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More Than Bit Parts : CD-ROMs and online shows are increasing the opportunities for actors trying to make bigger names for themselves.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Actor Dean Erickson wondered what he was getting himself into when he looked at the script for the six-CD-ROM set “The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery.” For starters, there were more than 650 pages of it, compared to about 50 pages for the average television show. Then there were the nearly identical scenes, each varying just slightly from the last. And, of course, there was the blue screen in front of which the actors would work--with scant props.

It was about that time that Erickson, 37, began to realize that he wasn’t in the television business anymore. A couple of years earlier, he’d been in a few episodes of NBC’s “Frasier.” Now he was about to enter the world of interactive gaming, where lesser-known actors are being called upon to add realism and action to full-motion video game play. This time, Erickson was the star attraction.

“I didn’t even know if I wanted to do ‘Gabriel Knight’ when I first did the audition because I didn’t know what a CD-ROM was that well,” he said. And while the CD-ROM work hasn’t propelled Erickson to stardom, it has provided him with a great role in a high-profile $3-million production.

In “The Beast Within,” the second “Gabriel Knight Mystery,” Erickson plays Knight, an investigator of the supernatural who is enlisted by the villagers of his family’s Bavarian hometown to destroy a werewolf. Sierra On-Line, a Bellevue, Wash., software giant, released the title a year ago to rave reviews. It’s gotten the ruggedly handsome Erickson fan mail from as far away as Germany and recognition stateside.

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“I was in a bar in Sun Valley and these women from Chicago came up to me and said, ‘Gabriel, what are you doing here?’ I had no expectations that anybody anywhere would recognize me and certainly not there.”

Erickson is not alone. While some CD-ROM publishers have tapped big-name talent, such as Malcolm McDowell and Christopher Walken, many companies are using lesser-known actors for economic reasons: Big-name talent carries a big price tag. As a result, opportunities for unknown, less-expensive actors are cropping up, giving these performers a chance to show their stuff.

But perhaps even more important, a CD-ROM project can provide good solid work, and plenty of it, for those lucky enough to land leading roles.

Lauren Koslow, who plays Kate Roberts on the NBC soap “Days of Our Lives,” had put her career on hold for a couple of years to start a family when she auditioned for Los Angeles-based Activision’s “Zork Nemesis” last year. She won the part of Sophia, one of four trapped alchemists held prisoner by an evil Nemesis.

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Koslow describes the experience as similar to working in the theater with an almost bare set, but there was one major difference: This time around, she and the other actors performed in a space painted lime-green, which is sometimes better for skin tones (green or blue sets provide backgrounds for computer images to be inserted later on). In addition, the actors had to wear booties so as not to scuff the set. Yet, even with an initially discombobulating environment, Koslow and the other performers adjusted.

“High-caliber actors were used on this project, actors with experience, and that makes a difference,” said Koslow, who enjoyed being exposed to a completely new audience. She described it as “intimate, because you are talking directly to the player. It’s really just the two of you.” While Koslow said that “acting is acting” regardless of the medium, it was still invigorating to work in a burgeoning field. “Actors certainly welcome more opportunities,” Koslow said.

Cecilia Baranjas, who produced “Zork Nemesis,” said, “It’s a growing field, because it’s a place where people are willing to take chances just by the nature of who is involved in these types of productions.”

“Zork Nemesis,” Baranjas said, has sold more than 100,000 copies since its March release. “It’s a place where people will look for not-name talent. It’s the quality of the actor that makes the difference.

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“One of the problems in CD-ROMs is that actors can often have really bad performances,” Baranjas added. “The producers pick bad actors. A lot of times the CD-ROM producer will say, ‘Here’s my stab at being a director in Hollywood.’ And that’s why many of the big software companies are using casting agents and going through talent agencies to find real talent.” For “Zork Nemesis,” television director Joe Napolitano, who’s worked on several shows, including “The X-Files,” “Murder One” and “Picket Fences,” directed the live-action video segments.

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Other costs--for design, for shooting a game’s video sequences and for the technology used to bring together the information and images on a disc--take up the bulk of a game’s budget, with little left over for the talent. Additionally, some game makers feel that the gaming audience will react negatively to a Hollywood hotshot’s involvement in a project, thinking the actor is brought on for marketing purposes only, and conversely, the game play itself must be lacking. For “Zork Nemesis,” which continues a 15-year computer game series, Baranjas shunned using any big-name talent.

“And a lot of them charge huge fees for these games and sometimes they’re worth it and sometimes they’re not,” Baranjas said. “And ultimately, gamers are a little skeptical and wary of Hollywood. They look at some of these games that do have name talent and say, ‘I’m going to buy a game because it’s good, not because some Hollywood star is in it.’ ”

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Tammy Dargan, who has worked extensively in television and is producer of Sierra On-Line’s “Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh,” agrees. This mammoth $4.5-million project is the second installment in Sierra On-Line’s horror anthology. A cast of more than 30 professional actors performed against high-quality movie sets built in and around Seattle specifically for the title, eliminating the challenge of acting on blue screen. The project spent nine months in pre-production and about six months in filming to create enough video footage for the seven-CD-ROM title. And, like more and more game producers, Dargan used Screen Actors Guild talent. (SAG actors get paid a minimum of $522 a day for interactive media projects, just slightly less than for TV projects.)

“It’s only since the technology has come about that on-camera talent can take advantage of the CD-ROM industry,” Dargan said.

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Of course, shooting a CD-ROM is far different from shooting a television series or feature film. For starters, CD-ROMs are nonlinear, with the possibility of many outcomes to follow a given scene depending on which choice the game player makes.

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“I had to act out things in many variations,” Erickson said, “like when the werewolf would get me if the player did the wrong thing. But it was actually a lot of fun.”

Jonathan Trumper, co-founder of the new media division at the William Morris Agency, said more and more actors will be needed for both CD-ROM and online production. “It would be difficult to compare it to the television and motion picture business because it’s not nearly as big, but multimedia probably has a higher growth rate in terms of percentage than the other two,” he said.

While CD-ROMs have been hot over the past year, Trumper said the world of online production could soon create even more opportunity. After all, he points out, the CD-ROM industry is undergoing a period of consolidation, while online growth continues to boom. “The big networks like Microsoft Network, America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy have a big desire for name actors and personalities and also actors with credentials in other areas.”

Danny Krifcher, vice president of original programming at Sterling, Va.-based America Online, sees the Internet as the future for multimedia entertainment. About a year and a half ago, AOL created the Green House, which functions as a studio to find talent for their online programming. Currently, AOL is launching approximately three to six shows a month.

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“A year ago, I wouldn’t have said that we were working closely with talent agencies in Los Angeles, and now we are,” Krifcher said. “We’re working with ICM, William Morris, CAA and independents. For us, it’s all about finding great talent to take this medium to the next generation.”

And while multimedia is not a ticket to instant stardom, it can help.

“It doesn’t constitute such a large segment of the market that an actor should change their business plan and start out in CD-ROM then go to theater,” Trumper said. “But it is another thing in the mix.”


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