Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
In an interview with actor Greg Abbey, CC2k staffer Big Ross got a first-hand account of how video game characters are brought to life, and a major TMNT scoop to boot.
Most likely you aren't familiar with the name Greg Abbey, but chances are you just might have heard his voice, if not seen his face. From his his work hosting Sports Figures on ESPN to appearances in films such as The Hoax and Definitely, Maybe to to his work in radio and television commercials/promos to books-on-tape, Abbey is one of those hard working actors that has dabbled in all forms of media. When I got the chance to sit down with Abbey and discuss his recent work bringing Roachy, one of the main characters of the video game Insecticide to life, I was excited to learn more about the process of video game development from someone with first-hand experience. Little did I know I was going to be talking to the coolest of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
BR: Obviously from your website you’re an actor, you’ve been doing this for awhile. How did you get into this whole area of voice-overs and voice-acting?
GA: Ya know, sort of in a round-about process. I went to a conservatory, I studied acting at Rutgers University. Voice-overs, was, I was totally green. So I really didn’t even know what voice-overs were. So for several years I really just did on-camera commercials, and then I started working my way into the voice-over department. Which was, it’s a very small community of actors, ya know just because at a certain point there’s only so many people they can have, so it took a long time but I worked my way in doing mostly radio-ya know auditioning for radio spots, TV voice-overs, and then a very good friend of mine was a director for cartoons. There’s a company called 4Kids Entertainment.
BR: Uh huh
GA: And so he got me in the door there doing a show called Yugioh! And then I, I’m on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So, I’m one of the turtles-
BR: Oh really!
GA: Yeah I’m Raphael.
BR: Oh real-Awesome! Yeah OK.
GA: Yeah so I’ve been doing that for, I wanna say 6 years or so. I do occasional theater and TV and film, but mostly what I do is voice-overs and commercials, and even more voice-overs the last few years between the cartoons, radio spots, promos, and then, I’ve only done two video games, and this is the second one I did. So yeah, so it was sort of a roundabout way from acting school that sort of led me to like, I’ve pretty much made my living doing this for probably the last 5 or 6 years.
BR: Out of curiosity what was the other game you worked on?
GA: To be honest I can’t remember it now because it was so long ago, and I’m not a gamer, so I can’t even remember what it was. And I’ve had the opportunity that they’ve become so big now, obviously, that I’ve had the opportunity to start auditioning – I don’t get a ton of them, but I’ve had the opportunity to start auditioning a little bit more for some of the bigger games. But, the way the business works there’s a few guys that start to do that work, and then it’s sort of, it’s always sort of hard to break through. They start to use the same guys like on Max Payne and Grand Theft Auto, and there’s a lot of celebrities now that are doing these things, so it’s hard.
BR: With Insecticide, was this something you heard about through an agent or was it through some other channel?
GA: Most of the stuff I do is through an agent and then, but then it’s also I really got this just through a relationship I developed with this guy Joe Franco. He owns a recording studio here in the city called Beat Street. He does all sorts of stuff – books on tape, I’ve actually been doing a lot more of that too, books on tape. And I had done some of those there, and because like any business but especially in this business it becomes a relationship business and I had worked there, I had done a Trivial Pursuit for Kids. It was a board game that actually the same guys who did Insecticide did, and there’s a DVD that comes with it, and there’s all these animated clips on it, and I played some voices on that, and it was the same guys, so they basically were like “hey we’re doing this video game, ya know do you wanna come in and audition?” So this wasn’t through an agent at all; it was really just through a relationship I had developed with these guys.
BR: That’s cool. From your angle did you have much contact with the actual game developers or were you pretty isolated from that whole side of it?
GA: I was pretty isolated. I mean the two guys who made the game Mike Levine, and…I’m forgetting the other guy’s name now – they were very accessible. So I had a lot of, you know we had general discussions when I first started recording about what the game was, and for the character they had a bunch of drawings, so I had that sort of reference, but in terms of the game itself I wasn’t involved in the development. And like I said I’m not a gamer, but I have a 7 year old son who is a DS fanatic and a Wii fanatic and my best friends play Xbox and all that but I really haven’t so it wasn’t like, it wasn’t that I wasn’t not curious but I didn’t really delve into all of that.
BR: Cool, cool. Something you always hear about when they’re making animated movies is that voice actors tend to get isolated in a sound booth, were you actually together with the person lending the voice to the other major character in the game?
GA: I think that maybe, for a couple scenes between my character and my character’s partner, I think that we were together for those, but for much of the rest of the recording I was by myself.
BR: And how much of an opportunity did you have to ad-lib? Were the developers open to that sort of thing?
GA: Oh yeah. Especially with, there would be a ton, pages and pages of scripted stuff. And usually you do a couple of takes, you know especially when it’s, when it’s the game stuff where you either, you’re giving advice to the player or you’re giving directives or whatever and it’s sort of short one-offs sort of stuff?
