LucasArts' Secret History #12: The Curse of Monkey Island The Voice: Dominic Armato
How did your career in voice acting come about? What credits did you have before Monkey Island?
I actually got started in VO when I was six or seven. I had designs on movies and commercials and was auditioning (mostly unsuccessfully) for the same, but my agent at the time (Still the same one, actually... second mother :-) thought I might do well with voiceover, so she sent me on an audition just for the heck of it. Cherry Switzer, I believe. And I had the good fortune to book the first audition they sent me on. VO work in Chicago, where I grew up, is almost exclusively commercial and industrial (internal corporate non-broadcast stuff), so while I worked regularly until I moved to L.A. at 18, none of it was the kind of stuff you'd find on IMDB. Most notable was probably that I voiced animated kids in just about every Cap'n Crunch commercial in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. As I recall, the first one I did officially marked the end of the Soggies. Momentous.
How did you land the iconic role of Guybrush Threepwood? How old were you?
Same as most any other role. I was a recent import to Los Angeles at the time and... 19 years old, I think? I'd stop in my agent's office 2-3 times every week to read audition copy. I'd moved to L.A. primarily to do character VO (cartoons, video games and such) and was starting to get in front of people and get a little work. I did a very small one episode guest spot on Aaahh!!! Real Monsters and was pretty excited about the prospect of doing more character VO. The funny thing was that – literally -- less than two weeks before I auditioned for Guybrush, a friend asked offhand what my dream VO job would be. I said it depended on the medium. For film? Anything Disney/Pixar. TV? Guest spot on the Simpsons. Interactive? Guybrush Threepwood in Monkey Island 3. The funny thing was that as remote as my chances were on the first two, I actually considered Guybrush the least likely. It had been a loooooong time since MI2, and I assumed the series was forever dead. Then, about a week later, I walked into my agent's office, picked up the copy, and there's a character description for Guybrush Threepwood. It was one of those "there's no way in HELL anybody else is getting this role" moments. And nobody else did :-)
Were you a fan of Monkey Island or LucasArts adventure games in general before you heard about the casting call?
If it weren't already evident from the previous question, ho buddy, yes. I'm appropriately game-obsessed for my age bracket (probably a little more than average), point-and-click adventures were my favorite genre, and Monkey Island was the holy grail. I'd played some of the other LucasArts adventure games – Loom, Indy, Full Throttle, Sam & Max – but while all were great, and some were drop-dead hysterical, none were as flat-out loveable as Monkey Island.
What was Darragh O'Farrell like to work with?
Darragh (who I believe is still at LucasArts!) is a great guy, and one of the few directors I've worked with whom I consider a real friend. Of course, the fact that we spent so much time together -- about 200 hours in the studio together between the MI games (not to mention the Star Wars projects I worked on) – probably has a little to do with that :-) He's very candid, which I appreciate. Many directors don't want to ruffle feathers so they're afraid to be critical. It's always "Hey, that's great, and..." I think he figured out early on that I'm the kind of person to whom he could just say, "You know, that read sucked, do it better," and I wasn't going to take it personally. For me, there's nothing more frustrating than when you know a director isn't happy with what you're doing, but isn't being straightforward about what s/he thinks. That was never an issue with Darragh, and I loved it. Plus, Darragh understood that doing a huge volume of interactive VO is tiring. It's not like a cartoon session where you can kind of get amped up, go in with a ton of energy for an hour and knock the whole thing out. I spent almost 100 hours in the studio for each Monkey Island game, and he understood that to keep the energy up with that volume of work, you kind of have to take it easy a bit – blow through material when it's flowing, but don't push, take a break, screw around a bit, and back at it. Otherwise performances start to get forced and the energy suffers. Oh, and soccer (football) stories. Lots and lots of soccer stories. Arsenal's his team, I believe (he's Irish – surprise). The stories were Greek to a yank like me, but I appreciated the enthusiasm :-)
Do you remember about how many voice sessions there were, the intervals between, the rough amount of lines recorded during each?
