Meet the Director Behind Some of Your Fave Video Game Voice Acting

Over the years, video games have gone from barely supporting voice clips to massive, cinematic experiences, with many containing hours and hours of story and dialogue.

As the games have changed, so have their personnel needs. Whether you want the acting in your game to have people on the edges of their seats, grinning from ear to ear or in tears, chances are that you want someone with directorial experience at the helm.

Kate Saxon is precisely that person. While her background is in theater, she was at the forefront when game companies started hiring trained directors to lead voice actors on games. We sat down with Kate to get a glimpse into the world of directing voice for games, and she told us what it takes to direct.

Kate Saxon theater director headshot

(Courtesy of Kate Saxon)


Sweety High: How did you initially become a theater director?

Kate Saxon: I was brought up in Stratford-upon-Avon, so that was my first influence. I loved the theater, but I didn't much like school. I auditioned for a couple of plays with the Royal Shakespeare Company when I was 14 and got cast, so I spent the next two years performing for the RSC in my evenings after school. That was what first got me into theater.

I then went to university and went to drama school and became an actor. I carried on acting until my late 20s before I moved on to directing.

SH: What was it like to transition from acting to directing? 

KS: I think acting first was really helpful. It means I share the same language as the actors. There is a certain way actors like to approach a role in terms of the integrity of the part and their intentions and objectives. A lot of actors tell me it feels very different being directed by somebody who's experienced acting for themselves.

I, for one, certainly don't tend to talk about the camera angles or the cinematics. I'll talk about what the characters are doing and what I want them to portray. It really helps.

I think it would have been difficult if I still wanted to act, because I think there'd probably be nothing worse than directing people if you thought you could do it better. Thankfully I didn't want to act anymore by the time I left acting, and I don't think I could do it better. I think I'm far better as a director than an actor, so it's been a happy transition.


SH: How did you start doing performance capture and voice directing for video games? Was that a stretch, considering your theater background?

KS: It was. The video game industry found me, really. There's a company in England called Side UK, who are an outsourcer for games developers, providing the voiceover studios and booking the motion capture studios, actors, directors, and even composers and writers for games.

One of the directors who set the company up asked me if I would come and direct a game for them. This was 12 or 13 years ago, and they felt there was a lot more focus being put on performance in the games industry, but developers were still often directing the performances themselves. They were sometimes being frustrated that they might be paying a huge amount of money for name actors and not feeling they were getting good results. That fundamentally comes down to them speaking two different languages. A game developer's language is obviously very different to an actor's.

Side's idea was to bring in a professional director to see how it might go—and it went really well. My first game was Dragon Quest VIII, and it wound up winning awards for the performances. That led to more games work.

Dragon Quest VIII screenshot

(via Square Enix Holdings)


SH: Was there any hesitation on your part to direct a video game?

KS: I didn't worry about that at all. Even in the years I've been working in games, the attitudes of actors and agents have changed phenomenally. Agents years ago would have questioned what they were putting their clients up for, but now I think they see it as a fantastic new industry, and one actors can make a reasonable income from.

Theater, both in America and England, doesn't pay brilliantly, so I think they're happy it's another income source from something they enjoy doing. I've never had actors work on a game they haven't absolutely loved, and they always want to do more afterward.

It's a brilliant forum for actors. When it's voice-only, they obviously end up playing all sorts of characters they wouldn't be able to play onscreen or on the stage. For example I directed Castlevania, and Robert Carlyle played Dracula in it. Robert always said it was fantastic for him because he'd never get cast as Dracula if people could see him. Because we were just using his voice, he was able to play Dracula.

Performance capture shoots are also loads of fun. When it's full performance capture, that's obviously the closest game performance gets to feeling like theater performance. You're working in the round, being able to shoot a whole scene at once. It feels the most natural way to perform for games. Whether it's because it's indulging in roles they couldn't play ordinarily or feeling like a fun way to create roles in performance capture, I think actors have a lovely time.

I don't think there's any stigma about it, and for me as a director, all my work informs each other. I now work in theater, television and games, and I love doing each and having a diverse career. I think it keeps me fresh in each different medium and makes me better in each one because I carry on learning, particularly in the games industry, since the developments come so quickly. Virtual reality is becoming popular in games, so I've been working more in that subject.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow screenshot

(via Konami)


SH: When you first got into it, were you surprised at how involved acting could be for video games?

KS: No, but when I started I wanted it to be better. I felt there was too much acceptance of caricatures. One of the things I brought in with Side when I first worked with them in London was really opening up the casting for games. There used to be this division between games actors and TV actors and theater actors, and I think that's gone now. I think it's absolute nonsense to say someone who hasn't done a game can't do a game, or someone who hasn't done performance capture can't do it. You cast the right actor for the role like you'd cast anything, and that gets you better performances. As long as the writing is good enough, the performances should be able to be as good in a game as in television, film or theater.


SH: Do you see a big difference between directing an A-list celebrity working in a game and working with someone whose emphasis is voice acting? 

KS: I've worked with voice actors Troy Baker and Nolan North on a few games. Nolan was recently in Mafia 3, which I did here. Both Nolan and Troy are obviously fantastic in the voice booth and they know exactly how to use audio to create character. They're very fast. What you might get with somebody who's not as experienced with games is they might take a little longer to find their voice or to find the level of expressiveness you need when you're just listening to voice.