BR: Right, uh huh.
GA: You know so you do 3 in a row and by the third one I’m playing around, I’m adding my own stuff; I’m adding my own words, and yeah they love that. Cause it can become sort of improvisational because then its, ya know, even with something like this for me it all goes back to an acting base still even though it’s a video game you still try to come from a truthful place and make it spontaneous and make it funny and real so they were, they were fantastic actually to work with.
BR: What was the inspiration for the voice of your character Roachy? Where did his voice come from?
GA: Well you know, it’s sort of, he’s sort of close to Raphael. They wanted this sort of, grizzled cop, who’s been on the beat for years. And, they’ll be really specific, “We want him gravelly, we want him pitched really low,” [Here Greg slips into the voice of Roachy] – so I’m in the booth, and I’m sort of like, playing around you know what I mean? [Back in normal voice] Since I’ve been doing it awhile and I’ve done the cartoon voices, I mean I have friends that can do a zillion voices and I can’t really do that, but I do have an understanding of pitch, I mean you always want to think about pitch, and pace, and accent. You know, and they’re like “This guy’s from New York” so you’re like “Alight he’s got an accent” and they’re like “he’s down, he’s gravelly, he’s pitched low” and when I hear that I sort of immediately am like “OK, I think I know what you guys want” and then it’s just a matter of really going for it. You’ve just got to commit and really go for it. And it’s not a real leap for me because Raphael he’s sort of in the same place. [Here Greg slips into Raphael’s voice] – He’s down here ya know?
BR: Yeah, ok, cool, cool man, that’s cool
GA: [Chuckles at my fan-boyish reaction to the cool voices.]
BR: [Chuckles self-consciously.] That’s awesome. I guess, you’ve kind of addressed this a little bit, you’ve said how certain guys get into voicing video games and they get stuck in it, but you said this is maybe opening new avenues for you in terms of voice-acting?
GA: Yeah, I mean, anytime you can do a job, you know, something like this, it’s a little difficult because, my business, the acting business is sort of amorphous. It’s not like you’re in an office and you work really hard and the guy recognizes you and you get a promotion. Ya know it’s just not like that, because it’s very, you don’t work with people full-time, so your relationships are sporadic. And so what I’ve done, especially the last few years, is you sort of keep these contacts, and then when I do something like this I basically let everyone know. I let my agents know, I let people I’ve worked with before know, and then hopefully that just comes back. So, when the next video game comes up and I go in and audition, first of all I’m much more comfortable because I understand the medium. I understand what they’re looking for; I know what questions to ask, and then hopefully they may be like, “Have you done anything?” And now I can say yeah I did this game Insecticide, you can check it out. So for me, I sort of realize for me to make a living I sort of try to do as much as I can. And I mean, ya know they’re fun. This was a blast. I loved doing it; I thought it was a funny idea and these characters were really fun, so I would love to do more. Definitely.
BR: You might have answered this in a way, but I was looking at your website, and I saw that you describe voice-overs as “a lot of it’s been crap, some of it mildly entertaining, and a few of them have been spectacular.” Where would you rate Insecticide on that spectrum?
GA: That’s funny. That was sort of a joke, but I felt, I was pretty excited to be honest. Like I said I don’t game, and they gave me a copy of the DS (version), and I gave it to my son, and he’s pretty into it. But in terms of…ya know I was trying to find this one trailer to send to you, and it’s a three-minute piece where it’s not gameplay, it’s a scene. I’m sort of setting up the world, and there’s a part between me and the main character and the bad guy (Editor's note: you check it out below!). And when I first saw it I was really impressed and I was proud of it. I thought this thing looks really cool; this looks real. For me, I thought it looked great. And they sent me, they did a whole packet just about the artwork of the game and stuff. Ya know, I know enough that I know this isn’t going to break through to become a huge game as some of them are, but I will say I’m totally proud of it, and I was glad enough to say I’m going to send this to people – cause believe me there are jobs that I’m like, “I’m totally embarrassed I don’t want anyone to hear this or see this,” but with this one I was like, “This is cool. This looks cool. This is really fun.”
BR: Well, I’ve not played this game, but I’ll tell you I’ve read some of the reviews online, and the negative things they had to say were much more concerned with the gameplay/design, and the high points were definitely the voice-acting, the story, and the characters.
