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Mike Hillard - Voice Actor, Musician, Artist, Evil Scientist
Interview by muddasheep, September 22nd 2015, 18:41:37
Chances are, if you're reading this, you're already acquainted with the voice of Mike Hillard: He lent his vocal chords to Dr. Isaac Kleiner in Black Mesa (which is the total remake of Half-Life, I hope you didn't have to look that up), and to Red, a character in the Penumbra series, among others. He has also stepped in to represent Somos in Halfquake Sunrise - which is why I'm honored to have him here, answering a handful of questions.


How about a little introduction of yourself?

Mike: Hello, my name is Mike "CornetTheory" Hillard. I am a voice actor, likely best known from Black Mesa, the re-imagining of Half Life in Valve's Source Engine. Through years of repeating lines from the game I have been successful in imitating the amazing Hal Robbins, as the voice of Dr. Kleiner, and the rest of the generic scientists. I also record multi-track brass for songs, mostly trumpet.

A short story of how I got here:
I started level designing with the build engine, and Duke 3d, all the way up till UT2004 -- as most of my published level design work was done for Deathmatch in UT2004. I joined a clan that was more for content creators called A!M (Arena Masters). Some of the folks in the clan created "Team Arena Masters" - a very successful "custom game mode" that is currently still one of the leading game modes for UT2004. I tried to help out by doing my very best impression of the UT announcer.

That gave me the inspiration to try pursuing other voice related things. In a coincidence, the Unreal mod "Tactical Ops: Crossfire", where I did the voice commands - one of the sound guys asked me to try some stuff on a little project of his, and that ended up being "Penumbra: Overture", the first game by Frictional Games. I worked at a radio station in 2006, then passed the audition for Black Mesa in early 2007. Since then I have been in several mods and commercial games.


You're certainly a man with many different skill sets - musician, artist, voice actor, level designer; what's your strongest talent in your opinion?

Mike: This might be a non-answer, but maybe the talent is about combining these varied skills to be able to come up with wacky ideas and solutions to solve problems.


How did you start offering your voice acting skills?

Mike: Working for WFLM, I was thrown into proper audio production, and I was able to produce my demo material from the commercials I made there. Having a properly planned demo that shows off different aspects of the voice is really important to grabbing folks' attention while looking for work.


Is voice acting in games your main profession? Is it difficult to explain to people?

Mike: In the past I have been an IT Professional, but now I am working with several teams making games right now, and not just in voice acting. And thanks to engines such as Source and Unreal, I can do a little programming, and a little art all along too. In some cases I do recruiting and casting for other voices.


What's your general approach to voice acting? How do you get into character?

Mike: Drink water, warm up with singing or reading any text at all. Everything sounds hilarious as an advertisement. I read the script, and try a bunch of different things. For me, I'm always in character. My friends hate me.


How many takes do you usually record before you're satisfied? Do you ever reach a point where things sound weird to you due to repetition?

Mike: Sometimes it helps to do other sections of the script and come back later to problem areas. Reading a script from top to bottom, there is a chance that the performance changes over time. Like any artist, I'm never really satisfied, so having a director (or maybe just a friend listening in) really helps pin it down.


Have you ever stumbled upon a word you were absolutely unsure how to pronounce?

Mike: One of the things I have contracted for, is lawyer settlement videos. So sometimes there are lengthy medical terms, or names that the pronunciation could go two different ways. I usually go for dictionary.com and a couple other alternatives... or I'll try to find the word in context. One time I had to look for a place name in Florida that has an obscure Native Indian name, so I looked up the local news in that area on YouTube to see if I could find someone pronouncing it.


Do you only offer English voice acting? Are multiple English accents in your repertoire?

Mike: English only so far, though I have been asked on occasion to try other languages phonetically as stand-in stuff. I would love to fully voice Dr. Kleiner in Japanese, I think I could pull it off if someone translates it for me.


Which special precautions do you take to protect your voice?

Mike: I try not to yell a lot. I hear stories about folks such as the cast of Dragonball Z where they are all remarkable throats that can take that kind of repetitive abuse, (the actress in Excel Saga actually injured herself I think?) but I haven't had a script like that yet. For projects like Black Mesa, I did the yelling parts all at once in a given session, partly to protect the voice, and partly to keep the mic adjusted for that level of volume.


