Speech is an essential ingredient in storytelling and I can easily say it will never go to the wayside. For production, finding the right voice can mean success or failure in how your story connects emotionally with its audience, picking the right voice is everything. For voice actors, I have witnessed a near never ending struggle to read the mind of the producer who may or may not know exactly what they are after. Voice talent is expected to be the alchemist…turn the words on the page to gold; a very tall order indeed.
I have been a part of more voice over auditions than I can count. I have edited thousands of hours of dialogue for film, radio, television and video games. I have worked in nearly every position within the realm of audio engineering and have spent countless hours in the middle of the voice talent, producer relationship. The purpose of this article is not to say who the better is but rather explore common misunderstandings between the two worlds.
For producers, historically (regardless of media) the auditions are commonly requested in the last quarter of production; meaning the concepts and much of the project has already been produced and either in post production or about to enter it. Scripts intended for narration are seldom 100% complete, often still undergoing major changes. All the producer really knows is that they want to find a voice to get a taste of what the project will sound like with a pro-voice. Only about 5% of the time does production know exactly who they want for the part; I have only really seen that in some of the sports games I have worked on when they want a specific sports broadcaster who is prominently known for the sport the game is based on. For the most part any supporting role of narrative is going to go to whoever matches the voice style that the production team was thinking about when they created the concept for narration (IE “I want it to sound like that “In a world” guy..ya know Don LaFontaine) .
Producers often request someone at their in-house or favorite recording studio to start contacting agencies to set up an audition. Talent agencies book actors for a time slot at the audition.
More often than not voice actors go into the audition not even knowing exactly what they will read or what the production team is after, as that information is often vague when the session was booked.
When the talent arrives at the studio they don’t always know that they are being evaluated from the moment they enter a producer’s line of sight. These are typically the things I hear about voice talent as an audio engineer after or during the session:
Being on Time: Time is truly money in during the final production so being late to an audition just lets them know that out-of-the-gate time management is not your best attribute; you will likely get cut just for this. If you have to leave your home an hour earlier to be 15 minutes early for the audition then by all means do it if you seriously want the spot.
Attentiveness: Producers are trying to size up the talents abilities during the audition. Producers may ask for variations, the ability to improvise lines, changes in intensity and speed of the voice. Voice talent often seems to think of this feedback as if they are doing something wrong and the producer is correcting them but really for the producer it’s not that much different than test driving a car…”what can this talent really do?” During the audition it is super important for the talent to know after they read a line, forget it ever happened…listen to what the producers ask for next as if it’s a completely unique and new request.
A key side note to this is - often a talent will come in and read for a specific part and the producer says to another producer or engineer “ya know, that voice would be great for this other part” thus the talent is often asked to read something different or in a different way to see if they are a better fit for a different role. The key take away is listening, even if the change request comes through mid-read there is normally a valid reason for the request.
Confidence: A lot of talent, even good talent can get dismissed if they don’t seem confident in how they carry themselves. If the talent seems overly nervous, too talkative (off topic), or generally disorganized, producers tend to believe this will result in longer session times if that voice talent is selected, thus affecting the producers main worry - cost spent on recording time.
Egotistic: Once in a while a talent will come through that is the opposite end of the spectrum - too confident. Common problems with these actors is not letting go of something they have already read. When actors insist on reading things over and over again even when the booth has requested to move on or when a producer makes a request and the talent tries to finish the producer’s sentence or thought, that voice actor likely has just been scratched off the list.
From the other side of the glass I can shed some light on things I have heard disgruntled talent talk about.
Poorly prepared audition scripts: I have seen a lot of voice talent struggle with scripts full of spelling and grammar errors, as well as incomplete or illegible layouts. I mean would you test drive a nice new car on a road full of potholes, broken glass, in the rain? Probably not, so handing over an audition script in bad shape to a perspective voice talent is just that….not something destine for success.
Having no direction: It’s important to set a voice talent up for success; no actor I have met can read minds. These days it’s not too hard to call up a movie trailer or TV clip on You Tube using the mighty I-phone or the like and simply showing the talent a clip with the voice style the producer is thinking of. Another helpful action for a producer is to actually do their best to fully act out and read the line as they hope the talent would; this helps clarify cadence, tone, and emotion. Being vague and saying things like “I’m not sure, let’s just see what you can do” is not going to help.
Assuming: For both talent and producers if there is a question always, always ask.
For talent it may be things like: “What is the scenario? Do you have an example? What happens before and after my part in the story? What is going on visually? Will there be music or loud sounds under my voice in the final edit?”
For Producers it could be things like: “This line is super important because _______. Do you have questions about the script or role? Do you need an example or clarity on what we were thinking about when we came up with this?”