GA: That’s really cool. I thought the concept was interesting and like I said when I was working on it I really didn’t have any idea what the game was. I mean if I really didn’t understand a line I might say, “Well what am I saying? What am I doing right now? Why am I saying this?” But I really didn’t know. I mean I had a general idea, but what was more important to me, and it sounds sort of high falutin because I’m literally, I’m playing a cockroach, but [Greg chuckles] I wanted to know what the relationships were. I’m like, “What’s my relationship to this, this partner of mine? How long’s this guy been doing this? How grizzled is he?” You know, because for me that’s more important. I want it to sound good. I want it to sound appropriate and right – in the moment. It’s as serious as you take it, and I’m like, I’m there you know? I’m not going to screw around. So I try to do that. It’s still, it’s sort of very casual. I would go in, I think I had 6 to 8 2-3 hour sessions. Go in to the booth, blow through a lot of stuff, and they’d call me in like a month and say, “We finished some more stuff, we need ya back.” I ended up doing a lot of extras for them too. Like I played a “spit bug,” and I wanna say I played like 3 or 4 other characters in the game.
GA: They would just throw out, they’d say “Hey! We got ten lines for this, whatever” and I’d be like, “Alright, alright. Whaddya got? Whaddya got?” and I’d be like, “Well what’s he supposed to sound like?” So yeah, it was good.
BR: Cool. That’s definitely, speaking as a gamer – I am a gamer –
BR: – and a lot of the enjoyment and fun comes from the gameplay, obviously, but with a lot of games if there’s a good story that’s being told while you’re playing, that’s certainly something that keeps ya interested. And definitely with the actors that are giving life to these characters – for you guys to take this process seriously – that’s great as far as we’re concerned as gamers because that just makes the game more enjoyable.
GA: Well, it makes sense. I mean, I would think that. If you’re going to have these scenes, and that was the whole thing the whole time I felt like, well there’s something here. This is compelling. It’s a very clever idea. And they were really trying to go with some real relationships and history and all this stuff. And so there was stuff you could sort of sink your teeth into a little bit. And again it’s like, no it’s not Shakespeare but it’s still like, well I wanna make something of this. It is what it is, but you still want to make something of it and I knew just reading it; it’s fun. There’s some stuff we can do and play with. And like I said the guys that produced the game were cool. You know I think this might have been the first one they had done, maybe it’s the second so [Greg chuckles] you probably shouldn’t put this in the interview, there were moments where it was sort of disorganized and I think they were a little overwhelmed at moments. But the most important thing is that they were good people, so it was easy to work with them, and they were flexible,. And they were totally open to me trying stuff, and asking questions, and I’d say like, “That doesn’t make any sense, can I say this?” and they’d be like “Yeah, yeah definitely. Go ahead. Do it, do it!” or “Make something up. Can you make something up here? What do you think? What would be funny?” So ya know, it was cool. It was a good working relationship, to work with those guys.
BR: That’s definitely cool. So for you personally, any games that you’re auditioning for in the near future? Anything on the horizon?
GA: Well not that I know of, I mean, there’s nothing current. The way things work with an agent is I pretty much go out everyday and they’ll call the day before and say “Hey you’ve got this tomorrow, go audition” so there’s not a ton of video game auditions, but I would definitely do them again. They’re great. And like I said they also have some serious cache now, especially if you get some of these big ones because they’re so huge now and they’re making so much money, some of them that I think that if you can get, again it’s like another small community that I’m sort of knocking on the door and I’m like alright I’ve done a couple of video games but if you can get into that top echelon with the guys that are doing these huge games, Hell yeah, I mean, I’d love to do that.
BR: Right, and kind of inherently, there’s definitely appeal for a sequel, so if they make an Insecticide 2, I’m guessing they’re going to need your talents again.
GA: I hope so, and I think these guys…they’re definitely, they’re motivated. So I think, at least hopefully if not this there will be something else I’ll work with them again on.
BR: Well Greg, thank you for taking the time – I’m going to be remiss if I don’t ask, are there any scoops for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that you can share with us?
GA: I’m trying to think…yeah this is a pretty good scoop. We’re doing a straight-to-DVD movie that’s going to record, I think this end of July. I think we’re recording it over like 3 weeks, but they’re bringing the old Turtles back, from the early 90’s, because you know we’re the new version. I don’t know if you know sort of the back story. They were huge in the 90’s –
BR: I remember, I was a fan.
GA: Yeah, and the two creators – Kevin Easten and Peter Laird – they actually had a falling out, so the property got frozen, so they literally stopped doing anything with it. And then Peter Laird bought Kevin Easten out, and then he always envisioned- he always wanted the Turtles to be darker. He didn’t want like the “Cowabunga” and pizza and all that stuff. So the version that I’ve been doing for the last 5 or 6 years is a little darker, but now we’re going to do this movie where uh, I guess they come back, and we’re in there, and maybe the version from the comic book – I don’t know, there’s some big, big thing coming down the pipe. But we’re gonna start recording that I think in two weeks, and then hopefully we just get picked up for another season. I mean it’s gone on, I think we’ve done 166 episodes, which for a cartoon is a really long time, so I’m just hoping it keeps going.
BR: Cool, that’s awesome. Well thank you again for taking the time to talk with me, and best of luck in the future.