You may not have heard of Lani Minella, but if you’ve played games in the past decade or two, you have probably heard her. Lani is a veteran voice actor who has more than 500 credits to her name, and has voiced some iconic characters. We had the good fortune of having Lani provide the voices for all the creatures and vampires in the game, as well as our main character, Shade. I got to sit down with Lani recently, and asked her about her work and career, and this is what she had to say…
Chris: Please tell us a little bit about your life before you became a famous actor; where you grew up and what your wanted to be when you grew up?
Lani: I grew up in San Diego and besides wanting to be a radio DJ which I did eventually, I was always fascinated with what animators did to voices, the way they add so much character to even the most flat voices. I was always good at mimicking voices and had the dream of being animated by Disney or Pixar.
C: You’ve been in the voice over business for a long time now and you’ve voiced some iconic characters in some of the biggest game franchises there is. How did you end up working as a voice over artist for games? What was your first gig? Your first character voice?
L: Referring back to my desire to voice animation, I was asked to voice some characters from Fern Gully (movie) because someone heard me doing characters on the morning radio show. This company was doing many things including children’s CD ROMS which I also worked on. I asked who else did this, and they suggested I go to trade shows, CES, E3, Game Developers Conference, etc. My idea was to get some video footage for an animation demo reel, but back in the early days, one would have had to record the whole game on video tape to be able to capture whenever my characters would appear. Then I realized that if I started a one stop shop (Audiogodz) I could help producers get talent from all over the world, and provide other services like writing, directing and casting that other actors weren’t doing. I guess I earned the reputation of “if it’s impossible, and the budget is lacking, give it to Lani, she’ll make it work.” Hah! Word of mouth is where I get most of my referrals now, but I still audition for things myself as a solo actor through agents.
C: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen over the years, with regards to voice over work in games?
L: There are less cut scenes and while some games have improved as far as character development and story line, for the most part, the script is to be credited or to be blamed for vocal performances more than anything. “I’m hit!” “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” I think it depends on the genre of game whether the script has a chance of being more interesting, but this is where I think gamers should realize that everything starts out, for better or for worse. I still get a lot of Youtube references for voice wish lists and many times, the voice actor or celebrity doesn’t have a great voice. But the person asking for it, may have enjoyed their performance in that movie or show.
C: Out of all the projects you’ve done, tell me about the one or two projects that stand out the most, and why they are special to you?
L: I think this is one of the hardest questions to answer because projects can stand out for being creatively written, for having the best crew to work with and also for my being able to work with the best and most delightful talent, directing etc. I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings if I don’t list them here.
But I’ll give you an example of something nobody’s ever heard of that was one of the most creatively written with the most fun and ingenious characters. Tony Tough and the Night of the Roasted Moths. It was a point and click game that never got great representation and ended up in the bargain bin, but would give Tim Burton a run for his money. Then of course, you have the other end of the spectrum with big bucks companies with lovely graphics and RPG development. Blizzard games, Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect 3, Last of Us, God of War 4…all big hits, and wonderful people to work with. I have to remind people though, that our recording experience, while excellent, doesn’t really give us any idea of what we’ll end up like in the game. And sometimes we never get to see that. When I just saw an E3 demo of Ivy (who I play) in Soul Calibur 6, whoever was playing her let her get beaten badly. So there’s such a variety of things that make projects memorable, and sometimes it might be less of what happens in the session and more about what the developer does with our voices in the end.
C: What was the most difficult character you had to voice, and why?
L: I think the Hive Mind voice for Warhammer 40,000 was the most taxing. It’s the voice where I push air past my vocal chords to make a monstrous sound instead of using actual vocal growls. When I had to do this straight for 2 hours I could not even swallow water, my throat was so swollen. But I don’t mind.
C: How do you take care of your voice? Do you have a regimen to prep for a role or recover form a particularly grueling character?
L: Nope. I don’t even warm up. Guess I have been doing this for so long I’m used to jumping right in and letting loose. As far as recovering, that’s a different story. When I’ve gotten hoarse or had laryngitis, about the only thing you can do is drink something warm and wait as long as it takes for the chords to un-swell, and they say you’re supposed to hum not talk if you have laryngitis. I’ve gone to doctors when I had that, and all the inhalers, steroids and cough syrup did NOTHING. One doc actually told me “Just shut up for a couple of weeks.” Yeah right, buddy. You have no idea what it takes to be in my biz. Ha ha
L: Ones with good scripts. Ha ha And I love doing multiple characters too. The more powerful the character means I can be more over the top, but I get a real kick out of great scripts no matter whether they are for a young kid or an old wizard or even an alien that I have to make up a language for.
