Roger Craig Smith is a voice actor. At times a thankless job, he and his profession are starting to attract the attention reserved mainly for on-screen talent and that's a strange phenomenon for a guy who does most of his work alone in a recording booth.
"It's the weirdest thing ever, like, the fact that you and I are having this interview," Smith told Headlines & Global News exclusively. "I'm the redheaded stepchild of the world of entertainment. I shouldn't have any sort of recognition whatsoever and yet, bless the Internet, that's what has happened."
Smith has worked as a voice-over artist for more than a decade doing everything from commercials to animation to video games. He has voiced superheroes like Batman and Captain America, the video game characters Sonic the Hedgehog and Ezio from "Assassin's Creed II," and Ripslinger from Disney's "Planes."
Despite the impressive résumé, the 40-year-old actor still hesitates to tell people what he does for a living — especially those older than him who have careers in more traditional occupations.
"I'm usually very reluctant to tell people what I do because I just feel like such a goofball," said Smith. "When somebody's like, 'What do you do?' I'll say, 'Oh I do voices for TV commercials and radio commercials and video games.' And the reality is, if I say that to someone who's 70, they'll just look at me like, 'Why don't you go get a job?'"
Smith — whose latest project is the animated series "Batman Unlimited: Monster Mayhem," which is now available on Blu-ray and DVD — gave HNGN the ins and outs of what really goes into the work of a voice-over actor and how it's more than just reading lines off a script into a microphone. He also weighs in on the shift of video games telling more narrative stories, the surge of celebrity talent coming to voice acting, and if he takes sides in the Marvel-DC debate.
How do you approach a new character and avoid having another voice blend into it?
The human voice is like a vocal fingerprint in so many ways. I know if people start to follow you or they like to pick out your performances in different shows, they'll start to hear weird little bits that are unique to everybody's voice in lots of different characters, inherently. The reality is, I don't necessarily come up with the characters, or at least it's rare that I do. In creating a new original animated character, you might mess around with a voice and have a certain motivation, but so much of what I do is determined by the director. Even with something as established as Batman, I don't get to walk in and go, 'Here's the Batman you're going to receive and I'm this brilliant thespian so, therefore, that's the Batman that you will take.' [Laughs] I meet everyone that's involved in the project and we all start listening to one another and, if they give me a direction, I'll throw something against the wall vocally. If it sticks, cool, and if not, then they say, 'Pitch it up. Pitch it down. Make him older. Make him gruffer. Make him softer. Make him louder, quieter.' Then we start honing in on what the character's going to be. So it's a lot of people who are sort of responsible for coming up with the characters.
Do you believe that having a musical ear is critical for a voice actor?
I think it helps. There's no question that you'll meet a lot of people that are involved in voice-over, especially in animation, that have a background in some form of music. Beyond musical, it's more timing than anything else. It's really understanding how we say certain things to each other, the music in which we say it, the notes that we hit sort of convey whether we're being sincere or sarcastic or mean-spirited.
For cartoon characters, it definitely helps. Look no further than the cast of people who were performing on "Animaniacs" back in the day. That's unbelievable talent from Rob Paulson and Jess Harnell and everybody that was involved with that. Maurice LaMarche. That's just naming a few, obviously. The folks that were doing that clearly understood music.
You mentioned working with your director to create a voice. Do you also get to see the animation before you start recording or do you take most of your direction from the script?
It really helps if we have the ability to see certain things prior, but sometimes that's a luxury we just aren't afforded. There are times I don't even know what my character looks like. It's been described to me, but it all just depends on the production company that you're working with. If it's a new character, you kind of want to get a feel for it. Does the guy have a snaggletooth? Are there big horns jabbing out of his forehead? There are all sorts of things that you try to think of because, even if you see a picture, you still have this theater of the mind approach to the creation of the character because you don't really know. You're obviously not this horned alien creature with a snaggletooth. You're the guy in a T-shirt and cargo shorts in front of a microphone. There are very many times where we just don't [have the visual]. You don't know what it's going to look like. It's like a radio play. You just imagine what your character would be doing or looking like and how they would respond, and you just start giving it a shot without really knowing what exactly it will be or what the finish rendered product will be.
When you perform the same character through several different projects, for example voicing Batman in "Batman Unlimited," "Arkham Origins" and "LEGO Batman," are you ever working with the same people?
No. It will vary even sometimes within the same project. You might have a different writer that comes in for a different portion of a game or a different portion of a film. It really just depends on the production company. But it's very typical you'll work with different writers, different producers and different directors.
Does that change how you approach the same character from project to project?