I can’t tell you how many times after an audition the talent has asked me “Did I do ok?” and I’ll state something that I thought should had been communicated like “You did fine, but they really have the voice of (famous actor) stuck in their mind because they got the idea for this after seeing (some movie)” and then having the talent go “Oh man, I wish I knew about that! I totally could have done that type of read.”
A new trend in auditioning is similar to crowd sourcing where an agency receives a request from a production company who sends over an audition script. The agency sends the script out to an email list that could reach subscribed voice talent anywhere state/nation or worldwide. The actors receive the audition script via email and record the audition at their home studio and send a MP3 or Wav file back to the agent who then sends the bulk of demos back to the production company. Once the voice talent is chosen by the producers, the production company could opt to arrange for the talent to record at a pro-facility close to the talent or bring the actor to the production company’s home studio. This is really becoming more common as a high quality voice recording setup can be had for under $700. Social networks are ideal to find talent, agencies and potential production companies to work with.
How Talent is selected:
What we listen for:
Tone: Does the talent sound like an average person or are there certain characteristics that make them sound grander such as a warm resonate low end for males or pristine clarity in the upper mid range in females. Of course this is subjective to what the project needs but in general if the production team is hiring a pro-voice they want them to sound better than your average person talking.
Cadence: Cadence is way more critical than most rooky actors realize; as a comparison have you ever seen someone who is an extraordinary dancer take the stage and make every move look so graceful and natural …in the voice acting world that control is cadence. The ability to read through complex scenarios as if it’s completely conversational or to have that graceful pause before highlighting a major thought. Cadence, possibly even more than tone separates the good from the great.
Clarity: The whole point of narration is to be able to hear each word of the story with the utmost clarity. This often comes down to how well the talent can speak, is the diction and inflection proper? Unless the script is uniquely stylized (a character type narrator) this actor has to sound like a master of the English language (or whatever language we are recording).
Dynamic ability: There is an aspect of vocal inflection that separates the dull monotone type reads from the vibrant emotionally engaging reads. When I say dynamics in regards to voice acting I am talking about that smile in the voice that make it seem friendly, or that menacing, intense variation of both cadence and tone that builds suspense in an action sequence. This aspect is the dividing line between a voice talent and a voice actor for us. People who can control their voice like a finely tuned instrument are pure gold. Great examples of this type of actor are Jennifer Hale best known for her role as Commander Sheppard in the Mass Effect trilogy and John Patrick Lowrie from Team Fortress 2.
Talent may wonder if we ever consider their acting experience or head shots. Head Shots: Not typically unless either on camera or being visually represented in or with the product. Experience: Not typically unless playing a major role (something that may require days in the studio) it’s comforting to know this would not be your first run on a large scale project and you can endure.
In most cases talent is selected by three people: two producers and an audio engineer as a tie breaker. The group listens though either pre-made VO demos or rough recordings from an open audition. It’s super important that if you’re a voice actor always start an audition with your name and agency because the most common question I get as an audio engineer is “who is this person again?”
This session often yields a list of 3 or 4 top choices, often all of them as good as the other, so it comes down to:
- Who is available during the time the production team needs them?
- What was the audition like? Were there any quirks a producer or engineer noticed that may make this person hard to deal with?
- Does anyone have an idea if this person takes direction well?
- What happens if we need a pick up line at a later date? Is the talent easy to get back for a quick pickup (or a sequel production)?
The Day of the Recording:
For the talent this seems to be an exciting day in most cases but for production it is often very hectic. By the time the majority of projects are recording the final narratives the project is likely in the last 10-15% of production. In the film world often budgets are nearly or long spent so there is this sense of urgency to get through this part quickly. Many projects regardless of media type do usually do better at planning this part of the process after doing a project like it in the past.
For voice talent it’s important to know that all the talking, typing, texting and phone calls you are seeing on the other side of that soundproof glass has likely nothing at all to do with you. It is important to listen to anything that comes through the headset and respond as quickly as possible. If you notice anything that might make the session more difficult for you, let the crew know right away: whether it’s an odd noise in your headphones, a lack of light, the script text is too small or you just can’t hear things correctly. It’s easy for the crew to make even major adjustments early in the session.
For production it’s important to really plan for the recording day. The faster everyone can get in front of them a high quality, legible and error free scripts the better and faster the record time will go.
- In the age of multi-display computers and I-pads - don’t print a script for a few reasons:
- It’s a huge waste of paper (at least 3 copies of everything would have to be made)
- If the text is to small you cannot change the font size without a reprint
- It’s easier if changes have to be made or added you can do it right away in the correct spot (this will save time in edit as well)
- If you are missing parts of the script you can easily ask a production assistant to email it to you
- You will avoid the perils of paper jams and ink-less printers.