C: Having worked with you, that sense of fun and exploration is apparent, particularly when you’re in to what you’re doing. Is it tough to maintain that enthusiasm after so many projects? Do you have techniques to get you through those “pays-the-bills” projects?
L: Actually every project is a new a great opportunity, and every person I work with is someone I respect and want to give all my best to. I think people who may or may not be in this biz have to learn to not let rejection (you audition a lot and often don’t get hired) get you down. That’s what makes every job more special. All those hours of auditions that you do and never hear back, and then BOOM…you get a job, so it’s fantastic! Everyone needs a bit of positive to offset all the black holes and lack of responses out there. Okay so there’s an easier answer….Take a deep breath, shake off any preconceptions or dislikes and get the job done well so at least you feel good about your own efforts. After all, it is a job, and we are paid (most of the time) so it’s our responsibility to be positive, a good actor and also a trooper.
C: What was the strangest voice acting job you’ve done?
L: “Last of us” Besides voicing “infected” and a couple of “Clickers” I was asked to do the end boss Bloater. They wanted sounds of a male seal having sex. Ha ha ha
C: Last of Us 2 was announced at E3. Are there any games that have come out recently or are anticipated, that you wish you’d been involved with?
L: Well that would be one of them, for sure. I just sent in an audition for Elder Scrolls and who knows if I will get auditions for some of the new games coming out? That’s the aggravating part. If we don’t get a chance because our agent didn’t get the casting notice, or maybe we didn’t “Know someone” it’s a bit sad, but it’s the way things work. I am often surprised when someone tells me of a new game, because they are more up on things than I am. So please keep telling me. I love hearing news!
C: When you get a script for a new character, what is your process for finding the voice of the character?
L: Visuals help and also working with the designer or producer to achieve what they envision or prefer. I try to give a few different ideas plus ones that match the request.
C: What makes doing voice overs in video games different from TV/Movies?
L: Good question. When an actor is trained to act on the big screen they are told not to pay attention to the words, punctuation marks and not to exaggerate facial movements because they would look really artificial like Jim Carrey from ‘the Mask’ etc. This doesn’t work so well in games. The script is non-linear and usually we have to move our bodies a lot to put action into the words to add emphasis on the mission directive, or of course stress and action when hitting, being hit, attacking etc. Many on-screen actors aren’t the best VO actors for games. For games, we may be giving a mission where the talking head is boring and the player can read the text on screen faster than most people would talk. So we emphasize what you have to do, where you have to go and often emphasize the word “You”. “It’s up to YOU to find the sacred artifact and take it to Dargon in the North Breach where he will guide you further.”
C: For Immortal Darkness, you voiced all of the various races and creatures, including the voice of Shade. Where did you find inspirations for them?
L: The script, the pics and the team. And my crazy brain I guess.
C: You’ve worked on some of the biggest games there are, like Diablo, WoW and Hearthstone. Do you tend to gravitate towards a certain type of video game when pursuing roles? Is it personal taste or more about established relationships with certain developers?
L: It’s not as much our choice as what we are given an opportunity to do. I’ve been lucky with Blizzard because they usually call me in without a lot of auditioning. It also depends on whether we see an audition or not. Often, game companies who use pay to play sites like Voices dot Com or Voice123 are not going to get the best actors because many of us are no longer on those sites. And what’s worse is if we don’t get a casting notice because our agents either didn’t get them or they didn’t send them to us.
I am fortunate to be the go-to casting director for Neverwinter, Star Trek Online and Magic the Gathering for Cryptic Studios and I hope my reputation continues to bring me great clients like them as well. I’ve been pretty lucky so far. And I very much enjoyed working on Pale King for Giant Space Monster. Great stuff!
C: You’ve voiced characters on some very well known franchises and IPs, like Star Trek, Toon Town, and The Rugrats. Do you ever get nervous about how your portrayal or interpretation of the character will play, versus what the audience may already know/want from that character?
L: Actually, we don’t tend to see the results of our work much. It’s always a rushed thing with instant turnaround and then it’s on to the next gig. If we give the client what they ask for and the audience hates it, or loves it, that’s pretty much all we can do …give it our best and hope it works.
C: You did the voice of Pesta in God of War 4. What was it like being part of such a high profile project?
L: Fabulous! I was so lucky to be brought in and the script was all in ancient Norse, so that was a wonderful learning experience with a really great crew!
