In video games an integral component of the experience is the voice acting since it can elevate things to unexpected levels of amazement or completely sink it. Thankfully at this stage in the generation the industry is graced with incredible talent thanks to actors who not only deeply care about their performance but care about games in general.
While there used to be a disconnect found in the performances of certain games thanks to talent that merely wanted an easy paycheck, that isn’t the case anymore thanks to actors such as Troy Baker and the people helping craft their performances such as Keith Arem.
You may not have heard his name before, but Mr. Arem has had a hand in crafting the performances in games such as the Call of Duty series, Saints Row: The Third, and most recently Sleeping Dogs through serving as the talent director i.e. he directs the actors whilst they record their dialog or their mo-cap.
When it comes to developing a game and crafting the narrative experience games will receive, Keith’s job is indispensable since he’s the man that actors turn to when they need to know what the finer points of their performance should be or how they should go about imagining a nearly empty mo-cap room is actually a decadent Hong Kong nightclub.
I got a chance to discuss the video game industry with Keith along with his most recent projects which happens to include his very own interactive comic book.
Ian Fisher: Over the years you’ve been a part of several key games such as the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series and most recently Sleeping Dogs. So how did you make the leap into the film industry and become the founder of such a major production company and subsequently serve as the key acting Director on major video games? Was directing always something you wanted to do or did you fall into it more or less?
Keith Arem: The game industry is so rich with talent, ideas, and innovation, that it inspires all of us to push ourselves further on each successive project. I think my evolution into film is a natural extension of goal to push my craft further, and explore new ways to expand my stories and narratives. Directing was something that came from my love of working with actors, constructing worlds, and telling compelling stories, but it honestly came out of necessity. When I fell into directing, I instantly fell in love with it.
Ian: The technology in video games has improved exponentially over the last few years and that has in turn allowed acting in games to be front and center in some games. So what has it been like for you to direct the acting in games such as Sleeping Dogs and help craft the performances by actors such as Will Yun Lee?
Keith: The quality of performances and the level of talent in games is extraordinary. Being surrounded by incredible actors like Will, makes my job very easy. My role is to help an actor make choices, and guide the consistency and tone of the entire cast’s performances. I have been developing new recording systems and technologies to allow our actors to perform together, and Sleeping Dogs was a perfect example of this process. I think this is reflected in the performances of my recent projects, and it’s become much closer to traditional filmmaking.
Ian: A lot of the projects you’ve worked on have used different motion capture/performance capture tech whether it’s standard mo-cap or something more advanced such as having a small camera record the face of an actor. So with the technological leaps motion capture has received in the last few years and with your own experience directing such a thing where do you think things will go from here? Is there a particular mo-cap tech advance that you would like to see that may be beneficial to both the actors and subsequently what gamers see while they’re playing?
Keith: Complete performance capture is the future for games, and it’s already brought an incredible amount of cinematic value to games. Capturing the complete performance of an actor is the goal of all projects in the industry, but the current technical challenges of traditional motion capture and voice recording can often lead to “frankensteined” scenes, which are commonly stitched together from many individual performances. This often leaves actors unable to judge their own work, since without sets, costumes, or cameras, the actors have no reference to evaluate if their performances.
The best performances are when the actor can contribute to the scene, with the least amount of interference from the technology. I think for the industry to evolve, the next advances in mocap will allow the actor to perform with fewer technical limitations and allow them to feel part of the environment.
Ian: The last video game project you worked on which has been released is the action thriller Sleeping Dogs. With a story similar to that of classic Hong Kong cinema, what was it like to work Sleeping Dogs based on how talented the cast was and how deep the story it sought out to tell was?
Keith: Sleeping Dogs was an incredible project to direct, since the team, writers, and actors all shared the same love of Hong Kong cinema. We were all very passionate to bring out the intensity and tension of this world, and it allowed us to play and experiment with cinematic techniques to tell the story. We tried to bring the cast together whenever possible, and allow the actors to act and react to each other. I think the realism of their performances dramatically reflected in the final product.
