Veteran actor, director and performer, Jean-Benoit Blanc (JB) discusses his acting & directing for video games, animations, film, commercials and TV.
We genuinely shared a good time as he talked about voice acting methodology, changes in the entertainment industry and some of his experiences – namely as a performer and specifically about Telltale Games’, Game of Thrones, Shadow of Mordor and even included some advice for Indie Game Developer studios.
JB is a humble man, generous with his knowledge and greatful for his success – and the help he’s had along the way.
Read the whole transcript (below) or watch these clips for interview highlights:
** Please note: A titling error with JB Blanc’s name has been corrected from JB Benoit (1:25 PM, day of publishing)
Sean Morrow: Hi JB, thanks for sitting down with me. How are you doing?
JB Blanc: Yeah, things are good. We’ve had two days of rain, which is the main excitement in LA because we really need it badly.
Sean Morrow: (Laughs)
JB Blanc: And now the glorious sunshine is back. I just had a game come out, Telltale games, Game of Thrones.
Sean Morrow: Oh, you were on that.
JB Blanc: Yeah, I play a regular character in that.
Sean Morrow: That’s fantastic, can you say who?
JB Blanc: I play a guy called Malcom. He’s a new original character.
Sean Morrow: Right on.
JB Blanc: And then I play a couple of other things as well. I think I play his father and I play a guy called Duncun and another guy. Yeah, guys, I play guys.
Sean Morrow: Are you a fan of the show?
JB Blanc: Oh yeah, huge.
Sean Morrow: Oh that’s cool. I was in London on the way to Gamescom. And we saw, oh what’s his name. I can’t remember his name off-hand. What’s his name? The father of the latest king? (Insert: Tywin Lannister, duh). Anyway, he was stumbling out, completely drunk, out of a pub. It was quite funny.
JB Blanc: (Laughs) English actors: that can happen to them; it’s not their fault.
Sean Morrow: You’d know.
JB Blanc: Um, ya, that’s been really exciting. They’ve got me running through all the episodes. Which is fantastic. I was just recording there yesterday.
JB Blanc: (Makes a great face)
Sean Morrow: Right on.
JB Blanc: And then the Lego project I’m doing , which is supposed to start next year is starting this week. So that’s been going on as well. And then, while I was up in Montreal, DC asked me to do another one, which is great, for Warner Brothers as well. So I’m directing that. So that’s going to begin next year in earnest.
Sean Morrow: So directing, acting. I remember, too, when we met, or met up, I should say, that you were saying that you also direct other people in other languages too.
JB Blanc: I have, I have done in the past. But not much. I only really speak French.
Sean Morrow: Okay.
JB Blanc: So, but, um, I don’t do a lot of localization work. It has to be said. But as and when it comes up, sure.
Sean Morrow: Can you talk about Shadow of Mordor?
JB Blanc: Ya. Absolutely.
Sean Morrow: So tell me a little about what you thought, about that project and the people with whom you were collaborating.
JB Blanc: Well, Shadow was great because it involved the Nemesis system, which is a new system for a video game. Which is, basically, it means… the main character is a character called Talion. And he, um, he is cursed to never be able to die until he avenges his family’s death. Or he wants to avenge his family’s death but he has been cursed in a permanent state of un-deadness. So he goes through trying to avenge his family’s death. He’s trying to get to Sauron basically.
And, as you go through, there is a whole Ork society that you have to kind of negotiate and deal with. But what happens is because you can meet an Ork and be killed by him, and then you’re revived, you can meet that Ork again. And when you meet that Ork again, he remembers your last fight.
Sean Morrow: Oh that’s cool.
JB Blanc: So he builds up, you build up a history with all the enemies. Now strategically, it might better not to kill that Ork captain until he becomes a war chief, because otherwise he’s going to be too strong for you, until he becomes a war chief, for you to attack.
So there’s all these sort of, there’s a political and social hierarchy that you have to fight your way through, with all of those characters remembering their history with you. So you’ll meet one and he’ll go, “You burned my face last time. This time it won’t be so easy.”
You know, and they do all this stuff. So getting, building all of that character into everything was so much fun. And we really had, we had like the top, top-notch set of actors. I mean, Warner Brothers is great because you get the best possible people all the time.
How did you originally get involved Directing Voice Actors and Acting Yourself in Shadow of Mordor?
The way I came to that game was originally just as an actor. I was cast as the Tower of Sauron. So we were doing all the motion capture for that. The Tower is 8 feet tall. Very evil. And sort of has this slightly ‘Emperor way of speaking.’ And so that was fun.
