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Friday, February 20, 2009

Tips from a Voice Actor

Whenever I tell people what I do for a living, I get the inevitable comment (approximately twelve seconds later) "I bet I could do that! How do you join?" As tiring as that gets, it's a valid question. Acting for voiceover, or the art of voice acting, is an incredibly enjoyable and lucrative business. It's rewarding and fun. And best of all...almost anyone can do it. If you can read aloud, you can do voiceover. Of course, a bit of talent in acting doesn't hurt (since it IS acting, don't get me wrong) but even bad actors can succeed in voiceover.

So how do you do it? Well, obviously, the first thing you do is go audition. But surprisingly, the audition itself is why many people never give voiceover a try--they don't know what to expect. I've written this with the intention of making the audition process less scary by removing some of the mystique from the experience.

First of all, you call and schedule and audition. Not so hard, right? Once you've got the time and date all set up, you go to the studio. I could walk you through that, but perhaps I'll save it for another intel. Let's start with the important part--entering the booth. A voiceover studio is usually set up as a two room partition. You'll have a small, cubicle-like, soundproof room with a microphone, headphones, and script; and an outer room with a desk, a couple of chairs, several computers and lots of sound equipment. Of course, the contents of these rooms fluctuates dramatically. I've been in VO studios (at Nickelodeon, actually) where the booth is maybe three steps square with no chairs and a single mic. I've also worked in studios where the booth is a comfortable place with it's own air con unit, comfortable chair, computer screen for your script, and television so you can see what you're voicing over. It all depends on the company.

So you go into the booth and stand in front of the mic. Now what? Well, the booth will usually have a window to the outside room so you can see your director, but this is not always the case. If there isn't a window (and even if there is) after you enter the booth and close the door securely behind you--not only to seal your doom, but also to block out excess noise--you'll want to put on your headphones. Even if you can see your director, you won't be able to hear him or her through the soundproof walls unless you put on the phones. The cord of the headphones should always be on the left--Paul Pistore, my director at Odex, told me this on my first day and I believe it's one of the most useful tips I've ever been given. If you go into an audition and automatically put the headphones on the right way, it makes you look more professional. Well...maybe not, but it definitely makes you FEEL more professional. So you put on the headphones and now--voila!--you can hear the guy who's waving his arms at you from outside the booth. He's probably explaining things to you...but if you listen to me, he won't have to say much. So let's keep going...

Let's suppose that this particular audition is for an anime company. You're going to be dubbing over the voices in English. What fun! If this is the type of work you're about to do, chances are the booth with have a comfortable chair, and electronic rather than paper script, and a television on the other side of the room. Someone will most likely come in to adjust your mic. Oh no! Now you have an important choice to sit, or not to sit?

Now there are many different opinions on this highly controversial and earth-shatteringly important subject. Personally, I am a proponent of sitting. I'll go into my reasons for, then illustrate the reasons against. Then I'll do the same for the standing method. I like to sit, first of all, because I'm usually exhausted. I have a seven hour school day, three hours of practice for whatever theatre show I'm in, and then three hours of recording. By seven PM I'm ready for a little down-time. I find that by sitting, I remain more relaxed and focused than I do when I'm standing. HOWEVER. That being said, sitting can be bad for a number of reasons. If you don't sit straight, with your ribs open and diaphragm unblocked, you could be breathing improperly and impeding your performance. Sitting can also make an actor lazy, and un-energetic. Standing, on the other hand, means that your posture will always be good, if not perfect, and your energy will generally be much higher. With standing, you're also able to get into the character a bit more. If you're supposed to be a bad ass, crime fighting, monster slaying anime chick, it's easier to jump around the room and yell at the top of your lungs when standing. Of course, standing is tiring. Which is why this critical debate has been stalled in recent years by the compromise method: standing for performance and sitting between takes. If you choose to use this method, it's best to move the chair into a corner where you can sit and see the television screen, and adjust the mic and computer (with electronic script) to where you can speak into the mic, see the television in front of you, and not have to crane your neck to see the script. Generally the script supervisor or whoever is getting you set up will know how to do this.

On a side note, if you are offered water and haven't brought your own water bottle, ACCEPT. Your mouth can get very dry, and a dry mouth makes weird noises, and weird noises mean more takes which means an increase in money for you, but a decrease in patience for the studio. And an impatient studio doesn't hire slow actors.

