While many of us are finding new ways to entertain ourselves during the pandemic, content creators are wrestling with how to make our shows, comics, games and books safely. The challenges for each industry are unique, as are the challenges faced by individual creators.
Sean Chiplock has been a professional voice actor since 2012, and is well known for their work in video games (Revali and Teba in Breath of the Wild, Yuuki in Persona 5) and in anime (Guido Mista in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Eyelashes in One Punch Man).
We spoke with Chiplock to get an idea of how voice actors have been affected by the pandemic, as well as the recent changes in California reclassifying actors as “essential.”
Sean Chiplock: It was a phased process. What I’m doing now is not how it was two months ago, and certainly not how it was three to four months ago.
When the pandemic hit, a lot of companies tried to wait a month for it to blow over. I got a ton of Animal Crossing: New Horizons hours in that time. I started filing for unemployment.
Voice acting payments are on a delay – usually thirty to sixty days, so there was a feeling among some actors that they could make it through the month without issue. Though, if work didn’t resume, the previous reserve of checks would dry up. That’s why I filed for unemployment when I did, so I would have that option if we were out longer than a month.
Then the month passed, and they extended the stay at home order, and companies started getting antsy. While some studios were willing to wait, some of their clients were less willing. Then we entered phase two.
In phase two, voice actors started receiving emails: “hey, could you give us your home studio setup specs? And can you send us an audio sample of from your home setup.” And what we found out quickly was, for 80 to 90% for voice actors, we didn’t have setups that were production quality – we couldn’t use recordings from our home in a finished product.
Prior to the pandemic, I was recording in a closet on a Blue Yeti microphone. And Blue Yetis sound okay – they’re solid enough for interviews, but you have to understand that when it comes to broadcasting, engineers hate them. But they are good enough for auditions.
It’s extremely common that voice actor home setups, except those who were previously doing work at home, are designed to be good enough for auditions, but not broadcast quality. That’s fine, because when a company is listening to auditions they expect the quality won’t be perfect – it just needs to be good enough that they can hear me and can judge my vocal quality. I did auditions and freelance work from home, but most of my broadcast work was being recorded at studios.
So, then we had to see if we could make adjustments to make our home setups workable. A very small group of studios offered to send recording setups for us to use per session. But it was one of those cases where we’d have to return it after each time we worked for them, and we weren’t getting paid to set the system up (and setting up the system took time). Also, because of the no-contact concerns, they couldn’t send anyone out to help us setup the systems.
The overarching theme is that talent was suddenly in charge of upgrading their home studios to make them broadcast-quality, and we had to do it on our own dime. And that was where shit hit the fan.
In many cases, people could not afford to make that level of upgrades quickly. There’s a lot of actors who live paycheck to paycheck, and while they can maybe make an emergency purchase, not everyone can.
My home studio upgrades cost me between $2000-$3000, and I’d consider that on the cheaper end, since I went for a $300 microphone, instead of a more standard microphone, like a Neumann U87, which can be several thousands.
For my own setup, I ended up with:
- Stellar X2 Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphone ($200)
- Microphone Stand ($30)
- Studio Grade Headphones ($200)
- Reverb Filter ($200)
- Acoustic dampening blankets to cover a mirror in the room ($300 for a set of 2)
- Solid State Logic SSL2 Audio Interface ($200)
- XLR Cabling ($20)
- Source Connect Standard Subscription, as there are clients who are adamant about using Source Connect instead of Zoom for remote recording sessions ($600)
- Acoustic foam to covert a spare room into a makeshift recording booth, presentation boards to attach the foam to the walls, hanging material ($900)
All of these upgrades had to be done as quickly as possible. As long as my home wasn’t viable for professional recording, I couldn’t work. And as soon as it transitioned into, “we are waiting on you to upgrade your home studio,” that’s where all the stress hit. That was draining me day after day. If I was not doing my gaming stream, I was in that studio trying to glue more acoustic foam, and checking with companies if the setup was good enough.
And each test would end with, “yeah, this sounds better, but I’m still getting this [noise], what can you do to fix this.” And that’s where more money would be spent and more things put up. And this was a back and forth process until eventually all the pieces came together. But it took a solid three weeks to a month.
A lot of people are still struggling with this. We’ve created social circles for everyone to try to help others, and make recommendations. My purchase of that microphones and interface was because there was an audio engineer in a group I’m in, and he contacted us to say there was some equipment on sale that he recommended. But a lot of people are still scrambling.
There’s always this uneasy feeling of “I hope what I’m recording on right now is good enough.” Not just for my own sake, because I want to feel good about the stuff I’m recording for my projects, but also for the client. Often, when we send out auditions, if we’re doing it through an agency, the agency (or the studio) might be able to tell us, “hey, we want to hire you, but we need you to upgrade your studio.”
