Prior to the launch of Star Fox Zero, Nintendo generated plenty of hype with an extravagant animated short that was broadcast live online: Star Fox Zero: The Battle Begins. A collaboration between Shigeru Miyamoto, Production IG and WIT Studios, it hit a lot of the right notes as far as we were concerned - humour, weirdness, nostalgic nods for long term fans and more besides. It's since been included with a free demo download, though it's a pity it wasn't featured in the main game; perhaps time constraints ruled that out.
In any case, we were surprised and pleased when the voice actor for Fox McCloud got in touch, Joe Zieja. His background is an intriguing one - a former officer in the US Air Force and then governmental departments, he's now forging an extensive career in voice acting (often recording from his own home studio), in addition to securing a book deal for a trilogy. His first novel in that series, Mechanical Failure has already been published by Simon and Schuster imprint Saga Press.
We caught up with Zieja to learn a little more about his route into voice acting and writing - you may have heard his voice in some other Indie gems - and to get a little insight into his experience voicing Nintendo's anthropomorphic hero.
First of all, can you introduce yourself to our readers?
HI EVERYONE! My name is Joe Zieja (it's pronounced just like zebra, but with a J instead of a BR). I'm a voice actor and science fiction author. I was Fox McCloud in STAR FOX ZERO: THE BATTLE BEGINS.
In your early life you were in the US Air Force and then worked for the government; how quickly did you feel the impulse to leave that life and work in creative media out of LA?
It was a numbers game for me; once I realized that I could support my family on my creative exploits, the decision was easy.
Well, hey, before we start calling people "old," it wasn't THAT early in my life. But yes I did spend about 12 years of my life doing some form of government service or military stuff. I realized early on that I didn't necessarily want to make a career out of all that if I could find another option, although I don't regret doing any of that at all. Honestly, I always thought that my fiction writing would take off and I would quit my job, but I very randomly found voice acting. It was a numbers game for me; once I realized that I could support my family on my creative exploits, the decision was easy. Almost all of my work is done from my home studio - The move to LA came a bit later, as I started to want to shoot for the really big stuff, which was only available there.
What was your first big break as a voice actor, and how did it come about?
Everyone's career is shaped differently; some people had a "break." I had a snowball. I started doing lots of little things, and it spiraled into this insane mess of a career where I am working with well over a thousand clients a year on different projects. Most voice actors, I think, still have a sustaining base of un-sexy work, myself included. Fox was certainly a break for me in the LA market specifically, though.
When did the opportunity first come up to play the role of Fox McCloud in The Battle Begins?
It's actually not that dramatic. I auditioned for a code-named project and had absolutely no idea what it was. I didn't even know it was anything big. The specs just described what they were looking for and asked that only talent in the LA area audition, so I did. I didn't hear about it for weeks (and I do so many auditions a day that my mental health demands I fire-and-forget). Then one Saturday I get an NDA from Nintendo, and I think "oh, cool. I probably got Shopkeeper #5 in something or other." Then the next email came with Fox's picture on it and I lost my mind.
How did you prepare for that role? We assume a method acting approach doesn't work for a talking fox that flies spaceships in order to defeat a floating monkey head.
As it happens, my neighbor is a floating monkey head, so we sat down for a coffee and sorted this out.
Well, actually...Remember how I said in the last question that I got that NDA on a Saturday? The recording date was Monday. I had no time at all to prepare, which happens all the time. I searched frantically for my copy of Star Fox 64 and blubbered at my wife - that was the extent of my preparation. Never found the cartridge, by the way.
Did you record your lines from your home studio, or did Nintendo work with you in a different way?
This was a large project put together very quickly, so all the actors got together at a studio in LA. Members of the Nintendo staff were there providing feedback, and we had a most excellent voice director named Phil Bache, who really helped stitch it all together. As you might know, most games are recorded with each actor doing things at separate times of the day, so it takes a good director to make sure things are consistent and sound smooth in the final product.
How familiar were you with the Star Fox series before the role (you mentioned owning the N64 game)? Also, have you played Star Fox Zero on Wii U and, if so, what do you think of it?
Dude, I check my G-Diffuser every day. Unfortunately, SFZ is currently on my long backlog of games that I intend to play sometime in the future. I'll get there.
