draw in five minutes -- or maybe at all -- if it hadn’t been for the previous 20 years of work before then.
That illustration applies to all creative work, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not just about the amount of time it takes to get something done, but the creative skill accumulated up to that point so that the job could be done in a way that is efficient and to the standards of the client.
Voice acting is very much the same thing. Just substitute the drawing for a bit of recorded dialogue. There is a website called Fiverr where you can get 10 to 30 seconds of recorded voiceover for five bucks. This is usually enough to record an intro to a podcast or something along those lines.
There are a few very good voice actors on that site, but I only know of one full-time voice actor. That’s Jon Bailey, the voice of Honest Trailers. And he does his Fiverr work for charity. (I’m sure there are others besides him, I just don’t know them.) That tells me that the quality value of voice over is more than an average person can afford, and that not just anyone with a mic and a good voice can do the work of a voice actor.
But as you probably have surmised by the possible strike, voice actors are feeling underappreciated by gaming developers. And why not? It takes a lot of work and a lot of expertise to be a competent voice actor for games. In a recent blog post by Wil Wheaton, we learn that after some sessions that voice actors cannot work again for a week because of the strain on the voice.
“It’s now six or seven hours after you started. Don’t talk at all for the rest of the day, and don’t make any plans to go audition for any other voice work for the rest of the week, because your voice is wrecked. Don’t go to any kind of day job that requires you to talk with anyone, either, because you’re not going to be able to do that. Oh, and over years and years of this, it’s going to build up into serious and permanent damage, and then you’re not going to be able to work with your voice anymore.”
I’m not sure how much of that is hyperbole, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a voice actor has to go through this much trouble to get work done. I’m not sure that an actor would have to just not work at all for a week after a seven-hour session, but the strain is understandable. And Wheaton said that this is the crux of his argument. He said that it is not about the residuals that SAG has asked for.
Should creatives get special treatment?
This brings me to the point I’m torn on. I believe that voice actors probably are not appreciated enough nor paid enough for the work they do. But the other side is explained rather adeptly by the second commenter on Wheaton’s post:
“As someone who works on the other side of the equation, I’m going to let you know that the main reason your proposals keep getting rejected outright is because every single one has had the demand for residuals in it. It’s not happening [...] You’re asking for something that nobody else in the industry gets. Programmers, designers, writers, QA, marketing, sales, none of those people get residuals.”
If they truly would like the environment changed, then why would they ask for a piece of game development money that next to no one else in the industry gets? I know Wheaton addressed in the beginning of his article that he nor SAG has any control over the work environment for the other people who work on a game, but that being said, when approaching the negotiating table, industry standards and the benefits other employees receive should be considered.
I am in complete agreement that #PerformanceMatters, and I also agree that there is a value to having the right vocal actor in your studio that is extremely hard to quantify. But I do believe that the voice actors have overstepped by a hair. That said, I do hope that consideration for the actor’s stress is taken into account, and perhaps if the session will be extraordinarily stressful, the studios remember that it is work to deliver a reliable and high-quality performance, even if it does only take five minutes to doodle on a napkin.
If you’d like to read more about the actual issue surrounding the SAG strike against game devs, then take a look at the strike proposal on the SAG website.