Guy Cihi Interview, The voice of James Sunderland

You might not have heard his name, but you have seen his face. Guy Cihi is the voice and face of Silent Hill 2’s James Sunderland. The tragic character stars in one of the most iconic games of all time. In this interview we discuss his role, fan reaction, and his take on the series.

Silent Hill 2 set the bar for survival horror, so it’s only fitting that to this day it’s talked about. Read on for the full interview.

Silent Hill 2 had how I can only describe as “sleepy” vocals. As if the characters were all in a dream like state. Was this part of the role? Were you and the other voice actors instructed to add such a tone to the acting?

GC: The actors were all ‘dialed into’ the story, the setting, and the characters. There was a sense of supernatural strangeness ever present in our minds. I don’t recall specifically being asked to sound ‘sleepy,’ but the directors were always there guiding our performances.

I think it’s important to point out that all of Silent Hill 2 was performed and recorded live on large motion capture stages with all actors present. Unlike most RPGs, when you see two or three SH2 actors on your screen, it means that there were two or three SH2 actors performing live together at the time of recording. That close proximity created tremendous dynamic tension between the actors and allowed us to play off each other’s emotions. The relationships in SH2 wouldn’t have been nearly as intimate had we recorded body movement and dialog at different times. I was told by the director that it was the first time synchronized mo-cap had been done for such a large scale production.

You provided both the voice recordings and performed the actual motion capture for James, correct? Which did you prefer, the voice performance or the motion capture?

GC: I enjoyed it all but, as I say; we performed all of the scenes live on stage in front of multiple cameras, directors, and crew. It was similar to recording scenes for a movie. The main difference being that we weren’t wearing costumes; we were wearing skin tight body suits with nodes attached at key points. Some of the motion cameras were magnetic and others were laser type. Video cameras were always present to capture our facial expressions and allow the editors to synch the sound recordings with the body language. I don’t really think of my work as voice recording because the recording work only took about four days to complete whereas the stage performances took almost four months. For me it was like performing in a strange movie. Several days were spent exclusively for capturing my walking, running, hitting, and dying. I was sore for weeks after those dying days. Every time you let James die and hit the ground, I swear it still hurts me!

Have you been following the Silent Hill series since your work as James? If so, what do you think of the series as of today?

GC: I haven’t been following the series. What I know is only what I have gathered from SH2 bloggers and webmasters who contact me. It seems that the series has grown spotty over the years. I read that a Silent Hill movie was released but I didn’t watch it. The reviews were pretty bad. I read recently that Sony is working on a second SH movie titled Silent Hill 2. Some bloggers have written that it would be good to idea to stick to the original SH2 game theme and characters, but I don’t expect the director and writer will do that. They seem to prefer doing their own thing. You might be able to find a trailer for the new SH2 movie if you Google “Silent Hill 2 Trailer.”

Silent Hill 2 is known for having one of the most deeply twisted stories in gaming history. Did you read the script prior to recording? If so, did they keep the endings secret, making your reactions more real to the experience? Or did they give you a complete synopsis of the game so you could deliver a proper feel?

GC: Was it just luck, or did fate put that deeply twisted script in my hands? Hmm…. No, I did not read the entire script before recording. The directors kept the endings secret. I’m not sure if it was to affect our performances, or because they were still working on it as we progressed. In any case I can tell you that they were quite specific about what they wanted in terms of pathos and torment. Acting James was cathartic. I was recently divorce at that time and still very close to my pain. I was able to deliver tears and sadness on demand. I went through hell with my ex and at times was near suicidal. If it weren’t for my children, I’m not sure I would have made it through. I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving them alone with only her to raise them. Forgive me if this is getting too personal. What I mean to say is that if the directors asked me for tears or anguish, all I had to do was dredge up some dark memory and it was right there with me again – the sadness. I’m generally a happy go lucky guy. One of my talents is the ability to forget painful experiences. Performing James reminded me that we never really forget our pain. We just hide it away – if we’re lucky that is.

Do you think video game acting will ever be taken seriously enough to be awarded Oscars?

GC: Definitely! It’s only a matter of time. The gaming industry is already much bigger than the movie industry. I think the next phase of the gaming industry will see an increased emphasis on character and story development. The tech aspects should become increasingly more open and available and hopefully that will usher in a generation of indie games. The problem that I’ve heard over and over in the packaged game industry these days is that the ‘model is broken.’ Games have become too expensive to produce. I remember Hollywood said the same thing about movies and then a slew of indie productions came out and rewrote the book. I expect pretty much the same thing will happen for games.

Which scene was the hardest to play, or the one that needed the most takes?

GC: The hardest scene to play, and the one that had to be redone the most, is a scene that occurs late in one of the alternate endings. It’s the scene where James picks Mary up from her deathbed and then turns and carries her away. I was quietly crying each time I lifted my wife’s lifeless body up from that bed but creating the emotion wasn’t the problem. The problem was that it was taking me too long to get Mary up into my arms and turned around. No matter how many takes we did it, the directors said it was too slow. As I lay in bed one night after shooting, I replayed the problem over and over in my mind. Finally I remembered a “trick” I learned in college acting class. It’s a stage trick for carrying a ‘dead’ body. The next time we shot the scene I nailed it on the second take. I wonder if anyone reading this interview knows the, ‘how to lift a dead body trick?’

