Waverly dance
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Getting Started in Voiceovers

The more people I meet, both online and in person, the more I talk about my voiceover business. A natural result is that I'm increasingly presented with the question: "How can I get into doing voiceovers?" or "what's your advice on getting started?"

I'll do my best to give some answers to these questions here. Before I do, let me acknowledge that there are already several excellent articles on this topic to be found online; hopefully my own take on this subject will be of value to anyone asking the question(s). I don't assert that this information is 100% definitive, and exceptions do occur to the "rules" in this Business we call Show. Take this in and weigh it against other articles, as well as your own experiences. So, off we go...

It's Not About Your Voice.

Usually accompanying the "how do I start" inquiry is the qualifier "People tell me I have a great voice!" The good news? If you're being told this, odds are that those people are correct. The bad news? The reason they're probably correct is that most people do have a "nice voice", or at least a voice of reasonably pleasant tonal quality that doesn't send the listener into crippling spasms. The worse news? Having a "good voice" means virtually nothing with regard to having a successful VO career. I've received countless compliments on the quality of my voice; while I accept them as sincere, I know full well that the reason I have a voiceover career is that I've learned how to use that voice. If you don't have any acting experience or training, get some. Whether it's a ketchup commercial, an instructional tech video, or an animated Pixar blockbuster, the skills you need to bring to the mic are those of an actor.

This is Serious Stuff.

Another aspect of the Big Question is that it's often asked earnestly but wistfully; you can practically see the questioner's gauzy vision of getting up in the morning, sitting behind the mic for an hour or so, collecting a fat paycheck for the session, and taking off the rest of the day...or even the week. Just to be sure, there are voice talents for whom that's a normal day; that list is pretty short, though, and getting on that last requires lots of time + lots of work + a bit of luck. (Not to mention that those guys stay quite busy.)

How much time? How much work? How much luck? The answer, as with so many things, is different for everyone; in pretty much every case, however, it means focusing on developing your skills. It means spending time marketing your services. In other words, even if you only want to work in VO part time or "on the side", you still have to take it seriously, develop your craft, and pursue the gigs; and to get those gigs, you'll need to convince the (potential) buyers of your services that you're a dedicated professional. (That's getting ahead of the game a bit, however. Moving on...)

This is Fun Stuff!

Lest you think at this point that I'm a curmudgeon about this stuff, think again! This is one of the most fun jobs imaginable, and even the little annoyances are far outweighed by the rewards. By "rewards", I'm not even referring to money; most VO talents will never earn millions upon millions of dollars. This is all the more reason to love what you do. (If the odds against earning vast riches are putting you off of this whole VO thing, or if you've only considered VO because it seems like an easy way to rake in big bucks, you might as well stop reading now.) I mention the hard work involved because it's true, but hard work doesn't have to mean drudgery. Enjoy yourself! Listeners (that is to say, potential clients) can tell, and are more likely to look your way.

Having worked at a number of radio stations, I can confirm that there are times when non-professional voice talents are asked to read copy for commercials and/or PSAs (Public Service Announcements). It happens, especially when deadlines are looming, or when an advertiser chooses to voice their own copy. What often occurs is that an otherwise literate and intelligent person delivers a reading that suggests they're still learning the English language: flat, monotone, and devoid of rhythm or pace. This isn't to put down people for not having instant pro voiceover skills; in fact, most people aren't used to reading text aloud on a regular basis, and even though the words may leap off the page and tell a vivid story when they read it with their eyes, they have trouble getting their mouths to perform that same translation. As a voice artist, your job is to do this every time you step up to the mic.

This brings us back to the need for...acting skills! Words are not mere conveyances of data, they're living things that need your help to be fully realized. Even if you don't have formal training (yet), take a chance when you read! Use your vocal range; it's probably wider than you think. Exaggerate, overemphasize, even yell! If the read doesn't seem right, try something else! It's always easier to tone it down from "exciting" than to build it up from "dull".

Do Your Homework

No matter from where you're starting out, be it absolute beginner or somewhat-experienced, you have an advantage going in: the research has pretty much been done; all you have to do is look it up!

Okay, that's perhaps not quite as easy as I've made it sound; it still takes time and focus, but you can find a great deal of information online regarding the VO world. Do a Google or Yahoo! search for "voiceovers", "voice talent", "voice acting", and look through the results.

