JMC Demos recently partnered with Director/Engineer Matt Curtis, an acclaimed character VO in his own right, and Copywriter Chris Sharpes, also a talented character VO, to branch out into the world of Animation and Video Game demo production. The very first reel produced by this team, Joe Passaro’s video game demo, has now been nominated for a Voice Arts Award. Here’s more about these incredible creatives who have joined the growing JMC Demos family.
Can you tell us a bit about the work that you do for JMC Demos and how you got started?
Chris: From my perspective, I’ve been voice acting for about five years and didn’t really think about doing anything like this until we were working on our own demos. I wanted to put some together for myself that I knew would be good, and wouldn’t be cookie-cutter scripting. Basically, I interview people once they are vetted and get their background, who they are, and write scripts based on that. Nothing is a preset script, no templates, everything is from scratch. It’s the Southern cooking idea that there is no recipe card. Each demo is unique. We try to make it so each one is customizable and not easily replicated. For me, tailoring it towards the actor is important. No one else can act the way you act, and if we do the scene right, it’ll be the best piece in your demo, and it will be your keystone scene.
How do you determine someone is “demo ready” and select who you work with?
Matt: We usually have a process where bring someone in, and we either do it together or solo, and if they haven’t had coaching or have coached with someone we don’t know, we put them through their paces. We have a lot of scripts that we feed them, see how good they are at what they do, how good they are at taking direction, and get a measure of their abilities. From there we can make a pretty accurate assessment of whether they need training, or if they’re definitely ready for a demo. Demos are expensive, and we want to make sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck. One thing about us, Chris and I don’t coach. So if we don’t think you’re ready for a demo, we’re not trying to get more money out of you. We’re just trying to let you know that it’s a good idea to save your money right now and invest in the training, invest in yourself, and then come back and we’ll be ready to make a super awesome demo with you.
Chris: We’re actors as well, so we go off of the level that we know is good. You’ve got to be equal or above, otherwise, you’re going to be disappointed. You’ll hear the demo and go “hmm..” It’s the haircut principle when someone asks “do you like it?” Internally you think “Oh it’s horrible, externally you say “oh yeah, it’s great!” We prefer people to say “Wow! That sounds like me!” or “Wow! That doesn’t sound like me!” Even better because they think it’s a different person completely and that’s amazing.
Matt: We also like it when game devs and animators ask for the clips. That’s the big one. That means that you did your job as a talent well. The thing we try to focus on in our demos in believability. First and foremost is the talent, the acting ability, the sincerity of the actor themself. The production side is all just topping. It’s like a cake, and talent is the best part of the cake. The production is just there to sweeten it up. Giving them a framework of scripts to work in is the second most important. Something they feel comfortable in, something they can present the best story. That’s what these scripts are, mini-stories. After that comes how well they take direction, and post-production is the last thing. Even without the production, the talent should still be able to book off a demo. A lot of games and animation aren’t so overblown. It’s very easy for someone producing a demo to say “oh a character demo? Okay funny music, here’s a bunch of boings and things..” instead of thinking about the structure of the story. For example, an animation demo should be pretty difficult to make because the music needs to marry the moment. It’s all about timing and setting up those pictures. Video games are cinematic. Generally, it’s very real. The only sound you might hear are some footsteps and some wind blowing in the background.
Chris: Less is more, in those moments. With one of our guys, the game dev asked for the clips of the games and when we told him they weren’t real he said “holy crap!” That’s the best way to describe it. When you listen to it and wonder what game it’s from rather than “oh, this sounds like Call of Duty or the cliche English soldier shouting ‘Grenade!’” Uniqueness is big.
Matt: One of the questions we ask is what studios you want to work for. And what games do you like to play. We play games and we watch cartoons, so we can determine what kind of genre the talent likes to play in. We craft something that’s familiar to the actor that’s easy for them to connect with. From there we build the story. We may not specially set something in a particular game, but it sounds like it COULD be in that game. You hear it and think “Huh, I think I played that game.”
Chris: We may not use the same emulation from a game, but sometimes it’s fun to use the same language that’s familiar to the listener. It’s really based on the actor; they’ll give the flavor based on what their personality is. I’ll write around that. But at the same time, the sandbox is safe and we have to give them stuff that will challenge them. Maybe there’s a voice they’ve done that makes us say “oh my god, do that again!” And all of a sudden we’ve got this amazing thought spot where we thought was going in one direction, and then they take it in a different direction. Then we can age it up, age it down, you name it. They then find a whole new level of how to act that they didn’t have before. It’s one more tool in their toolbox.
