In the last few years I have produced nearly 100 voice demos for actors. I have also worked on countless voice over jobs, from Gatorade to government CTA’s. Working with this amount of actors on such a variety of projects has taught me a great deal about language, and surprisingly about acting.
I have worked with many seasoned actors, who fall flat on the microphone. And I am always surprised which actors thrive in this seemingly similar medium of performance. I consider voice over as acting under a microscope. Without our physicality to assist our expression, it’s up to the voice to carry the story, and ultimately, sell the product.
In many instances, voice over resembles a more traditional form of acting. Before fancy digital cameras, anamorphic lenses, ADR and VFX, it was language that carried the story. And our ability to take someone on a journey with words alone was what mattered.
So why does all this matter?
In most “how to get into voice over” articles, one of the main pieces of advice is to start acting class, or improve your acting skills. But what can actors learn from voice over artists? Well, let’s have a look…
The voice over business is built on quick turn around. For most jobs you won’t get a script until you walk into the session. Where guess what, you are expected to walk straight into the booth and get started. You have to analyse that script and bring it to life in no time. You are normally booked for an hour, but especially with a short script (15 or 30 seconds) the expectation is you’ll have it in the can in half that. This constant practice of bringing to life often underwritten, under punctuated, sales copy is an incredible lesson for actors. If you can bring laundry powder copy to life, imagine what you can do with Shakespeare.
One thing I often recommend to voice artists I’m working with, is to practice reading out loud as often as possible. And not mumbling along, slouched over your sofa, but genuinely reading out loud as if you were Stephen Fry recording his next audio book. Try to see if you can bring the words to life, and make it sound natural as if you’d read it countless times before.
Keywords are a contentious issue within acting training. Some feel the term is inherently contrived. That if you are connected with a script you would naturally be lifting and emphasising important words. In the voice over business key words (though not often defined as such) are imperative. Whether it’s the all important brand name or the juicy adjectives that get us to fall in love with that mouthwatering Hungry Jack’s cheeseburger, we must be able to lift and colour certain words.
But here is the lesson. I have gotten to the point where I rarely mention key words as actors are so inclined to misinterpret it. Actors, even experienced actors, seem to clobber them over the head. Smashing that specific word into oblivion! The trick is that keywords aren’t just about emphasis. In fact they rarely are. The way you use those words has to be tied to their meaning. Describing a mystical adventure package, is different to a LAST CHANCE sale. I like to think of them as the delicious words, the words that you enjoy, that feel good to say.
I believe we can extrapolate this lesson into our acting. Whether we are tackling the heights of Shakespeare, or a Home and Away script, finding the salient words to lift, massage, and lean into, can bring a text to life. Practice playing with important words without just giving them emphasis.
It surprises me how often I am directing actors to lift their energy when they are recording a voice over. There is a push in the industry for “conversational” reads, but it’s a misleading description. Even the most natural read requires a robustness and vitality from the performer.
This is a lesson also for actors who have been sold the pervasive notion that acting on camera should be small. In an attempt to be “real” actors are often so devoid of energy the performance is almost inert. You only have to switch on the best TV shows we are all binging, anything from Derry Girls and Sex Education to Game of Thrones, to realise how big most performances are and how much life actors are bringing to the work.
Don’t mistake low energy for being natural. Ian Mckellen speaking on a whisper is still thrilling to listen to!
So there you have it. A few lessons from my work as a voice over producer. I think there is a symbiotic relationship between voice over and acting and encourage all actors to explore voice over and vice versa. There is much we can learn from these close cousins.
If you are interested in breaking into the voice over industry, I would love to hear from you. I specialise in voice demos for actors and also run a weekly voice over class. Let’s chat!