This casting director wants to elevate the art of acting for video games
I was curious to talk to a respected video game casting director about her new book and what those who want to perform in the medium need to know.
But first, she instructed me to stab someone.
I was at Hollywood’s Jim Henson Studios with actor Anjali Bhimani of video game “Apex Legends” and Disney+ series “Ms. Marvel” and outfitted in a tight-fitting motion capture suit. Bhimani was to be my victim, and she had some advice for a first-timer. Not for the fake-stabbing — there I was on my own — but for prepping for a video game motion-capture session.
“I wish I had known to wear something nice and tight when I came to set. Because these,” says Bhimani of the skin-tugging mocap (short for motion capture) wear, “as you can tell are very form fitting. But you don’t want to wear them without anything underneath. So now I wear leggings and a tank-top underneath — so, you know, that there’s no chafing or anything.”
Welcome to video game acting in 2022.
The team at animation and motion-capture studio House of Moves gave me a crash course in motion-capture acting, used often in large video games to portray realistic human motion. I was to play a stabby hitchhiker, instructed to walk with a creepy slouch. After 20 minutes of light stretching to capture my basic movements, we were off and running — or slouching, rather. Although we weren’t making an actual game, and I’m no professional actor, I did have to attempt to rein in my desire to overact, thinking I needed big, bombastic movements for animators to play with.
Bhimani would patiently remind me we were surrounded by cameras, all of them picking up my every subtle movement. “Those guys up there?” said Bhimani, pointing at the cameras that surrounded us, “all those guys are gonna catch us.”
Then I struggled with what to say or not say, knowing that voice would be added later. But Bhimani again said that was the wrong instinct, and to act as if voice wasn’t being captured, which gives the actors the freedom to aurally dictate their movements when they aren’t in direct eyesight.
It’s expected that I, a writer, wouldn’t come ready-prepped to star in a video game. But casting director Julia Bianco Schoeffling has seen too many pros approach the video game medium without proper preparation. That’s one reason she wrote a book, “The Art and Business of Acting for Video Games,” which intermixes firsthand stories with practical advice. It opens with an unnamed celebrity actor who balked at taking off a baseball cap in an engineering booth (they compromised on turning the cap around). Throughout the book she tackles such topics as union and nonunion jobs, nondisclosure agreements and old-fashioned acting advice for the motion-capture stage.
Some quick notes: Come ready to play, as motion-capture stages can be barren. But also play some video games before acting in one. And learn the history of the medium.
Schoeffling is the right person to write about video game acting, say those who have worked with her. Schoeffling is also the co-founder of the Halp Network, which connects clients with on-screen and off-screen talent. “Her breadth of knowledge in the video game casting industry is absolutely insane,” says casting director Ashley Nguyen DeWitt, “And the fact that she wrote this book is truly just a gift to anyone who wants to get involved in video game acting and the business and the art itself.”
Schoeffling feels it’s still a part of the industry that’s overlooked.
“I say that 2 out of every 5 people I tell that I cast for video games will say, ‘Oh, they have actors for video games?’ Maybe even 50% of the time,” Schoeffling says of a medium she still feels is misunderstood in comparison to film and television.
“One of the main reasons I wrote my book was to connect everyone else to the game industry, and to make it more accessible and easier for people to understand the nuances. Games are kind of ragtag, and there’s not really a standard. For actors, there’s never been a guide what to expect, from auditions to showing up on set.”
Schoeffling has worked in the video game space since 2003, starting as a receptionist at Treyarch, a studio today known for its work on the “Call of Duty” franchise, with her casting focus consuming much of the last decade. But Schoeffling has seen a full evolution, noting that in the early-to-mid-2000s dialogue was a last priority. “I basically had to manage Excel sheets, go into session, prep scripts, make sure actors were there, make sure all the assets were recorded, edit it and get it into the game. It was a huge learning curve.”
That’s a long way removed from today, when the yearly the Game Awards has a category for top performance. Among Schoeffling’s credits are some of the most acclaimed games for video game acting work, including major franchises such as “Call of Duty” and “The Last of Us,” among many others. Today, it’s a celebrated art, and older games, such as the original “The Last of Us,” are being remastered to, in part, better reflect the work of the actors.
Schoeffling’s book goes back to the industry’s voice acting roots, detailing the earliest examples of voice in game — 1982, Schoeffling writes, when games experimented with plug-in peripheries such as the Intellivoice. It also touches on other important milestones, such as “Mortal Kombat” in 1992 introducing character-specific phrases and the birth of the video game celebrity in Mario voice actor Charles Martinet. But throughout, Schoeffling, as well as those she interviews, make the case for the power and importance of video game performance.
“I think video games are one of the only performance mediums … where your audience can be directly impacted by your performance,” says actor Noshir Dalal in the book. “Your performance can literally change the choices a player makes in game.”
Adds Bhimani in the midst of our mocap session: “It’s a really new language, and I love that because I really do think it’s an amalgamation of film acting and theater acting and voice-over, all combined into one. It’s a really fun advancement in technology. I think it’s fun to combine all of those disciplines into one.”
Schoeffling self-published the book and cites Jenna Fischer’s “The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide” as inspiration, noting she appreciated Fischer’s directness when it came to practical advice. To that end, Schoeffling will walk a young actor through recording a voice demo, but also encourage getting a proper night’s sleep. Schoeffling’s book will decode audition language and also tell you to avoid booze and cigarettes (“these things influence your voice”). And she encourages actors to hone up on important industry and cultural issues such as representation.
In our mocap demo with Bhimani, for instance, the latter played a gender-swapped role. It was easy to see how tempting it would be to go with who’s on hand, regardless of race, gender or age, in what will ultimately end up being an animated setting. Yet it’s a core passion of Schoeffling’s to avoid such representation pitfalls.
Schoeffling briefly argues that the video game space was slow when it came to proper representation, and then writes of her own experience in helping to cast “Tell Me Why,” which made history as having the first playable transgender character in a game. “Now more than ever,” Schoeffling writes in the book, “it is our responsibility as creators and actors to question whose stories we should be telling.”
“I think it’s really important for actors to have a role in that,” Schoeffling says, noting that the book points actors and the industry to a number of diversity resources, including Queer Vox, a voice actor training academy dedicated to working with LGTBQ actors. “You don’t have to be an arm’s dealer to play one, but if the role calls for a South Asian person, and you’re not South Asian, is this your story to tell? If the role calls for a queer person, and you’re not queer, is this your story to tell? That part was really hard. I wanted to make sure everyone’s read the things and done the things, but I don’t need to be educating people on racism.”
There are some issues Schoeffling addresses but can’t answer, such as noting that a fair number of video game roles still tend to be nonunion, which, depending on an actor’s representation, can present a challenge. But Schoeffling does lay out options and tries to present pros and cons. Ultimately, Schoeffling’s book is one of extending a hand, wanting to lead those without much video game knowledge into the medium. She says she can still have difficulty getting an A-list actor to take a game seriously if it’s not a hefty payday, and she hopes someday actors consider a small game in the same way they would view an indie film — one that will increase their overall cache.
“I’m excited for people to see the opportunity in games,” Schoeffling says. “I’ve always been bullish on games. Just the idea of the convergence of media, and how games are best poised to take the industry by storm and be the head of entertainment. We understand this technology, we understand the nuances and we understand rabid fan bases.”
Rabid fan bases? That’s a topic that will have to be saved for another book.