Calif. cop moonlights as voice actor
Listen to Officer Brian Sommer's work
SAN LEANDRO — At Brian Sommer's day job, he shouts things like, "Freeze, police!"
At his other job, he purrs such lines as, "Kill him anyway."
Sommer, 43, is a San Leandro police officer who moonlights as a voice actor. In the past three years, he's performed in more than 40 video games, making him one of the busiest voice actors in the gaming industry, and he's been on dozens of radio and TV spots.
"After 23 years of fighting the bad guys, now I get to play them," Sommer says in his soft, natural baritone. "I just consider the police job as some on-the-job training for this job. It was a lot of character study, if you will."
He's lent his vocal talents to the video games Art of Murder, Sam & Max, Raw Danger and Death Jr. 2: Root of Evil. (He played the Hell Tram operator on the latter, acting as a tour guide through Hades.)
Sommer says law enforcement is his first calling - he's worked a patrol solo beat every day he's been on the force - yet he's getting enough voice work to joke with his bosses at the precinct, "The night job is becoming the day job."
Sommer is coming into his second career at the right time and in the right place. Video games have burgeoned into a $2.6 billion industry annually and the Bay Area is one of the centers of creative production. Sega and Sony have offices in San Francisco, Electronic Arts is headquartered in Redwood Shores and LucasArts, George Lucas' video game company, is in the Presidio. Also boosting demand for voice actors is an upturn in dialogue-heavy adventure-action games and high-memory consoles that allow for quality audio.
Julian Kwasneski, an audio director and co-founder of Bay Area Sound, a company that specializes in sound production for video games, says the more elaborate adventure games can have as many as 50 speaking parts and more than 100,000 lines of dialogue. A typical first-person shooter game, by comparison, uses only 2,000 lines. Kwasneski says as writers script more characters and dialogue, they also call for more professionals like Sommer, who can easily create 10 characters for a single game.
"Clients like a guy like Brian because he's a 20-trick pony," Kwasneski says. "They don't have to hire an actor for each voice or fly down to L.A. to find talent."
As a kid, Sommer says he and his three brothers drove his parents nuts riffing voices at the dinner table. For years, people told Sommer he had a voice for radio. After hearing a KGO radio spot for Voicetrax, the Sausalito school for voice actors, Sommer enrolled, taking classes when he wasn't patrolling the streets of San Leandro.
Sommer can train his vocal chords to do lots of impressions, but he's found that voice acting is more than making funny sounds. He adheres to the maxim of one of his idols, voice actor Daws Butler (Yogi Bear, Cap'n Crunch), who said, "These are not voices, these are characters."
"Got in the booth the first time and was as nervous as I've ever been," Sommer says. "The second time was like comin' home."
Sommer says at work some of the guys pester him to do the voices; others tell him their kids are playing his games.
He has considered the reports that attempt to connect violent behavior and video games, but believes it's not the games that create violence on his streets, it's the way the kids are brought up.
"Also, I don't think I've done a game where the bad guy doesn't lose in the end," he says.
For a recent gig for the game developer TellTale, Sommer went to Jory Studio in Fairfax to read lines for the popular episodic game Sam & Max.
Sommer was asked to voice a cowardly monster. He hunched his shoulders inward and crouched down, looking up at the microphone. A sort of mournful Englishman came out of his throat.
"Whatever. I'm just a monster with no soul. Who cares about my feelings?"
Sommer read the line three times, so that Chuck Jordan, who wrote the script, and audio director Kwasneski had three versions to choose from.
Unlike animated movies, where the actor can take cues from his character's actions on a screen, the video game actor reads straight from the script, with little or no stage direction.
Kwasneski to Jordan: "The thing is, he hit my on every one of those. Do you think it should be more like, 'Who cares about my feelings?'"
Jordan: "Nah, I think that was right."
Julian: "OK. Then what do you think, A or C?"
Chuck: "Either one is fine."
Jordan: "Let's do C then."
In a little less than an hour, Sommer was finished and out the door. Voice actors can make between $200 to $500 per hour, depending on the client and the size of the project.
Nate Pico, an agent to voice actors for 11 years at San Francisco's Stars Agency, says the market has expanded in recent years, thanks to the growth in digital media. Along with the growth in video games, corporate presentations, Web sites and telephone voice prompts ("Press 8 if you want to return to the menu") are keeping voice actors busy. The influx of work has attracted a much larger talent pool - or, at least, people who think they've got talent.
"Having a nice voice is like having a nice car," Pico says. "But it doesn't mean you know how to drive it."
Samantha Paris, owner of Voicetrax in Sausalito, says in the past few years many of her students have aimed to work in the video games. To accommodate them, she's invited game developers to the school to teach students how to play the games, so they can have a better feel for video characters.
Yet Officer Sommer, who now teaches courses at Voicetrax, has yet to play one of the games he's appeared in.
"The funny thing is," he says, "if someone handed me a controller to a PS2, I wouldn't know what to do with it."
Copyright 2008 The San Francisco Chronicle
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