Not so long ago, when Elspeth Eastman was just getting started in voice acting, her "effort sounds" — the involuntary noises you might make doing a pushup or throwing an uppercut — weren't quite up to snuff. "Make it less breathy; that doesn't really sound authentic," a director told her. Her solution: "You have to use your whole stomach and tighten up your whole body to get that really strained sound, like getting punched in the gut."
The 24-year-old South Bend native has been, if you'll allow me, rolling with the punches in a big way over the past couple years, making voice acting and composing for video games and web animations her full-time job. She's still aiming to graduate from IUPUI in December, but she says she hears this a lot these days: "Why are you still in school? Move out here to the West coast. You'll get more work than you can possibly handle."
Her first big project was voicing the main character for the indie game Crypt of the Necrodancer, a dungeon crawler that uses the Dance Dance Revolution pad as a controller. Eastman has since worked for Disney and Microsoft, and a video showing her voicing all major characters from the game League of Legends has drawn a million-plus views. And that's all from her apartment: "When people say, 'What do you do?,' I say, 'Well, I have my mic setup in my closet, and I spend the majority of my time in there. That's what I do." "Is it at least a walk-in closet?" asks this reporter. "Not really. It's probably two Subway footlongs wide."
Eastman partly credits her parents, who were active in theater, for making her new career possible — "enunciation was key when I was little" — but her networking skills and fearlessness seem the key elements to her success. She went to Game Developers Conference on a whim in 2011, eventually put a voice reel on Facebook — and now she says she has more work than she can handle.
And if she didn't plan on becoming a voice actor going into college, she's confident she's doing essential work: "I feel like a good voice actor can really help make a game believable, authentic and help bring it to life." And she loves the indie gaming scene, which is always on the lookout for independent contractors like her who can do good work with minimum fuss and resources: "They're all their own person, and you can see that in their products," she says of indie game developers. "They are all about making a statement through a game, which I think is really wonderful."
In person, Eastman comes across as a typically sleep-deprived but energetic college student. In other words, I didn't remember anything distinctive about her voice after our talk at Mo' Joe, near her IUPUI homebase where she was wrapping up the spring semester. But it's when I transcribed the recording, an act that necessarily focuses one's attention on voices and only voices, that I got a better sense of why she's getting so much work. Her voice is bright but substantial, deep enough that it wouldn't be lost on a mobile phone speaker. And, yes, she'd get high marks for good enunciation. Not that it's as deep as some directors would like, says Eastman: "They wanted me to be Ridley from Alien; a Sigourney Weaver, deep chocolately voice, which is difficult for me because my voice isn't really that low, but it kind of worked out."
But it's not all about the voice or performance for Eastman: "I've heard a lot of really good performances by people who have sent me their reels — I encourage people to send me voice reels because I always love meeting people who want to get into voice acting. And they can be really, really good but have a really poor mic setup." And so she stresses to newcomers the importance of a good mic setup and studio — not to mention the ability to take notes and listen to directors: "My head can get kind of big sometimes. But I try to keep my ego in check because when they give you direction, I have to leave it at the door." And another key bit of advice: "I talk to myself a lot which probably helps. Talking to yourself, knowing your voice, your strengths: It's a good thing."
Eastman's other projects include effort noises for an alligator in the Disney Mobile game Where's My Water (a small project than can lead to bigger things, says Eastman, because it put her in touch with a prominent producer) and all the female voices for a steampunk airship game, Guns of Icarus ("it was basically just barking orders at people, which was really fun"). She says that the video that shows her doing impressions of every major League of Legends character has functioned as a gigantic voice reel, showing potential producers and collaborators what she can do.
Beyond voice acting, Eastman is also honing her craft as a composer. She recently wrote eight piano tracks and a main theme for a game, composing them on an full-scale, 88-key keyboard that she plugs into a Mac fully loaded with synthesized instruments. While she's recorded solo albums as a singer-songwriter, she says she prefers work as a for-hire composer: "I find more pleasure in writing for other people because when they really like it, when they're really happy with it, it means one person likes it other than me."
As a gamer, Eastman says she's not as much into handheld and mobile, preferring console or PC gaming; she joked that she played Oblivion for four hours the night before our interview (hence the sleep deprivation). She's into "anything that has a really, really good story and that looks good; the graphics mean a lot to me; I'm a very visual person when it comes to gaming. And I always notice the music."
Eastman says she's not too long for Indianapolis; the work is out on the West Coast (Seattle, San Francisco, Vancouver), and she plans to move out there within a year of graduation. I asked Eastman if her place in the industry is unique — all of us are unique, of course, but are there other people her age getting this kind of work as a voice actor. Not really, she says, or at least they're not going to the same conventions she's going to. Most fellow voice actresses "are a little big older and veterans of the industry; I always feel like a total peon."
Not that those veterans of the industry haven't welcomed her; for instance, Eastman was interviewed for an upcoming edition of The Complete Guide to Game Audio, which she calls "the game composer's Bible." She considers the author of that book, the sound designer Aaron Marks, as a mentor; she first reached out to him before she had become a voice actor to, as she puts it, "bash him" for posting pictures of his Ferrari on a website for his business. Marks actually replied out to that bit of hate mail, made his case, and since then Eastman says she's "kept him up to date on my progress and he's been really supportive."