And then, I was also cast as one of the main Orks, who is known as “Thuggish Ork.” And then you have these, what do they call them? They call them Nemesis Orks. And so various other Orks. And so I had a lot of involvement in the game.
And then they asked me to Direct. And so, myself and Liam O’Brian, who’s another well known video game director and actor, we started sharing it. Liam had some health problems and so I basically took over. And then Jack Fletcher, who was directing the main characters, he had to go to New York and do a play so I took over the main characters as well. And I’ve now directed all of the DLC (downloadable content) as well.
The team there, this was with Monolith games – very big make or break venture for them. The Nemesis system had to work.
Voice Acting Techniques and Content Development
Sean Morrow: How has acting in different mediums changed for you? How have techniques changed in video games? What realities have changed for video game developers or animators and what do they need to look for when creating content or immersive experiences?
JB Blanc: I’m extraordinarily lucky. I’ve managed to work in pretty much every aspect. Be it, talking books, different languages occasionally, games, commercials, animations – I’m doing a lot of animation work these days – and still film, theatre, TV, as well.
The techniques changed differently and also the game world has changed. It used to be that when I started in games, you know, often some of the filler voices they would get Joe in accounts or Barbara in HR to do a voice.
And as the technologies got better, the expectations of the player has got better, and the quality of the performance has had to be better. And for us that’s great because sometimes you are doing games and you are sort of going, ‘do I really have to say this trite pile of crap?’
And the other problem is that games are programs and they were constructed by programmers. And it was the programmers who were taking care of story and sometimes performance too. And they quickly learned that that just won’t wash.
Sean Morrow: Mmmhmm.
JB Blanc: You know you’ve got to get quality directors, quality performers. The interesting thing when I started doing motion capture, which was pretty much at the beginning of motion capture, the first game I did was a facial capture game and it was called, James Bond: From Russia with Love.
Sean Morrow: Oh, right on.
JB Blanc: And I played, Karim Bay, who is a – well they tried to use a lot of original actors from the original film and they got Sean Connery.
(Break out the Sean Connery Impression)
“But he was sort of 72 at the time and had become a kind of, almost a parody of himself, you know.” A very, of sort, of gruff, angry Scotsman, instead of the kind of “smooth, you know, I’ll get you the lighter, of course, M.” That kind of guy who was in the original movie.
My guy was dead so, um, but he was a Mexican who was playing a turk. So I think I was the only person who could get the accent, kind of: “Good morning, Mr. Bond.” And he had this almost, sort of, Jonathon Reys Davis… you know JRD, “Indie, Indie.” So he had that kind of quality to him.
And… you would do this and it would all go away to get processed for months. The data, you know the initial data would get processed and then they’d come back with something 3D and shaded in about between 3 and 6 months. Now when you’re doing that it happens live and stage and you can watch yourself on screen while you’re doing the motion capture.
Sean Morrow: Nice. Yep.
JB Blanc: The fascinating thing is that motion capture is like the very cutting-edge of this sort of technology. The skills as an actor that you need in order to do motion capture are the skills as old as the hills, as old as acting (is). It’s theatre skills that you need. Because you need – you’re not doing mask work or mime work – but you need physical awareness. You need to physically inhabit the character.
So for instance I did a game called “Mack” fairly recently which is the launch title for the PS4. And I’m playing this doctor and he’s kind of bandy-legged and, and, he has a sort of simian, ape–like kind of physique about him. I really enjoy that approach to character, I’ve always really enjoyed that, and it makes it so much more authentic.
But it’s fascinating to me that I never, you know, there weren’t video games when I was a kid. Um, well, there was pong. Um, there was Atari. There was the ZX, the Sinclair ZX 81. Um, so, it’s fascinating that those ancient skills that have been passed down through the generations at places like Rada, were what was most useful in this sort of cutting edge technology. So that’s been a real eye-opener.
Is Voice Acting or Voice Directing ‘Real’ Acting and Real Directing?
In terms of technique it is different, it’s a different, every – everything you do in theatre is very different from television is very different from film is very different from, from video games with voice acting. What pisses me off – when people interviewing you, when I hear people say, ‘have you ever done any real acting?’
Sean Morrow: Hmm.
JB Blanc: Because I can tell you, you know, voice work is, is tough. It’s hard to be good at and it’s almost harder because you need a sort of technical awareness in terms of technique, while still trying to be truthful. Ultimately, I view the business as all the same thing: it’s story telling. Period. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re doing a commercial or a piece of naturalistic television work. It’s still telling the story, you just have to fit that into whatever medium you’re working in.