What is your process for writing scripts for video game demos? How do you determine which types of character voices to include?
Matt: We actually write more than enough scripts. We normally write between ten and twelve, and we rehearse all of the spots. That could be one or two sessions. Then we record it. For production, I’ll actually produce most of the spots before I even start piecing them together with an idea of what we want. Sometimes we’ll record something and think it’s amazing, and then when we get to the demo it has no place there. Or sometimes we find that one spot where the sincerity is just right and has a lovely ten seconds that fits right at the beginning of the demo. That’s why I like to produce all the spots, and then send the rough spots to Chris. Once we have all the spots, I start slotting them together and cutting parts to make them fit. Eventually, we find the right flow. It’s kind of hard to describe how exactly we do that.
Chris: We definitely do an ebb and flow. High piece, low piece, high piece, low piece.. it’s to keep a tension so as not to keep it too depressing or too high action. As far as when I make the characters and what goes on there, it’s different each time. We ask if there’s anything you don’t want to do. That really helps me write because some people have had trauma, they’ve had issues, they don’t like drugs or swearing or violence, and that makes a big difference. We don’t want to upset you by making something that you’re not proud of or feel ashamed to have.
Matt: For the most part we don’t do heavy swearing. We find that it takes away you out of the moment.
Chris: It’s crude unless you are very, very good at delivery. It can be poignant. But we do feel like it cheapens it a bit. That’s just our opinion. As a communicator, there’s better ways to get your point across. We want people to feel proud because you’re always going to get better. You’re always going to get new demos and keep improving. So the demo you have now.. in three years you might be even more amazing. It’s all about giving them more than they have now. Some people have no demos, some people have ones they threw together.. and when they get these demos back they go “oh my god, that sounds great.” It makes them happy, and that’s a big thing for me personally. I like to see them happy and proud of what they’ve done. I want them to know the car isn’t going to fall off its wheels when they leave the dealership. With good demos, they’ll last you two or three years before you change them out. Unless you’re unhappy with it, and that’s the trick. If you’re unhappy, you’re going to want to get another one. We’re trying to avoid that, and make you feel satisfied, no shame or shyness. We would like it to be a confidence builder for the process of “fire and forget,” and not frantically tracking emails for replies.
You mentioned previously about demos that don’t have any background sound, it’s only the voice. Do you find that one books more than the other?
Matt: About two or three years ago, there was an article written by a Euro casting director who had said he had canvased several casting directors on how they feel abut demos. This was when very sparkly, very produced character demos were very popular. They were very syrupy. And a lot of casting directors preferred it without any sound whatsoever. Granted, this also canvassed mostly the European market. I think only two American people were surveyed. So one thing I do offer, if you want just the demo without any effects on it, just you being you.. it’s cleaned up and it’s nice. You’ll have it for that particular market if you want it. But the idea behind the demos that we’ve been really focusing on is that the demo should just sound like a video game. So the effects aren’t going to be overpowering it anyways, and when they listen to it they aren’t going to say “I don’t want to listen to this because it has effects on it.” They’re going to say “I wonder what game that was from.” That’s the level we want to be at.
Chris: One thing I’ll say is personally, I don’t think it matters. A demo is like a business card. You’re aiming at and agent or a casting director. That gives you access to the audition if you can get past that gatekeeper. Auditions aren’t just lying around with game companies. The thing is to unlock that gatekeeper and to get you there to the audition. Ultimately you won’t be sending a casting director your demo, you’ll be sending it to an agent. If the agent thinks it cuts the mustard, then you’re good. All you’ll get from the casting director is the audition, which is no longer your demo. You’ve proven you’re good and you can audition. If you get the job, fantastic. That means we’ve done the right thing. That’s the step I think is always missing. Demos really aren’t handed out to casting directors. They get their attention. For example, indie devs on Twitter ask you to send them your demos. Six thousand million people email the, and 90% aren’t good because they’re of terrible quality. 10% get through and they get emails, 2% get booked. Same thing, it’s just out in the open versus going through an agency. If your demo is what they want and it stands out, you’ll get an email. Then it’s up to you to get the audition. The demo isn’t going to give that for you. That’s one thing that’s important to stress. It is a tool, a stepping stone to get you what you want.
When you’re having a demo session are you all on a call together as a collaborative effort?
Chris: I’ll jump out. I am not a director. The scripts very much come to me and I’ll write them down. I got through my creative artist thing, hand Matt the scripts, he blesses them, and he does all the work. I step out of the way. We have diverting creative ideas sometimes. I’ll give Matt the scripts and he’ll tweak it, sometimes even the day of recording. If something sounds awkward or the actor is tripping over a word, he’ll change it. I’m usually off having a cup of tea at that point.