For Talent the most important thing is to stay consistent in volume, tone and cadence unless requested to alter it. In a long session it’s easy to let the volume drop and the performance go lackluster. If your voice is getting strained or you feel tired, request a break. During that break talk with both the producer and audio engineer to gather performance feedback, they will help guide you through any rough spots they noticed this far. It’s advisable to have the engineer play back a little of what was recorded because often as a voice talent you are your own worst critic and can often identify mistakes you are commonly making and adjust for the next round.
For Producers the most important thing to do is pay attention to the talent. Watch the time code on the audio engineers recording device (ask to have it turned on if you don’t see it) and take performance notes in your script next to the time code; this information could cut your editing time down by days thus saving you several hundreds of dollars and time.
If a talent is having trouble reading through a section it is best to give it only two or three tries and then let it go and move on; revisit the section later in the session. By doing this you will reduce the talents frustration level and your own as you are likely watching the clock wondering how long will this take to correct.
Avoid cell phones, the internet or any other distraction during the session, a mistake that may slip by an inattentive ear could cost thousands to fix later. It’s often assumed the audio engineer will catch any read errors but often the engineer is focused on levels and seeking traces of background noise in the recording.
This section is generally aimed at Voice Talent to understand the differences in scripts for different types of media.
Radio: Normally a 60 second linear script with the emphases on the vendor. Timing is everything as the project often requires getting a ton of information across in a short amount of time. A tip for talent is to let production know if there is a faster way to read through the script such as identifying redundant thoughts or words in the script. Often these scripts have swappable endings so the radio ad can run in different markets, so the talent may read a long list of alternatives; it’s important to maintain consistency so when the different endings are edited against the main body of the spot it sounds as if it was one read all the way through.
Television ad: Normally a 30 second linear script. This type of project will be very similar to the radio scenario but on even more of a time crunch. The key to this one is to be able to read quickly but sound clear and calm.
Broadcast Television: This is commonly a documentary project if in need of a narrator. The script will be linear broken into sections - intro through ending. For a half hour show commonly there is about 12-15 minutes of solid narrative embedded. In the majority of cases the show is in a rough edit stage by the time the narrative comes along; pick up sessions are extremely common.
Documentary Film: The biggest difference I have noticed between narrative for film and television in a documentary scenario is that in film narratives are often cut around music for pacing; this could be helpful for a voice talent to know. If the music is at all available during the session it can be used to help set a cadence for the read. From experience films are commonly further along in the post process by the time a narrative is recorded so footage is often available for the talent to see or read against. Pick up sessions are a very normal part of the film editing process as often scenes are restructured or timed.
Video Games: Games will likely be the most challenging for a voice talent as the scripts are completely non-linear meaning rarely do you start with the beginning of the story and read through the end. Game scripts are written in scenarios, so only small sections will be read through and then the next scenario could be 180 degrees different in nature. Commonly this is done because a particular mode of the game is in a more final state and the VO can be hooked up right away. Unlike the other mediums, games often record about 50% through the production process since they are vastly more complex in nature. A typical video game has about 30,000 lines of dialogue in it. These sessions take days, sometimes weeks to record. The scripts are massive so if you are a Voice Talent and you get selected, be ready to be consistent for days on end. If the voice tone you are trying to portray is unsustainable for hours on end your best to let the production team know early in the project.
The bigger sports games commonly have close to 100,000 lines in them because sentences are built at runtime as the user plays through a scenario. The format could be something like “(Player Name) just ran it back for a (distance) yard gain; that is a huge play for the (team name)!” So in this scenario the talent would likely first read just the key player names as a list, a list of distances in a row and every team name as a list (with proper inflections) just once; then they would read the lines to be stitched like “Trent just ran it back for a 10 yard gain; that is a huge play for the Team!”. The words “Trent”, “10”, and “team” would be edited out and the sentence would be broken down to “just ran it back for a” & “that is a huge play for the” to be hot swappable with the name, distance, and team name files.
RPG and MMORPG type video games are the real heavyweights with upwards of 250,000+ lines of dialogue. Narrative is not as common as straight up acting. The key word here is acting, get into the character and gesture as you would if you were doing the scenes in front of a camera. Some game studios have started recording these scenarios as if on camera with a boom-mic tracking an actor as they move to get that authentic performance sound. My guess is in the near future many of these styles of games will be motion captured a lot like the “Avatar” film was with an actor performing in front of a virtual camera and live sound team; Producers will watch a rough animation unfold on a monitor in the game world as it is done in real time.
Well I think this is probably enough for a base amount of knowledge of voice work. Feel free to post comments with questions. I can always do a part 2 if there are enough inquiries.
Thanks for reading