Gideon Emery Interview
Over the last few months several hugely anticipated and successful video games have been released and it appears that regardless of which you were looking forward to most, Gideon Emery was among the cast. In fact, starring in and, invariably, shining in high profile releases is something he has been doing for a number of years now. We sit down with the man himself to discuss his life and career so far.
Gideon Emery: Good thanks! It's winter here in Los Angeles, which means it's finally cooler weather, which I love. It's those British genes...
RPGSite: Which leads into my first question - you were born here in the United Kingdom but you spent most of your childhood and early life in South Africa. Can you remember much about the move and what your first thoughts were of your new home in Johannesburg?
Gideon: Not really. Though we did bring our Irish Setter with us - he came on a boat. For years I had visions of him standing at the stern, looking out to sea, with the wind blowing through his long red coat. In reality, I suppose the poor guy was in a box below getting sick.
Joburg was sunny and hot and I loved it, although I did have to learn Afrikaans, which is perhaps not the most useful or widely spoken language on the planet.
RPGSite: Sources tell us that growing up you impersonated popular entertainers. While at the time it was just a bit of fun, looking back is that the earliest sign of where your passions would lie?
Gideon: I think it was more keeping myself amused, being an only child. It did give me pleasure, though, doing those voices. To be honest, I always wanted to be James Bond. I realize now that if I was ever to be considered for a role in a Bond film, it would be as a bad guy, not the hero. And that's just fine by me.
RPGSite: Perhaps we should start a #gideonforskyfall movement on Twitter. Before we do that though, which previous Bond villain would you take inspiration from?
Gideon: Haha, that'd be great. My favourite villains are Blofeld and Jaws. While I'll never have quite the physical menace of Richard Kiel, I could certainly take a note or two from the fabulous Donald Pleasance. I actually had the pleasure of voicing Blofeld (AKA Number 1) for my third game outing in Goldeneye: Rogue Agent. So I suppose I have had a role in the franchise, albeit miniscule.
RPGSite: Wanting to be Bond is one thing, of course, but actually pursuing an acting career is quite another. When did you first realise acting was what you really wanted to do?
Gideon: I loved acting and also loved drawing. But in high school, it really kicked in with plays and musicals. I got to play Dick Deadeye in HMS Pinafore, which rewarded (and fueled) my desire to inhabit different characters. When I got into drama school, it was like I had finally found my home.
RPGSite: The University of the Witwatersrand was the school in question. What would you say was the most important lesson you learnt as you prepared for your future life?
Gideon: That acting is a business. It's all very well to have this ideal of only doing plays, but you still need to make a living. I was the first actor in my class to get into voice-over, which was viewed as the poor cousin to theatre. But it pays well and can support an actor in between traditional acting jobs. And it's been very kind to me.
RPGSite: There are certain countries and cities that immediately come to mind when you think about stage and film careers but what is the acting scene like in South Africa?
Gideon: It's growing. During Apartheid, there was an incredible theatre scene with plays that challenged the system and explored the strange and hurtful dynamic that is segregation. There wasn't much home grown TV and film, but in the past decade or so, there's been a surge in production, both from local and visiting productions. Television, especially, has grown beyond the odd formulaic soapie to include some cutting edge dramatic episodics. Theatre remains a tough sell, because it tends to be expensive, but you'll still find big productions visiting (or with local casts), such as Hair or The Rocky Horror Show. And stand-up comedy has really taken off, I think in part because it's provided an outlet for people to address much of the unspoken, taboo topics in a comfortable way. And everybody these days, regardless of where they're from, needs a good laugh.
RPGSite: Talking of which, you yourself regularly performed stand up comedy on stage and television. Who were your biggest influences and do you still perform or write comedy today?
Gideon: You know, I thought about doing a comedy set only this week. I haven't done it for years, but I do scribble down ideas when they strike me. Although I have done impersonations, my comedy tends to be story based, not punchline based. I grew up watching The Two Ronnies, Fawlty Towers and Not the Nine O'Clock News. I did also get a copy of Eddie Murphy's "Raw", which blew me away.