A cutscene from Sleeping Dogs
Ian: What are your general feelings on the narrative boundaries that video games should push? Gamers love to see mature content in games but then things such as the “No Russian” scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 received a lot of attention from the mainstream press and even some game press outlets as some thought it was too much. So do you think game developers should continue to push the limits of narrative themes in games or do you think a wall will be hit, at least in the sense that some are afraid to take a risk?
Keith: I think games will always try to push the boundaries of traditional narratives, since the medium is based on innovation and establishing new ways to deliver storytelling. The success of the game industry has pushed the narrative experience further, since it brings the viewer into the world, and allows them to experience the events first hand. I think we should always strive to tell stories in interesting ways, and allow people to experience narratives that compel the audience to have an opinion.
Ian: You’ve worked on a lot of games which have had intense stories that are very compelling and are definitely on par with what we see from movies and TV projects. So with that said, what has been the most memorable moment you’ve had working on a project, either because of the fun it provided or simply because it was a joy working with a particular actor?
Keith: The past couple of years have been especially memorable since the casts have been incredibly diverse. Being slapped by Hulk Hogan, tackled by Michael Rooker, frightened by Ed Harris, in awe of Gary Oldman, or directing Stan Lee, all left a vivid impression on me. The most memorable moment actually happened this morning, when I directed a group of our actors (dressed as ATF agents equipped with rifles, flash bangs, and handcuffs) to storm a recording session with Troy Baker to kick off his bachelor party. We have built an incredible family of actors within the community, and it’s fantastic to be able to work and play for a living.
Ian: Aside from your continued work in top video games you went on to create an original graphic novel that evolves the medium of comics/graphic novels in the form of INFEX. So can you talk a bit about what made you want to create INFEX and present it in such an interactive way?
Keith: I am constantly creating and experimenting with new forms of entertainment, storytelling, and interactivity. INFEX was an extension of my work with storyboards, conceptual previs, and graphic novels. Infex is our first transmedia property, which began as a viral campaign, graphic novel, comic book, and ARG. We released INFEX iOS at the San Diego Comic Con, and instantly changed people’s view of the future of graphic novels and interactive storytelling. The App incorporates music, sound design, animation, and a full celebrity cast to perform the book as a cinematic story. The experience is like reading a book, but experiencing a film.
Ian: For INFEX you’ve assembled a talented cast which includes Lance Henriksen so what was it like to cast the characters of INFEX and was it tough to sell the project to anyone or were people generally receptive towards what you were striving for?
Keith: I wanted to bring together many of my close friends and play with ideas that we always want to explore in our sessions together. It was important for me to work with friends that were excited to be part of something new and innovative. The entire cast of INFEX was extremely excited to be part of the project.
A look at Infex
Ian: INFEX maintains traditional elements of graphic novels but at the same time evolves them into a more interactive experience, that while not on the same level as video games is nonetheless still immersive. So with that said where would you like to see comic books evolve in the coming years? Do you think things such as INFEX is ultimately the way to go or is there even a more interactive way in which the medium can ascend to?
Keith: INFEX is the first step in the evolution of where graphic novels will grow. Digital distribution will become inevitable for all print mediums, but my goal is to retain the tactile and interactive nature of a book. I think INFEX will show how books will be presented in the future, and how art can become an immersive and interactive experience.
Ian: I know that the video game business is often bound by ironclad NDAs which no one would ever break, but are there any upcoming projects you want to let folks know about or that you’re excited to see finally hit the market?
Keith: This year has been an incredible year for us. Sleeping Dogs, Darksiders 2, Fall of Cybertron, Amazing Spiderman, Ghost Recon, Saints Row 3 and Modern Warfare 3 were fantastic projects to work on, and it’s been very rewarding to see them finally come out. This next year is equally exciting since Black Ops 2, Saints Row 4, and several other incredible franchises are in the works.