Experts share their tips on how to get into, and sustain, a career in voiceover.' The market has changed, styles of delivery change, but these good practices are still the core of a long and strong career.
Backstage:SPOTLIGHT ON SPEECH/VOICEOVER/DIALECTS June 20, 2002
Experts share their tips on how to get into, and sustain, a career in voiceover.
By Jamie Painter Young
The are a number of misconceptions about the voiceover profession: It's all about having a great voice, you don't have to be an actor, it's just like on-camera acting only without using your body, it's easy work. And it's nearly impossible to break into. The truths about voiceover are: It requires so much more than just having a nice voice; it's about having a great ear and a great interpretive instrument via your vocal cords. Voiceover is the equivalent term for voice acting. Your body can often be involved, although the audience only hears you. There is a distinct technique to voiceover that distinguishes it from other areas of acting. It's not easy work, particularly when it comes to getting jobs. And even though it's hard to break into, there is always room for talented newcomers willing to go the distance.
"I think within probably the last five to 10 years, there are so many more actors in the voiceover realm that it has increased the pool of talent," said Steven Neibert, a voiceover agent at Abrams Artists in Los Angeles."I hear a lot of people say that the voiceover world is virtually impossible to [break into] or it's going to be very, very difficult. But I always tell people, 'If it's really something that you're passionate about and you really want to do it, you can do it.' It just may take some time and some perseverance.'
The commercial strike of 2000 has also affected the current state of the voiceover industry. While most actors and agents are hopeful that the commercial industry is rebounding from the crippling effects of runaway productions and the increase in non-union projects, there is simply less work to go around than there was two years ago. The collapse of the dot.com industry also hurt actors. Therefore, if you want to break into voiceover you need to be great, not good. As with any area of acting, voiceover is very much an art and a craft-one that can, and needs, to be learned. Regardless of whether people tell you that you have a great voice, if you don't have the acting chops and the ability to interpret text and strongly convey character and story through your voice, you're going to be fairly limited in what you can go after in the voiceover industry. In other words, before you consider breaking into voiceover, concentrate first on becoming the best actor you can be.
Back Stage West spoke with some of the top professionals working in voiceover-artists, agents, and casting directors-about what it takes to start and to sustain a career. The bottom line is that if you want to work in this field, you need to be ready and willing to compete with the best talent in the business. That means you need to devote ample time to continually honing your voiceover skills, marketing yourself, and staying on top of the trends.
Stories of Discovery
As with on-camera or stage acting, there are various ways in which voiceover artists break into their profession. Here are a few of the outstanding stories we came across. (We will later address the more standard way actors get started.)
"I met a young actress in a play 15 years ago, and she had never done voiceover, but I liked her voice," recalled agent Jeff Danis, senior vice president at ICM."Her name is E.G. Daily. She's now one of the Powerpuff Girls and Rugrats. I'm always listening."
Danis found another voiceover client, John Garry, at a basketball game. "I heard the announcer on the P.A. system. He had a great voice-deep and powerful. We tracked him down and found out who he was. He was managing an apartment building in the Valley, and he really wanted to get into voiceover but didn't know how. He did the announcing at the games for free tickets. He is one of our top clients today."
Busy voiceover actor Phil LaMarr got his break while working on-camera on Mad TV, where he gained experience doing voiceover for the series' animated sequences and as the show's announcer for five seasons."That's where I first started becoming comfortable in a booth," recalled LaMarr, who was contacted during his stint on Mad TV by an agent at Abrams Artists. The agent wanted to sign LaMarr for on-camera commercial work, an area La Marr was, as he put it, definitely afraid of. "But I told him I really was interested in voiceover, and they had a voiceover department. So the agent took me to Kelly Garner, who was running the voiceover department at Abrams at that time, and slowly Kelly started sending me out. I think the first significant voice job I got was Futurama [in 1999]." Since that time LaMarr has worked consistently in TV animation, most recently in Static Shock, Justice League, and the popular Cartoon Network series Samurai Jack. as the title character. He has also been branching out in voiceover for TV and radio commercials: He can currently be heard on TV in a Baby Ruth ad.