You’ve always seemed very involved with the fans of the series, which many voice actors and actresses tend to stray from doing. What are your personal thoughts on maintaining contact with the fan base? Is there any message you have for us?

GC: My ex-wife is a Japanese movie and TV performer. Our wedding was covered by all the major TV networks and she even sold the location rights for our honeymoon. I learned firsthand that being famous basically sucks. You can’t go anywhere without people pointing and whispering. I’m happy to interact with SH2 fans provided they are polite and well behaved. Having said that, I can tell you that SH2 fans are some of the nicest and most decent people I have ever had the pleasure to communicate with. What is it that SH2 fans have in common because I’ll tell you what, whatever it is, the rest of the world could sure use a big dose of it! You guys are the best!

If Konami were to revisit the role of James for another game, would you have any interest in reprising your role?

GC: Sure, why not? It was fulfilling and that’s what life is supposed to be about. If you feel you want Konami (or Sony) to hire me again, there’s a guy in L.A. you can write to named Michael. He’s a super guy. So if the spirit moves you, write to Mike and let him know how you feel. He’s always happy to hear from SH2 fans.

HD: How do you feel contributing to a legendary game? In the part, “Leave us alone, leave us both the hell alone!”, I know that I heard that in a movie before, what were you going for? I heard that Mary/Maria’s voice actor had a very emotional reaction to the game, even so much as crying during the letter part, was the emotional impact of the story strong for you as well? Did you “connect” with James? If so, how?

GC: Legendary? Wow, thanks!

I feel great about my role in SH2 mainly because of wonderful fans like all of you.

In the part where I scream “Leave us alone…” I think I was going for a tormented screaming version of Greta Garbo’s famous line, “I vant to be alone.” Remember, I did James long before that kid ever recorded his infamous “Leave Brittany Alone” video. He was copying me; not the other way round.

Monica (Mary/Maria) and I both felt very strong emotions all throughout the acting and recording sessions. She’s a fantastic talent. To this day when I hear Monica read the letter I get all choked up.

Yes, of course I connected with James! The reason I got the part was because the director said I was James. More specifically he said that I was just the way he pictured James in his mind. As I said, I had some emotional issues at the time and that helped me portray James’ anguish and pain. Fortunately, I’m not haunted by anything close to the heavy dark stuff that James is.

Do you see James as a tragic character? Was he a victim of circumstance? Was he selfish and did he murder his wife to make his life easier?

GC: James is absolutely a classic tragic character. Yes, he was a victim of circumstance but his situation was necessary for his karma; his life’s problem to solve. Was James selfish? Yes, and no. He has a lot of hurt and anger inside but he’s also kind and very protective. I can’t talk about it easily. It’s painful going back into that mind again. Anyway, it’s you the players who get to answer these questions. There’s a variety of possible endings and you can choose the one you want to believe. I won’t say which ending I believe in, but I will tell you that dog ending was just plain dumb. I told the director it was dumb and that I didn’t want to do it. He said it was a Japanese thing and he asked me nicely to just play along. What could I do? I’ve seen it on YouTube and I still think it was dumb.

Have you ever been recognized by fans of the game since 2001? If so, what was it like? If not, do you wonder if people will?

GC: Yes, I have been recognized. Not by my face but by my name. Once when we were making introductions at a business conference in Seattle, a fellow outside our group overheard my name. He came over to our group and stood there staring at me with a huge grin on his face. After a while he introduced himself and asked if I had done James in Silent Hill. When I said yes, he got out his camera and asked me to please take a photo together with him. He was just about to leave when suddenly he turned round and blurted out, “do that chainsaw thing!” I had no idea what he was talking about. “You know,” he said, “the part where you raise the chainsaw above your head and do that primal scream.” I obliged him but I have to tell you in all honesty, I must have been really tired that day on the set because I don’t remember taping that scene.

Often business people I meet for the first time will ask me about SH2. Whenever they do, I know it’s because they Googled me before our meeting. They usually ask, “What was that video game thing you did?” Each time I tell the story I am reminded again of how powerful it is. James’ deep regrets following the ‘mercy’ killing of his wife never fails to capture rapt attention. Perhaps this powerful basic story is the reason for SH2’s long term success more so than its technical merits.

Here’s another example in testament to the strength of the story. A while back I met some fellows from California in the electric vehicle business. They came to Tokyo for the auto show and some meetings with me. At our second meeting, sure enough, one of the fellows asked me, “Tell me about that video game thing you did?” (He must have Googled me the night before…) As I was retelling the SH2 story, his partner suddenly perked up and said, “Hey, I’ve seen that game! My kids played that all the time. It’s one of their favorites!” After that, he wouldn’t leave without me taking a picture with him to show his kids. See what I mean? Even though the fellow had never played SH2 himself, he remembered James and Mary’s tragic story.

This interview was reposted. Thanks to Guy Cihi for the interview opportunity.

               
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