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Voice actors speak out about their 300-day fight for basic needs

‘I wish the new agreement were stronger’

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The longest Screen Actors Guild (SAG) strike in history has come to a tentative end.

After nearly 300 days, a dispute between the voice actors who have joined SAG and various video game studios came to a tentative agreement over new work guidelines. Poor working conditions that included four-hour acting sessions, which led to permanent vocal cord damage, and unjust compensation for their work — voice actors were demanding an additional day rate for titles that sold more than two million units — were some of the negotiating factors going in.

SAG-AFTRA didn’t outline every negotiated term in its press release earlier this week, but did confirm that voice actors would receive a bonus payment upon completion for a game. Instead of being based on the number of units sold, which the union had been adamant about receiving, the bonus payment will be tied into the number of sessions an actor was commissioned for. The press release states:

The bonus payment, which is due no later than the release date of the game, is based on the number of sessions worked on each game, beginning with a $75 payment on the first session and totaling $2,100 after 10 sessions worked.

With a tentative agreement in place, the question that many people both in and outside of the industry asked was why did this drag on so long and who was affected?We spoke to a number of actors who have been impacted by the strike. Due to union rules, a number of actors agreed to to speak to Polygon if protected by anonymity.

Most of the actors we interviewed have worked in smaller roles on a number of AAA games over the years. Some have depended on this income to allow them time to pursue other lines of work, including working in independent film and theater. A common issue actors brought up is becoming a union member before their career has caught up; this means actors on the precipice of “making it” can stall when they no longer have the ability to join non-union projects, but also don’t have the name recognition to get bigger work.

“Compensation for gaming is not nearly the same as traditional media,” one actor told Polygon. “You know that residuals are non-existent — and that was a massive point in the recent negotiations. Sadly, SAG relented on this point — the producers' ‘fanatical refusal’ was cited as the reason (according to the SAG Interactive rep's email to us). There are single-game agreements between SAG and some big publishers where the secondary bonus payments paid out after a sales milestone will be in effect."

For both younger voice actors and more established thespians, there was a clear frustration with their representation by the Screen Actors Guild. This strike felt to many as a “frustratingly permanent” situation. Game studios like Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment were among the big name studios pushing back against SAG-AFTRA’s demands, joining industry heavyweights like Activision, Electronic Arts and Take-Two Interactive. It was clear to many actors that the Guild was not about to put its larger, more important financial arrangements in danger on behalf of a much smaller dispute, which only affected a few hundred people. "We're not the priority," one actor told us.

Prominent actor Ashly Burch had to turn down an opportunity to reprise her role as Chloe Price in the Life Is Strange prequel, Life is Strange: Before the Storm. Burch joined the project as a consultant and writer, due to the union division. This served as one of the most publicized events illustrating what gamers were losing out on due to a strike they may not have otherwise heard of. Elsewhere, prominent voice actors like Phil LaMarr could discuss games they’d recorded parts for pre-strike, but we might not know what roles were replaced by non-union work for years.

There is a very real concern here that the same thing is happening in games. As one actor told Polygon, their workload once the strike was declared had not been drastically altered, but there was a big difference in work. Companies began asking for non-unionized actors for big projects that paid even more for jobs that unionized actors could no longer go out for.

“Since the strike began, I noticed markedly more casting notices for ‘public’ (AA or LA Casting) non-union interactive projects that paid huge salaries compared to almost any other post in any other category,” the actor said. “Meaning, of course, that the big holdouts like Warner, EA and Activision were not bothered by getting it done how [sic] they could.”

The actor, quoted above, reached out to congratulate the founder of a new studio on his venture and to ask his opinion about the new union status. They never received a direct response, but last week the same studio posted a hefty casting call for non-union actors that confirmed all of that actor’s fears. Even brand-new companies are showing their priorities.

None of this happens in a vacuum.

Everyone we spoke to about the strike was aware of the realities associated with the entertainment business and all of its ramifications. In an industry where hundred million dollar, multi-year productions are now the standard, voice casting isn’t the primary concern. But, as another actor told Polygon, this shouldn’t diminish its importance.

“The counter-point is that any gamer or games journalist has at least one favorite performance; one that sticks in their brains, making them delight in a project that much more,” the actor said. “And there are countless people that claim The Last of Us is their most favorite recent game; that game's success is a kind of culmination of where Naughty Dog was going with Uncharted, and anyone can immediately tell you that the connection in their games comes directly from the fantastic performances that they get from their actors.”

