Extra: Talking Zelda – An Interview with Sean Chiplock

On April 6, 2017 by Jason Rechtman

Extra: Talking Zelda - An Interview with Sean Chiplock

Hyrule finally found its voice. Game after game, fans debated the idea of voice acting coming to the Zelda series, and at long last it happened with Breath of the Wild. Every cutscene in Link’s latest adventure is fully voiced by a cast of seven voice actors, who often pulled double or even triple duty to keep all of Hyrule’s inhabitants talking. But what’s it like to be behind the microphone for a franchise as big as Zelda? To find out, we went straight to the source with Sean Chiplock, the voice of Revali, Teba, and the Great Deku Tree. A gamer himself, Chiplock can already be heard in games such as Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse, Killer Instinct, and Zero Escape remaster The Nonary Games. Now, he’s in arguably Nintendo’s biggest game ever – and we’ve got all sort of questions! Read on to learn about the recording experience, how you too can break into voice acting, and why Breath of the Wild is the Mad Max of Nintendo games.

Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions, Sean! Let’s start at the very beginning: what led you to voice acting?

You can blame both Adult Swim and Neopets for that; Neopets for keeping me up until 3:30 AM, and Adult Swim for advertising their website so much in a single night that I finally got curious enough to check it out. From there, I found a “Behind the Scenes” video for an upcoming episode of Trinity Blood, featuring Troy Baker in the studio as he recorded for Abel Nightroad, and it was then that I discovered that all those times I would make voices for the characters in my Nintendo 64 games actually had a career that paid for that. Suddenly high-schooler me – who previously had only moderate interest in his favorite subject but no real desire for any particular fields of study – had found this little activity that just clicked with him in a way previously unknown, and I knew that whatever the heck this ‘voiceover’ thing was I NEEDED to be a part of it.

At the start, it just became a way for me to funnel all of my silliness and energy into something productive, but as I have progressed in this industry it has evolved into something grander and more complex. A way for me to go on adventures that aren’t possible in the real world. A way for me to entertain people from around the world. But perhaps most importantly, a way for me to be able to be there to entertain them on a whim even when I myself have already passed on.

This is the first Zelda game to feature voice acting. Did you know going into it that you’d be part of such a legendary series? What was your reaction when you got the part(s)?

Although I hadn’t already guessed what the audition was for by the time I finished auditioning, I put the pieces together pretty quickly after thinking about concept art and the character sides… and spent the next few weeks dancing between thoughts of, “No way, there’s just absolutely no way” and, “BUT IT WOULD MAKE SO MUCH SENSE AT THIS POINT”.

As soon as I was cast, though, my entire thought process regarding the game flipped completely from fanboy-level excitement to extreme professional focus. Considering that The Legend of Zelda’s only other franchise comparison for voiceover involved a series of games known and parodied the world over as little more than a mockery, I was well aware that any voiceover in another Zelda game would be closely scrutinized and critiqued just on principle; I was determined to not let that happen again with such an important entry in the franchise, no matter how much time and effort it took.

At first my only role was Deku Tree, and although I was happy to be part of such a monumental franchise (and voicing a character established throughout MANY of the previous games within it), I was at least a little saddened that I hadn’t also snagged Revali, whom I had come to love just from his character description. This is why when in the middle of a session, when I was asked if I would like to do some sample readings for a particularly cocky bird, I sincerely hope that the microphone sensitivity was turned all the way down in time to mask the near-shriek of excitement I let out. Here was my chance to take a character I was enthralled so much by, and be put in charge of making sure they were given the best vocal performance possible.

The funniest part about Revali was that it wasn’t just my audition that helped land the role (it was still the biggest portion by far, don’t get me wrong), but quite possibly also my ability to be a massive shameless fanboy. According to the director, I literally could not contain myself from widening my eyes and giving out small squees of excitement every time he showed up on a sample clip, not unlike a young child getting their first real look at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom Castle. Somehow, my overjoyed noises had been live-recorded/shared directly with individuals over at a different studio who played a part in determining the final cast; it turned out that they were very interested in having cast members who were as passionate about their product as they themselves needed to be.