Yes, especially Batman from 'Arkham Origins' and 'Batman Unlimited.' You've got a family-friendly version of Batman for 'Batman Unlimited' that is a much less adult approach than what we were doing with 'Origins.' Even 'Origins' isn't as adult an approach as the live-action Batman films. It's also that element of how heavily I rely on my director because it's not my project. It's not my character. I don't own the character. At the end of the day, I'm a hired gun, so even if it's the same thing that I've done, I'm going to go into every session waiting to see if the director has some ideas as to what he or she would do with a given scene and see what they tell me.
It is. It keeps it fun. It keeps it challenging. When I was doing 'Assassin's Creed II,' we were visiting the character at three different times in his life. There were times where we'd literally have to tell ourselves, 'OK, we're going to go low, middle or high,' in terms of the age. We'd ask, 'Is this low Ezio, middle Ezio or high Ezio. Is he the old guy? Is he the middle age guy? Or is he the younger Ezio?' And you would bop in and out of the different versions of the character.
How much control do you have picking what projects you participate in?
I've never really gone the route of trying to contact someone at a video game company saying, 'Here's what I would do for your character if you consider me.' Everything has been straight auditions. I auditioned for Batman. I auditioned for Ezio and I auditioned for all the characters I've ever done. It's funny when people say, 'How did you get the role of Sonic the Hedgehog?' I auditioned with a whole bunch of other people. There was a callback and they narrowed down the choices and I booked the job.
Listen to more on how Smith landed the role of Batman in 'Arkham Origins.'
Lending your voice to many video games, have you noticed the story lines have started to rival some major feature films?
Yeah, and sometimes I don't know that it's necessarily for the better. I think everything has become very cinematic, and I understand that. The concern I have when it's concerning a video game, it needs to remain an interactive experience. So much weight is being placed on the cinematic elements of games that if it becomes too much like a film and not enough gameplay, then I don't think we're doing ourselves a service in that particular side of the industry. At the end of the day, I think the most successful games that stand the true test of time aren't necessarily the ones that have a strong narrative. It's gameplay being first and foremost the most important element of any sort of interactive game.
Right, because then they're just watching a movie where they sometimes get to...
Press the B button.
There was a video game from the '80s that was like that. It was a sequence of timing based things. They gave you the sense that you were controlling a character with a joystick, but it was actual animated footage. After a while, you're like, 'Look how good these graphics are! Oh, it's because it's a movie that I'm watching that every now and then I press a button and, if I time it right, it starts the next sequence of the movie. Well, this isn't a real video game.'
Our industry is at an interesting time where people are really responding to narrative games and games that have a really strong narrative. But you look around and people are also playing the stupidest games that you can ever imagine on their iPhones that are wildly popular and have zero narrative whatsoever.
A lot more on-screen talent has started lending their voices to animated features since 1995's "Toy Story." Do you see this as competition or are there enough roles for everybody?
I don't find it as competition. I've gotten a little punchy over things like that because there's nothing more frustrating than watching the budgets of things go toward paying a celebrity to be in something. At the end of the day, your average kid has no clue who Alec Baldwin is or whoever. I don't know where the fascination comes with it. I work with some of the most talented people in terms of other voice actors who are people that aren't known globally because there's no sort of celebrity involved with what we do by comparison of on-camera celebrity actors.
Hear how Smith and his fellow voice actor Troy Baker have dealt with this issue in the past.
Do you record in the booth by yourself or will you record with others on an ensemble project?
Completely depends on the project. We've done some voice-over where we interact at the same time, but we have to be very conscious of overlapping our lines because it ruins the take. The whole purpose behind recording people individually is so that you can layer in the audio when you're piecing together performances to put together a final product.
Smith explains how recording with an ensemble worked on "Batman Unlimited."
You've provided the voice for DC Comics superhero Batman and Marvel's Captain America. Do you try not to takes side in the DC-Marvel rivalry?
I've never understood that to begin with. It goes back to the sort of frivolous, taste great, less filling beer ads of the 1980s. I was talking about this at San Diego Comic-Con [in July]. We live in such an awesome time to get all of this entertainment that's just top-notch from all sorts of different studios, including little independent studios that we necessarily don't hear of or we don't think of when it comes to DC and Marvel. I've never understood why anybody needs to feel like, 'Yeah, I'm a DC guy,' or 'No, I'm a Marvel guy.' I'm a fan of all things geek and all things superhero and all things awesome. Why would you limit yourself to one form of entertainment simply because you've declared that you're this or that? It's silly. Leave that crap for the social media outlets.