GGA Interview – Josh Dean
What an incredible time to be a gamer. Over the past few years we have seen some amazing AAA and indie tiles coming out and based on the announcements we’ve been getting from E3 and Gamescon, it looks like we’re in for some phenomenal stories and gameplay in the upcoming months.
As I’ve said before, it’s not just the developers that bring the story to life. It is also the immensely talented voice actors and voice over directors who bring these games to life. Imagine some of your favorite games without any voice actors in it. Where would The Last of Us be without Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson? Who would Jaina Proudmoore be without Laura Bailey? Nathan Drake would be a flat, lifeless character without Nolan North. I could go on, but you get my point.
Recently I had the opportunity to interview Josh Dean, who has an impressive list of acting, voice acting, and voice directing credits to his name. He’s Boston on the TV show Blindspot, and he’s been on shows like Con Man (he also a writer for the show), Castle, and Mike & Molly. Josh is also an accomplished improviser and has performed regularly in a show called Quarters and June. He was Corporal Richard Jenkins (RIP) in Mass Effect, and he worked on BioWare titles like Jade Empire, Dragon Age: Origins, and Mass Effect 2. And last year he took the helm as the Voice Director for Mass Effect: Andromeda.
In the interview we talked about games, improv, voice directing, acting, and voice acting. He also revealed that he was the mastermind behind the “Shepard Dance.” But enough spoilers, let’s get to it!
Renée Lopez: I know you have a background in improv and you perform in a show called Quarters and June. What do you like most about this type of theatre and do you prefer improvisation or more scripted works?
Josh Dean: I have been improvising since I was sixteen and have had the opportunity to travel all over the world with it. I didn’t attend theater school so performing with Rapid Fire Theatre in Edmonton, Alberta was the entirety of my training. Improv gives you so many skills that are useful in the real world. Confidence, working in teams, communication, speeding up your mind and keeping it fluid, and most of all the ability to roll with whatever punches come your way. When directing games, given the time crunch that’s often present, there are always unforeseen wrinkles and snags and improv prepared me to see them as suggestions rather than problems and to take them in stride.
For me scripted vs improv is hard to compare, they are like two totally different categories because it is rare they intersect. My first few big jobs in LA were improvised sitcoms, but that was almost fifteen years ago and that experiment hasn’t been tried a lot since. It feels like genuinely different skillsets and parts of your brain you’re needing to use. Film/TV sets require a lot of technical ability and is far more herky jerky so it’s the opposite of the fluid nature of improv. It’s the difference between driving a car and… skiing? I really should have thought through that metaphor before using it. Well, no, actually I think it totally works. Sticking to it!
As a grown-up with a mortgage I will say right now I prefer scripted work because it pays better.
RL: When making the transition into voice acting, how is that experience similar or different than improv or a television show?
JD: Right now I’m very interested in the idea of the “illusion of separation” as it applies to our work selves vs our home selves. We’re still the same person, not two different versions of ourselves. I also apply that principle to voice acting versus other kinds of acting. Particularly in LA you see a lot of people who are forced to categorize themselves. “I’m a voice actor.” “I’m a stage actor.” “I’m a movie actor.” To me, you’re just an actor. Sure, you might show a natural affinity to one particular discipline but they’re all facets of the same thing. There are some technical things you need to learn that differentiate them, but really acting is acting. If you’re good at one you can learn to be good at all of them. This has been a long winded answer to not the question you asked.
The experience is different in that you are generally by yourself and you are saying individual lines rather than doing complete scenes. There are also occasionally times you have to do ADR, or sync your voice to pre-animated lip flapping for a cinematic. You also need to be careful about popping your P’s and breathing directly into the microphone and having too wet or too dry a mouth. So those are the technical differences. Otherwise, it’s the same: knowing the character, knowing the overall story, knowing the scene and knowing your relationship to the other person in the scene (even if you just have to imagine them there.)
RL: What has been your biggest challenge as a voice actor?
JD: Finding jobs!
RL: In all the games that you have done work in, what was your favorite and which series would you love to voice act in?
JD: The Mass Effect series was a fun one because I wound up voicing the first person to be killed in each game of the original trilogy. I’m the unofficial red shirt of the Mass Effect universe! I also did some mocap for the series and am responsible for the now infamous Shepard dance.
The two games I would most want to do a voice in are Grim Fandango, which to this day is one of the strongest voice performances by a cast ever, and The Last of Us, which is the first time I realized just how much a game can make you feel. (side note: I’m occasionally on Blindspot on NBC and Ashley Johnson, voice of Elle, is in the cast. We’re friends now but the first time I met her, probably the most nervous I’ve been meeting any celebrity).
RL: So with the new Mass Effect: Andromeda game, you moved out of the voice acting booth and took the reins of Voice Director. With such a massive title like Mass Effect, how many actors did you direct and for how many characters?
JD: Andromeda was actually my second foray into directing, the first being another BioWare title: Dragon Age: Inquisition. On both of those games I directed the player characters. US Male and Female for Dragon Age, the Ryders for ME:A. I occasionally did some of the other characters and NPC’s but those games were recorded in LA, the UK, and numerous places in Canada so it’s spread pretty wide. Mostly I am in charge of shaping the main player characters.
