Greetings and salutations, true believers!
Trails of Cold Steel has officially launched, and I’m excited! You may well be one of the pre-order platoon, leading the vanguard, or perhaps the game is making its way to you through all the holiday postal congestion at this very moment. Either way, you’ll soon know what we know: good things come to those who wait, and here at the tail end of 2015, one of the year’s finest RPG adventures stands ready to be unfurled (though let’s be honest…with the length of the game, you’ll probably have said “Happy New Year!” before you roll those credits). Work on Trails of Cold Steel II is already well underway, so worry not – you won’t have to wait too long to see more of what happens to Rean and friends.
Brittany wrote last time about all the effort that goes into the process of voice recording, and she was right on the money – it’s a lot of work. More than I’d predicted, actually. See, this was actually a big first for me. Sure, I’d written for voice work before, but Trails of Cold Steel marked the first time I went into the studio to help supervise the recording of an English dub. The whole process – which took about 20 working days for all the voice work – was like one long course in the particulars of going from script to a finished dub – hugely instructive and informational, but also harrying with how much new info about the process I was absorbing all the time.
English dubs have been a hot topic in Japanese game fandom since…well, ever since companies starteddoing them. Many of us are so used to the sound of Japanese that it seems totally normal for us, and we look for an English dub to capture the vocal qualities of the characters as depicted there – which will sometimes be a benefit, while at other times a different approach would yield a better end result. Many others are staunch proponents of English dubs, preferring to get the nuance of the dialogue delivered in their native tongue and having that more direct relation to the characters (or just being able to dispense with having to read subtitles and focus fully on the scenes themselves). Depending on the title, I’ve been on both sides of that line, so I understand where everyone’s coming from.
I’ll admit, I’m not ultra-familiar with dub voices – I tend to just watch anime subbed 90% of the time, and the subtitling and inflection of the JP voices meld in my head to give me a good sense of the characters’ personalities. That’s why, for the recording process, I was glad to have Brittany involved. She’s a true dub wunderkind, able to recognize actors and actresses even across very different performances, and it was her pool of VA knowledge that allowed us to bring together a pretty strong cast for the game.
For as important a factor as a good dub is to a game or anime’s reception in the west, I feel like there are a lot of misconceptions floating around about them, and having a firsthand look at how the process actually went was quite enlightening. Have you ever been at a convention and attended a voice actor panel? Invariably, there’s always someone who steps up to the mic and asks, “How did you prepare to play the role of [character name]?” Well, allow me to shed a little light on that. Short answer: for the most part, they don’t. In some cases, we know just who we want for a role, and cast them directly without an audition. For those we did casting auditions for, I wrote up some light profiles (character background and personality) with maybe 8-10 lines that would help us ascertain if someone would be a good fit for the role. Beyond that profile, we actually held a debriefing in every VA’s first session that introduced them to their character and their place in the story. So…there’s actually not too much preparatory work required. And that’s not a knock on the actors and actresses at all – that’s just the way casting and reading works in the industry. VAs read for hundreds of auditions, land a few, and once they land those roles, it’s THEN that they start thinking about and building out the characters vocally. For you see, these individuals possess a secret skill, acquired through much training, which allows them to put forth a convincing persona even if they aren’t well versed in all of a story’s particulars. This strange and wondrous art is known as…acting.
Anyway, you know how I just said that there’s not a lot of preparatory work required? Well…I do have an entertaining counterexample for you. Our Rean, Sean Chiplock, arrived his first day at the studio like a bright-eyed student on his first day of school with every book polished to a chrome-like sheen, case full of perfectly-sharpened #2 pencils in hand, and enough excitement that I can’t 100% rule out the use of stimulants. When I opened the artbook to start giving him the lowdown on Rean, I found Sean instead telling ME about Rean, his relationships to all of the members of Class VII, pointed questions about the game’s lore, and even – shockingly – gleeful pondering of secrets that are only revealed in Trails of Cold Steel II. Clearly, this man had done his homework! I still remember Brittany, as though shaking him by the shoulders, shouting, “How do you KNOW thaaaaaaaaat?!” Thus began our tempering of a cold steel hero.
Sean was an interesting choice because he has a distinctive voice that fits Rean’s character type, but can bring forth a level of intensity that JRPG dubs usually fail to sell me on when the chips are down and their protagonists need to be really serious. While writing, I had someone like Yuri Lowenthal in my head (because really, he’s the JRPGest voice mankind has thus far offered up in our history) but Sean sold me on his take right away, nailing Rean’s thoughtful narrations that bookend most chapters as well as the “shit just got real” Rean from certain points later in the story. In addition to bringing his burning soul to Rean again in Trails of Cold Steel II, I have a feeling he’s a talent you’ll be seeing more and more around the industry in the next couple years.
Another really serendipitous turn of events is that sometimes, you’ll wind up with a VA who just IS their character, to the extent that upon hearing the first voice recording session, you realize you never quite trulyunderstood how to write that character until now. That happened to me once on this project, with the character Gaius. Gaius is a laid-back and sincere guy, but also almost unflappable under pressure. He has the personality of a guy you’d want to hang out and grab a burrito with, but because of the lack of a foothold for conflict, I was sometimes unsure how to nail that personality when writing for him.