In all fairness, we should say upfront that animation is one of the toughest fields in voiceover to break into, partly because some of the most talented voice actors gravitate to this work-and stay in it because it's lucrative and fun-and partly because there's just not a lot of work to go around, compared with other areas of voiceover. The past 10 years have also seen a dramatic increase in the number of celebrity actors doing animation voiceover, particularly in feature animation, slimming the pool of jobs even more. Acting for animation requires excellent versatility and range (as actors are often expected on a job to do at least three different voices for the price of one), quick reflexes (the ability to come up with, say, a Russian or Cajun accent in a flash), and strong acting skills. A comedic or improv background, a strong sense of humor, and the ability to burp on cue can also be helpful.
"It's a pretty small pool of actors, and to make it in the [animation] business you can't be 'up and coming.' You need to be extraordinary," noted voiceover star Tara Strong, whose 15 years of animation credits include Rugrats, The Little Mermaid II, and The Powerpuff Girls (including the soon-to-be-released movie). Strong began her voiceover career in Toronto when she was just 13. She was already working as an on-camera actor and singer when her<BR>
theatrical agent sent her to an audition for the animated series Hello Kitty. She booked the job and continued work in animation voiceover on such Canadian-recorded series as Beetlejuice and Ace Ventura. When she moved to Los Angeles, she was already well established in the animation world.
Strong decided to share some her experience and secrets of the trade in a new website that she and her husband, voiceover actor Craig Strong, launched earlier this year. The site, Voicestarz.com, is a membership-based service offering CD-Rom classes and online advice from Tara, along with many of the top professionals in animation. While Strong emphasized that her service is not a substitute for in-person training in a workshop setting, she believes Voicestarz.com is a solid introduction to the world of animation voiceover and a way for aspiring actors (particularly those who don't live in Los Angeles) to gain firsthand knowledge from experts at the top of their game. Daily, who participates in Voicestarz, also offers free tips-though not as in-depth as Strong's service-on her own website at www.egdaily.com.
Learning the Ropes
Agent Neibert recommends that actors interested in breaking into voiceover focus on commercial voiceover work in the beginning. As he put it, there are more opportunities for newcomers to enter the commercial areas."Once you break into voiceover and you get into an agency, then push animation." advised the Abrams Artists agent. Everyone who spoke with BSW agreed that the best place for any actor interested in voiceover to start is in a classroom setting. Whether you are a beginning actor or a lead on a TV sitcom, training of some kind is essential. It's recommended that newcomers enroll in an introductory six- to eight-week voiceover workshop. Taking a class will help you better understand the necessary techniques, tricks of the trade, and etiquette required to work in voiceover. "There are things that you need to learn," said Strong,"things you wouldn't know coming off the street. [Voiceover] is certainly not about standing in a studio and reading off a music stand. There are skills involved, and you have to know things like, "I have to wait a couple of beats in between their line and mine so that they can shut off the microphone.'
As with any acting class, the best way to find a reputable teacher is through referral. There is also a list of voiceover classes (along with other voiceover-related categories such as demo producers, casting< offices, and agencies) included in the quarterly Voiceover Reasource Guide. Expect to pay about $600 on average for a workshop. You might consider asking a teacher if you could audit his or her class before signing up, to make sure that class is right for you. Most actors can expect to take more than one class, and even the best voiceover artists continue to study throughout their careers. Said Neibert, "I know so many actors I represent who, even though they're working actors and are doing really well, are still learning. They take classes.' And not just voiceover classes. Top voice actors continue to study acting, improve their cold reading skills, and hone their improv abilities-a real plus for any voiceover actor. Some train in singing: It can only improve the ear and increase range and versatility as an artist. Others work with a dialect coach. As so many voiceover actors told us, you need to be many things at once-not just a nice-sounding voice. Above all, strong acting is always the foundation, and you can always be better. Said Daily,"To this day I am always in some sort of a class. Even though I make a great living and I work all the time, I'm always interested in what more I can learn. How can I surprise people more? What else can I learn to better myself?"
Voice actor Keri Tombazian told Back Stage West,"You want to take the study of it as seriously as you took any other part of your acting career." Actor Jodi Carlisle spent five years training for her voiceover career, which includes such recent work as the animated series The Wild Thornberrys, Disneyland and Geico Direct commercials, and even the computerized voice on Universal Studios Hollywood's Jurassic Park ride."I was constantly in a workshop," she recalled. However, Carlisle noted that many actors are impatient and think that they can quickly jumpstart their voiceover careers. She cautioned,"It's like being a doctor or lawyer. You wouldn't just walk into an emergency room and say, 'I think I want to handle this patient now.' You have to learn how to do it. It is a craft within itself, and it isn't easy. "It may look easy, and that's a mistake a lot of my actor friends make when they come to me and say, 'Jodi, I want to get into voiceovers. What do I do?' I explain to them that you have to take classes. A lot of actors seem to think it is an easy way to make money and an easy way to make a living as an actor, and it's not. It's a very specific thing, and you need to be trained to do it if you want to make a career out of it."