When a development team is pushed to its limits during crunch to finish the project, actors we spoke to understood that few gaming companies would prioritize secondary payments to actors over of giving more to their team working on the game. They recognized that no meaningful change could come to them before it was applied to the entire industry — from the perspective of pecking order alone.

“Unionizing game development is a very crucial thing for the health of the industry, and I honestly don't think SAG will have any bargaining power until this becomes a reality,” a voice-over casting director told Polygon.

In talking to Johnnemann Nordhagen (Where The Water Tastes Like Wine) about his studio and their work amidst the strike, he knew going in exactly what they were up against.

“We had no delays because we wanted a union production from the get-go,” Nordhagen told Polygon. “It’s the only thing that made sense to us because our game is about union struggles of one sort or another, and it would be hypocritical to highlight UFW or UMW history while ignoring the modern struggles. Even if they, thankfully, involve fewer bullets.”

Nordhagen’s studio signed the SAG low-budget agreement for indies, which allowed the studio to get actors working again as soon as they got the paperwork filled out. This was a work-around that SAG created to help get people back to work as quickly as possible, but Nordhagen still has a few reservations.

“I wish the new agreement were stronger,” Nordhagen said. “In particular, I think it's awful that vocal strain/stress isn't being taken seriously by the big studios. It's putting the performers in risk of career-damaging injuries.”

Nordhagen brings up a point that is rarely discussed elsewhere: the strain of a difficult performance. People love to laugh at “how hard acting can be,” but in the VO world it is pretty easy to designate the difference between regular acting and stress acting. This is, specifically, shouting at the top of your lungs for up to two hours at a time. SAG, as part of the new arrangement, was unable to set any new limits for this kind of work.

One actor, who deals with stress voice acting on a regular basis, told Polygon that many times, they weren’t sure what the two-hour session would consist of.

“There are some bits that were codified, such as a full description of your character and whether or not you would be reprising any roles (for sequels),” they said. “This is fine stuff, but also a far cry from getting an actual script beforehand. Reading scripts in a vacuum is very challenging, doubly so when you're on the clock and meant to be getting it right in two takes.”

Many of these non-disclosures of the scale of voice over performance are apparently couched in a fear that the scripts will leak and become spoilers for the game years down the line, according to the actors we spoke to. Actors said being invited to play a group of characters is vastly different than being required to do death rattle screams for the same characters at a moment’s notice.

He also wishes residuals were a bigger part of the final settlement. Nordhagen said he “eventually wants to see other developers earn the same rights themselves,” and actors being given that opportunity first is a good precedent to set.

We spoke with a developer working at one of the major striking studios, who was split in their feelings about the last year, because they also work as a union voice actor.

“I think for the most part this is the result I expected,” they told Polygon, “and it kind of underscores just how unique a beast games are as an industry. This is yet another in a long line of learning experiences for how compensation should work in the digital space, and probably won't be the last. At the very least I think everyone involved has a greater appreciation for the role each of us plays in making this weird, wonderful art.”

Developers, actors, creators, and writers. Everyone wants better. For the workers, and for the art.

Arguments from SAG-AFTRA are not representing details like this, which actually protect the people in the union. The union isn’t making the kind of progress that any of these actors hoped for. No one here seems happy about the bread crumbs and incremental raises made. Everyone we spoke to repeatedly spoke about just wanting to do the work; no one got into video game voice over from any origin except being a fan that wants to participate.

No one held back on that front. Brandon Bales, a theater actor from Los Angeles who has done voices on AAA titles like Telltale's Waking Dead and Fallout 4 described his career thusly: “I would say that I audition a lot, I work a little, get paid a bit, feel pride, get mocked by LA Weekly for being an elite, then get up and yell at the top of my lungs about a “GRENADE!” in my tiny apartment at 8 a.m. to aim for another role in the next entry.”

Bales' summation reminds us that VO work is ... work. The actors we spoke to reminded us of how labor intensive voice acting can be. Asking for the sort of financial benefits that fit the effort and contribution they're putting forward doesn’t seem too out of line. No one we spoke to is thrilled with the final outcome. All they can hope for is that the next time SAG goes to bat for its constituents, union leaders fight a little harder. In the future, perhaps the studios will be more willing to compensate actors fairly, according to what they deem just, before we reach another striking point.

Update: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed Blizzard and Ubisoft as opposing SAG-AFTRA. Those publishers were not a part of the negotiations.