Have you ever wondered about the process for preparing, recording, and adding voice to video games? The Elder Scrolls Online recently spoke with Voice-Over (VO) Lead, Becky Ichnoski for a deep dive about this process. Check out the interview below!
(This article "ESO Developer Deep Dive - Giving Tamriel's Characters Their Voice" was originally published on the ESO website on May 18, 2023.)
We are excited to chat with The Elder Scrolls Online’s own Voice-Over (VO) Lead, Becky Ichnoski, who takes us through the months-long process for preparing, recording, and adding voice to ESO’s many characters. There are approximately 300,000 lines of VO in English alone, and all of that is planned, recorded, and implemented by Becky and her team!
Hey Becky! Could you introduce yourself to us and tell us about your role at ZOS?
Sure, my name is Becky Ichnoski. I'm The Elder Scrolls Online’s Voice-Over Lead, and I have been working on the game since 2012. Basically, I lead the VO team, which includes our two VO supervisors, Jessica Crowe and DB Cooper, plus me.
Let’s jump right into it! Broadly, what is the process for adding VO to our game?
I always have to narrow down the VO process into three separate chunks.
There's pre-recording, which is basically casting, actor assignment, creating scripts, and preparing recording sessions. Then there's recording, which is done either in the studio or, more often these days, remotely. That’s when we record the actual voice-over. Finally, there’s a third stage, post-recording. That’s when we get all the VO that we recorded back, integrate it into the game, and polish everything.
What do you do during the pre-recording phase?
So, to begin, we jump into the game and play through the content. Things are a work in progress, but we want to get a feel for the quests and meet the characters ourselves.
We also work with writers to get an idea of who the major characters are and who we want special casting consideration for. For those characters, we’ll create sides (audition information with art, descriptions, and some lines) and send them out to agencies. We work with a lot of different agencies. And within a few days, we’ll get a whole bunch of auditions back.
In some cases, a writer has written a character with a specific actor in mind, so we’ll also request a read from that actor.
Do you have a recent example of a time when a writer wanted a specific actor?
Yeah! Dhulef from the High Isle Chapter, whom we got Phil LaMarr to play. The writer had LaMarr in mind, and it all worked out really well.
What happens after auditions come in?
We listen to them all! We often take turns, pulling out our top three favorites and then passing them to each other to compare favorites. We’ll also reach out to writers and other developers to weigh in before picking an actor.
We’ll do that for the major characters first. We kind of put the characters into tiers. At the top there’s major characters that might have 300 lines per release, and then there's side quest main characters who might have 100 lines, so they're important too.
We don't audition everybody, but I'd say for a Chapter, for example, we might audition for 10 characters and then fill in the blanks with the rest of the cast.
We've been working with voice actors for so long, we just kind of have a feel for who would be right for a role, who is good at what accent, and who likes to do what. And sometimes there might be an audition that we really like, but we don't pick, so we put it to the side in case they may be good for a different role in the future.
Oh? Can you tell us about a VO actor you brought back for a later role?
So, the Lark of Rosgard in Necrom was played by Bumper Robinson, who auditioned for us before. When it came time to meeting the Lark in game, I thought “Oh, he would be great for this.” I think he sounds perfect, so can't wait for everybody to hear him. Juli Comstock, one of our writer-designers, did a nice job with his writing.
Do you start recording right after you’ve completed your auditions?
Not yet! So, as you may know, there are thousands of NPCs in the game. We have a lot of little roles in the game like merchants or mob enemies. So, we’ll get a pool of what we call atmospheric actors. These actors are super versatile and can do up to 20 different voices per session.
For a Chapter package, we probably end up with almost 50 voice actors in total. Once we have our 50ish actors selected, we do actor assignment. That’s where every NPC in this package is assigned to one of the 50 voice actors we're bringing in.
Once all the actors are set, and once the writers have put pencils down, that’s when we start generating actor scripts, which is a part-automatic, part-manual process. We make sure an actor’s lines are in chronological order, make sure scripts include read-ins if their characters are talking to other characters, and prepare art and character bios.
We must provide a lot of background information on their characters and the world, right?
Yeah. All three of us really take our time to know the content, detail all of our scenes, and make sure that the actors have as much context as possible. We probably go overboard!
Do you ever get a voice actor who is already familiar with The Elder Scrolls or ESO?
Yeah, we definitely have some players. Kellen Goff, Jonah Scott, and Todd Haberkorn. Gosh, there are so many I can't name off the top of my head.
Julianne Beuscher has been a big Elder Scrolls fan since the beginning. She was so stoked to voice the Black Dragon in our Dark Brotherhood release, as that was her favorite in Skyrim!
How does recording work?
Once we have our cast list, we reach out to the agencies for negotiations and scheduling, and we build a gigantic session schedule. For example, our Chapter packages will run almost a month straight starting in mid-February and going until almost mid-March.