When it's the celebrity names, they typically don't do the full performance capture shoots. For the James Bond games, for example, we had actors who were the bodies for the performance capture. I cast them because they were sympathetic and were people I felt could move similarly and recreate the kind of vocal rhythms that the actor who's finally voicing it could use. The actor would be able to study Daniel Craig, for example, and do a good rendition of it.

With the celebrity actors, they're obviously coming in and they're adding their voice, which can be challenging. If you get it wrong with the actors used in the mo-cap [motion capture], there's a risk that when they've got to match the mouth do an ADR [automated dialogue replacement] lip sync that the rhythm isn't correct for the actor.  You have to be very careful with that.

But I don't find it any different working with the A-listers. Again, I think it helps a lot that I direct theater. They tend to respect the way I speak to them because they know I understand the craft of acting. They can be wary of people directing them who don't know anything about performance, and often they've experienced that, whether it be for commercials or more corporate stuff. Sometimes, when they first come in they might be a little bit wary until they figure out who I am, because they have a reputation to sustain. They need to feel like they can trust me.

Once that trust is established in the first hour of the session, it always works out really nicely. To be honest, I think actors who tend to be really successful tend to have a great deal of grace and humility as well. They don't tend to make a fuss. If anything, people who make a fuss are the are wannabes, not the ones who have already made it.

James Bond 007 Blood Stone Game

(via Activision)


SH: Is there ever any pressure, when an A-list celebrity is cast, to preserve their recognizable voice, rather than the voice that's best for the role?

KS: I suppose there might be. When I worked on Fable, Ben Kingsley really wanted to do a Welsh voice. The developers had imagined he'd use his own voice and be more familiar as Ben Kingsley, but Ben was determined to go for Welsh, and they agreed it was okay, so we switched it to Welsh when we did our first session.

I think obviously it can be fun for the gamers to recognize a voice, but Michael Fassbender also didn't use his voice in Fable. It was a much more austere, almost RP [received pronunciation] accent, which isn't how Michael speaks. It's got to be right for the character first. That's the most important thing, always.

Sabine, voiced by Ben Kingsley, in Fable 3

(via Microsoft Game Studios)


SH: Tell us about the new L.A. branch of Side.

KS: Side were the first people that brought me in on games. They're an outsourcer for production of games on the performance side, including voice and motion capture, and are opening a voice studio here in Marina Del Rey. It's called Side LA, and it just launched. There have been various press meetings, which has been very exciting. Part of the expansion has been to open up over here and provide another voice studio that specializes in games.

I think all of the entertainment industry can feel like an unknown wonderland when you're outside of it, but it's not so hard. If people know where to look, they can try to contact games developers directly or studios like Side LA and ask what work experience might be available. You'd be surprised about the opportunities out there for advice and experience.


SH: You've also been involved in The Eastenders for the last few years. What has it been like to be part of a soap opera with such a long history?

KS: It's great. I've just finished another Eastenders contract. It's lovely and the cast works really hard. Some of them have been there for 40-odd years, and some of them are new. It's like an extended family.

There are a lot of demands because there are four episodes a week, and as a director you're booked for four episodes. The contract takes seven weeks, so you've got two weeks of script prep with the editing team, two weeks shoot prep, about two weeks for the shoot and a week to edit. It's really fast, because you're creating two hours' worth of material in this two-week shoot. But it's fun. It works with multi-camera, so you're able to point up to four cameras at the scene at any one time. It feels a bit like going to performance capture where you're working in the round and you can capture it from any perspective. It's another way that everything feeds into each other.

Obviously, you have to do your homework because you're never going to know the actors' characters better than they do. They've been playing them for years. But you'll know the demands of the script better than they will because you'll have been briefed about that by the editing team, and one's job as a director is to make sure that, for me in all the jobs I do, it's that text comes first. Honoring the script and delivering the script the writers have forged is the most important thing. If you get that right and you get the integrity of that right, then it'll work.


SH: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to be a director someday?

KS: I think it'not to do it how I did it, funnily enough. Nowadays, there are a lot of courses that focus on directing at the degree or post-degree level. When I started, I thought I wanted to be an actor until I realized that wasn't a fun career for me and I didn't really enjoy it. But even if I had wanted to direct at a younger age, there weren't really those opportunities to train as a director then. Now there are.

Investigate training in performance arts that includes directing. And nowadays, certainly in England, there are a lot of scholarships and opportunities for funding to get placement when directors are starting out. I also think our industry is quite ageist, like a lot of areas in the entertainment industry, so the more you can do when you're young and can still be seen as the new, hot thing, the better. It's always exciting for a producer to feel like they discovered new talent.

Start young and make your own work, even if you're just filming on your phone. Practice young, try things out with your friends and try cutting something. There are also lots of free resources you can find online to cut film together.

If it's theater you want to direct, get involved in student drama groups and get started. There's nothing like just doing it. I don't think anybody in the industry takes anyone seriously if they come in and say they really want to do something, and they've studied academically for it and have lots of reasons they're really into it, but have no experience. If they don't go see the theater or film and make those things, or play games and understand them and get experience as game developers, and actually go out and do what they want to do, then I don't think they'll be taken seriously. They're such competitive industries. You have to show that you're somebody who will put everything into getting the experience you need.


Now that you know what being a director is all about, find out more about voice acting HERE in our interview with the voice of Breath of the Wild's Zelda.