Liam O’Brien is an American voice actor and voice director well-known for his roles in animes where he voices Gaara of the Sand in Naruto, Captain Jushiro Ukitake in Bleach; and in various video games, such as Caius Ballad in Final Fantasy XIII-2, War in Darksiders, Vincent Law in Ergo Proxy and Illidan Stormrage in the Warcraft game series (World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade). We had the chance to sit down and pick the brain on the technique and career of the man that has brought so many engaging characters to life:
AiPT: Thank you for this opportunity, Liam. Looking over your filmography, we can see that the lion’s share of your voice acting credits consist of dub-work for various Japanese anime and video games. Dubbing (where the voice track is recorded over existing animation) is a very different process from traditional domestic voice recording (where the audio track is recorded before the animation is produced).
Many voice actors have expressed perhaps not a total *dislike*, but a preference *against* dubbing over traditional voice recording. You, however, seem to favor it. What is your attraction to dubbing over traditional recording sessions? Are there certain advantages to the process?
Liam O’Brien: Yeah, a lot of actors shy away from it, and if they don’t, their agents do. You’re just not going to pull in the big fat sacks with dollar signs on them like you can with say, a national commercial campaign. Really though, I wouldn’t say I am more attracted to dubbing than other forms of VO. I love working on anime, but I also love the games and original animation projects I’m a part of. But dubbing is where I broke into the business, and cut my teeth. For a long time, it was the only kind of recording work I had access to. No other doors were opening yet.
I will say that I respect it a lot more than some. Dubbing anime has always been like going to the gym for me. It’s difficult to create a spontaneous feeling performance that also plays nice with the constrictions of preexisting picture. And I know that as long as I can dub well, most other stuff will be cake. When I got my first shot at doing pre lay animation, and didn’t have to worry about matching something already set in stone, it just felt easier- almost like I had been boxing with one hand tied behind my back, and suddenly had use of both hands. With pre lay, the sky is the limit. You can do whatever makes sense for the scene, and an army of animators will create picture that matches what you do.
On the flip side, one nice thing about dubbing an animated series that already exists is that you don’t have to imagine doodlysquat. The giant monster or alien invasion is all right there for you to see. The director doesn’t have to set the scene for you so much when the engineer can just hit the play button.
One of the best parts of my job, though, is that it is never the same. I enjoy moving from project to project and having the rules scrambled everywhere I go.
AiPT: Dubbing requires you to match your dialogue and inflections with the animation already produced, severely limiting your freedom to adlib or express a line. To this day, when people think of dubbing they often imagine something like the super-fast-talking-to-fit-it-all-in of Speed Racer. Or in a more recent example, a habit of using grunts, “uhh” and “urr” sounds to fill in excess lip sync, such as in Transformers Armada and Energon (dubbed in Canada by Voicebox). Do you ever feel that performance sometimes has to take a backseat to technique in the dubbing process?
Liam O’Brien: It’s a trickier deal, no question. But I have also directed and written for anime series (250 + episodes?), and I know how important the director and script adaptor are to the equation. First, if you don’t have a good director guiding all of your actors through the story, the outcome is going to suffer. The actors almost never know what is coming in the show, and the director has to be able to communicate the story, and the nuances needed in each moment. And probably more important is the ADR script. When you are localizing anime for an English audience, a translation of the original dialogue is given to a script writer whose job is to rework it into something that sounds like natural spoken dialogue which also matches the timing and shape of the “lip flap.” Too often though, this isn’t done so well. Weird pauses mid sentence? Shoving “uh” into flaps where an “uh” clearly doesn’t belong? Blame the writer. It can be done well. Sometimes it’s not.
Liam has voiced dozens of animes, including Naruto, Bleach and Afro Samurai.
AiPT: The process of dubbing often requires cast members to record their lines in booths separately from one another rather than in group sessions. Do you find it difficult to develop chemistry (or the illusion of) without ever interacting directly with some of your co-stars?
Liam O’Brien: Definitely. But this isn’t a challenge limited to dubbing. 95% of the videogame work I do, and even some of the pre lay animation is done one actor at a time. That’s why the director is so crucial. A good director will keep the whole thing going in his head, like a radio play, and nudge you toward delivery that syncs up well with your absent cast mates.
AiPT: We’ll be sure to appreciate the hard work that voice directors put in to keep everything running smoothly from here on out. And conversely, place the blame entirely on them as well. Haha. Beyond dubbing, you’ve starred in several domestic productions, such as Wolverine and the X-Men (where you voiced Nightcrawler and Angel) and G.I. Joe: Renegades (where you voiced Red Star). How does developing and cultivating these characters in traditional group recordings differ from doing so in dubbing? Do you find more freedom in this method or are their similar limitations and obstacles to your performance?
Liam: Nothing beats real human interaction. It’s what I got into acting to find. So when I get the chance to work with a room full of other talented people, it’s a good day. There also tends to be a lot more yucks in a group read. I’m working on a couple new animated series right now, and the last session of one of them was a lot like a high school locker room.