For the beginner, an introductory workshop is an excellent place to familiarize yourself with what makes your voice unique and how to adjust your voice to create different ranges, emotions, moods, and characters. This may sound simple, but as the experts say, most people-including actors-have little idea of what they sound like until they get into class, or at least begin to listen to themselves played back on tape.
LaMarr learned,"In voiceover, you have to focus all of that acting energy that you put through your face and your body into just your voice. I remember when I was first starting out, I would do a line and then someone would say, ONo, I need you to be angrier,' and then the next time I would say the line it would come out sounding exactly the same, but my face would look very different and my fists were clenched more. You really have to listen to yourself and get a sense of what you sound like to other people."
As casting director and voiceover teacher Terry Berland explained, most beginning voice actors have a difficult time expressing themselves without relying on their bodies."For on-camera acting, their body language and their looks help communicate the message. In voiceover, it's only the voice. The shock is that actors communicate a message from their brains to their vocal cords, and they think that it's behaved and doing what their brains have told them to do. Then they listen back and it hasn't at all."
That does not mean the body isn't needed in voiceover. While the actor must rely on his or her voice to convey the story and the character, the body is still an important part of the equation."Beginners many times don't use body language to communicate their voiceover message. They'll just stand there. That's not good. You do need it," noted Berland. Wendy Braun, a successful commercial voice actor-recognizable for her two years as the on-camera spokesperson for Mervyns' TV ads-did a recent job for Starbucks in which she was hired to play a woman just waking from a night's sleep. In addition to creating the situation vocally, she laid her head on a pillow"to really get that sense of turning and tossing" ; during the recording of her dialogue. Voiceover artist Susan Eisenberg, who works frequently in commercials (Microsoft, Toyota), promos (CNN), and animation, finds her work a physical workout."I play Wonder Woman on Justice League and Viper on Jackie Chan Adventures, and I do a lot of punching and kicking. I need physical blocking."
Said Carlisle,"You have to move. You have to gesture. You have to put your whole body into it to communicate. That's all we're doing; we're just communicating. The thing that sets the voice actor apart is that you can't see us, but hopefully we communicate just as well as actors you see in commercials and on television."
Tune In to the Competition
One of the best exercises any voice actor can do-besides recording yourself and hearing how you sound on tape-is to pay attention to what's in the marketplace. Listen to the radio ads. When you watch TV, don't tune out the commercials. Watch cartoons if you want to get into animation. Hear what is required.
Actors can also log on to Voicebank.net and listen-free of charge-to the best voiceover talent from the top agencies around the country. Voicebank, which delivers online more than 10,000 auditions from casting offices and talent agencies to the major advertising agencies around the country, also makes available the house demo reels from most of the talent agencies that handle voiceover. If you want to know what the top voice actors sound like and why they are considered the best in their league, this is an excellent way to hear the competition. The demos will also give listeners a good idea of what the trends are in the marketplace.
For example, Braun said,"Now they're asking for a Onon-announcer.' They want a very real, very thrown-away [style of voice] in commercials." While the norm in commercials once was voices that were slick, cosmetic, smooth, or pretty, these days advertisers want gravelly, casual,"real voices-a pattern that goes hand-in-hand with much of the on-camera commercial trend favoring actors who are not conventionally good-looking or perfect.
As for trends in animation, there are two styles now: the more traditional"character " used in many of the humorous animated TV shows for kids, and"voice acting," which includes many of the more dramatic, action-oriented projects, such as Justice League or Batman Returns. LaMarr pointed out that not all animation requires actors to come up with"a wacky, goofy voice." If your strong suit is having a great dramatic voice, there is still a place for you in animation. As LaMarr suggested, figure out your strengths and your weaknesses before submitting yourself to agents and casting directors. The more you know what your voice is capable of, the better you can develop it and concentrate on work that suits you. "If you have a particularly unique and distinctive voice, don't go around trying to change that, because then you're taking away one of your strengths," advised LaMarr."I believe there are many people who make a good living in this field basically making variations of one voice-their own."
Selling Your Goods
The most important tool a voiceover actor has with which to market himself is his demo CD (compact disc is now the industry standard). This is the voice actor's calling card to pique the interests of agents and casting directors.
