Voice actors go on strike, demand higher pay

Courtesy of SAG-AFTRA SAG-AFTRA is a newly formed union, founded in 2012 by the fusion of the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

Courtesy of SAG-AFTRA
SAG-AFTRA is a newly formed union, founded in 2012 by the fusion of the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.01

By Craig Taylor | Staff Writer

The union of video game voice actors is about to enter its third week of picketing against select publishers. The Screen Actors Guild American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) are asking for better working conditions and residual contracts from select video game publishers before they return to work.

“Despite years of concerted effort and negotiating sessions, video game employers have steadfastly refused to reach a fair deal during our contract negotiations,” SAG-AFTRA stated on its website.

The list of boycotted publishers include some of the biggest names in the industry, such as Activision (“Destiny”), Electronic Arts (the “Battlefield” franchise) and Take 2 Interactive (the “Grand Theft Auto” series). Members of the union were told to abandon work on all projects involving those employers that began production after Feb. 17, 2015.

The contract between SAG-AFTRA and publishers has not been renegotiated in over 20 years, and the strike focuses on four key issues.

First, video game voice acting is particularly stressful, as actors often have to simulate the fighting sounds and violent deaths of their characters. Some actors have needed surgery and were out of work for months after the toll they took recording screams and yells. SAG-AFTRA is asking that these stressful sessions be limited to two hours maximum and retain the full four-hour standard session fee.

Second, the actors are asking for more transparency for the roles they are auditioning for. Union members complain of having to blindly accept roles, only to find out later that they’ll be asked to record racial slurs or simulate sex scenes for motion capture.

Motion capture, or “mo-cap,” is a process used for recording in-game animations where actors wear suits covered in tracking sensors. When the performers act out a scene in the suit, computers track how the actors are moving, so that character models animate realistically. Given the involved action set-pieces actors are sometimes involed in simulating, the union is asking for a stunt coordinator to be present when shooting stunt work or other dangerous activity.

Finally, SAG-AFTRA is asking for contingent compensation for work on successful video games. The union proposes a performance bonus each time a title sells 2 million copies, with a cap at 8 million. As of right now, most voice actors are given a flat session fee of around $850 and receive no residuals.

For reference, out of the $15 billion Activision has made from the “Call of Duty” franchise’s 13-year history, only 0.03 percent of that money has gone to voice and performance capture actors, according to SAG-AFTRA.

Attorney Scott J. Witlin, who’s representing the video game publishers, says that’s not fair to the artists, designers and directors who work on these games for years.

“A team of 200 employees may work on a game for three, four or five years and the performer will come in and maybe work for one session. The employees who worked all those years won’t get any more money,” Witlin told the Los Angeles Daily News. “They are not paid that way.”

Whereas voice and motion capture actors have SAG-AFTRA, game developers are not unionized and must work under troublesome, strenuous conditions without any kind of representation. It’s common for studios to undergo what is called “crunch,” in which employees can work 80-hour work weeks for months near the end of a development cycle to make sure a game ships intact and on-time.

Ubisoft Montreal Creative Director Alex Hutchinson said it was unfair for voice actors, including the well-known Grand Theft Auto voice actor Wil Wheaton, to be paid before devlopers.

“If [Wil Wheaton] gets royalties on a game before myself or any of the others who spent years (not weeks), working on it, the system is broken,” Hutchinson tweeted.

The publishers have tried negotiating an immediate, non-residual-based wage increase, but SAG-AFTRA has not accepted it. Attorney Scott Witlin says that around 75 percent of the sector’s voice actors are not union members, and their projects will be unaffected as the strike continues.

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