But for freelance work, if we send in an audition, and the client doesn’t hire us, we don’t know if it’s because we weren’t a good fit for the role, or because they didn’t like the audio quality and decided to go with someone else who’s audition had a higher quality recording. And not knowing is one of the most stressful parts.
Going forward, I’m able to work, and clients are happy with what I’ve been able to provide, but I hope it stays that way. I know some people enjoy working from home, but I know a lot of actors who don’t want to think about the technical side of recording, who want to focus on the performance and having fun and not worrying if the a good take was ruined because the gain wasn’t set right on the microphone. There’s thoughts on both sides, but the overarching feeling is I want to stop being stressed about the recording process, and to get back to working.
SZ: It sounds like, from your answer, that this is hitting smaller, less established voice actors, since they might not have the funds (or the setup) to weather this.
SC: There are some actors that already had broadcast level home studios for a while. For them, it was just a matter of convincing clients that they could record from home, but otherwise they didn’t have to do anything.
There’s folks like me, who had the finances, and the free time to be able to struggle and stress and make those upgrades, and can now go back to my normal work routine.
But I’m confident in saying that the majority of actors, especially those who were trying to break into the industry, are suffering a lot because of this, and are much more reliant on unemployment to get by, because they aren’t in a position to make upgrades, and studios will fall back on established talent they’ve worked with in the past. That’s definitely something that weighs on my mind.
SZ: How does health insurance work for most voice actors? Are you members of a freelancer union? Do agencies or studios provide some sort of benefits?
SC: In most cases, VAs are completely on their own regarding health insurance unless they somehow acquired an employer-based plan from a second job. Prior to this month, my wife and I were paying just under $500 through Covered California for a plan with Kaiser Permanente. My agency has no obligation whatsoever to cover the talent they represent, as they are just a “business connection middleman” and not an actual employer.
However, I recently learned that I qualified for the SAG-AFTRA health plan as a result of earning the minimum eligible income through SAG projects over the last 4 quarters, which is an insanely better deal overall. However, I must continue to earn this minimum amount each year to continuously qualify, so there is always the risk that one year I’ll just find myself without health insurance unless I scramble to replace it in the off months.
SAG-AFTRA, in the last month, also doubled most costs and eligibility requirements associated with their health plan, while slashing the benefits. And they did this during a pandemic.
SZ: One of the clear holes in the comic book industry is unionization of creatives. Other than offering health care options for some members of the acting industry, is SAG-AFTRA involved in any other ways?
SC: Yes, the union really helped us at first. During the first part of the shutdown, there were a fair number of studios trying to convince us to come in physically. That was terrifying. COVID-19 itself is scary. But when you’re an actor who knows about the lifelong complications it can cause with your lungs, with your breathing and breath control, you think about how catching it could permanently destroy your own career, it’s horrifying.
So when some studios tried to convince us to come in, we were able to come back and say, “well the union said they don’t see any reason why we would be considered essential. If you can get us documentation from the union that says we’re essential and not covered under the stay-at-home order, we’re happy to come in.” And, surprise, after we asked, studios started asking about our ability to record from home.
We’re very grateful for that. It sounds extreme for me to say we were fighting for our lives, but we as actors did not want to come in. And we were willing to put ourselves through the cost and stress of upgrading our home setups, but there were still studios that were trying to pressure us to come in physically, regardless.
A lot of us are scared now because of this new California order that labels entertainment works essential. I’m sure it was intended to be applied to on-camera actors and people who have to be physically on set to do their jobs. But depending on its exact wording, there might be nothing stopping studios from saying, “you’re a voice actor, you support the entertainment industry, so you’re an essential worker and you’re required to come in.” In those cases, you’d be inhibiting production, rather than making a personal choice. And the union has, to my knowledge, signed off on this, because they need to protect on-camera actors.
So many of us are terrified because many of us are not convinced that it’s safe to go into the studio yet. And while a lot of us do trust that the studios are performing the extensive cleaning they say, we as actors have no way to vet that. We have no way to confirm that they cleaned the microphone after the last actor coughed on it.
At the same time, studios just pushed us to upgrade our home studio systems without any subsidization, so we could continue to work from home. Now that we’ve finally done it, there’s a chance they’re going to push us to come in anyway.
It creates a bitterness, a tension where we’re trying to meet the needs of the clients (the company that hires the studio to record us), but we’re still going to be put at risk.
SZ: Since you’ve worked in both video games, and in animation, are the different industries responding differently?
SC: That’s a good question.
