Human Elocution: Elias Toufexis on the past, present and future of voice acting

Human Elocution: Elias Toufexis on the past, present and future of voice acting
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

August 5th 2016 at 11:06AM

Gruff-voiced Elias Toufexis may be the face of mankind’s future in Deus Ex, but he’s also a sign of things to come for studios. James Batchelor asks him why voice actors want to become increasingly involved in their character’s development

Exactly ten years ago, Elias Toufexis made his video game debut as crew member Sal Mustalla in Need For Speed: Carbon. Hardly a headline role, the actor is the first to admit that, when he first started, “nobody knew who I was”.

“I would just come in, do my day and then go home,” he explains. “I’d get to know the cinematic director and the technicians, but the dev team, marketing and so on? I’d never talk to them.”

Fast-forward to 2016, where Toufexis has reprised his role as Deus Ex’s Adam Jensen with voice credits on blockbuster series such as Assassin’s Creed, Splinter Cell, Far Cry and Rainbow Six under his belt. Now, he is a lot better known in the industry – particularly at Eidos Montreal, where he’s in touch with every department working on Mankind Divided.

In the case of Deus Ex, the actor is taking much more pride in his involvement and is keen to help ensure the game’s success. But it’s an attitude that not all studios welcome.

“There are devs and companies who work on these games who just consider actors to be part of what they’re working on – which I completely understand, because they put a lot more time into the game than we do,” he says. 

“I’ll do a week of Mankind Divided, and then work on other things until they call me back. But the people who are working on the game are there all day, every day – it’s their life. So I get that.

“But in the end it is the actors who become the face of the game. One of the stipulations I had when I came back for Mankind Divided was that they had to get me out there, bring me to the Comic Cons and things like that, because people on Twitter and journalists are always asking me questions, so it makes sense to get me out there talking about and promoting the game.”

MORE THAN A MOUTH

Over the past decade, things have changed dramatically for voice actors like Toufexis. For one, the job increasingly involves more than just vocals.

“For triple-A games and any titles I’ve been involved in over the past two and a half years, it’s all about performance capture,” he says. “They’re really putting a lot more effort into making the characters ‘real’. They hire actors – we audition for them like we would a film nowadays.

“The idea of being a voice actor now is kind of gone for video games because very few of them just do voice anymore – unless it’s a first-person game. When I worked on Far Cry Primal [as lead character Takkar (pictured)], I only did one day of actual performance capture work because you never see my character.

“But everyone else, every character you meet in that game is completely performance captured: sound, facial movements, body motion. Everyone’s doing what Andy Serkis does for almost every character now.

“For Adam Jensen, I do a lot of voice work because you hear him more than you see him, but every time you do see him in cutscenes, it’s me doing performance capture.”

Toufexis has welcomed this change, as it ensures his vocal performance is a much closer match to the character’s movement. During his second role – playing Rainbox Six: Vegas 2 villain Gabriel Nowak – he recalls having to match his voice to a character that had been motion captured by the team’s animators.

The idea of being a voice actor now is kind of gone for video games because very few of them just do voice anymore.

“Fortunately, developers have realised ‘maybe we should get the actors to do this part too’, and now everything is kind of amalgamated into getting the actors into doing everything – which is the right way to do it,” he says.

“There’s a rhythm actors get into with things like that. If you have to match your voice to a performance that’s already done, you’re a slave to what that performance already is, so we all prefer to do it together.

“For the majority of Far Cry Primal, because it’s first-person and you never see my character, I was in a booth and they would show me what they had already performance-captured with the rest of the cast, and I would be acting off of that – personally, I don’t really like that. I like to be there with the other actors. So I asked, and for any scenes they hadn’t already shot, they let me come in and read with the actors while they were capturing – I was just off camera.”

 

EX LOVER

While he was too late to ask for this with the prehistoric adventure, Toufexis practically insisted on personifying Jensen as much as possible when he returned for Mankind Divided.

“It was the first time in my career that I’ve been in the position where they can’t do the next one without me, so I could demand some things,” he recalls. “In Human Revolution, they only did mo-cap, not full performance capture – and even then I think only did one day of that before they decided it was too hard to stretch me to six-foot-four.

“For the next game, I said I wanted to performance capture everything. And they did; they upped the technology and brought me in every time they needed to capture something.

It'’s going to get to the point where everyone will use big name actors like Quantum Break did. Actors who are just coming up are going to lose out to these guys because performance capture is getting so good.

“In fact, I don’t just play Adam Jensen – I also play a guy who’s carrying a corpse and a guy walking across the street. Because I was there, I was already suited up and they needed someone to do those things.”

Toufexis is a fine fit for capturing Adam Jensen. Not only is his natural voice almost indistinguishable from that of the augmented hero, his body type is very similar too. But, as he has seen first-hand, developers have found ways to adapt when voice and body don’t match.