RPGSite: As we talk you are in Los Angeles, one of the most famous acting cities, having relocated in 2003. How necessary do you think such a move is for an actor that is looking to develop their skills and to expand their career?
Gideon: It's not necessary at all. If you can be content working in a smaller market, great. It's about doing what you love and being fulfilled. For me, I wanted to explore TV and film further and there wasn't that scope in South Africa. Moving from a pond to an ocean is scary and often frustrating. There are just so many other people, so you do get tested here, no question. There are plenty of courses to take, people to study with, but that's not to say one couldn't develop equally elsewhere. The potential for success is just that much greater. In all honesty I think the greatest skill I've learned in LA is patience, because, unless you're the one in a million to be discovered on the street, you're going to fall by the wayside, or you're in it for the long haul.
RPGSite: Having arrived in LA, you really began to establish yourself as a voice actor. When did you first realise you had a gift for accents and voices?
Gideon: Actually, I did over 3500 voice-overs in South Africa, but they were mainly for radio and TV commercials. And of course I wasn't known outside of the country. LA introduced me to working on video games, which gave me the opportunity to use a full range of characters and accents. I knew by the age of 9 or so that it was something that others enjoyed and thus I had some skill at.
RPGSite: Do any of those 3500 voice roles stand out from the pack all these years later?
Gideon: Hmm... Being commercials mainly, they're not as easy to recall as characters. I did either wacky stuff or smooth tag lines. My favourite campaign was one for Jameson's whisky - "triple distilled, twice as smooth". I was very proud of that at the time. Felt very Bond-like, actually.
Another standout was a series of radio ads for a store called The Hub, which sourced products from around the world. The copywriter gave me free reign to create a bunch of characters. Each ad was one continuous take, jumping live from one voice to the next, so it was quite a workout.
I've dug out a few spots just for a laugh - here's a link!
RPGSite: One of your biggest roles came not long after your arrival in the States, as you voiced Balthier in Final Fantasy XII. Were you aware of the Final Fantasy franchise before that game and were you prepared for the amount of dialogue involved?
Gideon: I hadn't heard of Final Fantasy, but then I neither knew of nor played games, except for Delta Force on the PC. I was told at the first session to be prepared for a large role and also for the fan mail. I laughed. A couple years later, I recognized the truth in that. Oh - and I have an Xbox 360 these days.
RPGSite: When did you first start to really notice fan interest in your work?
Gideon: Well I started to get emails about Balthier after Final Fantasy XII in 2006. Just a couple here and there. But only really after starting a page on Facebook did I realize quite how many people have both played these games and have something to say about the experience. After the 2011 MCM Expo in London, I got an even better sense of how passionate gamers are.
RPGSite: Talking of which, what was the atmosphere like and how was it meeting your fans?
Gideon: Startling at first, as I emerged from a back door and was greeted by a long line of people who'd been patiently waiting for 30 minutes or more! I'd been in the waiting area for someone to take me down and communication was a bit tangled, so apologies to those who waited and those who couldn't. I really enjoyed meeting the fans. It was my first convention and I really had no idea what to expect. Everyone was so enthusiastic and grateful and it was really quite humbling. I also got to see some amazing costumes, incredible fan art and the Q+A's were a lot of fun. I'd definitely like to return one day.
RPGSite: Back to Balthier, how much information were you given about him when you auditioned and what approach did you take with finding his voice and personality?
Gideon: The original Japanese voice was a starting point, as was the artwork and animation. Balthier has a swagger not only in his dialog, but also his body language. The challenge was in making him not sound simply arrogant, but also charming and, at times, vulnerable. Director Jack Fletcher, was instrumental in nuancing the performance and letting me use my own voice, which made it an easy journey. Being so early on in my "game voice" career, I don't know if he would have been as successful if I'd played him far removed in tone or accent from me (something I've done more of since then).
RPGSite: You could also be heard in Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions. Did you record that at the same time or did you return to the studio later on?
Gideon: No that was later on. Perhaps a year later. I was excited to revisit Balthier. I have to confess I'm a little sad we haven't seen his return.