We record at Salami Studios in Burbank, CA. Since COVID there’s been a lot of remote sessions. For those, actors connect to Salami Studios from their home booths through Source Connect while everyone else connects through Teams. Finally, we start recording.
What kind of direction do you typically provide during a recording session?
We start out by telling them about their character. Often a writer will join us for this. And then we establish their voice. Sometimes they’ll nail it the first time, and sometimes we’ll ask for adjustments.
Then we start with line one. We’ll go over any pronunciations for lore words. We may ask for an A and B take and if they’re not quite there or if the director thinks they can get a better performance, we’ll get a C and so forth.
Eventually we get into a flow and it’s like back-and-forth acting between the actor and the director who is reading in the player responses and other NPC lines.
When recording, how tricky is it to get things like pronunciations right?
It's challenging! After 10 years of recording, we have over 9,000 words in our Pronunciation Guide. Each new update, the writers will enter any new lore words into our guide, and our Loremaster will record how to say them. Then we chop them up into little .wav files so that when we are in session, we can quickly search for them and play them.
We also have our tools highlight those words in our scripts so that when we’re recording, we know they're coming up so we can queue them up and keep the flow going.
Is there any one group or race that's especially fun or frustrating for a voice actor to work with?
It varies for different actors, but the Nords and Argonians might be the trickiest. Some actors love doing Argonians and nail the voice effortlessly while others have a more difficult time. I don’t know if it’s the rasp or the sort of emotionless monotone vibe.
Want to know something funny about Argonian sessions with actors who really nail that smooth-but-sandpaper voice? After hours of recording, you get really sleepy. It’s kind of hypnotic because the voice is so soothing, like white noise. I don’t know how to describe it but everyone who is in those sessions gets so sleepy and relaxed.*
Who else joins in the recording sessions?
We normally have a writer join the sessions, too, just in case we're all confused and don't know what's going on! Sometimes there’s a typo or the actor is simply having trouble getting a sentence out and the writer will rewrite the line on the spot.
Typically, in a session, there’s an engineer, the actor, the director, one of us VO ladies for support and pronunciation, and a writer.
Once recording is over, do you immediately go into the integration and polish stage?
As we are recording a four-week Chapter package, we’ll already be receiving VO back from the recording studio. So, once we’re done, we’ll have a whole pile waiting for us already nicely cut up with filenames so that we can integrate it right into the game.
We do a bit of cleanup first because changes will have happened, run it through a batch tool, and begin the integration process.
Is it possible to make late changes to the scripts and VO?
It happens! Bugs will come in as we're recording, and sometimes a writer or designer might contact us and ask if it’s possible to get a change in. If we have not already recorded with that actor, then sure, we make some changes on the fly.
We try to avoid extremely late changes if we can, but if it's something that we cannot launch with, then we schedule a pickup session.
Once the files have been formatted, is it your team that adds them into the game?
Yeah. We integrate them. Jessica Crowe has taken on that task. She’s great at organizing everything quickly and maintaining our clean VO database.
We usually have a lot of alts (alternative line reads) to go through first. Sometimes we’ll get several reads of a line back from the studio, so we have to pick which ones we actually launch with.
Then we have a lot of polish to do! We play through all of the in-game content for a number of reasons. A lot of VO files will need voice-over post-production—we call it VOPP—so we’ll work with the sound designers for this. For example, Factotums or Daedric Princes will get special effects. Or we may have lines that trigger from super far away that we’ll need to work on to make them audible. Or somebody might be saying something from behind a door, so we’ll need to make it sound muffled. That kind of thing.
There’s also VO and text mismatches to fix–where the actor says something slightly different than the text. We make sure VO is timed properly so there isn’t an overlap or seven-second pause between two characters talking to each other. There’s a lot of tiny cleanups.
That’s pretty much it from start to finish!
Is there any one character whose voice actor you thought was just perfect?
I definitely have a few. For example, I love Sotha Sil who is voiced by Matthew Jayson Cwern. He just really enjoys playing the character, and he's so good at it, so I really enjoy those sessions. I think Leamon’s writing for him is brilliant.
I also love Mark Whitten’s Arox the Mutilator. I loved his audition and really pushed for him. Mark made him so fierce and funny and made us all laugh constantly in those sessions.
Are there any voice actors you’d love to work with again in the future?
I liked Captain Siravaen a lot. I thought she was a wonderful character, and I always love working with Anna Graves. She's just so talented and fun to work with.
I love Velsa from the Thieves Guild. Any chance to bring back Debra Wilson!
There was a Dremora necrologist in Fargrave, Miksotet, who barely spoke English. Imari Williams played him. He was a minor character but I thought he was the cutest. I’d love to bring him back.
When the content launches, do you try to keep an eye out for player feedback?
Just speaking personally, I enjoy keeping an eye out for that stuff. I'm always on the forums seeing what people are saying.
A lot of players probably know this, but any time someone on the forum asks who voiced a character, I jump in and respond. I enjoy that.
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