Towards the end of 2012, TGL had the chance to sit down with the voice actor behind two iconic video game characters – both of which reside within the walls of Team Fortess 2.
Dennis Bateman has offered up his voice work for both the Pyro and the Spy characters, and thanks to thousands of TF2 memes and walkthrough videos, Dennis’ voice work is etched into the very walls of video game history.
We decided to catch up with him and pick his brains about the origin of his voice acting career, how he got into video games and what he thinks about the true gender of the Pyro class.
The Gaming Liberty: Dennis, growing up, what type of influences geared you towards a career in acting/voice acting?
Dennis Bateman: As with most American actors, I discovered theatre in high school where I had an inspiring teacher who gave me the role of Fagin in OLIVER at age 17, though an acting career was an arduous decision, considering I grew up in a tiny farm town which had never before produced an actor. With a college degree in acting, I landed in Chicago where another actor handed me a little manual on ‘voice-over’ work. For years I had entertained friends at parties with goofy impersonations of mostly dead celebrities, and I was certain I could turn that ‘talent’ into commercial advert dollars, which I eventually did in cities from New York to Anchorage.
TGL: Can you run us through your early days in the industry. What kind of emotions go through you as you audition for roles, and can you tell us about the first acting job you landed?
DB: In the early days I travelled the U.S., mostly through the Southeast, playing any kind role I could get in repertory, summer stock, and dinner theatre. I once wondered what Shakespeare would have thought had he been told that 400 years after his death we’d be doing his plays buried under feet of snow at a place called Alaska Repertory. A decade in New York City followed, during which I began my budding voice and commercial career to avoid the taxicab and the office cubicle. I first got paid — just for speaking — on a St. Louis, MO radio spot for a local jewelry store. Oh yes, auditions: Gut-wrenching torturous affairs fraught with glittering expectations on the one hand and utter fear of rejection on the other. As I said, it must be an obsession.
TGL: You have an extensive background in both TV and film. What was it like to star alongside people Robert Ne Nerio and Charlize Theron in Men of Honor?
DB: There’s no denying that TV and feature film work are two of the holy grails for an actor. We are treated very well and it’s great to work with top pros. Early on I had a bit of nerves on set with all the production craziness and celebrities milling about, especially some I’ve admired greatly, but it doesn’t take long to realize they just people under the glossy veneer. Most of them look pretty ordinary up close, and most are fairly pleasant folk. Cuba Gooding, Jr, is especially generous and fun to work with, as might be assumed from his famous Oscar acceptance speech.
TGL: From what we understand, your work in the gaming industry started with the Tron 2.0 game back in 2003. Can you remember what was your perception of the industry was back then?
DB: I believe my first foray into games was earlier than Tron, though I’m hard-pressed now to remember the title. The Seattle area has always been a great place for game design, with Valve, Microsoft, Monolith, and Nintendo to name just a few of the pioneers. In fact I think my first game voices were done for childrens’ titles, which were initially a big segment of the industry. My recollection is that many of the original action designers were so understandably enthralled with new visual breakthroughs that voices were kind of an afterthought. I guessed at the time that they probably voiced many themselves with the help of friends. The ‘professional’ sound wasn’t such a big element at first. Needless to say, voicing games is some of the most fun an actor can have on the job and I’m glad the industry sees our value to the projects. I’ve always been fascinated by the stories and characters and their ability to create alternate visual realities that could only be imagined before.
TGL: Computer Games are becoming more cinematic and dramatic these days – some people claim that video games and film has never had so much in common. Do you think that video games are beginning to rival TV and film in terms of narrative and quality or do you think all three should remain individuals through the medium?
DB: I think the key question is interactivity. For his first movie in a theatre I took my son to see Disney’s ALLADIN, and the most amazing thing happened: He jumped out of his seat and ran down to the big screen for a while, then ran back exclaiming, “Daddy, I was IN the movie!”. I think what we all subconsciously crave is to be in the movie…to live at that level of drama. Presently the three genres are separate, but we know the cinematic quality of games will only continue to improve, while I think it’s only a matter of time before broadcast programming will offer audience participation to rival games. I think the delivery media will all merge and we’ll be able to experience them telepathically through an ear bud or implanted chip. At least you can’t get carpal tunnel of the brain!
TGL: Team Fortress 2 saw you lend your voice to the Spy character and Pyro. Can you tell us how these roles came about? Did you audition for the two?