So you've got your water, you've gotten set up, you're in the booth--now what? Now comes the fun part! For an audition, the director is generally looking for a couple different things: can you act, are you a prima donna, and do you take direction? Let's discuss:

CAN YOU ACT?: This is important, but possibly the least incriminating of the three. If your performance is positively rigid with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, you might not get many jobs. But bad acting can be compensated by a good attitude and taking direction well. And answering the question "can you act" entails more than just talent. In answering this question, a director is looking to answer several others. For instance, what's your range? Can you speak in multiple pitch levels? Do you have a distinctive voice? Do you have a variety of voices you can do, or just one or two? You can be a successful voice actor with one distinctive voice--look at Yeardley Smith, creator of Lisa Simpson in the hit cartoon "The Simpsons." Lisa is pretty much the only character she plays on that show, while her co-stars play many, many different characters on the show. Other things the director is looking for in acting ability are completely out of control--for instance, how pitchable your voice is. An easy (some say cheap) way of changing one's voice with little to no effort is to electronically change the register after recording. This is NOT a reflection on the actor! It took me a long time to learn this, but pitching a voice up or down has nothing to do with your ability--it usually has to do with making the voice sound more or less "cartoony". One of the things a director will test in an audition is how your voice sounds pitched up and down. Some voices pitch really well--an actor I know named Penn Bullock sounded like a completely different and yet still natural person whether he was pitched way, way up, way, way down, or not at all. Another actor I worked with was Sean McCabe--he sounded like a buffalo on helium if you dared to adjust the pitch even just a tad.

If you're having a hard time with the "acting" part of voice acting, don't despair. Acting classes help a lot, as does reading. The more you read, the easier it will be to read in audition--but more on that later. On to the second thing a director looks for...

ARE YOU A PRIMA DONNA?: This is actually really, really important. No one likes a show off. No one likes a know-it-all, or an arrogant jerk. Then again, all actors need a healthy dose of ego in order to do what they do--put themselves on the line to be judged mercilessly day after day. I would say THE most important thing to do in an audition is to be NICE and GENUINE and OPEN and POLITE. Don't be surly and withdrawn. Don't be rude, and DEFINITELY don't be full of yourself. Directors don't work with actors they don't like, even if the actor is really good.

CAN YOU TAKE DIRECTION?: This, too, is very important. Say you're stumbling through the lines. Say you have no range, your voice isn't unique (it is, by the way, it just isn't unique to you because you're used to it). Say you're unpitchable and difficult to work with. Never fear, you have one last chance to make the cut! Actors that take good direction are directors' favorites. Always. As long as you can LISTEN to the feedback and respond to it, use it, and make it work for you in the next take, you're golden. The easiest way to take direction well is to communicate. If you don't understand something, don't just smile and nod! Ask questions until you understand what your director wants. As long as they're constructive questions, and as long as you put the answers into practice, your director is not going to be frustrated that you asked.

So that's what the director is looking does he find it? Well that's where the nitty gritty "what exactly is voice acting" comes into play.

Basically, you are using your voice to create a full fledged, living breathing animated character--and you have about five minutes to figure out how to round her out. Usually an audition will go like this. You've been called in to audition a certain part, or you set up an audition and they have a certain part in mind for you to audition with. You go into the booth and the director gives you a short blurb about the show. He gives you a slightly more in-depth analysis of your character--but it's never really enough. Then he shows you a random scene with your character in it. You'll have no idea what's going on in the scene, because it will be in Japanese and for a show you've never heard of with characters with names like "Shakiyakiyumi" and "Nagimi Fumokuto". But you'll get a glimpse of the character you have to give an American voice, and you'll hear what the Japanese VO did with the character. This first glimpse is the most important. Analyze your first impressions. Look at the character and describe her in your mind. Does she wear glasses? Have short or long hair? Delicate features? How does her personality match her drawing? What voice do you imagine her having, and how does your idea fit with the Japanese? After you've seen the scene once or twice, the director will ask you to just try something--no pressure. Yeah right! There's so much pressure you feel like your head is going to explode, but you've got to relax. The thing is, no one is judging you here. The director is happy you have the guts to try something, anything. The script supervisor will be envious of whatever you do, be it speak or croak unintelligibly. The booth is a safe place where you get to be creative and have fun--and the worst thing that can happen is you have to try again. And that's not a bad thing, because it's FUN to try again!

So your director will play the clip again and this time the mic will be on so you can try out the line you're reading off the script. Don't worry about coming in at exactly the same time as the cartoon or matching the lip flaps perfectly--the director or technician will take care of that, and if what you say truly doesn't fit they'll rewrite the script so it does. So don't worry about "making it fit"--worry about giving the text LIFE and MEANING. Take the stupid line they give you--my first was "But father said we should never EVER use Clockwork Dolls to harm ANYONE!" What a gem. Anyway, take that line and put as much energy and life and exuberance and character as you possibly can into it. Then listen to what the director has to say about your first try, fix the things she doesn't like, and try it again. And again. And again. And again. Eventually you'll find something that works, and then you can do it again and again and again until it's perfect.

After you've gone through this process for a couple different characters, you're most likely done. They might ask you if you can do any accents, and have you demonstrate special voices or talents you might have, such as singing or pig calling, whatever floats your boat. And then you're free to go! They'll call you when they have something for you. And remember, if you don't get called back, it DOESN'T MEAN you sucked. It just means they don't have a place for you right now. Acting is a VERY competitive business. Directors can afford to be super picky. Don't let it depress you...if the constant rejection gets you down, you probably ought to find another career.

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