For video games, there is often a timestamp provided. So, for example, if a Japanese voice clip might be two seconds, and as long as your recording for the dub isn’t over two seconds, it’s fine, and that’s easy enough to check.
Anime introduces some problems because they’re showing you the video over Skype or Zoom, and you are trying to match the video. There is a delay from when the engineer plays the video and when he gets your signal back, they have to adjust for that.
For Western animation, I’d want to know how they’re affected. I don’t have much experience in that space, but they often do what’s called pre-lay animation, where the voice actors will record in a group first, and then the animators will work around that audio. For that, I could absolutely see additional issues, since there you’d have five, six, or seven actors all trying to play against each other, and having to deal with signal delay between them.
SZ: I’d like to talk briefly about COVID and conventions. You’ve been a guest speaker at many anime and gaming conventions, both for your own work, and as a representative of projects you’ve worked on.
And, related to that, are guest fees and signing fees a major point of income for many voice actors, or are conventions primarily to just meet with fans?
SC: I don’t think it’s a secret to anybody that conventions immediately dried up. And I’m grateful that a lot of them played it smart and safe.
It’s disheartening to see all the conventions moved or canceled. The larger conventions, that can afford it, have switched to being online only.
There are one on one interactions or interviews at these virtual conventions that fans can purchase. Companies like Zobie VShout that allow people to purchase video, shout-outs, and autographs, offer services where they might mail prints to us for us to sign, and then the company mails it out to the fans. So, budget permitting, there are plenty of companies that have switched their services to doing online only.
But I do think there is a financial gate, and a lot of smaller conventions can’t afford to do that. Whether those smaller conventions will disappear completely, or if they’ll just go away temporarily because they can’t move online, remains to be seen.
Regarding how conventions affect voice actors financially, that’s going to vary on a case by case basis. I’m not someone who makes a lot of my income from convention appearances, and I don’t want making money from convention appearances to be my primary focus. I see them as my opportunity to interact with fans, and I consider it a blessing that I get paid and flown out on someone else’s dime to basically get praised for three days and chill with fans. Those are my vacations, where I actually get to rest, relax, and have fun.
For some actors, it is a major part of their income. And they do a lot of negotiating with their agents regarding autographs and photographs and stuff like that. For others, it is supplemental income, where it’s bonus money they weren’t expecting.
But I feel like the folks who more heavily rely on convention appearances would already have been engaged in a routine where they are heavily marketing and selling themselves.
For example, I’ll advertise myself as necessary, maybe a “hey, by the way, there’s this convention coming up that I’m going to be a guest at,” but I’m sure that if there are actors who are regularly going to conventions for profit, they’ll have resources, they’ll use VShout, they’ll have an Instagram to constantly put themselves in front of their fanbase. Those tools help their fanbase remember them and recommend them to conventions, which helps them further sell themselves.
SZ: One final question – do you think things will stay as they are now, with most voice actors working from home for the foreseeable future? Or do you think you will be going back into studios with the new California order?
SC: I pray things stay the way they are now.
I can see both sides of it. On one hand, I absolutely understand the desire for actors to minimize risk as much as possible, because of how dangerous it is to use specifically (and that’s not to diminish how dangerous it is for people in any other industry), but if I didn’t have voice over, I don’t know what I’d do with my life, so that’s very terrifying.
And it’s one of those things where I just don’t trust other people. I don’t want to put my health in someone else’s hands. So if I have the ability to record from home, I want studios to utilize that and be able to reap the benefits of the work we put in as a compromise.
Now, do I think that’s the reality? No. The realist in me is counting down the days until studios go, “Hey, we’re excepted from the stay at home order, and you’re considered essential workers.” And I think there’s going to be a point in the next few weeks where actors are going to have to decide if we’re going to concede and go in and pray we don’t catch it. Or are we going to collectively work to try to refuse and try to strong-arm clients into recognizing that we’re not ready to come in yet. Or, we could get option three – where we have to choose if we’re willing to lose our roles and lose our jobs and lose work in order to avoid the risk of catching COVID. And none of us want to be in that position. But that may be the outcome.
And that’s what causes a lot of stress. Because we’ve known since day one that the demand for the economy to continue existing does not outweigh the value of our health and our lives. But not everyone shares that view, especially when it comes to profit and production.
I’m legitimately fearful for what the next couple of weeks will hold, because I was really happy that I was finally in a position where I could work from home, and now it feels like I’m going to be forced into something that I’m not ready for. And I’m going to have to make some really tough choices.
You can follow Sean Chiplock on Twitter. This piece is part of an ongoing series, Creating During COVID, which explores how creators are reacting to and coping with the pandemic.