You've done some notable video game voice work too. Can you talk a little about these roles?
Sure! I was in this really neat indie game called Oxenfree, which you really should check out, alongside some of the other talent from Borderlands and Wolf Among Us. I was also a bunch of characters in this goofy game called Job Simulator, which was a launch title for the HTC Vive and other VR systems. Other titles include Shadowverse and Space Run Galaxy, and I also played a giant drunken panda bear once in an RTS game that I can't remember the title of.
I searched frantically for my copy of Star Fox 64 and blubbered at my wife - that was the extent of my preparation.
What sort of games do you like playing, and does your gaming experience help or inform your voice work in the sector?
I pretty strictly stay with games that have good stories. I'm a major fan of the classic (4 through 9) Final Fantasy games, Chrono Trigger, and all that. The Last Of Us was phenomenal. Undertale. Boy, a lot of these don't have voices in them, do they? But I try to cast a wide net and see what's out there while still playing games that interest me. I listen closely to the acting in games. I generally don't do MMOs or games that don't end.
Do you envisage video game voice work being a big part of your career? Are there any characters, including Nintendo's of course, that you really want to play?
Of course! Getting into video games and animation is basically why I moved to LA. There are HUGE amounts of amazing games and projects being developed every day, and I've enjoyed getting involved in the indie scene. As far as big ticket items, I'd love to be on an original Naughty Dog IP as a full performance actor (Motion capture, etc). I'm a parkour athlete and former military guy, so being able to put those motions into play while acting in a video game is a really neat prospect for me. I think I'd rather create new characters than try to fill old shoes, though I wouldn't turn down another Fox-like-opportunity.
You've also published your first book, Mechanical Failure. Can you talk about the origins of this?
I've been a writer for a while, though I didn't really start getting serious about it until 2012-ish. I'll save the boring stuff and say that it's been a lengthy process finding the right manuscript and editor and all that, but last year I landed a 3-book deal with Simon and Schuster, which resulted in the genesis of the EPIC FAILURE series. The first book, Mechanical Failure, is a funny military science fiction novel about a guy who really, really doesn't want to do any serious work but also wants to not die. It's a bit like Catch-22 in space. It's available everywhere, but you can grab it on Amazon too.
How is your writing progressing on the second and third books of this trilogy?
I always tell people to not leave stability to pursue art. If you have a good job, keep it and understand you're about to enter a world of pain for a bit.
When I put my head down and go, I'm pretty fast. Book 2 was complete long before book 1 was even published, and book 3 is in draft right now. Writing has been a bit slow since my recent relocation to Los Angeles and getting settled in here, but I'm almost positive I'll have book 3 complete by the end of 2016. Which is fine, since the publication date isn't until summer of 2018. Since I have so much wiggle room, I'll likely branch off into a different series, or perhaps write a couple of the spinoff novels I have in my head.
As someone who's made the leap from a government career into writing and voice acting, do you have any advice for those that hope to make a living in these areas?
First, I always tell people to not leave stability to pursue art. If you have a good job, keep it and understand you're about to enter a world of pain for a bit. I worked my government job and then came home and did voice work, resulting in a long period of time where I was working 16 hours a day. Only after I realized that my artistic endeavors were stable did I start peeling back my government work, and even then only in stages. This gives you the breathing room to experiment and see if the creative life is really for you. It may not be! But having a stable base gives you the freedom to explore. People can smell desperation from a mile away; if you don't actually NEED to sell that piece/book/gig, you'll probably have a better chance of actually booking it. Second, GO HUNT WORK. Do not wait for the industry to come to you. Third, learn constantly. From everyone. All the time.
What's next for you, are there any exciting projects you can fill us in on?
Well, I've just been cast in a couple of animes that are going to be interesting projects - I've just finished up some incidental work in God Eater and Durarara 2, for example. Skip Beat, which is releasing sometime near the end of this year, is an insanely fun anime about the Japanese entertainment industry, in which I play an eccentric department head. I've got an appearance on a show on Netflix that I can't reveal quite yet coming up. And I'm always floating around doing signings in various places across the US. I post all of that stuff on my webpage and Twitter handle, so if that interests you, you can follow the news there.
We'd like to thank Joe Zieja for his time.