Matt: Chris is actually a very decent voice director as well, he just hasn’t done it. He directed my video game demo.
Do you bring the actor’s coach into the demo session as well?
Matt: That is preferred. Generally it should be the coach that’s worked with you. I prefer to sit in just to make sure everything is fine. One thing I like to add when I’m directing is action. With a lot of demos, the actor will read the copy and do their acting. One thing I find that gives it a bit more realism is having them think about it from a cinematic standpoint. Example, you’re walking into the scene. It’s a big room, you’re going to be projecting up until you get to a certain point. At this point it gets more intimate because you’re right in the person’s face, and then they turn away. That helps give the talent more acting framework to play in, and more realism to the spot. Most things in video games aren’t static, there are things happening. So that’s all I would want to be there for. Just to say “I have an idea, can I hear them do it like this?” Definitely would prefer to work with a coach, if they want to direct you on your demo.
Is this the first time you’ve been nominated for a SOVAS? What are your thoughts on being nominated?
Chris & Matt: *laughs* We were not aware until we found out. We found out we had been nominated and we said “for what?”
Chris: I have submitted, but not for directing.
Matt: I’ve been nominated for my demo, not for production. It was my promo, commercial, and trailer. Awards aren’t the priority. They’re great and they’re fun, but in the end we want to make demos that will get the attention of game devs and casting directors, and animators.
Chris: So not to paraphrase, but you may give me his award if we do win. I’ll have two that say “Chris’s” and “Other Chris’s.” *laughs*
Matt: I mean, a guess a statue would look good here.
What do you think really stood out about Joe Passaro’s demo that got it nominated?
Matt: It was a solid performance. He really understood the spots. He approached it in a really good way and was super directable. He took direction and ran with it, even to the point where I would give him direction and realize it was a bad idea.
Chris: There’s sometimes when I hear a script performed and think “this is the way it’s supposed to be read.” Joe got the rhythm without me putting a big label saying “ACT THIS WAY” or “ACT THAT WAY.” He got every single one right. There was a Starlord type spot that we did, like Chris Pratt, quick-talking sort of thing. It just sounded like it was from Uncharted. And it was his natural voice, so it was just him normally. For Joe, it just came out really well. He told us he has minimal acting experience. He was really impressive and sounded like he had loads and loads of experience.
Matt: He had worked with Andrea Toyias from Blizzard, so we were able to touch on the principles that she teaches because we’re very familiar with those. He came in and nailed the copy. Just impressive.
Do you think this will serve as a catalyst to dive deeper into demo production?
Matt: It will be interesting. We’re very picky because we want to make sure it’s the best. I’ve heard demos that probably cost $3000 and are real stinkers, and that’s not fair to you as the talent. This is something we enjoy doing. First and foremost, I am a voice actor. So I look forward to doing more demos with more people, as long as it doesn’t impede my craft.
Chris: To Matt’s point, I think it will be good. Although I’m more of an actor than I am a demo producer. It won’t do any harm really.
Matt: What’s interesting is a lot of people feel like they need a character demo when they don’t. It’s one of those weird checklists we have for voiceover. Unless you really really want to work in video games or animation.
Chris: Also there’s a big misconception out there. A character demo is useless. A video game or animation demo is what you want. Mixed hybrid demos confuse people. It’s just voices, and in general, we’ve found that it’s not a boon for you. It will actually impede you because it may have three spots the casting director likes and the rest they stop listening to. If you can get the casting director to listen until the end of your demo, that’s the trick. Some people stop after the first two seconds because it’s crazy loud, crazy screamy, audio quality is off, mixing is terrible.. so again, having a character demo is dangerous. It’s easy to make, but it’ll be too mixed up. It will confuse your audience, and won’t give you a solid message and foundation. Video game and animation demos are very different sounding.
Matt: We’re even getting to the point of having to separate different genres of animation. Video games, maybe. Animation though, you can have kids edutainment, or just kids animation, and you could have something more serious tendencies. It depends on how you want to break it down, but the two big ones are animation or video games.
Chris: People are very tempted to save money thinking they don’t need to separate them, but you really do. Will you book with a demo? That’s up to you. I can’t guarantee anyone anything. It’s up to you to sell yourself. This is your resume to say “here’s what I have to offer you.” If you’re happy with it, you’re going to send it out to people. You want to feel that confidence. If they like you, they’ll reply. If not, try for the next one. That’s all you can do. Voice acting is a meat grinder of auditions.