Interview with Brian Sommer


Brian Sommer does killer voice over. He’s played a lot of bad guys, and in the past has worked for companies such as Blizzard, Sega and UbiSoft. That’s all well and good, but we know Brian from his roles in Telltale’s games as Brady Culture (the villainous child star in Culture Shock) and Jurgen’s Monster (Night of the Raving Dead).

Does Brian have an afro? Who would he hypnotize? Why is he wearing fishnet stockings? All of these questions – and more – can be answered in our interview with the man himself. Read on and fill your brian with Brain. Wait…

Hey Brian, let’s get straight into the basics: Just who are you and how did you wind up in the ol’ voice over biz?

Well Joe, I am the one they call Brian Sommer: Tall of stature, confused in visage, broadly silly. (you should see the size of my business cards!!). However if you wanted a serious answer to that question, I am Brian Sommer: Voice Actor. And JUST a voice actor. None of that on-camera folderol for me thank you.

I wound up in voice over due to my need to hid my hideous physical features from the gaze of the general public. That AND my fascination for the craft which was sparked by listening to re-broadcasts of old radio shows when I was a kid. Shows like Inner Sanctum, The Jack Benny Show, The Great Gildersleeve, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, and The Shadow. The actors in these shows were able to craft such wonderfully rich scenes with just their voices.

I have often said that the spooky castles, vast frontiers, and neighborhood hang outs that I created in my own mind, thanks to the wonderful performances, while listening to these shows, were far more detailed than anything I have SEEN on a movie or TV screen. Our imaginations are boundless.

This initial spark of interest in voice over was solidified by a single performance. As with most baby boomers here in California, I visited Disneyland on a regular basis. One of the (now extinct) attractions at Disneyland was the Adventure Through Inner Space. The narrator/character of that attraction was voiced by Paul Frees (one of my personal idols). The attraction itself was rather void of any splashy special effects, so the rider was mostly there by themselves in the dark with Paul Frees’ voice carrying them through the ride.

Yes, it was slightly campy, slightly over the top, but it really made an impression on me at that age. There was such immediacy and emotion in his delivery. I wanted to learn more about this craft, and those who paved the way.

Were you trained by anyone, or are you just naturally talented at different voices?

My dear Joe, of course all my talent is natural. I simply walked into a recording booth and nailed my very first performance with the skill and craft of a veteran voice man... OK, sounds like you're not going to fall for that. So I will again have to present another serious answer.

I most certainly was trained by someone, several someone’s. Voicetrax is a voice over academy here in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was founded by Samantha Paris who has been in the biz for quite sometime and lent her talents to hundreds of cartoons. Samantha was occasionally a guest on a local radio program and she would talk about the industry and the school. I must have written that phone number down a dozen times before I finally picked up the phone and called.

I signed up for the introductory class and started my training. Eighteen months later I was signed by the largest talent agency in San Francisco, and have been working in the biz ever since.

Samantha, along with many of her instructors, taught me so much about the craft. I learned from talented folks like Thom Pinto, Pat Fraley, Susan Blu, and Tom Chantler. I am honored to say that I am now an instructor at Voicetrax.

Also, although I have never been taught directly by them, I have learned a lot from some of the classic voice actors from the ‘golden era’ of radio. Simply by listening to the performances of brilliantly talented folks like Paul Frees, Daws Butler, June Foray, Bill Scott, and Mel Blanc, I have learned a great deal about bringing characters to life through voice over.

You’ve done some narration work in the past – how does this compare to voice acting in a video game?

It is BORING! (I hope none of the narration producers are reading this). But by comparison, voicing a character is much more enjoyable for me than performing narration.

However if I was to be a purist on the matter, even a narrator is a ‘character’. When you are voicing narration (unless you present it as yourself) you are performing a character that is an expert in the topic being delivered. The audience should believe that the narrator knows what they are talking about AND be entertained.

But characters (in the classic definition) are just so much more fun. The personalities are usually broader. Especially when you are playing the bad guys, as I often do. Narration is expected to be delivered within a narrow scope. It is meant to compliment the visuals. It should never take center stage. If we are listening to David Attenborough tell us about the indigenous creatures on the Galapagos Islands, it simply would be out of place for him to do his best Jerry Lewis and say “HEY LADY, look at the Iguana would ya!”