RPGSite: Well, it is becoming more and more common for Final Fantasy games to receive direct sequels, sometimes up to two decades later. Heard any whispers of Square Enix revisiting Balthier and the world of Ivalice any time soon?
Gideon: I haven't heard anything. But that doesn't stop me hoping...
RPGSite: One of their biggest rivals is BioWare, with whom you have a great deal of experience, starting with Chellick in Mass Effect. How different is the approach and atmosphere compared to Square Enix?
Gideon: Well much of Final Fantasy was done to picture, as we were dubbing the Japanese. That's both easier and harder. Easier, because you can see the scene and the animators have determined how the character plays. I just needed to stay in character and work with the visual circumstances. It's harder, too, because of lip sync. Animation isn't perfect and it takes skill to make words fit to pre-animated mouth flaps. Also, when those flaps are done to a different language, you know you're going to have to fudge and rewrite to make things fit.
My work with BioWare has been without picture, or what's called "cold voice". When you're recording cold, all you have is a page of dialog and a director. The upside is you can be a bit more creative, as you're not restricted by timing or animation. In terms of atmosphere, both companies have always been easy to work with. That's not me trying to be PC; it's a testament to the creative teams and especially the voice directors. People like Jack Fletcher (Final Fantasy XII), Chris Borders and Ginny McSwain (Mass Effect) make my job a pleasure.
RPGSite: The world of Mass Effect is populated by a variety of different races - Chellick, for example, is a Turian. Do the actors have to consider that in the booth and work on unique sounds or are all effects done later?
Gideon: There's always a good deal of background and setting-the-scene. I can't recall if I was told there would be any effect on my voice, but you've reminded me of something. There's a video on Youtube where you can hear the effect drop out for a line, almost as if I was trying to get noticed. I swear I didn't do it on purpose!
RPGSite: For those curious to hear Gideon *cough* not trying to get noticed, here is the link. Meanwhile, though Chellick did not return for Mass Effect 2, you did as the voice of Kenn, Officer Tammert and also Captain Gavorn. Were you always intended for all three characters or were you there for just one and the others were offered to you in the studio?
Gideon: I didn't know who I was voicing until I arrived. That is often the case with games. You may be cast as roles you've auditioned for, or they may bring you in for entirely different characters. If you have a major role, you are almost always given additional, smaller roles, to do later in the session.
RPGSite: What challenges does voicing several distinct characters in one franchise present for you as an actor and which of the four is your favourite, the most fun to voice?
Gideon: The obvious challenge is to sound different. Now, if you know that certain characters are to be found in completely different areas of the game, you don't have to be wildly different. But you rely on the info you're given, as you're rarely working to picture. Also, you never have the full script. On occasion (in other games) you can end up talking to yourself and be embarrassingly similar, simply because you had no idea these characters would ever interact. But to be fair, these games have become more and more complex and not everyone knows everything. As for my favourite in Mass Effect, I'll pick Chellick, because it's fun to have a little attitude.
RPGSite: In addition to Mass Effect, you have also worked with BioWare on Dragon Age. In Origins, you voiced something like fourteen characters. Do any of those fourteen people stand out in your memory from all the rest?
Gideon: I did some militiamen who only seem to whinge about things. Every time you approach them, there's something to complain about, which I find funny. If it makes me laugh, it usually stands out for me.
RPGSite: For Dragon Age II you voiced fewer but also larger roles, most notably Fenris. Video games are often looked down on and considered to lack the depth of stage and screen; do you think a game like Dragon Age and a role like Fenris disproves that?
Gideon: I would like to think so. I've said this in interviews before, but there really is a great deal of attention paid to the voice acting. Oftentimes more care than I've experienced in on-camera roles. Whether that elevates games to the level of film and TV, I don't know. But it's certainly moving in that direction, with both performances and incredible graphics. And now they've started to use voice actors for performance capture, too (as I was for Battlefield 3), it leads to a more realistic and cinematic experience overall.
RPGSite: BioWare have always included several romance options in their games, which has drawn criticism from certain corners. Fenris, for example, can be romanced by either a male or female lead. Do you think it is a good thing for video games to tackle prejudice and provide an option beyond the typical male/female love story?