“Technology is so crazy nowadays,” he says. “It almost doesn’t matter who you cast – if you like their performance, you can just change how they look in-game later on.”

Advances in character modelling, as well as performance capture, mean that in-game heroes don’t merely look similar to their voice actors – they can look identical. While Toufexis welcomes this, he does see a potential new challenge for hopeful and rising video game actors.

“I’ll watch Adam Jensen and I can see myself in that character, and the same with Kobin in Splinter Cell: Blacklist (pictured) – they made him look like me at 50,” he says. “All the characters in Far Cry Primal look like their actors.

“It means I’m very lucky that I’ve caught on with the video game world because it’s going to get to the point where they’ll just use big name actors for roles in things like Quantum Break. Actors who are just coming up are going to lose out to these guys because performance capture is getting so good.

“But there’s always going to be work available. I might be the lead of Mankind Divided but there are 250 other characters in there and every one of them is performance captured. When you see an NPC now, they’re very rarely animated.”

Of course, performance capture creates a far more demanding process for actors like Toufexis. Most notably, they can no longer just read lines off a script in a booth – they need to memorise their lines for a process that’s more akin to theatre than TV or film.

“You have to know everything,” says Toufexis. “For a game like Splinter Cell: Blacklist, the camera is operated by the player so you can’t screw up as an actor because there’s no place to do an edit. When you’re performance capturing, if you have a big 20-minute scene, you’re doing it like a play – and that gets tricky because you don’t have as much rehearsal time.”

WHOSE LINE IS IT?

The likes of Nolan North, Troy Baker and David Hayter have relatively easy jobs compared to Elias Toufexis. For the vast majority of their roles, the script is set and the character follows only one part through the story.

However, in the case of Deus Ex’s Adam Jensen, Toufexis has to account for the myriad of personalities gamers can imprint on him: empathetic crusader, objective solider, ruthless killer and so on.

“It’s especially tricky because you have to justify every choice the player could make – whether you agree with it as a character or not,” he says. “I have my view of Jensen, because overall he doesn’t change: he wants justice, and he’s very empathetic to people in the overall story. 

“Having said that, there was a part in the last game where you think Megan has died and her mother asks you how it happened. You’re given three or four choices and one is a very graphic, rude description of how she died. I remember seeing it and thinking ‘Who would pick this?’, but as an actor I have to justify that choice because it would be unfair to not give it as much weight as every other choice. That’s the tough part of playing Jensen.

“You could play this game and not meet half the characters, and not see half the cinematics depending on the choices you make. So in the cinematics for the most part, I can be the Jensen that I think he is so I don’t have to justify weird choices. But when I’m doing the vocal part and we’re meeting characters in first-person, you can go five different ways with it and I’ve got to justify all of them. It’s a challenge, but it’s a lot of fun.”

I’m stuck playing these gruff-voiced characters – which I don’t mind too much, because I’ll probably get work forever.

CHOICE OF VOICE

For devs looking to find actors that will bring their characters to life, Toufexis has two crucial pieces of advice. Firstly, studios need to recruit good actors.

“Don’t hire people who exaggerate – you want a genuine performance,” he says.

“I was at an audition for a TV show and there was a games audition in the next room. I heard them yelling things like ‘Charge’ – every one of them was overdoing it, or not doing it enough. The actors just weren’t getting it. I wanted to go in there and just say: ‘Treat this like a TV show or film. Don’t look at is as a game, because then you become this ‘game actor’ and lose the performance of it.’”

Secondly, developers need to avoid ‘the Batman voice’. In the wake of Christian Bale’s raspy Dark Knight, more and more game protagonists are adopting gravelly tones – even when it doesn’t quite match up with the character design, such as Watch Dogs’ Aiden Pearce.

“With Adam Jensen, I did that voice on purpose,” Toufexis explains. “I went back to play the original Deus Ex and wanted to pay homage to that. Jensen talks a little deeper, more purposeful and monotone than me, because he’s a character you imprint your personality on. I play games and even I notice it. But I think that’s going to end because people have caught on now.”

If the camera is operated by the player so you can’t screw up as an actor because there’s no place to do an edit. When you’re performance capturing, if you have a big 20-minute scene, you’re doing it like a play.

Toufexis is keen for developers to let him experiment with characters’ voices.

“I got typecast in the video game world,” he laughs. “Because I sound the way I do, people don’t think I can do anything else. 

“Far Cry Primal is the perfect example: I asked if I could try something different, take my voice a little higher. They said no, they just wanted me to use my gruff, cool voice – but as a caveman. It turned out great, but I’m not only the gruff voice guy. 

“If you go back in my career before I became more well-known, I played different characters. I’m Ezio’s brother in Assassin’s Creed II and he was quite high-pitched, very different. But I’m stuck now playing these gruff-voiced characters – which I don’t mind too much, because I’ll probably get work forever.”

All this week, Develop is taking a deeper look into sound and music in video games through our Audio Special.