"The demo is very important for someone starting out, because that's your introduction," said agent Danis."The only way agents will know you is through your demos. It's like a good picture." Demo CDs are expensive. They can cost anywhere from $700 to $2,000; the average price for a high-quality demo is $1,500. Along with proper training, your demo is an investment in your future, and it is one you will continue to update, just as you would a headshot or resume-at least every two years, said Terry Berland. As many voice demos are now produced digitally, the technology allows actors to more easily update their demos and take away or add vocal samples as they progress in their careers.
It is advisable to invest in a few private vocal sessions with a coach before recording your demo. The coach can help you choose material and offer suggestions on how to read the copy and make adjustments to your voice. The biggest mistake actors can make is to rush into making their first demo CD. Unless you honestly believe that you are ready to compete with the best voiceover talent in the nation, do not make a demo. The actor also needs to be able to reproduce the same quality of vocal sound that is on his demo. Just as your headshot should look exactly like you-not an airbrushed version of what you wish you looked like-your demo should match your talent."You can go out and produce a great-sounding CD, because you can pay for anything you want in this town and have something fabulously produced, but you'd better be aware that you have to go into a session and be as good as what you produced on your CD," warned agent Rita Vennari of Sutton, Barth & Vennari. Vennari also cautioned actors to be wary of a voiceover teacher who promises students they will be ready to make a demo after just six weeks of instruction, or classes that include a demo in the price of the class. As the agent explained, most actors are not ready to record a demo in that short amount of time. Still, some actors, like Susan Eisenberg, did just that.
Eisenberg enrolled in a voiceover class through UCLA Extension. She signed up for that particular class because it included a demo with the price of tuition. Her first demo landed her an agent, and she's been working strictly as a voiceover artist ever since. However, that was eight years ago."When I got into it, it wasn't what it is today," she said."It's just gotten so much bigger. It's just so competitive and so hard to book jobs. You have the best of the best dying for that one radio spot. The work itself can be easy, but it's not easy to get the work."
Short and to the Point
Demos are typically 60 seconds (and never more than 90 seconds) in length, and they should be geared toward either commercial or animation voiceover. If you produce a commercial demo and want to include one sample of your animation work, that is OK, but it is strongly advised that you make separate demos for these two areas of voiceover. The first few seconds of your demo is crucial. If an agent or casting director does not immediately hear what he's searching for, he will not finish listening. Skip an introduction." Hi, my name is Joe Blow. Thanks for listening."-and immediately begin with your voiceover samples. Give them your strongest work first. Neibert emphasized,"Make the first 10 or 15 seconds something that will catch our attention. You want something that's very conducive to the market nowadays. So know what's out there, what the trend is-which [for commercials] is everyday, regular people who are announcers who aren't sounding announcery, basically showing their product without being showy. Also don't do something that stretches your limits too much. You don't want to sound forced. You want to use your strengths and sell that, and then once you actually get into the agency that's when you want to show your versatility."
Agents and casting directors also want to hear a voice that conveys acting ability."If you're not a good actor, it's going to make it very difficult no matter how good your voice is," said Danis, who listens to about 100 demos a month."Within two seconds of putting a demo on, we know if it's going to work for us or not." Added casting director Berland,"From the first four words, I know if I'm interested. I can tell whether the person knows the technique and whether they're 100 percent present and delivering the copy the way it's supposed to be delivered."
It's also strongly suggested that you do not include other voices of your gender on your demo. Agents need to know whom they are supposed to be listening to. Agents also advise that actors not include pictures of themselves on the jackets of their demo CDs."The reason I tell people not to include a headshot is because, right off the bat, we as humans tend to immediately want to put someone in a category when we see them. We don't care what you look like; it matters what you sound like."
However, many actors do feel that it is important to design a CD cover that says something about them and that looks professional. Barbara Passolt, an L.A. stage actor, has been working hard to break into voiceover, taking classes and trying to get some voiceover experience in such non-union work as corporate industrials and audio narration. She recently designed a witty cover for her first animation demo CD, hoping to grab agents' attention and say something about her personality. Said Passolt,"Since my last name is unusual, I figured I would go with that. On my demo box it says, 'Pass the Salt,' and have [a photograph of] my hand passing a saltshaker to my husband's hand. I just figured to go with the joke."