Teba was much less interesting in comparison, as he was thrown in as an option in the middle of Revali’s sessions – at this point I had proven myself capable of hitting different vocal ranges, and so it was just a matter of finding out on-the-spot if I was able to provide something functionally different from my other two roles but still believable for the character. Thankfully, his description plus his differences from Deku Tree and Revali made this process quite manageable, and I was able to have the immense joy of having TWO lovable birds on my portfolio.

This is why it’s important to remember that it’s OKAY to be excited and/or proud about the work you do as a voice actor; this profession is supposed to be fun. It’s incredible, it’s unique, and we get to have some of the coolest adventures ever while being paid for the privilege to do so. Sometimes letting our inner geek show can be a great thing, as long as it’s contained within a professional context. And in Teba’s case, it’s a great example of the whole “opportunity + preparedness = success” formula, because his audition was little more than a split second performance based off two minutes of information that demanded all of my character-creation experience be put into play.

Revali, a member of the Rito tribe who has quickly become a fan favorite.

How did you decide on each voice? Did Nintendo give a lot of guidance or did you have leeway to make the characters your own?

Perhaps ironically enough, all three of my characters had varying placements on the spectrum between being my own creation and being a result of the desires of the company or director.

Revali – who I thought would be the easiest of the three to work through because of how much background work I placed into creating a personality for him before my first session – was actually the most gruelingly difficult character to nail down. Even though I DID have an extremely bold/solid character choice for him going into the studio, the people in charge already had very specific ideas in mind for what they wanted – ideas that did not necessarily mesh with my own creation. I went from having a complete character already penned out, to having to scrap nearly every detail of my creation and hang on the word of the director for guidelines on what to do. However, I think it worked out for the better as a result; because of this, Revali ended up as an overtly confident Champion with a nuance of demanding only the best from his partners/rivals, rather than a cocky and obnoxious blowhard who was nothing but a pain to collaborate with.

For Deku Tree, I had always envisioned him as having this sort of ‘worldly wisdom age’ warble to his voice that’s sort of a less intimidating Gandalf, which likely would fit quite well with his Ocarina of Time incarnation. While that wise/quirky old sage couldn’t completely come out for his voice this time around, I did get to keep the slow, calming pace to his speech as well as the touch of Ye Olde English enunciation hinting at ages past. Deku Tree was definitely the most physically demanding of the three, as it was not possible for me to consistently stay in his vocal range unless my body was in a state of complete relaxation; how fitting, when you think about it!

My personal favorite has to be Teba, though, because his voice was in fact 100% my creation. Once I saw his in-game model I had a firm idea of how he would sound to me, and the director(s) completely agreed with what I presented to them. Teba is ‘mine’ in the sense that he was fully implemented as-is without adjustments to what I’d had in mind (in sharp contrast to Revali), and so that makes him particularly special to me through being my first professional vocal ownership as an actor.

Similarly, was there any wiggle room for ad libbing? If so, did anything make it into the final game that perhaps you didn’t expect?

In this case, there was definitely no wiggle room that I can recall. Usually in videogames you won’t have every single line mapped to a specific timestamp and there will be cases where you can play with words, but with this game any voiced line also was part of a cutscene with established lengths of speech segments, and that meant having to match the lip (or beak) flaps exactly. I imagine Revali was actually one of the easiest to accomplish this with, as he only had two mouth states – open and closed – whereas all of the human-like characters had actual consonant and vowel shapes to their mouth movements. Nevertheless, it was incredibly difficult at times to fit everything that needed to be said to the precise frames in which the characters spoke, all while maintaining the proper level of energy and at least a reasonable amount of realism to the cadence.

Do you have any favorite lines or moments from the game?

For some reason I’m really fond of Revali’s line when he coos Vah Medoh while talking about how long they’ve been waiting, and that it’s just ‘a little bit longer’ until they can finally get to work. I really ramped up the level of affection to where it feels like he’s baby-talking to a beloved family pet, and that made it really funny/endearing to me.