What do you like the best about being a voice actor?

I would say it is the variety of performances that are available to you. One day I could be doing a medical narration. The next I am trying to take over the universe as a maniacal android.

By the very nature of the craft, it really makes no difference what you LOOK like. Most folks, when they meet me, have no idea that I am actually a 75 year old 4’11” Filipino woman.

If you are the best sounding performance, more times than not, you will be the one to get the job. No matter who you are.

I also just love the feel of the biz. I am equally as entertained by watching someone else at a recording session then I am recording myself. Its a unique craft, and I really like exploring the different approaches other actors take with it. The vast majority of the folks I have met are wonderfully creative, generous, friendly people.

Are there any voice actors who you look up to?

As I previously stated, those talented folks from the Golden Age are among my favorites. Most of them came from Vaudeville and they had BIG character deliveries. Subtlety has it place, but if you really want to get me interested, they they gotta hear you in the balcony.

Such great big character actors came out of that time. You would be surprised to learn how many of the popular current character voices are based on actors from that era. THEY started it all. They set the benchmark.

Just take a look at “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”. One of the best character actor showcases in my opinion. GREAT stuff. They are too many to name, and I always fear inadvertently leaving someone off the list. But kudos to all of them. They are a constant source of inspiration for me.

Contemporary there are several voice actors who’s work I enjoy and am continually impressed by. Corey Burton, Brian Cummings, Billy West, Jim Cummings, Kat Cressida, April Winchell, etc (again I fear leaving folks off the list, there are many many talented folks in the biz these days).

If you weren’t a voice actor, what would you be?

Poor. Thank God I found something at which I am talented. I could be living in a cardboard box behind a grocery store right now.

Is there something (a character, franchise, anything!) that you’d like to voice over for?

I think voicing the lead bad guy in a feature film would be the pinnacle of my career. Being the Disney fan that I am, I have always enjoyed the villains in those great animated features. They are what drives the story. Lets face it, if you take the villain out of an animated feature what do you have? A bunch of animals and cute people running around in a forest singin’ their guts out. YAWN!!! Now add a baddie and you got yerself a show! So if the nice folks over at Disney are reading this... come on! PLEASE!! (My work ethic does allow begging).

What do you get up to when not renting out your voice?

“Renting out” my voice, Joe? You make me sound like I am standing on a corner on Santa Monica Blvd in fishnet stockings. (I am not necessarily saying that I am NOT doing that. Its just a unique way of putting it).

I am a bit of a ‘night child’ so I really enjoy going out to eat, finding new restaurants and night spots, going to the theater, and great conversation (not the ‘texting’ type, the face-to-face type).

I really enjoy teaching at Voicetrax as well. I believe in ‘paying it forward’. There were a lot of folks that helped me out when I was new in the biz, and I like to find and nurture new talented voice actors.

What were your favourite parts about playing Brady Culture and Jurgen’s Monster?

Brady was unique in that he was not your typical villain. Most of the bad guys I have played have at least an aire of confidence about them. Brady was just a whiney boob.

I can remember when the audition came though and it was obvious they were basing the character on some of the classic kid stars of the 70’s (most notably I think was Greg Brady). The way the audition lines were written you could tell they wanted him to be an annoying whiney jerk. If I remember correctly the last line on the audition sides was “Me, Me…what about ME”. (That give you a pretty good idea of who the character is).

I started to think about other child starts from that era that had ‘gone astray”, and Corey Feldman came to mind. He had kind of a raspy voice (even as a kid). So I took that sound, and Greg Brady’s ‘groove’ and put them together to voice Brady Culture. I really laid on the whiney factor on that last audition line.

When I got to the session I was told that was the line that won me the part. They wanted him to be ‘uber’ annoyingly whiney. That may be why some folks do not like the character (or the voice). But that just means I did my job correctly! If the directors wanted him annoying, then most folks are not going to like him. Come on….he’s a bad guy. He is not supposed to be LIKED.