Still, Passolt knows that what matters most is not the exterior of her demo packaging, but what's inside."You've only got a limited amount of time to convey so much in those 10-second spots-the age of the person, their point of view, how they feel about the product, what they're doing, what they're wearing, what they look like, who they're talking to-and that has to happen in such a short time. Every single thing that comes out of your voice has to mean something. You have to hone an entire story within just a few words."
Like many actors, Passolt is being aggressive about pursuing her voiceover career. She's currently developing a website to promote herself as a voiceover artist. As she explained, a lot of actors are submitting themselves online to agencies now."In fact, I found that one of the agencies I'm submitting to, Cunningham, Escott and Dipene, prefers that you link to their website."
A new tool for voiceover performers is VoiceRegistry.com, an online service linked to Voicebank. For $199 a year plus a $49 set-up fee, actors can build their own Web pages to market themselves. The page can include your downloaded demo, your resumZ, a headshot or artwork, and contact information. So far the company has about 300 clients and are rapidly growing, according to Jeff Hixon, president and CEO of Voicebank and VoiceRegistry.
While Hixon claims that agents can use VoiceRegistry as a tool to find new talent, the agents Back Stage West spoke to said they do not have time to use a service like VoiceRegistry. However, VoiceRegistry allows its members to have a URL page, which can be e-mailed to targeted agents. San Francisco-based Tracy Pattin, a non-union voiceover actor, recently signed up with VoiceRegistry and calls it an excellent marketing tool. Pattin has been working off and on in voiceover for the past 10 years, the last five more steadily. She is currently trying to get a voiceover agent in Los Angeles. Like Passolt, she thinks online demo submissions are being welcomed by more and more companies. "Right now I'm just sending off my demo to all the people I had done business with before-all my clients, like a lot of high-tech people I have done voiceovers for," commented Pattin."It has been great to get a response back, instead of just hoping they'll open my package."
The Pecking Order
Not surprisingly most agents prefer to receive a demo based on a referral from a casting director, colleague, or client. Agents do try to listen to every submission that comes in, but unsolicited demos usually go to the bottom of the demo pile. Top agents, such as Danis at ICM, suggest that actors start their search for an agent at one of the smaller boutique companies that handle voiceover clients. If you already have a commercial or theatrical agent, and your agency has a voiceover department, that is one of the best ways to break in. Introduce yourself to the voiceover agents and follow their suggestions. That's just what commercial actor Wendy Braun did four years ago atAbrams Artists. Today she's one of its busiest voiceover clients-so busy that she no longer does on-camera commercials; instead she does only voiceover and on-camera theatrical, recently appearing on NYPD Blueand Providence. In addition to the Starbucks campaign, her voice can currently be heard on commercials for Advantage Pet Care, Crayola, Coldwell Banker, and, for variety, Direct Condoms.
Braun advised actors who might be in a similar situation,"Tell the [voiceover department] who you are and that you're really interested in voiceover. Ask them what kind of training they suggest. Ask the agents their opinions and their advice, because then you're respecting what they do. They told me of a couple of places to study. Then, because they saw my interest, they actually started bringing me in the booth [agencies record many auditions in-house] while I was taking classes, so I got to start to audition while I was working at understanding what was going on. And because I had done commercials, that helped in my understanding of the voiceover world."
Another way to break into voiceover is through a class. As many of the best classes in Los Angeles are taught by top casting directors and directors, it is not unheard of for a teacher to tap a student for a role. "Quite a few people in this business got their start because they've taken a class from a casting director-such as [animation CDs] Andrea Romano or Sue Blu-who has used them in a series," noted Strong."So not only are you getting the benefit of really seeing what it takes, but you're working with people who are in charge of putting you there."
Sustaining a Career
If there is one thing agents emphasized again and again, it is that voiceover actors who thrive are ones who bring a consistently unique quality to their work-an understanding of what they're reading and an ability to make the copy special and to make it their own. Still, tastes have changed over the years in the voiceover world-just as in any area of entertainment or advertising or culture-and it is important for the voice actor to adapt to these trends while still taking into account what makes him or her special. Said Carlisle,"Go with the newest trends, be adaptable with whatever your capabilities are, and hopefully just ride the tide of what the new trend is. At the same time, you have to be true to yourself and who you are as a performer and what you do best, because that is your foundation."
Added Eisenberg,"Anyone can book a job. It's maintaining it over the years that's so hard. I know people who have been doing it for 20 years who are so gifted and so talented, but things change. What they're looking for has changed so dramatically from when I started-never mind 20 years ago-that you need to adapt."