Back to School

As I mentioned before, some degree of training is essential, and it should happen before you begin creating demos and trying to market your services. (It should also happen after those steps as well; as in any other field, VO education is an ongoing process.) If you don't have any acting experience, I highly recommend looking up a local community theatre organization and volunteering; most such outfits are always looking for new faces. You'll likely learn absolutely nothing about microphone technique or how to fit an overwritten piece of ad copy into 30 seconds, but you will gain invaluable experience using your body and voice to tell a story and/or sell an idea. 'Informal' or 'Ongoing' education programs are another great way to dip your toes into the acting waters. Many of these programs will even have an introductory-level voiceover class or two, so get to Googling and see what's available in your area.

In addition to the general acting training referenced above, you need to have plenty of practice reading scripts; you can gain a lot of experience by drawing on exercises found in books like The Art of Voice Acting by James Allburger, as well as several other fine VO books. If you've already got a basic voice-recording setup with a microphone and computer, record yourself reading scripts, ad copy from magazines, even stories with different characters. Practice this and listen back until you're hearing a performance that brings the copy to life.

A note: I'm betting that some of you are reading the above and thinking, "look, Dave, I know you mean well, but I've got loads of natural talent and have been 'acting' and creating characters since I was in diapers, so I hope you don't mind if I plan to skip the whole classroom-experience bit."

If so, then please know that I don't mind in the slightest. You can (and certainly should) draw on your natural abilities when performing VO work. My point is that if you haven't had some degree of training from a bona fide teacher, it will eventually show in your work. Again, I say - with no facetiousness - if you happen to be the exception, and find that you're able to be successful in VO without putting in the groundwork, then more power to you. (This is in no way meant to demean or belittle those successful VO artists who have avoided the theatrical-acting route; they deserve their success and certainly don't need me to tell them how it should be done. However, even those VO folks will tell that you've got to educate yourself - or be educated, by a qualified teacher - about the business and craft of voiceover.)

Momentarily putting aside my earlier point about not being in VO for the money: you're proposing to enter a field wherein, when you're working steadily, you can (potentially) earn as much as a working attorney or physician. The latter two occupations require going to school for eight, ten, twelve years (or more) after high school. There's no requirement that you attend any sort of formal classes to be a voiceover artist...but you do have to have the same level of commitment as those professionals. If you like the idea of a self-taught CPA doing your taxes, or an untrained mechanic working on your car, then by all means plow ahead in that same vein.

A Seat at the Table

Regardless of how much or how little training you've had, a resume' of acting experience does little when it comes to landing VO jobs. You've got to bring something to the table, and that something needs to be your demo. In fact, you'll need several demos in different categories, and each of them needs to stack up against pros who are already working steadily. However, before we put the proverbial cart too far in front of the horse...

Don't get too impatient; you need to be ready to perform before you get started creating your first demo. If you've been practicing and absorbing information from VO pros (via the resources and methods listed previously), then you can start putting materials together for the demo.

While you might want to concentrate on completing one demo category at a time, it's important to know what the main ones are: Commercial, Narration, and Character. There are others, such as radio/TV imaging, subcategories of Narration like Medical, Scientific and Corporate, etc., but let's stick to the basics for now.

Finding material for a Commercial demo is easier than you might think, but also a little tricky; while you can contact studios and ad agencies to search for old legitimate advertising copy, you can also find the same material in any magazine or newspaper - it's simply formatted differently. The trick is to look for copy that mirrors the better ads you've heard on radio and TV; by "better", I mean copy that stands apart from the same old advertising cliches ("plenty of free parking" or "our friendly, knowledgable staff"), and grabs the listener.

Finding Narration material is equally simple; go to the website of nearly any large company, and you'll likely find an "About Us" or "Mission Statement" section. It's not uncommon for that same material to be used by the company for training and promotional audio, so take advantage of a ready-made resource. (Be cautious, however, of actually using the company name in the demo.)

A Character demo should be more than just audio of you doing funny voices; this is where your acting chops really come into play. Use copy that requires you to get inside the character, and create the voice from within that. Also keep in mind that the Character demo is something of a "specialty", even within VO work; several voice artists do plenty of work without ever pretending to be a frog. If certain types of characters or accents or dialects aren't your strong suit, by all means leave them on the shelf for now, and showcase the strengths you do have.

That's all for now. Best of luck, and lay off the dairy products...

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