Call of Duty, Star Wars; it’s rare you will stumble upon a person who has not heard of those big-hit names in the entertainment industry.
I might be an editor for Analog Addiction, but in reality, I’m simply a college student majoring in journalism and minoring in radio/TV at Stephen F. Austin State University (SFA) in the oldest town in Texas: Nacogdoches, or “Nac-o-nowhere” to many outsiders. Many people argue Nacogdoches is quite the dull scene. I will not say those people are wrong, but if you dig deep enough to the roots of the town, you will find some interesting people.
One such person is SFA fine arts professor Zach Hanks. Hanks has been involved in both the Call of Duty and Star Wars franchises – to name a few – as a voice actor. Some of Hank’s notable roles include Captain MacMillan in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Garnac from Cartoon Network’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series. Although he now focuses on his career as a professor, Hanks still does voice roles on occasion, including the recent Call of Duty: Ghosts.
I had the pleasure to sit down with Hanks where he shared some of his experience as a voice actor in the entertainment industry and more.
Q Voice acting – how did all of that get started?
A I had a predisposition for it. I was always a verbal kid, quick with dialects and funny voices. I liked playing characters growing up. I was an avid [Dungeons & Dragons] player and I did voices for the various characters in the games I would run. I spent a few years in Los Angeles after getting an undergrad [degree]. Among my many temp jobs, I worked reception for Disney Character Voices International, and I also got to work as a PA for Disney Television Animation. Most of that job was spent at L.A. Studios getting voice actors and celebrities who were working on Disney cartoons to sign their contracts.
Q Was there anybody noteworthy you worked with as a PA for Disney Animation?
A The first person that comes to mind – while I was temping there – was Bruce Campbell. But after all of that, while I was in grad school, I was a voice and speech guy. I taught the undergraduate voice and speech classes, so I got more training. Then I moved back to Los Angeles and fell back into casting and directing voice actors for a production company that produced voice-overs for video games. That is how I got my foot in the door in the game industry and the voice-over industry, and two years later I started working as a voice actor full-time.
Q After looking at some of the work you have done, I noticed you worked on video games and animated shows. Would you say there’s much of difference between voice acting for video games and voice acting for cartoons?
A Yes. The primary difference is that voice acting for cartoons is usually voice acting for comedy, for young audiences. Voice acting for video games is voice acting for adult males in the style of an action thriller. Now, the animated series that I worked on are an exception. I worked on an action-thriller series for teens and up – Star Wars Clone Wars – and grown-up humor for late-night cartoons – Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Squidbillies. Then [Dragon Age] Warden’s Fall was definitely for a mature audience. But in general, that’s the difference.
The goal for a cartoon is usually going to be short-term engagement for laughs – or sometimes action, but in a way that only mildly thrills. Teen Titans, stuff like that. It builds suspense, but not real fear. It thrills, but without inciting anything that’s really passionate. Video games have to engage for tens of hours at a time and can illicit strong, powerful feelings like fear and anger and outrage. Also the point of cartoons is for the watcher for to be passively amused; the point of video games is to be passionately involved and engaged. TV is recreation; video games are hard work.
Q How often do you actually play games?
A Not very often anymore.
Q Why is that?
A: Because I have a wife, a career, and I’m starting a family. At a point, one has to choose because there are so many hours in a day and there’s only so much focus a human being has. There’s a lot of people who can put down an engaging video game and take care of other responsibilities – I’m not one of those people. [laughs]
I do occasionally play games that do not involve me for long periods of time, games that have a finite play duration. I like a game that I can sit down and play from beginning to end in an hour, so I’m now starting to get more into casual games. I’m playing a Mac OS game called “Elder Sign,” a turn-based strategy. I play through the whole thing in an hour, and it’s always challenging.
Q Do you ever play the games you voice act for?
A I have, but I haven’t over the last few years because I’m just more engaged in my career and my home life. But I did play the [Warhammer 40,000:] Dawn of War II series of games, which I did voice direction for and voice acted in Dawn of War 2: Retribution.
Q Does it ever freak you out to hear your own voice in a cartoon or game?