RL: Overall, how many lines of dialogue did the game have?
JD: I believe the count for ME:A was around 75,000. I have no idea how much of those I directed, but it was about five months of recording.
RL: So, you’re in a recording studio and your actor is in a sound booth. Can you tell me what your job is as their director?
JD: There are a few jobs, and of course each project has its own specific requirements. First, I’m giving context and making sure the actor knows what is happening and where they are in the story (they’re always recorded out of order). Then adjusting the performance with direction and keeping an ear on clarity, diction, technical stuff. Generally the actor will do a line two or three times, if there are no adjustments I tell the engineer which one I like and if there’s an alt, and we move on to the next line. Where possible I like to “read the actor in” which is to say I play the other side of the scene, the other character(s). And while it’s rare, I like to do the full scene through so the actor has a clearer sense of what’s going on. Sometimes I’ll also be in charge of marking what’s been done as we go, sometimes that’s done by a line producer.
Oftentimes there’s someone from the developer there and then another part of the job is communicating with them and acting as a “translator” to the actor.
RL: What was your biggest challenge working as a voice director and what kind of challenges do you often face when working with voice actors?
JD: The biggest challenge is the time. Time in a studio is expensive and we often have to move at an insane pace in order to get everything done. We averaged around 350 lines a session on ME:A (a session is four hours) which is a quick pace when you’re also trying to keep in mind where in the 100+ hour story you are, and which branch of the dialogue tree you’re currently going down, and with BioWare which style of response you’re doing.
The challenge working with voice actors are the same challenges working with anyone anywhere. If someone isn’t prepared or enthusiastic or ready to try things, then that makes everyone’s job harder. But that is SO rare. The only other challenge is taking care of their voice. Coming from a VO background, and as a director who is going to need them to do another 1200 lines in a week, one of my biggest concerns is not burning out their voice with a bunch of screaming and yelling. I try to keep those sorts of takes to a minimum and at the end of the day or week.
RL: And what is the most satisfying or joyful thing that you get from working as a voice director?
JD: It’s thrilling when a game I directed gets revealed at E3, especially if it gets a positive reception. But often that’s the first time I’ll get to see the voice really laid into the game. Also it’s generally in a fancy polished cinematic trailer and you get to see the idealized version of the world you’ve been imagining for months or years.
RL: Any advice for aspiring voice actors?
JD: The first two tips that come to mind are…
PLAY GAMES! Not only does that give you a sense of what’s happening in the industry but it also gives you a technical understanding of how games work. I’m a huge video game nerd so when I started VO and directing, I can picture where certain lines will wind up going. Everyone has accidentally triggered a line they already triggered or heard a certain line pop out because it wasn’t quite right. Knowing when something is important or just informational allows the dialogue to have a natural feel.
Don’t try and DO a voice. On camera there’s Brad Pitt’s and there’s Steve Buscemi’s. The voice world has room for that too. Don’t put on a false gritty voice because that’s what you think a game sounds like. First, it will sound forced and second if you DO book the part and you were using a fake voice now you’ve got to be able to maintain that voice. So if you were pushing your voice deep for the audition, and now you’ve got to do 400 lines in a voice you can’t maintain, everyone is boned.
RL: On my free time, I stream on Twitch and what I enjoy is playing a variety of games and conversing with viewers about the games that we love. As someone who has been on the development end of games, either in the booth or directing, do you think outlets like Twitch, YouTube, and Mixer have had a positive or negative impact on games and game development?
JD: I was a Twitch host for Mountain Dew Game Fuel for a couple years! I think it’s a fascinating forum and as you say, it gives gamers a voice that is being heard by the devs themselves. In terms of how it affects development (for the games that really engage with the community), that’s a double-edged sword. It’s awesome that a gamer could have an idea or opinion and that it can help shape the game, but trying to please everyone can lead to bland games with no point of view. I’d rather play a flawed game with a strong point of view than one that’s trying to appeal to as wide an audience as possible and might be polished but is watered down as a result. I think the same is true in all art and entertainment. And food!
RL: Are there any new games coming out this year or next year that you’re looking forward to? Personally after all of the announcements made at E3, I have a laundry list of games that I am excited to play including Dragon Quest XI, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, The Last of Us Part II, and Fallout 76.
JD: While I direct mostly console games I tend to play PC/Mac games the most. I like building and management games (everything by Klei, Cities Skylines, XCom, etc). The games that caught my eye were Anthem and Cyberpunk 2077 though. I always like a Fallout game and obviously, given my earlier answer, The Last of Us, cuz duh.
RL: Are there any projects that you would like to plug or any information about any upcoming games that you’re working on?
JD: I’m still on NBC’s Blindspot and directing a bunch. Unfortunately everything that I’m currently working on or recently worked on is under Non-Disclosure Agreements so I can’t say. I guess the most recent games I directed that have come out and are therefore safe to discuss are Shooty Fruity (my first VR game), Steep: Road to the Olympics, Yo-Kai Watch Blasters for Nintendo and a Sony mobile trivia game called Knowledge is Power.
RL: Thank you for taking time to do this interview!
JD: Thanks so much for the opportunity!