To celebrate the release of Horizon Zero Dawn, we asked our Nicolette McKenzie to describe the process of recording for her role, Teersa, in this epic video game.
When recording a book, you are the conduit between author and listener. However varied the characters are, they do not exist outside the narration, and are part of the storyteller's duty to the writer and the audience.
Creating a character in a radio drama is much more free. Your only responsibility is to be yourself and react to your fellow actors; you are an independent character.
In corporate and commercial work you can be an expert, a colleague, a dentist, the efficient PA, a friend who wants to tell you something.
When you replace the voice of a character in a film, the first thing you look for is the truth of the scene in the actor’s eyes and face, and of course, body. That exists already. You can be totally free vocally provided it is in sync, and true to the eyes.
In a video game, at the test stage, there are no eyes, there is no face, and there is no movement - just a sketch. This allows huge freedom to the actor’s creation of voice, which is exciting. The creative computer which is your brain accesses instinct, feeling, memory and imagination, then processes the information at your disposal. You make a few choices and are ready to try something out on mike. It should be like creating a character in a radio drama, but it isn't, because the visuals of a video game will always be the primary influence to the actor.
My first encounter with Horizon Zero Dawn is in a London studio, with some lines on a monitor. I am intrigued as to what I will be testing for. There is a thumbnail description of the character and an artist's impression. This image and information are the starting point. I have eaten breakfast, done my basic warm-up mantras and that little bubble of excitement is there. I check there is water in the studio. This will be fun. I take a minute to 'process' the information I have been given, i.e. character notes and a sketch, and have a quick chat with my director. Then I am ready to record.
Fortunately, the director has created an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect. I feel free to experiment, play about a bit, ask questions, and risk making a fool of myself. "You say 'strong'. Ok... but not bossy?" "Is this sounding wise, or naff; a bit 'sweet old lady'?" "How far away is she when she says this?" Together we shuffle the cards and produce a sound, a voice, which might just be vaguely on track. I am starting to know and like this old woman. As we settle further and further into recording I can relax a little, try to play the lines more realistically... Just get better. As I get to know her more the pictures in my head get clearer.
In this video game, I love the fact that the protagonist is a young woman who has had a tough start. The narrative is something I really do not need to know because my scenes happen in the present, however, my character does have to have knowledge of the past, because it may influence her actions, or rather, the way I play them. I love the way the characters are flawed, generous, selfish, dedicated and devious, just like us. The characters are fully-fledged and terrific.
As part of the video game voice recording, I am to do a session of facial muscle capture in Serbia. With the usual dots and lines drawn and stuck on my face, I sit in an armchair on a pallet inside a giant sphere some metres in diameter. It contains hundreds of lights and cameras. The director/inventor of this process shows me, on the monitor, which individual muscle of the face to move, which I copy. Like so many people involved in video game production, this team is young, gifted and full of extraordinary ideas. Later on I do studio sessions back in London where I again record lines, plus facial capture. This involves a head-piece with a camera, lights, and a battery pack around my waist. I can't wear my reading glasses, so the font on the monitor is made much larger so I may read it fluently. Again, I have the trademark dotted markings on my face for the camera.
I am also asked to do full body mocap, which is quite new to me. Inside a metal container on an industrial estate in Oxford I am dressed in black lycra with white bobbles outlining legs and arms. Boots, gloves and head are bobbled. We act out the scenes in a surreal version of the game. The monitors show us as faceless body outlines, like artists' jointed mannequins.
So now my contribution is muscles, face, body and voice.....all of which may or may not be used in the final version.
I have become part of the process, a removable element in this work.
Check out Guerrilla Games’ cinematic trailer: