What the Director really means. Or, How to make a poor director look good.


No doubt you’ve heard jokes about a nonsensical direction, probably have some of your own. For example, “That’s it! Now, 6 months younger” or (to a 60-year-old single man) “Do it more like a teenage kid.”

These directors don’t mean to be unhelpful. So what do they mean? Here are some ways to tell. If you can sort it out, you’ll make everyone look good.

Absurdly fine distinctions.

How do you sound 6 months younger? Can you quantify “10% more energy?” Sometimes, if you read it exactly the same way, they’ll say, “That’s it!” So much of voice acting is a matter of perception. Maybe the only difference was in their head. But maybe you somehow did come across differently? Did you really sound 6 months younger? Maybe your frustration came out as a bit more energy? Who knows. But another way to approach this request is to ask a constructive question. Don’t say, “What the #$%# does that mean?” But you might say, “What do you suppose happened in that 6 months that made them sound different.” There could be something in the back-story, or the Director’s imagination, or yours that you’ve overlooked. If the answer is, “He became a father,” or “she went on the wagon,” you have your performance clue.

“Sound like So-and-so.”

Some “amateur” clients seem not to realize that not everyone can physically imitate the voice of James Earl Jones or Nancy Cartwright or whoever. In fact, as many talent have said through the ages (at least to themselves), “If you want it to sound like Orson Welles, hire Orson Welles!” Or maybe it was Orson Wells who said it about somebody else. Anyway, rather than say you don’t do him or her, figure out what quality characterizes that person, a quality you can do, and add that. James Earl Jones? Maybe you’re just not using enough chest voice, or not enunciating. Nancy Cartwright? Maybe less chest voice, or add a Bart Simpson attitude. It will help if, now and then in your daily practice, you exercise your ability to mimic. You may not be great at it, but you will learn what you can and cannot do, and whose certain voice qualities, techniques and habits you can imitate passably well. So then, if you’re asked to imitate James Earl Jones, you might say, “Will Morgan Freeman or James Mason do?”

“Do it without an accent.”

Uh, what accent? You’re already speaking neutral US English! But there are variations even of that. Someone from parts of Ohio or of California sounds neutral but will say some words differently than someone from Nebraska. (A nasal “O” for example.) Or maybe you have a hard R, as in Appalachia, Arkansas or West Texas. Maybe it’s some small thing like that. Or if you’ve purposely lost your Canadian accent, maybe you’ve overlooked something. Or if you’re English and working in England, it could be a number of things. Try moving your accent, oh, 30 miles. Or perhaps you’re doing the traditional Received Pronunciation (“received” meaning “accepted” or “approved”), which tends to add syllables (e.g., “poor” is pronounced “poo-er” and “mature” is pronounced “machewer”), whereas the younger RP sound (more like “Estuary English”) is less complex (“poor” becomes “paw” and “mature” becomes “machoor). Or maybe the director wants neither country represented, and is asking for “Mid Atlantic” (the accent used by 1940s newsreel announcers and Hollywood stars, who sounded neither here nor there). If you’re still not sure what the Director meant, ask for an example of what words they want said differently, or if it’s an “overall” thing.

“Listen to me.”

Many directors are very reluctant to give a “reading,” for various reasons. First, you’re the talent, not them, so they may not feel able to replicate what they hear in their head. Second, if you just imitate them, what do they need you for? Clients seek talent who can add interesting qualities to the read -- aspects that the client or Director perhaps hadn’t even thought of. And, even if the Director can give a reading exactly as wanted, it’s no use if the talent can’t replicate it. In fact, it can be frustrating or even insulting (or so it may feel) to talent. So a director tries to describe the goal in other ways, helping the talent to understand the goal and letting the talent build on the direction. But what if a Director does give you a reading? Even a bad one! Analyze it. What is he or she trying to demonstrate? A matter of pitch? Tempo? Phrasing? Voice quality? Attitude or emotion? Pronunciation? And if there’s still no clue, take a guess and see if that’s it. In your daily practice, strengthen your ability to emulate. Try to precisely emulate (not imitate) the delivery of various actors and narrators, listen back to your version, perhaps simultaneously. How well do you do?

“It needs more pizzazz!”

Or some other word of that sort. The dictionary defines “pizzazz” as “an attractive combination of vitality and glamour.” Well, if they actually asked for pizzazz, that might be some help to know, but it’s probably not what they mean anyway. And odds are they used some other word. Most likely, what they really want is more energy. Are you excited by what you’re saying? Are you in the character, who is enthused? Or are you just saying the words, or speaking in a relative monotone? Make the words your own, as if your own life depended on people hearing and heeding them. (Because it does!) And don’t just get your mental energy up, boost your physical energy, too. Before the take, maybe hop a few times, or punch your palm, or wriggle, and during the take use body language ... and smile.

“Gimme something different.”

Huzzah! This is one of the things that separates a voice over professional from a one-trick amateur. You should always be able to read even a short script in a variety of ways. But, considering that hopefully you have LOTS of different ways you can go, which way should you take this vague direction? Well, you might do what you did before and simply take it over the top. Or you might try the opposite emotion from what you had just done. (You do read with emotions, we hope.) Or you might try a completely different script, to see if they’re listening. Just kidding. Our point is that this direction should not be a frustration. Take it as a professional opportunity.

A pro understands communication.

Also bear in mind that the Director might simply be testing you, to see what you’ll do and how. Always be professional.

As professionals, communication between you and the Director should work both ways. When given a direction, implement it, generally without comment. But if you don’t understand the direction, especially if you’ve given it a shot unsuccessfully, it seldom hurts to ask a meaningful question, in a constructive way. Ultimately, success in this trans-glass communication makes you both look good.

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