Our VA for Gaius is none other than Kaiji “Bone of My Sword” Tang. I’d never met or seen him before he walked in the door, but once he did, I felt like I was staring at Gaius himself. Longer dark-brown hair tied back? Check. Stylish arm tattoos? Check. Wearing comfy, broken-in sandals? Check. When I mentioned that Gaius’s family is from the Nord Highlands and lives in a yurt, Kaiji even casually replied, “Hey, I’m a quarter Mongolian!” And of course, something fairly close to his natural speaking voice was what we went with for the role, too. After his first session at the mic, I knew that we’d met the actual, real-life Gaius. He also gave us one of our very favorite line misreads of the entire project, putting his whole heart into, “Thanks for having my back, Jesus.” (Jusis is pretty golden, but he hasn’t walked on water yet, just sayin’.) Now, when I’m looking at Gaius’s dialogue in a file, Kaiji’s voice informs my interpretation, which is pretty neat.
So, how long does it take to record a character? Well, we break it down sort of like this: each voice session schedules us for 2-3 hours with a voice actor or actress (with one work day usually being 3 VAs), and we bring them back for as many sessions as we need to complete their part. Including his battle grunts/shouts, Rean has around 1,200 voiced lines, which was something like 4 or 5 sessions, all told. Some people go a bit faster, some a bit slower. Sometimes, even with a good VA, it can be challenging to get just the right reads for some lines.
We ran into that issue when we were recording for Machias, actually. Ed Bosco, who plays Class VII’s shotgun-toting glasses guy, had a good handle on the character and especially shines in those key scenes where Machias blows up and goes on a tirade. The challenge with Machias is that he has quite a temper, but he’s also one of the more articulate speakers in the cast. So even when he’s spitting hot fire, he has to be just as articulate and use the same educated-guy words as when he’s coolly pushing his spectacles up on the bridge of his nose letting you know how good his test scores were. As it turns out, it’s difficult to capture all of that in a single take! We went through quite a few takes with Ed where a line was almost perfect, but we wanted the emphasis to land on a different word, or wanted him to pitch it up or down as the sentence went along. All relatively minor adjustments, but capturing the spirit of someone just going off on another person is one of those things where when it’s right, everyone in the room knows it. I think the extra attention we all lavished on those lines pays off, because “Machias yells at so-and-so” lines are still referenced in the office for our great amusement.
Editing and voice acting need each other – they’re two sides of the same beautiful coin. As an editor, I do my best to shape a character into an interesting, coherent person, and the voice actor or actress breathes life into what the translator and I have together constructed – often bringing something special of their own, too. Even being reasonably confident in my work, I was still kind of terrified sometimes – especially with characters I’d taken special care with because I liked them a lot, or who just inspired great banter. What if the voice we picked turned out not to fit the character? What if the voice was good on a technical level but lacked the spark that brings the personality to life?
Probably my favorite character to write for in Trails of Cold Steel was Class VII’s capricious and whimsical homeroom teacher, Instructor Sara. I even reached out and localized many Sara-heavy scenes where they appeared in Kris’s sections of our files, and it’s safe to say that of all the game’s primary characters, she probably has the highest percentage of her total dialogue edited by me. Those scenes were always a delight – I feel like I was able to nail Sara’s playful back-and-forth banter with the class (and with Rean in particular). So when it came time to cast her, I was like “We’ve just GOTTA get the right person for Sara! I’m going to roll around on the floor and mope forever if we don’t.” We auditioned for her, but I wasn’t feeling any of the audition readings that came in and started fretting. But suddenly, Brittany landed Sara the mad hook-ups, because we ended up with Carrie Keranen, lively luminary of stage and microphone.
My favorite trait of Carrie’s was her incredible versatility, no doubt owing to her long background in theater. Sara is a character who could be voiced in a number of different, viable ways, but some of those readings would carry through the latent comedic value much better than others, and so much of Sara’s humor relies on the delivery. To my pleasant surprise, with just the slightest of nudgings from us, she naturally chose the reads I would have asked for on her own. Of particular note is how she really brought out the musicality in Sara’s voice that represents her flippant attitude toward her job and “the rules.” I still remember laughing as she commented, from the booth, “Wow…she’s such a terrible teacher!” as she blithely sends the cast into their first dungeon in the game’s prologue. For anyone who wants to know, “What does it SOUND like when you punctuate the end of a sentence with just a tilde?”, you’ll hear it eventually if you listen to Sara.
Looking back, Sara’s sessions were some of the most fun I had during the recording process, but it also served as an important lesson to me on how getting a VA who “gets” a character, can be in-tune with them, and knows what you want from them is really important and helps make the recording a much nicer experience. The auditions that came in for Sara were solid voice performances from actresses with good work under their belts, but we held out to get a voice that really felt like a natural fit for the character. When you hear Sara, you can picture me grinning like an idiot as I sit at my keyboard handcrafting another piece of ribald innuendo totally inappropriate for a teacher to say, then passing that through the amplifying megaphone of Carrie’s enchanting performance.
Being an editor at voice recording sessions still feels a bit weird (it honestly felt like I was working at a different job from the one I’d been doing for the first half of the year), and it’s hard to encapsulate all the little moments and amusing anecdotes that make it what it is in a single blog post, especially since it was my first time at the rodeo and everything about it was new to me. But the process is an interesting one, and I think you readers are curious about some of the less-touched-on sides of localization like the world of voice recording, so I hope our latest blogs about the challenges of dubbing have given you a window into the world of what it takes to get a game from its original Japanese to the version you pop in your console and enjoy. If you found it interesting, let us know – there’s certainly more we could tell about the process. Anyway, thanks for reading, as always. Take care, have a happy holiday, and throw a blanket over yourself as you hole up for days playing videogames. We’ll see you again soon for an X-CITING 2016. Excelsior!