“I’ve been told I have a good voice, so…I was thinking I should just do commercials or something.”
“I know how to sound like a baby crying and it totally trips my friends out…I should totally do cartoons.”
“I’ve been acting forever and am looking for ways to make more money at it…there’s no reason I shouldn’t just be doing voiceovers, too.”
One of those three phrases is nearly inevitable whenever someone discovers I’m a voiceover actor. And my initial response to all of these is “yes!” Yes, you do have a good voice! Yes, you do have a wicked-good baby cry! Yes, you should be doing voiceovers, actor friend!
And my second response is - it’s going to be a long, hard road if you don’t have all your tools in place. It might even be a long, hard road if you do - voiceover is a highly competitive field and takes skill, perseverance, and luck to get established. It’s unlikely that anyone will just sidle up to a microphone and instantly be the next Don LaFontaine. But hot damn is it ever fun, and you should most certainly give it a whirl if you’re in to the not-easy-but-hugely-rewarding kind of whirling.
So where does one even begin? Lucky for you, I’m a maker of lists (and lists seem to be popular and oh-so-clickable these days - whee!). Without further ado, here’s How to Break Into Voiceover Acting and Actually be Good at It:
1. Embrace Your Acting Experience
From commercials to promos to industrials to audiobooks to animation, you need to be able to quickly and professionally dissect the living bejeezus out of a script, bring a point of view, provide a character arc, take direction well, and have the stamina to perform it at the top of your game with freshness and vitality from the first take all the way to the last – whether that takes 15 minutes or four hours. There have been plenty of times I’ve been brought in and handed a script I’ve never seen before. Sure, they’ll give us a couple of minutes to look it over, but then we’re expected to dive right in. This is the time when you will pledge your firstborn to the soul of Thespis in exchange for being able to access your past training and expertise.
2. Hone Your Improv Superpowers
It’s your job to bring the options. To give the clients 15 or 30 or 75 different takes on a single line of copy if, god forbid, that is what they need to be satisfied. In the animation world, you may be brought in for a videogame and not be told your character until you arrive. Surprise! Turns out you need to play four different characters, one of which is a robot yak that speaks only gibberish and is powered by a battery-sized nuclear reactor that contains human consciousness. Yep, it happens. And it’s your job to bring it. But your job isn’t done there – nope – at the end of the session when you’re tired and perhaps feeling a wee bit peckish, you’re going to need to make 75 different dying sounds for Robot Yak based on the 75 different Yak-death scenarios in the videogame. It’s enforced playtime. Have fun, dammit.
Nearly every casting director I’ve met thus far has talked about how celebrities crumble in the voiceover booth. They fall apart. Why? Because they can’t think of a way to say the line any other way than the seven they’ve already tried. Because they’re used to their face carrying their performance (sorry celeb, can’t hear your wink right there – gonna have to find a way to vocalize that). Because they’re reliant on having another human being to play off of (sadly, it’s often just you. Alone. So very, very alone). Improvisational prowess will save you.
3. Check your Ego at the Door
You’ve got to be able to take direction and work to give the client exactly what they want. Think you nailed it on the first take? The third? Too bad the client didn’t! Doesn’t matter if you think you’re done - gotta keep going, my friend. There ain’t no time for divas. Do the work. Bring your all and be fun to work with. Be kind. Be innovative with your performance to help the clients hear more options while still being respectful of the words on the page.
Also, there are times when you’re either going to be in the room with the creative team (or they’re just in your headphones because they’re out of state) and you’ll be getting crickets in response to your performance. You find yourself spiraling into self-doubt – they hated me…oh god, they hated me and I’m going to be fired. But hey, guess what? They’re actually just making script changes because now that they hear it out loud, it sounds weird. Or they’re checking with the Legal Department to find out if you can actually say “natural” or if you have to say “real,” instead. Or, I kid you not, they’re arguing over what toppings they want on their catered-in pizza lunch. This happens, and none of this has anything to do with you. Patience, Grasshopper.
4. Be The Drifter
No one should be able to tell where you’re from based on your accent (see: Hollywood A-listers who you’d never know are Australian based on their film work). This goes for any defined regional accent, but this article is for MinnesotaPlaylist, so I’m talking to you, Minnesotans: remember when Fargo came out and everyone got huffy about how “we don’t sound like that!” – well, guess what? – to everyone else in the nation, you kinda do. Sorry. And if you’re at all musically inclined or adept at other accents, it’s likely worse because you have a good ear and you instinctually pick it up. That’s entirely normal and to be expected, but it’s not going to fly in the land of voiceovers. Regional accents limit potential, because voiceover work is often on the national scale. We must hear our accents and work to make them neutral.
5. Do Your Homework
If you want to work in this business, you don’t get to skip the commercials. Those people scored the jobs you want. What kind of sound are they bringing to the table? Listen and learn, and then work to incorporate those approaches in your reads. And hey, you know those awful low-budget commercials that sound like they were voiced by Janice in Accounting or the “President and CEO” (I’m looking at you, Shane Company) - that’s what someone without all their tools sounds like.