As mentioned above, I remember doing close to 100 hours on each game... somewhere in the neighborhood of 22-24 four-hour sessions total, but they were spread out a little funny. First I'd go in just for a session or two to record whatever they needed for the demos as well as all of the cutscene material, since the animation is done to match the voice. Then there would be a break for a number of months before the bulk of the script was recorded. We recorded two sessions a day – morning and afternoon – for about three, maybe three and a half weeks, with the occasional day or half day off while he recorded one of the other characters. Then the waiting. I hated the waiting. Once the voice was done, there was a long break. I think about 6-9 months? While the game was completed. They'd bring me in for one more session for a few quick pick-up lines – anything they'd missed or that didn't quite come out right – and the game was released shortly thereafter.
It's my understanding that the cutscene sessions take place significantly before the in-game dialog is recorded. How much of the story were your privy to when performing?
As mentioned, the cutscenes were done well before the bulk of the recording so that the animations could be done to match voice – though that isn't the case for most games today, since most game engines do the lip animations automatically. At the time, I only got the broad strokes of the story, partially because they were still deep in the writing process. Those big story landmarks were worked out pretty early, but the details were largely filled in later, I believe. Of course, I knew how the story would begin and end and I'd know about a couple of key scenes along the way, but only in the most rudimentary fashion.
Were you given room to make suggestions and improvise, or were you forced to stick to the script?
The nature of interactive is that you really need to stick to the script. I'm not privy to the technical/procedural issues involved, but apparently changing lines is kind of a big pain. ‘Sides which, the guys writing the script were funnier than me, anyway :-) The one place where I had a little wiggle room was with the songs Guybrush sings at the Barbery Coast in CMI. They'd already written the lyrics, but whether by design or oversight, there were no tunes. We got to that point in the script right before lunch, so I asked Darragh to let me play with them a bit during the break and record them when we came back. So I sat in the car for 20-30 minutes, making up little tunes and singing them to myself, and then we came back and laid them down. This was, however, the grand exception.
Was there ever a need to do recording sessions over due to rewrites? Were there ever any last minute sessions for this reason, or was the script basically locked down?
A little. Occasionally they'd fax over some additional lines or changes, but for the most part the script was pretty well set. Then, as mentioned, there was a session for pickups close to the release of the game. Given the size of the script – a binder about 6-7 inches thick – it's remarkable they managed to keep everything as organized as they did.
How much of the game did you actually get to see while it was being developed?
Not very much. I got to see some sketches, a few scenes, just enough to get a sense of the look -- but the game was a long way from completion when the bulk of the recording was done. The sprites for the characters hadn't even been made, so most of the characters were represented by tiny Full Throttle characters that were about a foot high (in the scale of the game, of course). I don't pretend to understand the technical reasons why. But it was amusing to see a tiny Ben reading piratey lines.
What's your favorite Monkey Island game as a fan?
I don't know that I can divorce my fandom from my participation at this point, but my totally biased gut feeling is that CMI is the most special to me, due in no small part to the fact that I was on could nine the whole time I was recording it. It's the work I'm most proud of, and I don't know that I'm capable of setting that aside and looking at it objectively anymore.
Which production was the most enjoyable to work on, The Curse of Monkey Island or Escape from Monkey Island? How did the two games compare from a voice acting perspective?
I'd say Curse, but only because of the total exhilaration of working on a LucasArts game for the first time. With EMI, In terms of the work environment, it was like deja vu – same studio, same director, same in-jokes – it was like we never stopped recording. From an acting perspective, it was a little different, but not significantly. We talked about Guybrush before recording and agreed that with a ring on his finger and Elaine at his side, he should probably sound a touch older, maybe be a bit more confident, more prone to boast, a touch less naive – emphasis on a touch. But for me, the biggest concern was just to ensure I was basically doing the same thing I'd done last time, which wasn't difficult. There are characters that are hard, but for me, Guybrush is easy. I'm... uh... probably a little too close to him :-)
What sort of communication was there between you and the project leaders of the games? Did Jonathan Ackley/Larry Ahern (the Monkey3 leads) or Sean Clark/Mike Stemmle (the Monkey4 leads) ever give any input to you, or was it basically all left to you and the voice director?
