LOS ANGELES — She woke up with a tickle in her throat. This was worrying for Ashly Burch, who, at 27, is a rising star in the small world of voice actors, best known for her work in video games. She knew actors who had blown out their voices in the studio. She'd come close herself. So leaving her house that morning Burch sipped a soothing mix of chai tea and pea milk. "It's nondairy," she said. "Dairy creates mucus, and that's not a good sound."
Now, standing inside a soundproof studio in nearby Santa Monica, Calif., she gave no hint of discomfort as she prepared to record new lines for “Horizon Zero Dawn,” one of the year’s most popular new releases.
“How’s your throat?” the director asked.
“Fine,” she said, as a monitor glowed with her lines.
Voice actors are increasingly on the front line of a transformation taking hold in the entertainment industry as the creativity of Hollywood and the technological innovation of Silicon Valley converge. Voice, that intimate marker of human emotion, is now seen as essential to the $24.5 billion U.S. video game market, where the hyper-realistic graphics and operatic story lines used in games can be as textured as the best film dramas. And the best voice actors — their names known to fans and promoted by companies — can become celebrities despite never appearing onscreen.
Yet voice actors in this industry are not treated like actors in television and movies. This led voice actors to go on strike last year against 11 of the largest video game developers over bonus pay and safety issues such as vocal stress. The bitter labor dispute dragged on for 11 months, making it the longest strike in the history of Hollywood’s largest actors’ union, SAG-AFTRA. Burch was forced to give up a critically acclaimed role she loved. Gaming fans feared delays for their favorite titles before a tentative deal was reached late last month. A vote by the full union is going on now.
The lengthy strike highlighted how video games have emerged as the scene of a tense clash between Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Voice actors want to be treated more like TV and film actors, who are viewed as central to the creative process. Tech firms often see the developers and engineers as the true stars of the show.
“They keep saying, ‘Games are different,’ ” said J.B. Blanc, a well-known voice actor and director who has worked with Burch several times. “But that’s no longer true. Because games want to be movies, and movies want to be games. These are basically 100-hour-long movies.”
Hardships for voice actors
A couple of days before her “Horizon Zero Dawn” session, Burch was at the Cartoon Network offices in Burbank, Calif., to record voices for the new cartoon “OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes.” Jobs like this helped Burch and other voice actors stay afloat as the strike dragged on and auditions for video games disappeared.
Another voice actor on the show, Courtenay Taylor, mentioned she suffered a hemorrhage in her vocal cords last year while voicing a game. Most injuries come from exertion, such as screaming. But she got hurt whispering. She had to visit a speech pathologist for rehab and was unable to work for three months.
“I can show you some pretty gnarly pictures, if you want,” Taylor said, offering to share photos of her damaged vocal cords.
Other actors said they’ve tasted blood in their throats during prolonged sessions. One actor fainted during an audition after screaming too long.
The nature of video games makes it difficult work. Many games feature characters dying or crying out in agony. An actor is needed to make each of those sounds. Burch once worked on a military-themed game that required her to shout all of her lines for four hours straight.
Last year, the union invited California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health to investigate what it called unsafe and vocally stressful conditions for actors doing video games. Before regulators declined to take action, the union played them a recording of an actor doing a typical “death scream.”
“They couldn’t believe we were screaming like that for four hours at a time,” said Keythe Farley, a voice actor.
Even the calmer, story-driven games require lots of dialogue because they contain dozens of hours of scripted play.
“That’s the weird thing about vocal stress,” said Kate Flannery, another “OK K.O.” voice actor, best known for onscreen roles in shows such as “The Office.” “You push yourself to do these voices because you want to be easy to work with. And that’s where you get hurt. There’s a people-pleasing aspect that doesn’t happen when you’re [onscreen] acting.”
“Here,” Flannery added, “it’s all about your voice.”
During the strike, the union asked for the typical four-hour session to be cut in half for vocally stressful work. But the tentative deal includes only a promise that the companies will work with the union to examine the issue during the three-year contract.
Pay was the negotiation’s biggest sticking point.
Actors in movies and TV usually earn residuals or bonus payments, typically when their work is re-aired or issued on DVD. And TV actors won improved residual payouts from streaming companies such as Netflix and Amazon.com in the union contract agreed to earlier this year. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
But games don’t pay residuals. In video games, actors earn a flat fee.
The union proposed a bonus structure for voice actors that would kick in when games sold at least 2 million copies — a blockbuster in movie terms. The one-time bonus would have been capped at $3,300.
The tentative contract doesn’t include that. Instead, the game companies agreed to a 3 percent raise for the guild’s minimum wage — which works out to about $850 for a four-hour session — and a sliding upfront bonus schedule based on the number of sessions, maxing out at $2,100.