Gideon: Absolutely it's a good thing. If people don't agree, they can stick to first person shooters. Games are a reflection of society, both in terms of where we are and where we'd like to be. They cover reality and fantasy and I don't see any reason why people shouldn't be able to behave as they can in real life. Criticism is absurd. So what - you can kill and maim, but you can't fall in love? There's no argument against it.
RPGSite: More recently you have appeared in two of the biggest RPGs ever made not just in scope but also appeal, in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and also Star Wars: The Old Republic. Does it feel good to have titles like that on your résumé?
Gideon: Absolutely. I'm quite proud. Battlefield 3 also did huge figures and broke records for EA. I've been fortunate to land roles in some very big franchises.
RPGSite: Starting with Skyrim, in the build up to its release it almost felt like the video game equivalent of a summer blockbuster – was that how it felt when you were working on the game?
Gideon: To be honest, not really. I recorded in a studio you wouldn't even know was one if you drove by. And, as with Final Fantasy, I didn't know much about the game going in. Then they showed me the trailer and I instantly recognized Max von Sydow's voice and figured 'okay, this looks like a big one!'
RPGSite: Production on the title began three years ago but when did you first enter the studio? Also, who are some of the Gideon Emery characters we may have stumbled upon?
Gideon: I came on late in the game. Sorry - bad pun. I only recorded in August last year. As for who I voiced, they're generic characters you may happen upon. Someone on Twitter said they heard 2 guards, voiced by me, talking about another character the player had killed, who was also voiced by me. So I guess I get around...
RPGSite: With over seventy voice actors recording 60,000 lines of dialogue for Skyrim, how many people were in the studio at once? And did you meet any of the star names involved?
Gideon: I met no other actors, stars or otherwise, I'm afraid. That would have been a treat. In over 60 games, I've only once been in studio with other actors. It would be great if it happened more, but I get that it's not practical. And it would take a great deal longer.
RPGSite: Can you remember your favourite line of dialogue from Skyrim, be it the funniest, most bombastic or the one that most made you feel you could take on an army?
Gideon: Sadly, no. I have always done a good job of flushing dialog from my memory after a job, whether it's games, plays or on-camera. If they let us keep the scripts, I'd cheat and take a look. But they don't, unfortunately.
RPGSite: Then we have Star Wars: The Old Republic, also in development for three years. It was not your first time in the Star Wars universe, having worked on The Clone Wars. Did that previous experience directly lead to working on the game or was it entirely separate?
Gideon: Clone Wars is a separate team. But I did Empire at War in 2006 and those guys brought me back for Battlefront in '07 and Old Republic in '09. Will Beckman directed on the telephone - he's a really nice guy.
RPGSite: You surpassed your own record of fourteen characters in Dragon Age: Origins, voicing sixteen separate roles. At this rate, might we one day find ourselves playing a game voiced entirely by Gideon Emery?
Gideon: Haha. Possible but probably unwise. I came close when I voiced around 30 roles for Brunhilda and the Dark Crystal, a downloadable kids game. I think I spread myself a little thin.
RPGSite: Similar to earlier, which of those sixteen characters would you say was the most important in terms of the plot, and was there one that stood out as just that bit more fun to record?
Gideon: Wow, it would be hard to say which is most important. It's a huge game and my dudes are scattered across the universe (as I understand it). I think Lokir-Ka had the most dialog.
RPGSite: You may be a Bond villain in the works but would you be a Jedi or Sith?
Gideon: I'd happily be anything on camera for George Lucas. I've always fancied myself a noble Jedi, but if casting sees me more as sinister-looking (which they usually do), then I'll gladly be Sith.
RPGSite: Now we have discussed many successful role playing games from your résumé, however equally successful was the aforementioned Battlefield 3. You provided the voice for lead Henry Blackburn – would you consider that one of your biggest roles to date?
Gideon: Absolutely. It had less actual script for my character than say, Fenris, but it had huge marketing and was a big success for EA. And, although the huge posters I saw plastered all over London and Los Angeles weren't of me, I secretly got a kick out of seeing each one.
