[ed. This interview was originally intended as a part of our focus on women in March]
Designing Sound: How did you start working in the video game industry and what led you to game audio specifically?
Fryda Wolff : I got my foot in the door via Customer Service for EverQuest, as a Game Master. Three and a half years later, Sony Online Entertainment created its first audio department specifically to support EverQuest II. They needed someone entry level just to implement VO, I applied, and was hired. In high school I’d thought I’d like to become a recording engineer. When I learned that most university programs required credits of math and chemistry, I gave up on that idea. At the time I wasn’t aware of the myriad technical schools that specialize in audio. My entire games and audio education was received while on the job.
DS: What kind of effect would you say your experience as a sound designer has on your career as a V.O. talent? What would be different for you if you entered the industry without any prior knowledge to the technical side of things?
FW: Having been a Sound Designer prior to becoming a voice actor has given me an incredible advantage. I use my Sound Designer skills daily! I’m responsible for recording and editing my auditions from home (as is the industry standard in voice acting today). What audio folks might take for granted, such as microphone technique, audio chain, compression, and mindful editing are things that most voice actors are unaware of prior to being told that these things are important. All of these little everyday items in a Sound Designer’s day are the bulk of a voice actor’s job when it comes to auditioning or working from home.
When I was a Sound Designer I was also involved in the casting process as well as co-directing voice over sessions. I like to joke that I’m paying penance for what I put actors through. I have tremendous empathy for those on both sides of the booth window. Both aspects of the job are tiring and require the full attention of everyone there. Studio time is ticking away and the session has to get done!
DS: Are there any examples of your previous career effecting your approach to V.O. in your recent projects like Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth or Evolve?
FW: Each game genre has different expectations for how the V.O. performance will be delivered, how many variations, how often it will be repeated, etc. On top of that, every developer or publisher has unique tastes and the client always appreciates spending more time on performance than on having to explain to an actor what the game is like. Because I understand things like proximity triggers, the director can coach me on my delivery versus explaining what a proximity trigger is and how it works, for example.
When I narrated for Civilization: Beyond Earth, I knew that the dialog wasn’t directed at the player or any particular in-game situation, that I would essentially be performing monster manual quotes to my own satisfaction. Whereas for Evolve (which happens to be the last game I worked on as a developer), I knew the various levels of combat intensity that would be required for certain lines, or when to bring it down for conversation. Being a gamer helps an actor tremendously with understanding context. Having been a Sound Designer helps an actor preconceive the usage and thus save the booth director the hassle of explaining it, saving time and money and everyone wins.
DS: You worked on both indie projects like Octodad and major titles like Sid Meier’s Civilization Beyond Earth and Evolve. What would you say is the biggest difference between working with indies and big game studios?
FW: Typically speaking, indie studios have a more collaborative spirit and in my experience are open to allowing me to play with the performance, more so than a major studio. I believe it’s because small indie teams are only beholden to each other and making their small crew happy, so they allow themselves to take risks and experiment. Larger teams that are beholden to a budget either from their own company or a publisher and so are unable to spend too much time experimenting. The clearer the vision and the more controlled the direction, the faster production can end and the product can ship and the developer has a hope of recouping development costs.
DS: What is your advice to game audio people who recently got into the industry and have no prior experience working with V.O. talent? What are the general do’s and don’ts of working with V.O. for the first time from your perspective?
FW: Generally, actors will work themselves very hard to make the client happy. Oftentimes to a fault.
Do be considerate of the actor’s limitations. Voices are finite and you can destroy an actor’s voice very quickly if you’re not careful, preventing them from doing their auditions later that night or even from working the following day. Always put strenuous dialog or effort sounds at the very end the script. Yelling is strenuous, yelling counts as hard on the voice. I have to say this because I’ve been caught up in yelling at what I think is near the end of the script, and it turns out the developer thought that anything that isn’t taking damage or dying isn’t strenuous!
Do ask your actor if they have to go to the restroom about once every hour. Actors drink loads of water during a session and can be so focused on performing that before long they’ll be doing the peepee dance and still not realize that it’s time to go to the loo.
Be realistic about your expectations during a session. When you can afford it, hire a third party booth director. Experienced booth directors are excellent at estimating how long it will take to record a certain length of script. If you’re hoping for time to play with creating a character or record multiple takes, plan head and schedule appropriately!