6. Practice with What You’ve Got
There’s no need to rush out and plunk down thousands of dollars for equipment before you’re actually working in your new field. I got by for many years recording auditions using the voice memos app that comes standard on the iPhone, then transferring them to my computer and editing them in Audacity (free, open-source audio editing software with similar functionality as ProTools), before sending them off to my agents. Hell, I booked an ADR gig (voice-matching and replacing all of the lead actress’ naughty language in a big-budget Hollywood feature film so they could show it on airplanes) by auditioning into my iPhone under a blanket fort wedged into the corner of my sofa.
I now have a little recording booth that is far more comfortable and spacious and less temporary, with far superior equipment that is worth every penny, but I’ve also been doing this for seven years. Work with what you’ve got now so that you can ultimately determine what you want and need in the long haul.
7. Learn the Lexicon
Did I lose you in that last section with “ADR?” What are “tics” and “plosives?” What’s the difference between a commercial and a promo? What’s a scratch track? Copy? Specs? Patching? This whole section goes hand-in-hand with “Do Your Homework.” One source I highly recommend is Voiceovers: Everything You Need to Know About How to Make Money With Your Voice by Terri Apple. There are also loads of treasures online – from Pat Fraley’s instructional videos to the interviews found on VO Buzz Weekly. And, of course, talk to people you know who are consistently working on either side of the microphone in the business.
8. Be Wary about Pro Lessons
Oh, man, are there ever loads of people who are happy to take your money. Just as there are “agencies” that offer “classes” but are actually just Headshot Farms, there are “coaches” who offer “classes” but are actually just Demo Farms. They will promise to teach you everything you need to know and you’ll walk out with a “fully produced” voiceover demo. Sounds like a swell deal, right? - a one-stop shop to your new career in voiceover! Guh. No. I’ve heard a few of these demos, and I’ve heard stories about how the actors were permitted a ridiculously limited number of takes. I’m sorry, no. No, no, no, no, no. You do not pay for a demo and then only get three takes to get it right. That is absurd.
Considering taking a class? Rock on. Research it first. Is the instructor actively working in the field? Great! Where can you hear a sample of their work? If their recently-released yoga CD sounds like it’s narrated by a Sunday Night Football commentator, then perhaps this might not be the right class for you. Know anyone who took the class? Ask them about their experience. As actors, our time and money can be scarce commodities…so be smart about where and how you choose to invest them.
9. Audition, Audition, Audition, ad infinitum
It might be hard to convince your agent to give you voiceover auditions when you’re so new to the field. Without a demo to prove your ability, it might be downright impossible. I started my voiceover career at a talent guild, wherein I was afforded the luxury of auditioning for everything that came into our office. And audition I did. Many, many auditions every week for a solid year. And I didn’t book a thing. Not one single thing. But I kept at it, and voiceover work is now my bread and butter.
So until your agent starts giving you those auditions, there are various voiceover clearinghouse sites like Voice123.com where you can audition online for usually small, non-union gigs. Which is awesome if you don’t mind doing some company’s entire telephony system for $50. It’s a good place to get your hands on scripts, and it might just provide you with the insight to decide whether or not this is the path for you.
10. Get Your Demo(s)
Trying to get considered for voiceover work without a voiceover demo is like trying to get a modeling job without anyone knowing what you look like. Your voiceover demo holds the same calling-card gravitas as your headshot does for stage and on-camera work. It’s a necessity. Which means you’ll ultimately need to invest in a good one, produced by someone who does sound engineering for a living. You’ll benefit greatly from the expertise of someone presently working in the business, who knows what the current audio trends are, and who can guide you on the specific criteria your demo needs to meet. You’re ultimately going to want different demos for your different areas of expertise (commercial/promo/animation/narrative, etc.), so it’ll be important to prioritize which demos are completed first. Demos could easily require their own ten-point how-to list, so be sure to do plenty of research before diving in.
When I first started poking the voiceover bear eight years ago, there were plenty of people who kindly encouraged me to knock it off. They wanted to save me the hassle – to make sure I knew voiceover was too competitive, too skills-intensive, too time-consuming, and too expensive. When I couldn’t be deterred, they sent me on my way with a hearty slap on the back and a sarcastic “good luck.” Being the insubordinate I am, I took that as a challenge. And what a challenge it has been - a wildly fun, competitive, fulfilling, skills-intensive, inspiring challenge.
While voiceover is one of those jobs that everyone thinks they can do – everyone – and there are plenty of people at the ready to tell you, "you can’t,” I’ve found that voiceover is in actuality a craft like any other. To make a successful career of it, you’ll need the natural inclination, skill, talent, tools, research, practice, and perseverance. So yes, you do have a good voice! I can’t wait to see what skills, beyond that wicked-good baby cry, you’ll be bringing to the table.