AiPT: The landscape of the voice acting industry is somewhat divided; there are unions in LA, unions in Canada and non-union groups on the East Coast of the United States. The sharing of talent between these factions is rather limited. Do you feel that dividing the talent up in such a way limits the cultivation and expansion of the voice acting art and community, or is having various union and non-union options for actors inevitably a good thing?
Liam: I’m not really sure how to answer that one. Which cities the work is done in, and where the unions are based are both out of my control. All that is circumstance and/or bureaucracy. I just work at my craft, and show up for duty.
Sometimes, voice acting ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
AiPT: That’s all an honest man can do these days. Lastly, many up-and-comers were discouraged by our 6 Reasons Why it Would Suck to Be a Voice Actor article (which you mentioned to us that you read). We swear, it was meant more for the sake of humor than to crush spirits and dreams! So to combat that perceived negativity, can we ask you to share any nuggets of industry wisdom with the readers who hope to one day follow in your footsteps?
Liam: Oh, I took it in jest! Yeah, a lot of that stuff hit close to home, but it’s not like it outweighs the positives! I get paid a living to pretend I’m superheroes, elves, robots, and minor deities. I spend my days with shockingly funny and talented people every single week. If anyone out there thinks that is overshadowed by requests to say “Sand Coffin”, or the occasional job lost to Lorenzo Lamas, they’re nuts. Go for it. If your greatest joy is performing, go do it. If you work hard and study your craft, one day someone will give you a potato. Weird, yet sage advice given to me by David Mamet many years ago. You get the idea.
AiPT: We’re going to use that potato proverb to inspire our own children. Moving on to some of your video game voice acting work, approximately how many demonic/arcane rituals did you take part in to prepare for the voice role of Illidan Stormrage, the Lord of Outland, and Ruler of the Black Temple from World of Warcraft?
AiPT: Few less than we thought, impressive. Have you ever played WoW yourself?
Liam: I only dipped my toe into WoW. I spent 2 hours tinkering with it, and killing boars. I could tell pretty quickly that if I started scratching that itch, I would never really stop. So I slowly backed away from the computer in a karate stance. Truthfully, between all the work I’m lucky to be doing, and two little kids I chase around in my off hours, there is less time for gaming these days. That doesn’t mean I DON’T game, but my time is pretty limited. I have about 30 games sitting by my TV that I am ignoring, and sometimes I can almost hear them whispering to me in their melancholy.
AiPT: The Warcraft mythos is a unique one, and its fanbase is rabidly loyal. Is it different to prepare for a role in an MMO, where your voice will be heard thousands of times by millions of gamers every day, vs. an anime dub?
Liam: Well, I dunno, I just went to Anime Expo, and the fan base for anime is pretty damn rabid. But there’s no different prep for WoW vs. anime vs. any other character driven voice work. It’s all make believe, with ever changing technical parameters.
AiPT: What do you think it is about the Warcraft franchise (and Blizzard franchises in general) that allow them to still be competitively played well past when any other game could?
Liam: If I knew the answer to that, I would have designed my own MMO by now, and I’d be sitting in a private jet parked on top of a yacht, docked next to a volcano lair in the south Pacific.
AiPT: A voice acting MMO? Sign us up. And damn, we were hoping you could let us in on the secret. We’re sick of being starving self-perceived artists. Moving on to another Blizzard game, have you played Diablo III? If so, what do you play? What are your thoughts on the game?
Liam: Ya know, I was way in on the StarCraft craze back in the day, but I never wandered into ye olde Diablo. So when the new one rolled around, I had way too many other games competing for my attention. And I’m actually more of a solo, story driven gamer anyway. Things like Uncharted, Resident Evil, Mass Effect, the Walking Dead game episodes- those are more my MO. Oh, and Castlevania. Once upon a time, I blistered up both thumbs playing Symphony of the Night straight through the night.
Who ya got?
AiPT: Who would win in a barefisted brawl: Illidan or Nefarian?
Liam: One of those 2 HAS no fists. Anyway, Illidan would fight dirty. Stormrage.
AiPT: You’ve voiced dozens of video games (including Resident Evil, Devil May Cry, Tekken 6, Soulcalibur, and many more); what is your favorite video game you’ve voice acted for?
Liam: It is impossible to choose favorites. On a whim, today, I will say Grimoire Weiss, the snide, magical tome from the game Nier: Replicant. Yelling “hussy” is fun. Ask me tomorrow, and I’ll give you a different answer.
AiPT: What advice would you give voice actors trying to make it in the business? How do you land roles that will be beneficial to you in the future?
Liam: Everyone is seeking the secret magic trick that will get them into this industry in the blink of an eye. There ain’t one. I’m an overnight success after 22 years of busting my butt as an actor. If you want to act in video games or animation, you need to figure out now to act, period- mind, body, voice, and soul. Once you figure that out (if any of us can ever fully figure it out), you can then apply that skill to stage, or screen, or microphone. There’s no set path. We all just chipped away at it. (Alright, fine, the secret is Wolfsbane and Old Spice)
Go for it. If you think you have it in you to climb the proverbial mountain, dig in.