The Walking Dead Cast Interview
Actor : Dave Fenny
Character Lee Everett
Dave Fennoy will be familiar to many of our US readers as “the Hulu Guy” but on this side of the pond he is now more recognized as the voice of Lee Everett the lead character from Telltale’s The Walking Dead Game.
Dave has an impressive list of video game title under his belt already voicing characters in World of Warcraft, Starcraft Mass Effect and Skyrim but surely Lee is one of the most complex roles to date.
Voicing a game like The Walking Dead that is so dependent on player choice brings with it its own problems but Dave as Lee has been consistently brilliant throughout the whole game delivering a performance that is consistent with the tone of the game, no matter how the player chooses to play as this complex character Lee Everett.
So when the chance came up to chat to Dave we jumped at it and here is how it panned out.
A very broad open question to get us started but can you give us a little introduction to your background?
Like many voice over artists I began training for a career in VO without knowing it, as a child. I imitated the voices of the characters on the cartoons I watched, not considering a career path, just having fun. I was also a child actor in my hometown, Cleveland Ohio, at the well known community center and theater, Karamu House, where I also studied art, dance, took music classes, and even fencing. In high school at Hawken School For Boys, I participated in theater productions, and in my senior year was president of the “Players Society” and directed as well as performed in several plays before attending Macalester College in St Paul Minnesota as a theater major. I was also playing guitar, writing songs and performing at coffee houses and after a couple years left college and went on the road “strummin and hummin” across the U.S. and parts of Europe.
After 2 years on the road I returned to complete my education at Howard University, majoring in jazz studies with a guitar minor. As my college career came to an end, I got married, had a daughter, then moved to Berkeley California where my then wife worked on her PHD and I began a career in radio. I was there 10 years and became the morning maniac at radio stations KDIA and KSOL working under the name Billy David Ocean. You’d think I could have come up with a better name.
How did you start in the world of voice acting?
I discovered VO work early in my radio career. A DJ pal was leaving KBLX/KRE in Berkeley where I was continuity director, and mentioned that he was heading across the bay to San Francisco to do some VO work and added that he made more money doing that than doing his daily radio shift. My interest was piqued, however it was a couple years before I made any moves. When I finally did, I produced a really awful VO demo. It was way too long and full of annoying retail radio spots. But that didn’t stop me from sending it over to the queen of VO agents in San Francisco, Joan Spangler. Though I called every week, it was several weeks before she took my call and had me in to tell me I was talented, but not ready, and to come back with a better demo in 6 months. During that time I looked for VO work on my own and became the results voice for the California Lottery Results Line, and the voice of the Michael Jackson and Prince Hotlines for a company called Megaphone that specialized in 976 telephonic entertainment. So many technologies ago! I was also a romantic seduction voice on one of their fantasy lines for women. Wow, almost forgot about that. Listening to one of those now would be a good laugh I’m sure. I also managed to land a job as one of the promo voices for TV 20 where I was paid $25 and hour.
Finally Joan Spangler signed me and I booked my first union gig for the California Lottery and became the voice of Marine World Africa USA’s summer concert series and even won a “Golden Prawn” for one of their spots. The “Golden Prawn” is like the Oscar of advertising spots in San Francisco… missed the actual ceremony and never picked mine up however… they wanted $200 bucks for the actual award. Mine is probably collecting dust in a closet somewhere.
A pal of mine, Toby Gleason and I had begun our VO careers about the same time and suddenly he began booking on a much more regular basis and told me it was because he had begun taking classes with a transplanted LA voice over artist, Samantha Paris. I had taken a $50 lesson with Lucille Bliss, the voice of Smurfette who told me I was ready a couple years before, but since I had made up my mind that VO was my ultimate career goal, and I wasn’t booking as much as I thought I should, I signed up for classes, one of which was a weekend workshop with Samantha’s LA agent, Leigh Gilbert. After that weekend seminar Leigh suggested that they would love to rep me in LA if I wanted to move there. I decided that “one day”, maybe in a year or two I would take her up on her offer, but since I was the morning man at the No. 1 station in town, LA could wait. That was September 89, in February 90, KSOL fired “yours truly” and the entire on air staff and my plans to relocate to LA moved way up on my list of priorities.
I had already contacted a high school buddy, John Kafka who was in LA working as an artist on the cartoon series Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and he agreed to pass my animation demo tape along to people in the cartoon community in LA. I produced and voiced all the parts of brief episode of “Zoltan the Warrior”, a space hero I created along with his comical side kick, an evil advisory and his henchman, and a few other crazy characters complete with adventure music and space battle sound effects. John confessed that he would have passed my tale along no matter what for “old times sake” but was pleased to discover that he wasn’t embarrassed to present it to his cartoon cohorts.
That tape got me cartoon auditions in LA. Even before I moved to southern California. 3 times I drove the 6 hours to Los Angeles… 360 miles (579 kilometers)… did my 5 minute audition… then hoped back in my car and drove the 6 hours back to Berkeley. Guess how many of those auditions I booked. Not even one! No matter. I knew what I was going to do.
