“Mailing in” your VO performance. Is it always a bad thing?


Are you familiar with the term “mailing it in”? We’re not talking about emailing a file to your client. Sometimes people will say “phoning it in,” but we’re not talking about transmission over a phone or Internet connection, either. We’re talking about it in the acting sense.

It’s when an actor delivers a performance that’s routine, competent but nothing special, no different than other performances the actor has delivered over his or her career. Taken literally, it’s when the performance arrives, but the actor’s mind hasn’t come along with it. Mailing it in is generally thought to be less than exemplary, and thus a bad thing to say of someone.

But is it?

We looked up some discussions of the subject, and got interesting results. The term doesn’t mean quite the same thing in all cases.

Sometimes it can even be said with pride, especially with the job requires a cold read. On a cold read – where there has been no time for even a brief rehearsal, or even pre-reading the script (as with a ton of routine retail sale copy, or the day’s news) – sometimes something’s gotta give. Like it or not, the talent might have to fall into a set pattern, as he or she focuses on being mistake-free. Being good at a cold read also requires experience at “seeing ahead,” pacing, subject knowledge, expert pronunciation and enunciation skills, and more. Such a capability, when required, can be a matter of pride. In that case, the talent might even say, “That sale copy is no problem. I can mail it in.”

However, although we can imagine one talent saying this to another talent, we can’t imagine someone saying it innocuously to a client. It’s not flattering to hear that a narrator has given the copy no attention at all -- that it required no effort, and was deserving of none.

In most situations, the interpretation is not so kind. Here are some we found:

“a performance that is without passion and perfunctory in every respect. When an actor or singer (or an athlete) is just going thru the steps to get on and get off, it is not very pleasant to watch and the audience can tell.” (http://www.phrases.org.uk)

In a book about directing, we found:

“The lazy actor: The last thing you need is some mail-it-in type devoid of any creative inspiration who you have to constantly push and prod.” (“Picture Yourself Directing a Movie” by Eric Nicholas)

And in an interview, we forget with whom:

“It’s just as well the show closed. By the end of the run I was mailing it in.”

But one of the more interesting takes on this bit of shop talk is the following (emphasis added):

“the act of performing a task or job with the minimal amount of effort required to satisfy the person who has hired you to do the work. But that's not all. To ‘mail it in,’ there has to be an understanding (express or implied) that the performer of the task is capable of better quality work than what is being delivered.”(http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/Mailing_it_in)

We might take issue with some of the examples Uncyclopedia goes on to give, which range way beyond acting to include even the Titanic and Hindenburg disasters. In acting, “mailing it in” is seldom so tragic or the results so distant from the routine behavior. In acting, the results are simply boring, and the effect is immediate.

The interesting statement by Uncyclopedia is that, for a performance to said to have been mailed in, the actor must be considered capable of better work. The authors (it’s a wiki, so we have no idea who the page’s contributors are) go on to say that only star performers can get away with it.

That’s ultimately our point, too. With rare exception, good clients don’t want talent to merely “mail it in.” Clients expect professional voice talent to add something extra, something the client might even be unable to anticipate, replicate or describe. A quality that makes the read interesting and special. If you give no thought to your performance, and to what you’re saying, odds are your listener will be just as disinterested.

If you’re still learning the finer points of voice over, or expanding your genre range, and you don’t give attention to all aspects of your read, “mailing it in” isn’t even an option. Even if you’re capable of easily delivering a mundane, merely-competent performance, you’ll want to go beyond that, delivering an exceptional read so that you can parlay that job into others. Give every job the necessary thought.

If you’re an old hand at VO but you sit back and rely on standard acting tricks you’ve learned over time, you’ll wind up with a rote (mechanical or habitual) performance, nothing special. Even a star can’t get away with that for long.

So, whether you’re starting out in your career, or moving it along, always remember why clients hire you: because you’re capable of more.

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