RPGSite: Is the studio atmosphere and recording process noticeably different for a first person shooter compared to an RPG or does that depend more on the games than the genres?
Gideon: RPG's tend to be more laid back in approach. Your typical FPS feels, to me at least, like everyone's about to go to actual war. They want screams, heightened delivery and no-holds-barred performance. I can leave an RPG session pretty chilled and calm. I leave most FPS sessions tired and sweaty - they're a real workout. Obviously some games (and roles) demand more battle cries than others. It all depends. Battlefield was different again, as my involvement was more for interview scenes and thus felt closer to a RPG performance, although it was a little like theatre, as we were doing performance capture in mo-cap suits.
RPGSite: We discussed earlier about games tackling social issues and certain criticisms that attracts. First person shooters attract their fair share, mainly about the violence and, more recently, whether they are right to depict modern conflicts. What are your own feelings on the subject?
Gideon: I don't play that much, but I do enjoy a good first person shooter. I think, like any hobby, it's fine in moderation. If you're playing 8 hours a day, you're spending almost as much time role-playing as you are awake in the real world. That's a problem whether you're playing Second Life, Call of Duty or Tetris. It's just not healthy to sit in front of a screen for that amount of time. If you're struggling to deal with personal anger issues or a complex home environment, maybe there are better choices, like carpentry or gym or sports.
Parents have a big role to play here. When there is a rare instance of a child acting out violently, it's not the games that created that impulse - it's usually the home or school environment that abandoned the child. That's why blaming games or trying to ban games is the wrong approach. We should be focussing more on raising our kids in a balanced environment where they feel safe to share and not be judged. And where there are extra mural activities that involve them outside the TV room.
RPGSite: Time is nearly up but first, the settings of the games we’ve discussed differ wildly, so do you have to change your approach to a role in order to match the style of the story (sci-fi, high fantasy, etc.) being told?
Gideon: Certainly it can change and that's really down to the voice director to guide you. You rarely work off other voices (either live or pre-recorded), so you depend entirely on the director setting the scene and style that she or he is after.
RPGSite: Many directors have come up over the course of this interview but what do you think makes a good director, specifically when working in voice over?
Gideon: Someone who knows what both they and the client want. This may not always be the same thing, so my job is to take those and try to meld them, but if they're incompatible it's the director's job to nuance and help the client see what works and what doesn't. The worst case scenario is where you're told simply, "Nah, that's not it. Try another". That's just fishing in the dark. You've got no idea and neither do they. It's all very well to know what you want when you hear it, but as the "creative", they need to creatively nudge you in one direction or another - even if they're not certain of the destination. Okay, that sounded really Zen. Sorry.
RPGSite: Haha, Zen is fine but if you really want to apologise, perhaps you can help us clear something up. The internet is convinced that you returned to the Final Fantasy franchise with Final Fantasy XIII-2. However, many websites, IMDb included, are also convinced you were Caius Ballad, which isn’t true – so were you involved and, if so, who did you voice?
Gideon: I did some small miscellaneous bits - civilians and soldiers, that kind of thing. This type of misinformation arises when someone hears someone they think is someone else and updates a site before they can verify it. I wish it were true in this case, but it's not. In the meantime, I'll just have to find another character who romances a bunny-eared creature...
RPGSite: Finally, do you ever play the games you have starred in?
Gideon: I typically don't buy the games I voice. I've tried that in the past and spent several hours battling away in the hope I'll reach a character I worked on, to no avail. Haha! Also that would be a couple thousand dollars, just to have a bragging library I could gesture towards. Although, now I put it that way...
RPGSite: Gideon, thanks again for your time. We really appreciate it.
Gideon: Of course. Any time. Thanks for contacting me. If people want to stay in touch, they can find me on Twitter (@thevoiceofgid) and Facebook. It's really me, not some agent or assistant, I promise. Thank you!
Our thanks go once more to Gideon for the considerable amount of time he gave us. To keep in touch with the man himself, do click the above links to Facebook and Twitter, not forgetting his personal website!