DB: I submitted an mp3 voice audition for THE SPY. (In my area auditions are recorded in our home-studios and then digitally sent to producers) I was fortunate enough to come up with the right mish-mash of continental dialect to take the fancy of Bill VanBuren and his team of wizards at Valve, and SPY was vocal. THE PYRO turned out to be serendipity for me. When I’d finished recording SPY, they asked if I’d like to try this other character whose speech is never actually intelligible. After a few attempts, I tried just covering my mouth with my hand and reading his dialogue with lots of manic energy….and the rest, as they say, is history.
TGL: Both characters have become gaming icons, and in their own rights, legendary amongst fans. Do you think the popularity falls to the voices behind them? The script? Or do you think it’s more about the fundamental character design from Valve?
DB: I like to think the auditory aspect of the characters is an important part of their identity to players, but it is just one part. The credit goes to Valve for a really great game with fun characters and a compelling storyline. And be sure to look for the talking plush toy versions of all the cuddly ruthless assassins of TF II, soon to hit shelves from what I hear.
TGL: Did you have experience with the French accent before voicing The Spy or did you spend time developing the accent and voice with Valve?
DB: I’ve always been a good mimic and fascinated with world dialects of English, though I’m not fluent in any other tongue. They gave me a general description of the character, I just invented a dialect they liked, and they hired me.
TGL: Obviously each character has a plethora of quotes and lines in their arsenal. Can you run us through the work involved recording all of these lines? And do you have a favourite?
DB: It involves a few hours in a recording studio with multiple pages of short lines categorized by the specific actions and emotion of the game. I do a couple different takes on each line as I move through the lists. Various producers are seated in the booth to monitor my sounds and offer direction.
TGL: There’s quite a few debates online about what the Pyro is saying under the mask – there seems to be some confusion. Do you have any interesting stories that you’d like to share with us about recording the voice, and do you have a favourite quote?
DB: I touched on that earlier. I’m afraid I don’t remember the PYRO script, and at this point I can’t understand him either. It was emotion I tried to convey more than information, given the limitations of his impediment. “If YOU were able to kill him, I assure you he was not like me!” – The Spy
TGL: Another argument online is based on the sex of The Pyro character. Do you think Pyro is male or female and why?
DB: Originally I figured he was a male simply because I was enlisted to voice him, but I’m enjoying all the speculation.
TGL: Fans of Valve’s work had the chance to hear you once again in Left 4 Dead. Playing the Helicopter pilot, what was it like to brought back on board with Valve all over again?
DB: I’m immensely pleased and proud to be a member of the Valve team of voice actors. I’ve been gratified no end by the wonderful response from game fans worldwide. Just last week I was brought in to voice a character in a new game, though I don’t think I’m at liberty to divulge the title just yet.
TGL: You’ve also worked on other blockbuster titles in the F.E.A.R and Halo franchise. Do you have a preference for certain characters or franchises, or does the work of a voice actor simply interest you?
DB: Though they all do amazingly creative and dazzling work, for me it’s the latter…I simply love acting with my voice. I can be anybody in wide range of age or ethnicity or character. And I don’t need a posh wardrobe nor even a photo.
DB: Believe it or not, talent today is no more important than being a super salesman, a computer maven, and a good recording technician. Our voices are our products and there’s no more competitive gig on earth.
TGL: Can you tell us a little about your work with Northwest Benefit Auctions, what it involves and their aim?
DB: I am no longer affiliated with Northwest Benefit Auctions. I now freelance as an auctioneer for non-profit charity organizations. We are called “Benefit Auctioneers” and I attended auction school and specialized training with the National Auctioneers Association. You can see me auctioning on Youtube.
TGL: Dennis, there’s hundreds of fan-made videos on youtube which parody and praise Team Fortress 2 – do you have anything you’d like to say to your fans?
DB: A heartfelt ‘thanks for playing’ about sums it up. Gamers are the greatest!
TGL: Finally, what’s next for you Dennis?*
DB: At this point I’m focused on my current gig in a new musical theatre piece titled TAKE ME AMERICA at the Village Theatre in Everett, Washington. I play a veteran immigration agent with USCIS deciding whether to admit persecuted asylum seekers to the United States. Interesting fare for a musical. Then, back to pounding the voice-over pavement…Hi-diddledee-dee.
*Interview was conducted in 2012