A This is something I think takes time for an actor to reach this point, but I’ve reached a point where I’m able to separate my work from myself. I can judge my work without simultaneously evaluating my person. I can see myself or hear myself do bad work and I don’t have a big feeling about it. I can look at it like I got a math problem wrong and go “Hmm, yeah, I’ll have to tweak that for next time.” I don’t cover my face or hide in shame and feel like a fool. If I were playing a game or watching a cartoon and heard my voice in it, it would pull me out as an audience member – out of the fantasy – and instead of enjoying the show, I would be appreciating my voice work instead of being lost in the story or the character’s journey.
That happens to me pretty regularly on cartoons and video games. Not that I hear my own voice, but I hear the voices of friends and colleagues. So now when I’m watching a show or playing a game, I’m listening intently to see if I recognize a pal, so it is a different experience.
Q I know for example in Call of Duty 4, you play Captain Macmillan in the sniper mission, and he has a Scottish-sounding accent, but you’re an American. What do you do to prepare for a voice that’s foreign like that?
A What’s important is that the accent be convincing. Ironically, it’s not important that the accent be accurate – it has to be convincing. As an actor, I’m not a dialectician. I’m a professional charlatan. I’m trying to convince you that I’m Scottish, and I can either do that through a perfect representation of a Scot or through tricking you. As far as tricking you goes, for example, as an American audience member, if you’ve never been to Scotland, and you don’t have any friends who are Scottish, it serves me less to imitate an actual Scotsman. It serves me more to imitate Hank Azaria’s Groundskeeper Willy [The Simpsons], or Mike Myer’s Shrek or his portrayal of the father in So I Married an Axe Murderer.
If the audience’s cultural reference point is an authentic native speaker of that dialect, then that’s what I aim for, but it’s how that group is represented in the media, then I aim for how it’s represented in media. Essentially, I aim for the stereotype. That’s sort of a strategy. As far as how do I learn the dialect and then apply it, I study samples. I go to website like dialectsarchive.com, read some books, go to YouTube and look for both authentic samples and samples from the entertainment media. I like to cross-reference them, so I have one foot in authentic and the stereotype. As far as applying it, it’s “practice practice practice.” I practice so much that it becomes second nature, and the dialect sort of runs on autopilot in the background, freeing up my “neural RAM” to run the program of “acting 101,” which is “connecting with the person I’m talking to.”
Q Have you done any motion capture?
A No. I’ve auditioned for motion capture gigs and for something called facial capture where you’re doing voiceover in the recording studio, but you have to lift your head out of the page and deliver it straight forward. I was more interested in motion capture in the past, but now that I’m Texas-based, I’m much more likely to see success if I put my time into booking more voiceover than trying to break into a market where I have not made a name for myself yet. A lot of voice actors do successfully break into motion capture, but at its core, it’s more of a job for movement-oriented actors more than voice-oriented actors – and stunt people. Most of the movement in motion capture for video games is for fighting and martial arts stunts.
Q Have you completely lost interest in motion capture in the future?
A It’s not so much that I’m not interested in it. It’s just that I’m more interested in doing voices. Also, for motion capture you have to memorize lines, which I’ve done my share of. I’ve done a lot of theater, film, and television among other things, but with a certain number of hours in a day, I can either apply those hours into advancing my voiceover career or breaking into what is essentially a tangential field. I’m pretty confident that if I put that time into my voiceover career, I would see success.
If the history of my career has shown me signs, I have no real evidence that I would successfully break in to motion capture. So logic would dictate I’d be better off investing more into my voiceover career than trying to start a second career in mo-cap. It also requires more prep, there’s more possibility for injury, and you have to memorize your lines. Given the choice: voiceover is easier.
Honestly, if I were given the opportunity to do motion capture, I would do it in a second. Given the opportunity to pursue motion capture? The CEO of “Zach Hanks, Incorporated” thinks that company’s resources would be better spent elsewhere.
Q I’m guessing the CEO of Zach Hanks is not your wife?
A [Laughs] No, she’s the owner. [laughs]
Robbie Key is the Nintendo editor for Analog Addiction, entertainment editor and copy editor for the Pine Log at Stephen F. Austin State University, news editor for Worlds Factory and blogger for IGN. Follow his completely relevant Twitter updates, watch his awesometacular YouTube videos, and view his LinkedIn profile.