In May of 90, I started coming to LA every week, driving down on Sunday or Monday, auditioning and working thru the week, then driving back on Friday or Saturday. I did that for almost a year, staying with friends and family until I was able to rent an apartment. Finally I was able to buy a small house in Pasadena (an LA suburb) and I moved my wife and daughter to Southern California.
My first jobs were some random TV promos, the voice of Robocop on a phone game, the part of Dick Scott on THE NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK cartoon, and my 1st big national TV commercial for Disney’s The Big Red Boat. I was so proud and told all my friends and family to check it out. Little did I know they replaced my voice on it before the 1st one aired. Embarrassing!
Are you a gamer yourself Dave?
No, I’m not a gamer. I have watched YouTube videos of some games I’m on, but only in the last couple years. I often get copies of games I’m on that I usually sign and donate to various causes or give to kids who I know will appreciate them.
Talking about voice acting I have always had the perception that being a voice actor is harder than the more traditional onscreen roles as you have to reply solely on your voice to carry the whole role and that you can’t depend on normal human interactions such as body language or facial expressions.
Is that a fair comment or do both professions have their own positives and difficulties?
I’m reminded of Jack Nicholson’s line when asked about acting after the first Batman Movie… “Just let the wardrobe do the acting”.
On-camera actors have costumes. Game actors have animated figures… OK, we also don’t have to wear make-up… point is… your vocal performance still has to be believable… good acting is good acting. You still use your body just as an on camera actor would… it’s just that nobody see’s it… unless you’re doing motion capture… oh, and you have to stay on mic. Hmm, guess that’s kind of like “hitting your mark”. There are different skills that come into play but I don’t think one is harder than the other. Like I said, good acting is good acting. Oh, and we don’t have to worry about lighting! Did any of that make sense?
Do you think Voice actors get the recognition they deserve? It is often quite hard for the fans to put a face to the voice and although they could be huge fans they might walk past you on the street without recognizing you. (Although that might be a good thing too)
Not only do we not get the recognition we deserve we don’t get the money we deserve either. The recognition part is changing somewhat. Gamers tend to be pretty geeky about their games… geeky is good… and want to know everything about the games they are playing and have demanded better performances and they want to know the names of the actors playing the various roles. That has translated into more recognition, especially at conventions where they want to meet the voices of their favorite characters. That can only be good for us as actors. On the other hand, still haven’t seen the tabloid headline about the starlet having a torrid affair with the famous game voice actor. Maybe one day.
Financially, we don’t make near enough for our work. Games pull in more money than movies, but no game voices are making anything like what on-camera actors make. They get session fees and residuals. Game actors only get session fees. My suggestion is that after a game sells a certain number of units, another payment or percentage of sales should kick in to pay the actors. For this to happen game projects will have to become union projects and game actors will collectively have to demand some form of standard back end deals.
What other projects have you worked on that our readers might be familiar with?
It’s a long list, Worlds of Warcraft, Worlds of Starcraft 2, Fallout New Vegas, Transformers Dark Side Of The Moon, Ultimate Spiderman, Viewtiful Joe Red Hot Rumble, Mass Effect 2, Star Wars X Wing Alliance, Star Wars Episode 1 Pod Racer, Bayonetta, Metal Gear Solid 4, The Curse Of Monkey Island, Tomb Raider Anniversary Edition, DOTA, Skyrim… and a bunch more.
We are all huge fans of Telltale Games, every time we do get to meet them they are lots of fun to be around. What has it been like working with them?
Working with Telltale has been great. The best gaming VO experience I’ve ever had. The writing is good, the direction makes sense, and they treat actors with respect. Their games rely on good story telling, relationships, and character development. The characters are 3 dimensional as opposed to the usual stereotypical good guy, bad guy, dumb guy, etc.
How much trust do you have to put in the hands of the animators and developers at Telltale to be able capture your voice and portrait that on the character correctly in game?
I kind of think it’s the other way around. They have to put trust in my voice acting to make the characters come to life in the game. That said… a lot of attention is paid to the context of each conversation and interaction, which isn’t always easy because each character is recorded separately. Writer/Directors have to make sure that volumes and attitudes match for every scene. Part of what makes the voice work so good in TWD is this attention to detail.
Do you get any input into this process or is it very much record the lines and let them work their magic?
I do get to make suggestions and adjust lines. But it’s not something I have to do a lot because the scripts are well written. The changes I make are merely to make the words flow better or to make it easier to understand and they’ve always been happy to entertain any suggestions I may make.
Before starting on a role such as Lee what do you know about him, do you just get the script or do you get an introduction to the “in game Lee” via art work, gameplay video’s or is that the director’s job to ensure you understand what the writers/developer want from Lee?