But almost no voice actor can survive on video game work alone. It just doesn’t pay well enough.
“I’ve made more money from one episode of some crappy preschool cartoon than one of the biggest-selling video games of all time,” said Phil LaMarr, a comedic actor who has lent his voice to the “Metal Gear Solid” series and cartoons such as “Pound Puppies.”
In the end, the tentative deal was a major victory for the companies, said David Smith, associate professor of economics at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management.
“The principle of paying union actors residuals is something they are fundamentally against,” Smith said.
“I think they see it as a slippery slope,” Smith added. “If they give an inch on this concept of royalties, it’s a first step for others to ask for them.”
Those “others” would be game developers — the tech wizards who code endlessly to make the magic happen.
The game companies’ strike negotiators did not respond to a request for comment. The union hailed the agreement. SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris called it “an important advance in this critical industry space.”
Building a career, characters
Burch started playing video games as a child growing up in Phoenix, trying to keep up with her older brother Anthony. At 11, she made the connection that human actors were behind the voices in her favorite games.
“That’s when I realized, ‘Oh, this is what I want to do with my life,’ ” Burch said.
As a teenager, she and her brother started a comedy Web series about gaming called "Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin'?" The series got noticed by the gaming community. After graduating from Occidental College in Los Angeles in 2012, Burch jumped into voice work.
She’s voiced Tiny Tina, a foul-mouthed teen in “Borderlands 2,” and Cassie Cage in the legendary franchise “Mortal Kombat.” She’s narrated games. She’s voiced characters in “Fallout,” “Call of Duty” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” among other titles.
But it was a role in the small game “Life Is Strange” that has meant the most to her.
The game tells the story of two 18-year-old women — Max and Chloe — trying to discover why a friend has disappeared. The story is centered on the emotional lives of female teenagers — an unusual topic for video games — and addresses teen suicide, depression, bullying and drug abuse. The game unfolds over five episodes, each two to three hours long, like a TV series.
Fans and critics loved it. And it won a clutch of awards, including the BAFTA for best game.
Burch was the voice of Chloe, a vulnerable punk rock girl. At gaming conventions after the game debuted, Burch again and again saw fans who had dyed their hair blue, just like Chloe. Hundreds of pieces of fan fiction about Chloe were posted online.
“I put a lot of myself in that character,” Burch said one afternoon. “My interpretation of her is ultimately about part of me.”
So Burch was crushed when the game company approached her earlier this year to talk about a new edition of the game. They wanted Burch to return to a role she loved. But the ongoing strike made that impossible.
“It was really hard for me,” she said.
She kept quiet about it until this summer, when the new “Life Is Strange” — a nonunion production — was unveiled at a gaming convention. The game’s publisher tried to blunt the blowback by announcing that Burch had been hired as a story consultant.
Fans weren’t happy. A typical response on social media: “aw man i got sad again over Ashly Burch not returning as Chloe Price . . . :/”
In and out of the game
A few weeks before the strike ended, Burch was sitting in the Culver City, Calif., apartment of her friend Sarah Elmaleh, also a voice actor, and watching as Elmaleh played Burch's character in "Horizon Zero Dawn." Burch voices Aloy, a warrior trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world.
“That’s you!” Elmaleh said. “This is a huge deal!”
Burch smiled. She could see her friend had not gotten far in the game.
“How many hours have you been playing this?”
“Really? 50 hours?” she said. “You’d think I’d be better at this.”
As they traded the controller back and forth, they talked about the tricks of their trade. How to adjust cadence and calibrate speech. How TV actors often struggled when forced to act with only their voices.
“You need to be enough of a character that people are engaged by you,” Burch said, “but not so much. . .”
“That people are put off by you,” Elmaleh finished. “It’s a hard line to toe.”
Earlier this year, Burch had called Elmaleh, crying, when she first learned she would not be in the next edition of “Life Is Strange.” Instead, the role went to a nonunion actor named Rhianna DeVries.
And it was Elmaleh whom Burch called again the next day while checking early reviews of the new “Life Is Strange” on her phone during a break from recording lines for an update of “Horizon Zero Dawn.”
“I’m seeing articles of people saying that Rhianna and I are indistinguishable from each other as Chloe,” she texted her friend, including an emoji of a gun aimed at a smiling face.
“I’m so sorry,” Elmaleh replied in an expletive-laced text. “We may weep for the world in its occasional, localized pitch-black ignorance and gasping idiocy.”
Burch then put down her phone and returned to the soundproof studio.
“Rolling,” said the sound engineer. “Take 204.”
Burch, pushing aside her doubts and slipping effortlessly into character, read her line.
“Perfect,” the director said. “Okay, once more.”