DS: In an interview last year, you mentioned it was somewhat scary to make the switch from sound design to VO full-time after 12 years in the former; where you were already making a living and were comfortable with your work. What would you suggest to people who want to make that kind of change, who maybe want to work on another field but feel they are not ready for it yet or that it’s too risky?
FW: There are two schools of thought for pursuing your dreams. One is to arm yourself with knowledge and education. The other is to just go for it and learn by doing. The danger is you can pay for education for eternity because it’s safer than pursuing the venture. And if you just do it you could be going about doing things the hard way because you’re trying to reinvent the wheel.
In my particular case, I took voice over classes and workshops as a hobby for 4 years. So when it seemed like the right time for me to transition to actually going for it full-time, I felt very armed with my education and probably less afraid than I would be if I was making the transition in one day, out of the blue, with no prior thought given to it. I think a healthy balance of at least some education paired with some on the job training, hopefully supervised by a mentor, is your best bet.
You can wait until someone with authority tells you are ready. But truthfully, you have to first convince yourself of the confidence needed to really be yourself in front of people every day. Every audition is really a job interview. You have to make peace with the fact that your job will be attending many, many job interviews, and that 90% of the work is moving past rejection. When you stop fearing rejection, then no aspect of voice over is scary.
DS: One thing that affected me greatly from the aforementioned interview was, you talking about having impostor syndrome and at the same time, later in the interview you mentioned how you should have confidence in what you are doing, as in showing people you are great at what you do, so you will get hired. I think this is an issue for almost all of us who work in creative fields, so what methods/tricks do you use to keep yourself productive and creative while also going between these states mentally?
FW: Artists like to compare and despair. We do this because we’re fans of our peers, people who do the same kinds of things we do but then we wilt because we realize “I’ll never be them.” Correct. We will never be other people, we’ll only ever be ourselves.
To counter the despair of being stuck with myself, I think of my timeline in 5 year increments. I think about my skill set from 5 years ago. Eek! Yeah ok, I can admit that I’ve progressed and matured since then. I’m much better at what I do now. Then I start to think about how much better I’ll be 5 years from now. Eek! That means right now, I suck compared to my abilities in 5 years. Eek!
But then, what this really means is that I can’t devolve. I can’t possibly get any worse. I can admit to myself that I’ve only gotten better over time, and thus will continue to get better if I give myself the chance to keep going.
When in doubt, Google search for “Ira Glass good taste.” It will save you every time.
DS: Last month in Designing Sound we celebrated Women’s History Month. So, I would also like to ask you about your experience as a female member of the game audio community. What is your view on the state of women in game audio industry?
There’s not enough of them, as is typical of any industry with a technology focus. In my first audio department, there were 4 women including me. 4 women and 3 men, which is a very unique experience. I have at times encountered the infamous Good Old Boys’ Club mentality. But it emanated from men who are in fact old. Men over 35 could have a harder time being inclusive, because forcing themselves to be inclusive is a new and uncomfortable habit. Whereas younger men entering game audio are often more open minded and eager to learn from and work with anybody, regardless of gender or any other qualifier.
All we can do, as a community, is to welcome anyone who wants to learn. Helping someone will typically result in them helping you later on. Being that game audio is small and jobs come and go so quickly, it’s just good business to be inclusive.
I particularly like a quote by Jimmy Durante. “Be awful nice to ‘em goin’ up, because you’re gonna meet ‘em all comin’ down.”
DS: In your experience, would you agree that some fields in game audio and video game industry in general are more welcoming and accepting of women than other, more technical fields such as programming, implementation etc.?
FW: No. I have heard of or experienced sexism in every aspect of the video game industry. No one department is immune. It only takes one person to act in a way results in discrimination, harassment, or other malignant behaviors, and sour someone else’s career experience.
DS: Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming projects? What will we hear you in next?
FW: Here’s a little joke about voice acting: Just because I was paid for my time in the booth doesn’t mean I’ll make the final cut! I’ve performed for several games since last year, some announced and some not yet announced. Telling you which games have paid me for a session is not the same as telling you which games I will ultimately be in. Hope for the best!
I would like to thank Fryda very much for taking the time to answer my questions among her busy schedule!