Like any other acting gig, you want to know as much about the character as possible. Who is he, where is he from, how old, what does he love, what is he afraid of, what does he want, what is he trying to hide, what drives him, level of education, what does he do for a living, how does he feel about the people around him… the questions go on and on to answer for yourself. Then synthesis and translate all that through yourself and into the microphone.
I was able to see a picture of Lee Everett and given some background… that he was a former college professor who had been convicted of killing his wife’s lover, a prominent man, and was on his way to jail when the zombie apocalypse hit and freed him into a world gone mad. He finds a 9 year old girl alone and takes it upon himself to protect her. He also has to kill a zombie who was once his brother, and join forces with people with whom he might not otherwise ever have met, like, or have anything in common with to survive. And he doesn’t want anyone to know about the crime he committed. To me he is a regular guy, not anybody’s hero, doing the best he can in extraordinary circumstances.
In most games the main character is clearly defined early on, but the thing that really struck me when I sat down to come up with a question about Lee’s character is that it is really hard to pigeon-hole Lee as so much is dependent on the choices the player has made in game.
While Lee starts out as quite a somber soul you can change that and play him as quite an aggressive character too. With so many very different “Lees” available does that create a different challenge when it comes to recording for him? Do you almost have to separate out each of the different Lees and record them as different characters?
Oddly that was not a problem for me. I didn’t look at it as changing his character so much as having him reacting differently to various situations… kind of like real people do. We humans are not the consistent creatures we think we are. Given the same circumstances and just a few changes of stimuli, like too much coffee, not enough sleep, a headache, or whatever, and we can show up as understanding, or unreasonable, or kind, or cruel, or strong, or weak, or heroic, or cowardly.
When it comes to a normal day recording do you ever get to record in a session with the other actors or is it all recorded separately? I’m sure with the various choices the developers have to record and mark makes it almost impossible to record in a session. But does this make the process harder not having someone to bounce off in scene.
I would love to record ensemble as we do in most cartoons. I like playing off of other characters, but that is just now how most games are recorded and with the various responses in this game it could become very confusing. Unlike many other games however, because the game is so dialog dependent, extremely close attention is paid to context and tone. About half of all lines have the character and the proceeding line on my script so I know who I’m talking to and what they actually said, plus the writers are also on hand to answer any questions of context… whispering, shouting, angry, sad, etc. Sometimes dialog director, Julian Kwasneski will read me in with the previous line if there’s ever a question.
Sessions are a lot longer than any other game work I’ve ever worked on because there are so many lines. A major role in most games may be as few as 200 to 300 lines, but that’s just scratching the surface in an episode of The Walking Dead. I typically have about 1200 lines per episode and have had 2 or 3 back to back days of 6 to 8 hour sessions. But I’m not complaining. As an actor I love it.
The biggest challenge for most game voice actors is saving their voices when there’s a lot of shouting, and as quiet as it’s kept, whispering. I’ve learned a few techniques over the years to save my voice, but still after a couple days of WD… my voice is pretty raw.
Has it ever become confusing trying to get your head around all the different directions the game can go? I knew that the choices made a difference but it didn’t quite hit me until Episode 3 just how much those choices change every character’s dynamic in game. Does that get confusing trying to keep all the options in your head or is that a worry for the director?
Once you know the character, it’s no problem to have him react anyway that might make sense. Imagine yourself in different situations… you’ve been happy, sad, scared, strong, weak, confused, sure, angry, forgiving, etc… I just paint Lee with the required emotional color. I don’t think of it as changing the character, just revealing various aspects of the character.
How far ahead do you record the voice work, did you have to run through the whole series then start making the game or has it been an ongoing process where you recorded for each episode?
We go episode by episode. I don’t learn what the story line is until usually a day or 2 before we record. And the first time I see the script is when we record it.
The recording schedule is very tight. Once recorded, we can expect the episode to drop in 30 to 45 days. That’s a crazy fast turn around.
What’s next for Dave Fennoy? Have you any other exciting projects coming up?
Well, I’ll continue as the voice of Hulu.com… all your favorite TV shows online. Not sure you can get Hulu in Ireland. I’ve been doing some work on the next Skyrim, and this November the worlds largest graphic novel will be released, Anomoly. It has ipad, iphone and android apps that make the pages come to life and you see and hear the story animated on the screen. It’s cutting edge cool and should have a very high geek quotient. Google “Anomaly” and get a look at the great artwork. A game and movie should also be in the works.
To finish up as we are Ireland’s biggest Independent Video Game publication we do like to ask everyone if you have any connection to Ireland? Ever been? Or planning any trips soon?
Hmmm, if I’m Irish at all I guess I would be black Irish… but I have been told I have the gift of gab… and I did once asked a young lady to kiss my blarney stone… but that’s a story is for another time. I would love to travel to Ireland. I’ve heard from several of my pals like game voice Richard Epcar how beautiful it is. Sooo, is there an invitation coming? I’m just saying!
If you would like to stay in touch with Dave and what he is up to next please like his page of Facebook follow him on twitter or just pop by his website.