Have you ever had to act live in front of an audience, and if so, what was the experience like?

Mike: When I was younger, I did some summer acting classes and performances, but I think by then I had already been a performer as a trumpet player, and was used to the audience. I get super nervous like everyone else, but I like to think that no one is around when I do it. Stage lights help, it makes it harder to see individuals in the audience.


Have you ever rejected an offer? Is there anything in particular you'd never do?

Mike: I try to keep my performances clean, as a personal preference. I feel like an old guy that thinks true comedy is in wordplay and not cursing or being overly sexual or political. That said, I have done racy things in the past that were pretty funny, I just don't want to be defined by that sort of thing. Now, Drama is a different thing, and if a script called for me to be derogatory or sexual in a serious setting, I would not mind nearly as much.


What was your best or worst experience in your career so far? Any interesting anecdotes?

Mike: The Lawyer scripts are overall depressing, because I'm reading about someone who got injured or died. So there's that.

I still have folks tell me that Red from Penumbra is the best character ever. It was a very challenging first gig: That character was written as someone who was of eastern European descent, but not specifically of a country. A lot of those sessions were about not sounding too German, or too Russian. So, he has a vague accent... And he has only read English from books, and has been locked underground, alone, for his entire adult life. He uses phrases the wrong way, and has no idea about how spoken language should go outside of his early childhood memories. Ultimately we were able to get something consistent, and it ended up pretty cool and unique.


What was it like working with the Black Mesa team?

Mike: Actually, when I first got brought on, I sounded nothing like Kleiner [Hal Robbins]. My audition material is pretty far off. There were plans in 2007 to have several scientist voices for the general chatter, a young and an old guy... along with a couple different females. I recorded all ~700 of my written chatter lines in one night, chopped and named them all as wavs. But as the project wore on and I got older, I got progressively closer to Hal's voice when we were recording the non-chatter scripted scenes (over the course of two or three years.) So to make the voice match, I re-did all the lines from the chatter. After two or three times re-doing all of the voices in the game, we had it much more consistent. I'll also add that over the course of 7 years, I got better equipment and rooms to record, so that factors in as well. Overall, combined with Kevin Sisk and Ben Truman's direction, we spent a lot of time on Skype directing each other, and continually improving it over a long period of time.

Nearly every project I have done involved other actors, and the best performances are the ones where we can be in the same Skype call and play off of each other.


Any fond memories of working on The Ball?

Mike: As a UT2004 player and level designer, it was always really cool to work with Sjoerd De Jong, the guy that made DM-Rankin, among other great levels.


Do you usually provide game or script suggestions to the rest of the development team?

Mike: Of course, as I have done more and more projects, I have been able to provide better input. Sometimes a script looks good on paper, but sounds bad when spoken, it happens. Sometimes I am asked to just improvise lines too. One thing I learned when doing radio advertisements, is predicting how long a script will take to read, to make sure it fits in 30 or 60 seconds, etc.


What are you currently working on?

Mike: Black Mesa and a few unannounced projects.


What would be your dream role as a voice actor?

Mike: I would love to do more cartoons.


Who is your biggest inspiration? Any favorite voice actors?

Mike: Hal Robbins is the man. Classy as hell. Mel Blanc is huge. And the narrator from King's Quest 6, Bill Ratner, is the sound of my inner monologue.


Has any role ever left a mark on your real life persona, such as your choice of words or how you communicate in general?

Mike: I can't stop quoting Half Life lines, I'm probably insufferable to my friends at this point.


I once asked you to lend your voice to Somos for Halfquake Sunrise, and you generously agreed; do you enjoy playing the villain?

Mike: I think it is super awesome to be a part of something that to me is a legendary goldsrc mod series. I don't think I was clear enough above, that I am a massive goldsrc nerd / fan, and yes, I love being the bad guy, I get to do the laugh!


Thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions! I wish you all the best for your future!

Mike: No problem! It's been a pleasure!
Dr. Isaac Kleiner (Black Mesa)

Red (Penumbra)

Links:
>onlyintheory.com
>@CornetTheory
>Black Mesa
>Penumbra
>Mike Hillard IMDb
How readers rate this Interview: 9.6/10 (5 votes)
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