You can hear that same kind of fondness in Deku Tree’s line when he talks about how Zelda’s radiance felt like warm sun rays to him. I actually think I fell a little bit out of character at that moment because it began to sound TOO soft for a deep-rooted hardwood tree, but at the same time it’s also one of those rare moments where you get to hear the real grandfatherly kindness that embodies him seep through via his voice.

Teba and the Great Deku Tree, respectively Chiplock’s favorite and most physically demanding.

Revali, Teba, and the Deku Tree are drastically different personality wise. Which character spoke to you the most (no pun intended)?

To be honest, I think this is the first time where I didn’t directly relate to any of the characters I played.

Revali is smarmy/sarcastic (which I can often be with my humor), but he uses it in a rather mean way even when he means well. It’s too much to be considered similar to the kind of insults close friends throw at each other.

Teba and I share a lot in our seriousness towards our goals; when I get hyper-focused on something it can make nearly everything else “pointless” until the task at hand is done. But he also emotionally keeps others at bay, which is not at all how I act around those I trust/respect.

The Deku Tree places a LOT of patience and faith in the idea that others will get the job done, but I’m very impatient/distrusting when it comes to wanting something done right, especially if it’s an idea originally brewed inside my mind. Then again, he’s also rooted firmly in place where he exists, and once I get engrossed in a game I like we pretty much share that sedentary lifestyle in every sense.

You’ve had lots of experience voice acting, both in video games and other mediums. Were there any past experiences you drew on for your work in Breath of the Wild? 

Part of why I thought Revali would be the simplest character to develop a voice for is because so much of my voiceover history involves self-absorbed or overly cocky rivals – Gruda from Ys: Memories of Celceta, Zenke from Fairy Fencer F, and Spade from Freedom Planet all come to mind, along with Santa from The Nonary Game now that the remake has been released. Even though the degree of his sarcasm and attitude was lessened, it definitely was still there, and my familiarity with the character archetype is part of what allowed me to find success in portraying him even despite those setbacks.

Teba actually shares a lot in his voice from the character Sheen in an animated series called Bedfellows, which just recently released a game on Steam. The only major difference is that I removed a lot of the internal aggression and anger from Sheen’s voice, replacing it instead with a matter-of-fact curtness that made everything sound straight to the point rather than argumentative. This fit much more in line with Teba’s reserved personality, and prevented him from also coming off like a bully in similarity to Revali.

Deku Tree, in contrast, was brand new for me, and was the result of careful brainstorming and practice with my mentor. My original approach was a much huskier and rougher old man, but I have often struggled with maintaining truly deep voices. Instead, we played to my strengths with breath control and made him into a wiser, calmer, and somewhat breathier alternative – a creature whose intimidating wisdom shows through his control of the conversation flow, rather than the boom in his voice. This was a case where I knew I was capable of creating a fitting voice, but just needed a little guidance to help me realize how to best accomplish that with my vocal range.

The one character that doesn’t speak in Breath of the Wild is of course Link. What’s your own personal take on Link remaining silent, even as the rest of Hyrule found their voices for the first time?

Can I just be honest and say that I’m not at all bothered by Link not having a voice beyond his utterances? Or rather, that I’ve so solidly cemented his Japanese VA as ‘the’ voice in my mind that I can’t really find myself wanting to change it? I went through a similar experience when I heard Corey Sevier as Megaman Volnutt in Mega Man Legends/64 and thought, “That’s it. That’s the most fitting voice I’ve ever heard for a Mega Man incarnation. Nothing else will ever seem right in comparison”. I suppose I was wrong though, considering how amazingly Mark Gatha killed it as the voice of X in Maverick Hunter X, but I guess the argument can be made that as far as Breath of the Wild goes, having minimal voicework on Link was for the better.

To me, Breath of the Wild always felt like a Nintendo version of Mad Max – the story not of the main character, but of the world he finds himself involved in, and the lives of the people and communities he briefly visits. He exists so that we can become engrossed in this fantastic environment and learn about all these troubles that we can help solve before parting ways and seeking our next adventure, and something like that doesn’t necessarily require the hero to be speaking all the time. Just like in real life, a lot of the best stories surface when you listen to others more than you speak for yourself.