Sean Morrow: Yeah
JB Blanc: And that becomes a sort of technical awareness. Or an awareness of technique that … contributes to all of that.
Sean Morrow: Very, very interesting. So –
JB Blanc: And I also think, and the other thing – sorry to interrupt – people always say to me, “Hey, ah, listen, I’ve been told that I have a great voice and I’m thinking that I should get into voiceover.” And I use a line that is not mine – I can’t remember who’s it is but I always say, ‘I’ve got a beautiful pen but I’m not a writer.’
Sean Morrow: (Laughs)
JB Blanc: Because its, people think that its about doing silly voices. And that’s the last thing its about. It’s about character. And it’s about good acting. And then you can apply the voice to wor-, to that on top. You know. The voice comes out of that character work first.
Advice to Indie Game Studios on Lower Budgets
Sean Morrow: What advice to you think you’d have for an indie game studio who’s sitting there thinking, ‘Well, you know, we’re just doing it, we’re going to do the best we can. We’re going to pull up Joe from accounting and what not.’ What do you, what do you, what would you say to that?
JB Blanc: Well, I mean… ah…you… even when you’re doing a video game, you are… telling a story. And even in game play, you are telling a story. And you do so much great work on the characters themselves visually, that you can only enhance them by getting good voice work out of that. Now, top-tier talent, of course, is going to cost you a fortune. As it should – these people have developed their techniques over years.
I mean…I’ll give you an example. I got a call from a friend of mine who’s a director. He said, ‘Can you be at the studio in ten minutes? We’ve had this actor, he can’t do it, we’ve gotta get this fixed and the deadline’s by the end of the day.” I said I can be there, I went in there, it took me 10 minutes to do the role – but that’s experience. I came out, the producer said, ‘Here’s your paperwork… that was an easy afternoon’s work for you wasn’t it?’
Sean Morrow: (Chuckles)
JB Blanc: And I said, ‘Yeah, it just took me 25 years to be able to do that. It was 25 years in the making. Um, that’s the experience you bring. Now, if you are on a budget and you’re, you’re… I mean I’ll work on lower budget stuff if its people I know, if it’s a project I particularly believe in, if I’ve got the time. I always want to help people out ‘cause God knows people have helped me out. But there are, there is lower-tier voice acting talent that is starting out.
I would ask principally for theatre experience from your actors because there is a way of approaching character that is, that really suits video games. A lot of them are period, a lot of them are mythology-based. A lot of them are heightened reality. That’s what theatre is. Theatre is height- There is a great wave of naturalism. But even that, you know, you can’t be that naturalistic in a theatre because people need to hear you at the end of the day….
… so you do have to, it’s a heightened state of performance. Any performance is. And anyone who tells you it isn’t is a liar. Because it has to be.
Sean Morrow: Well you are creating new worlds, right? So…
JB Blanc: (Nods in agreement)
Sean Morrow: People have to be able to become completely immersed in what they are doing.
JB Blanc: There is a wonderful clip from Extras where Ian McKellen explains to Ricky Gervais that, you know:
(Amazing Ian McKellen impression)
When I’m playing, I’m not actually Adam. I’m make believing that I am Adam. I have the lines on a script and then I read the script. But they’re not my lines. Those are Adam’s lines that have been written for….
And he puts it, it’s all very simple. But at the end of the day it’s make-believe. You just try and make that make-believe as authentic as possible. And that’s the trick.
Sean Morrow: And that’s where the talent comes in, right?
JB Blanc: Well hopefully, yeah. And the trick is, to make it look easy. In truth, it’s anything but. You know, and it takes years to be able to kind of suss that out. Some people get that straight away but they have limited range, and so, you know you’re developing your range over time. What I’ve always felt as an actor is, I’ve never told myself what I can’t do.
And so, I’ve been very lucky. In my television casting, I’ve now just recorded my 17th and 18th guest star. I’ve only played one Brit in all those years, in 13 years in Los Angeles. So, I’m very lucky but I’m also very proud that that’s… you know, I want people to watch my film acting reel and not know which one is me. And that’s, it’s a great trick to be able to pull but I’ve worked really hard on that technique.
Sean Morrow: Well very cool. Thanks a lot for agreeing to sit down and chat with us about this.
JB Blanc: Not at all.
Sean Morrow: You’re a good man, my friend.
JB Blanc: Not at all. Not at all. My pleasure.
Sean Morrow: And let’s catch up again soon.
JB Blanc: I’d like that, yeah.
I loved sitting with JB just to chat about his thoughts. With so much success behind him and a continuously humble approach to sharing his thoughts.