I actually had very little interaction with the project leaders. My memory's a little fuzzy, but I believe either Jonathan or Larry or both were present for my first session or two on CMI, but the rest was just between me and Darragh. And with EMI, I don't recall if I met Sean and Mike before we recorded or after the fact. I'm sure they were listening to what we were doing and talking about it with Darragh to some extent, but the impression I get is that it's all about delegation. He's the voice director and bringing home great takes is his job.
Were there any situations for either of the games you voiced where you were in the studio with other actors (for example, the musical sections), or were you always alone?
I worked alone almost all of the time. Bringing actors together in the studio is great, but it's not economically feasible for a large-scale adventure game with so much dialogue. There were a few exceptions, however. Probably the most enjoyable session ever was when we recorded the pirate song for CMI ("A pirate I was meant to be, trim the sails and roam the sea!"). It was a rare opportunity to meet and work with the other actors (fine and exceptionally talented gentlemen, all – I felt kind of like a puny little VO actor, actually), and what's more fun than singing a rollicking sea shanty with three guys possessed of deep, gravely voices and questionable pitch? :-) It was truly a blast. Then, with EMI, I got to record a few of the cutscenes with other actors, but I'm embarrassed to admit that I don't recall who, precisely... it's been a long time :-(
Do you still do voice acting for video games?
A little! Not so much. I moved back home to Chicago in 2001 and that was pretty much the end of character work for me. It's just that the bulk of that work is done on the West Coast. But contrary to info out there, I never stopped doing VO. I just went back to the kind of commercial work that constitutes the bulk of the Chicago market. But the opportunity to do some character work still pops up every now and again. A couple of years back I did a few characters for Crysis – random pilots, marines, that kind of thing. Lots of screaming and dying. Fun stuff :-) Now my wife's work has taken us to Baltimore and we're actually off to Boston shortly, so I'm working VO even less these days, but I still manage to squeeze in a little every now and again.
Has anybody ever recognized your voice in real life? Have you encountered people on the street who go, "Hey, Guybrush!"
Oh, gosh no. My voice is close enough to Guybrush's that I'm sure you could pick me out of a lineup with ease, but it's still a character. I don't actually talk like that. I don't think. Well... maybe not to that degree. Anyway, short answer, no :-)
Tell us a little about your cooking blog.
Ha! It's just a hobby. I was always a food nerd but that kind of turned into an obsession about 5-6 years ago. I was keeping a little food diary and my wife suggested that I put it online because her family was curious about the places we were going. Then the Chicago Tribune did a story on taking photographs in restaurant for food blogs, and they featured me, and suddenly I actually had readers. I still keep it up when I'm not completely buried in other things, though these days more people stop by to read about Top Chef than anything else. Which is cool by me. The Top Chef Power Rankings take discussing the show to an unhealthy and absurd (and hopefully obviously self-aware) level of obsession, and it's put me in touch with some people in the restaurant world that it's really an honor to speak to, but the main reason I keep it going is for myself – a diary to record and look back on my (food-related) experiences, thoughts and ideas. Which is a good thing, because as you're well aware, there's a desperate shortage of food blogs on the internet.
If a Monkey Island 5 were ever put into production, would you consider reprising the role of Guybrush?
Consider it?!? They'd have to set up a security detail to keep me out of the studio if they tried to hire somebody else! I'm... uh... a little possessive when it comes to Guybrush :-) In all seriousness, though, there's nothing I'd love more. Like I said, the Monkey Island series is the work I'm most proud of, and I miss it. A lot. It's been a long, long time and I held out hope for a while, but finally gave up a few years ago. If it were ever to happen, I'd consider it a wonderful surprise. But I'm not holding my breath :-(
(Editor's note: whilst replying to the above question, Dominic had already become involved in the remake of Monkey Island 1, as well as the new Monkey Island adventures from Telltale, but could not tell us about them at the time of this article! "It was hard. Reeeeeeeally hard," he commented on this site. "Sorry about that... I had to lie, but I didn't enjoy it!")