L: It was for Pesta a Norse witch who spoke nothing but actual ancient Norse. They had a guy who had worked with an expert on that language there and the script was actually phonetically written as well as the original language. Thank goodness the expert could also say the words. But I LOVED doing that and actually singing a lullaby in Norse. I always pass out Atomic Fireballs at every session (the hot cinnamon jawbreakers) and at one point during the session, they said “You’re doing a great job, but this whole studio is heating up, we’re all on fire here!” I guess that’s one way to be remembered…the actor who made them hot. Ha ha!
C: Tell me how the first Blizzard gig came about?
L: I can’t remember how I got the job, but I think it was Adria the Witch and Wirt the peg leg boy from Diablo. I recorded in the sound guy’s office space. My first Game Developer’s conference was a shock because people were grabbing me and wanting to introduce me to their friends because I did those parts. Not that this gave me any job opportunities, but it was my first experience being thought of as a “star.” The rest is history. There were a lot of different people doing casting and I would sometimes be working on more than one title without knowing it. From Taureans, Orcs, Succubus, Banshee, Harpee, Zerg Queen, Dropship Pilot (Starcraft), Sindragosa, Stormcaller Mylra, Zaela of the Dragonmaw, and many great hearthstone characters, I thank Blizzard very much for every opportunity.
C: You did some voices for Hearthstone, including Sindragosa, Tell me how that gig came about, and how you came up with the voice?
L: Sindragosa was a return character from a Warcraft game where they brought back characters from WOW like Mylra (see above) They wanted a total screamer and I really wasn’t fond of that voice, but we do as we are told. Sorry people for wrecking your ear drums.
C: You did the voice of Warlord Zaela in World of Warcraft. Tell me how that gig happened, and how you came up with the voice?
L: I make good orcs and Klingons, for example. One of the few females that can go low and gravelly and sound tough, so that was assigned because lovely Andrea Toyias who does the casting, knows me and gave me that opportunity as well as many others.
C: What piece of advice or nugget of wisdom would you give any aspiring voice actor, wanting to get into the business?
L: Don’t quit your day job. Patience is a virtue and before you waste a lot of money taking classes, investigate the credits of that coach on IMDB at least. Those who can, do. Those who can’t, often teach. Also many people take classes from casting directors (Yes I do coaching but I don’t make a living doing that) but those classes may or may not teach anything. However it’s a way to introduce yourself to someone who might be guilted into hiring you, or maybe they’d be impressed. That’s what we call a paid audition. You must be your own engineer and have a studio at home. For those not wanting to be in a closet or pick up room tone and be able to ride gain adjusting recording levels on the fly, a Shure SM 58 is a hand held band mic with a built in pop filter and if you don’t have a preamp, you can buy a Shure X2U that goes between the mic and a USB port. Buy them on Ebay. $99@ new, but I’ve seen combos with free shipping for $179. This way you can read right from your computer and not have to print out scripts, or be in a closet or buy a lot of soundproofing which you must do if you use a large diaphragm mic. The Shure mic is clean enough and won’t ever break plus you can hold it in your hand. Also you need software to record with so Audacity is free and works on Mac or PC. Then do NOT take a class or get someone to do a demo for you (agents require a commercial not a game demo) and start sending those out to get agents etc. You need to have great voice control, be able to cold read scripts and ACT and move your body and not over articulate. Take your time cold reading, finding different voices by making faces in the mirror and talking through those faces. Then add those to your library. Learn a few dialects that are used not just any old accent. The ones that are the most used are Received Pronunciation British, (not cockney or regional Brit), Russian or middle-eastern, and if Southern a more tough military Houston type accent like a drill sergeant not a twangy drawl. If you want to do character voices you should be able to change your pitch and texture and sound completely different because most game scripts do not have enough lines to hire one actor per character. If you prefer doing commercials or promos, you are also a small fish in a big sea. If you want to do anime and looping, it’s best to live near LA or Texas where most of that is done. Hope that helps. http://www.audiogodz.com/classes/coaching.php (I only do private coaching now when I have the time) The best advice is to get a mentor of the opposite sex who is already in the biz who can eventually perhaps introduce you to their agent. It’s those personal recommendations that get you into an agency far faster than cold calling or sending out demos.
C: What’s next for Lani? Any cool and exciting projects coming up?
L: There’s always something in my inbox and more auditions to deal with. If it’s not out, of course I’m not allowed to talk about it. But from more VR projects to killer RPGs and action adventure games, I invite anyone to check my websites periodically where I update my resume when I am allowed to reveal a new project. www.audogodz.com and www.laniminella.com
Thanks so much for allowing me to work with you and chat. I wish everyone the very best.
Live lively and prosper!