Interview: Lev Chapelsky

Some Hollywood stars, such as Matt Damon, still express specific displeasure with the idea of working in games. How many professionals active in Hollywood share that kind of view?
I remember the day when most of them just thought, ‘Videogame? No. I’m a professional actor, this is not something I would do any more than I would do an endorsement for snake oil’. That took a while to get away from, and then it kind of eclipsed into, ‘Wow, these guys are making a lot of money on videogames’. And when the hype came out five years ago about gross revenues of videogames exceeding film, that one statistic had impact here like a nuclear bomb. Nothing has affected the film industries more than that. It really was a lot of hype if you take it apart. I mean, you’re talking about hardware plus software versus film receipts? It’s a ridiculous comparison, but typical Hollywood, they look at the five-word nugget and it just melted down their grey matter. When that happened, instead of saying, ‘This is an important medium artistically, creatively, we should get involved in it as artists,’ they said, ‘Holy shit, there’s money out there, we’ve gotta get a piece of that’. So then they started demanding ridiculous money. It made things a bit uncomfortable for a while.

In the course of that, they started to pay more attention. Some people counselled celebrity actors that if you want to remain viable and current in ten years, this might be something that you need to have some established foothold in. Another was that if you want to remain relevant to 18 year old males, which is certainly an extraordinarily important market, you may want to consider staying in front of them by being in the product that they consume.

The best reason actors are using to get into it is when they’re a professional actor with maybe ten years in Hollywood. You do tend to get typecast with certain roles – Gary Oldman is a brilliant actor but he’s continually called to play the bad guy with a Russian accent. So actors like that love the opportunity to stretch their creative muscles. It really gives them the opportunity to get into radically different characters and with less chance of backlash if something goes awry. And it’s a quick hit too, it’s not a year but usually a day’s commitment. Voice work is interesting to them as well. They like to do animated features because that gives them a another way to explore their profession.

Now, there are some old-school actors who still don’t get it, extremely dedicated film actors that consider film their medium and don’t want to be distracted by anything else. But I think it’s both for artistic and business reasons. If you were a writer and you were really focused on being the next Cormac McCarthy and someone came along and said, ‘Hey, write some copy for my print ads’, you’d find a lot of reasons to turn it down. That’s the case with guys like Matt Damon.

Is it only the most ‘serious’ actors that have this attitude?
We’ve approached big actors that had a bad movie, but after a bad movie their agents very cleverly will not consider a game role because it would produce a downtick in their perception of their heat. The last thing they want to do is fuel that potential decline by having them step into a lighter entertainment medium. But if they have a good film, that’s a great time for them to experiment. Also, for young up-and-coming film stars, agents just want to position them for the next big film role; they don’t to confuse perception in the Hollywood marketplace. They will not do television at that time, they won’t do commercials at that time. And they won’t do game work at that time either.

But we’ve worked with Anthony Hopkins and it’s great to see how interested he is in this new medium and how he felt it to be a fascinating creative experiment. And you get a lot of that. But then there are guys like Benicio del Toro – you don’t see him in television, you don’t see him in commercials. His career is guided on a certain path and he doesn’t want to be distracted wither internally or in his public perception externally by stepping into a medium that’s relatively new and experimental.

Naughty Dog has talked about Nolan North being great for Drakes Fortune because he wasn’t so well known and invested in the project, contrasted with a star that a game maker is only able to afford for a short time. What can these actors bring to games?
There are lot of dimensions to this. On-camera actors are generally not good voice performers because they’re different skill-sets. Their training, experience and their whole method of approaching their art is really quite different. Secondly, you’ll often get some celebrities who’ll just do it for the money because the money’s there. If you go out and you offer them US$50,000-100,000 for an hour’s worth of work – that sometimes does happen, it’s not a practice that we advocate but it’s out there – they say, ‘Yeah, I’ll give an hour to that whatever the hell it is’. That’s just really bad value. Generally, the price you pay is inversely proportional to the creative quality that you get in return. However, sometimes you have to compromise, because though high price and low quality is bad, when you factor in the marketing value it can map out. Or your hands may be tied because the game is licensed.

We’ve had very experienced, brilliant, on-camera actors, and once they step into a voice booth – padded like they’re in a penitentiary, there’s just one fluffy ball microphone in front of them, there’s no set, there’s no other actors to work off of, there’s just a piece of paper in front of them – they don’t have anything that they’re familiar with that brings them into situation, context and character, and they’re really lost. We’re not celebrity advocates; it’s not a great formula for quality. Typically game producers make the assumption – and it’s a wrong assumption but you can understand where they get it from – the more money they pay for an actor, the better the results are going to be.

So we generally advocate to our clients, stay away from celebrities if you can, unless it’s going to bring you a lot of marketing value or you have some reason why a particular character should be voiced by a particular celebrity. But it’s amazing how often you do find exceptions. Using celebrities is not something that should be completely wiped out of the industry. But if you don’t have a good reason to do it, you’re really better off paying a voice-acting professional minimum or double rates to do it. You’re going to have a better product and that’s really what’s important.

The Screen Actors Guild minimum rate for voice acting is US$780 for a four-hour session…
Yeah, but that’s deceiving. The union packs a lot of mandatory costs on top – pension contributions and taxes, and there are complications with payroll and union signatories, so that almost doubles. You’re looking at about US$1,275 all in.

And what would you expect from a celebrity?
Well there’s no ceiling to celebrity economics. What other marketplace can you not call the seller and ask what their price is? An agent’s answer is, ‘Make an offer’ to extract the most value they can from every job. They will try to get a million dollars for a game role, and they do, and they have, even for one voiceover session, which is a ludicrous amount of money to pay.

But think about John Madden and the value he brings to his franchise. Nobody can argue that it doesn’t make sense to pay John Madden for every single edition of his game. So when you start getting into the value of their name and their likeness and they actually add a lot of value to the product and drive product off shelves. But if Ubisoft was to put Tom Cruise as Sam Fisher in Splinter Cell, would they sell one more copy? It’s hard to imagine from the gamer perspective. You can actually imagine a backlash in some people who would say, ‘I’m gonna stop buying Splinter Cell because it’s Tom Cruise.’ So it’s an interesting trade-off, and we’ve done a lot to try to educate the Hollywood talent community that the power of their celebrity doesn’t necessarily extend in ways that they assume it does.

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