Jurgen’s Monster was a wonderful chance to dig out a classic character voice. The voice of the monster is of course a (bad) impersonation of Boris Karloff (who played Frankenstein’s Monster in the classic Universal films). The audition specifically wanted Karloff’s voice. But I think they actually said they wanted Karloff’s SPEAKING voice. Not the voice he performed as the monster.

Karloff had an interesting side-of-the mouth kind of lisp, so I worked on adding that into the characters voice. The interesting thing about Jurgen’s Monster is the fact that he would switch different body parts during the game. These parts came from different ‘donors’. The monster would take on the personalities of the donor when that body part was added.

So I had to do what is called “layering” with the voice. I had to start with the base Karloff voice and then add in a touch of the donor character. So in some parts of the game the monster is a bit nerdy (a mixture of Karloff and Jerry Lewis doing his Nutty professor), or a environmentalist (a mixture of Karloff and a Hippie tree hugger type). I really had to map out those lines to make sure we were getting the right mixture of the two characters. Not an easy task.

Is your hair as awesome as Brady’s? Would you consider getting it styled like his?

Hey listen, I lived through the ’70’s. I ain’t going back!!! Its not just the hair, it was the CLOTHES. There wasn’t a piece of clothing that was made from natural fiber throughout that whole decade. Well, except for the Hemp pants. These days I have a nice respectable buzz cut, and a really cheesy mustache.

If you could hypnotize someone like Brady could, who would it be and what would you get them to do?

This would be a great opportunity for me to be altruistic. “I would hypnotize all the world leaders so we could live in peace.” But there is a fat chance of that ever happening so... I would send an encrypted hypnotic statement with each of my auditions saying “Brian, Brian, you must choose Brian”. Then when I got mega rich, I would just buy off the political leaders and we could take a crack at the world peace thing.

Brady Culture’s ‘hideout’ was in an abandoned theatre. If you were an evil genius, where would you locate yourself?

Oh that’s an easy one. I have always wanted to occupy the second floor of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. What a GREAT place to have an apartment. So that would be my lair. I could set up my ray gun in the cupola.

Do you play the Sam & Max games when they come out? If so, is it weird hearing your own voice coming from the characters?

OK, here is the irony of the whole thing. The vast majority of my voice over work is in video games. But I haven’t the slightest idea how to play them. If you handed me a PS2 controller I would just stare at it, hit it against my head and then try to bite it. I am not what you could call ‘tech savvy”. Thank god I am not paid to play them.

As far as listening to the character after it is released, I am HORRIBLE at that. It takes, at the very minimum, six months for me to be able to listen to one of my projects with an open mind. Otherwise all I am doing is critiquing my performance and can not enjoy the character. So stuff I did years ago, I can actually listen to and honestly get wrapped up in the character and the scene.

Sam or Max: who’s better?

Sam is such a lovable easy going guy. But give me the over-the-top psychotic characters any day. Max.

Any good stories from a recording session?

It is generally business-as-usual when we go into a session. Yes we do have some fun, but you have to remember the video game industry is a multi-BILLION dollar biz. So messing around on the man’s dime is just not something you want to do as a professional. I have snuck in a few ad-libs here and there. Some made it into games, some were immediately erased from the universe.

I think for me professionally the best sessions are when everyone involved is hitting on all cylinders. The VO talent, the director, the writer, the engineers. When things click. I certainly feed off of the energy of a good session. Its great sometimes when the director is not exactly sure where they want to take the character. That is when my impute is called for. We bounce ideas off one another and try out different things. If it is a comedy piece I try my best to get them rolling in the aisles. When you got them ‘eating out of your hand’ you can ad-lib just about anything. They trust you.

Thanks for the interview, Brian. What does the future hold for you? Season three, perhaps?

Well strangely enough, I did get called into the studio a few weeks ago for Sam and Max. However, at this point that is all I can say about the up coming season. Those pesky Non-Disclosure statements can be nasty things you know.

Lets just hope I live up to the great quality and entertainment value that this franchise has had for so many years. I have often said that “Ultimately I work for the fans.” So a big thanks to all of you folks out there that are fans of Sam and Max and have played the games. Game on !