“Breath of the Wild always felt like a Nintendo version of Mad Max” – Chiplock

What advice would you give to aspiring voice actors?

Look for opportunity in everything. You might not be big into stage acting, but working with others can teach you how to ‘react’ rather than simply perform. Online or freelance jobs are great at teaching you personal accountability, time management, and the technique of marketing yourself. Learn to operate on a sense of community rather than rivalry or jealousy; your peers are some of your strongest assets when it comes to building your connection network, and many of the animators and directors you work with today could very well be the studio heads or company owners of the future. Remember that even moments of ‘failure’ are not complete wastes of time and effort, as long as you go back and discern what parts went well vs. what you could have improved or done differently. And don’t be afraid to fail in the first place – none of my success with Breath of the Wild would have happened if I’d let myself become too scared to audition just because it was such a monumental project to consider.

This doesn’t mean you need to be a Yes Man (or Woman) to everything that comes your way, but you shouldn’t be afraid to tackle something that interests you. The Deku Tree was originally the only role I’d been cast for, and yet it’s the one role that most people find completely surprising to have been voiced by me because of how different he is to my normal pitch! Perhaps that ball would have never started rolling – and thus the other two roles never would have been offered – if I had given up on the character after seeing the sides just because I assumed it wasn’t possible for me to do a voice that would fit. Trying is how you discover; practicing is how you improve.

Outside of voice acting and Zelda, you’re big on the Smash Bros. scene, going as far as to be the #1 Mega Man on the West Coast. What other games are your go-tos when you have downtime?

I am huge on dungeon crawlers, especially many of the newer JRPGs to have come out in recent years. Demon Gaze, Etrian Odyssey, Criminal Girls, Operation Abyss/Babel, etc. have all been wonderful experiences and rank very highly on my list of games I’d happily revisit if my backlog weren’t so enormous (I actually co-wrote the most comprehensive English non-walkthrough guide for Demon Gaze available on the net today). However, my other biggest weakness is “animal companions” – if you can capture/recruit/train/evolve creature buddies to fight alongside you, it is a safe bet I will become quickly and thoroughly addicted to it. Jade Cocoon 2, Bomberman 64: The Second Attack, the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon series, and Dragon Warrior Monsters all fell into this collection, and it’s a darn shame that Terry’s Wonderland never got greenlit for a Western localization (HINT HINT, NINTENDO).

Additionally, the Mega Man Battle Network series as a whole defined most of my older childhood, and considering the fact that its developers had no other games of its type to reference when starting the series, it is simply amazing what they accomplished around the theme of technology and the Internet. To this day, I daydream of a future where I can actually volunteer my time to defeat personified Viruses with my own personal NetNavi.

And finally, perhaps the most hard-hitting question of them all: which Zelda game is your all-time favorite and why?

Link’s Awakening will always hold a special place in my heart, not simply because it was the first game in the franchise I ever finished completely, but also because it was the grandest adventure my childhood self had ever embarked on. I still fondly remember how long I spent stuck at “that one dungeon room” with the specific enemy order puzzle you had to do (many of you probably know the exact one), to the extent that 7-year-old me asked the manager of our local Art Van Furniture for help while my parents were shopping; bless his soul, he really did do everything he could to assist me, including calling his daughter (who was away at college) to see if she knew anything. When I finally got past that cursed puzzle, the rest of the game waiting ahead felt like an incredible reward, even if future areas also proved somewhat frustrating. I’M LOOKING AT YOU, EAGLE’S TOWER.

I would eventually come back many years later to beat it the proper way; first, without dying… and more importantly, by legitimately purchasing that darned Shovel. RIP my thumbs, as well as my THIEF nickname.

Special thanks to Sean Chiplock for answering our questions, as well as to Nintendo for facilitating this interview. You can find Sean on Twitter @sonicmega.

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