Alan Rickman: It’s not all about his voice


With the recent passing of the actor Alan Rickman, much has been made of his voice. Which is more than the vocal department at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art said he would make of it. Many years later, he told an interviewer that his voice had been “heavily criticized.” In fact, Rickman described one teacher as saying, “Alan, you sound as if your voice is coming out of the back end of a drain pipe.” So it would be tempting to make this article about pursuing your dream, never giving up, and not heeding the opinion of even a prestigious drama school.

But would that be wise?

Yes, and no.

No, in that if three people tell you you’re drunk, you should at least consider switching to soda, and if qualified professionals suggest you should consider a different line of work, maybe you should at least reconsider your game plan.

But we note that Rickman did not say his teachers discouraged him from acting. And his voice has been described more lately as seeming like a cello.

So there’s the “yes.” In fact, many a "yes." Rickman’s acting career provides a wealth of examples to inspire the growing voiceover artist.

To begin with, Rickman started relatively late for an actor. Although he had been interested in acting as a youth, professionally he first tried his hand at graphic design, figuring it would provide a more dependable income. It didn’t, so in his mid-twenties, he got himself accepted by the Royal Academy. Then he spent a dozen years on the boards and British TV repertory.

It was soon apparent that Rickman had more going for him than his voice. It wasn’t just the voice, it was how he used it. That’s another valuable lesson to heed.

For example, in Rickman’s first movie role (in “Die Hard”), he not only ranged through that German-who-learned-English-in-England accent, it was his idea to connivingly switch to American. Rickman also offered (or maybe “insisted on” would be more accurate) certain creative views as to his character’s actions, revealing his judgment and ability as a director. (He went on to direct and teach, including in New York City at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.) Throughout his career, from the first days in repertory, through to the end, he showed range and versatility in both drama and comedy.

And, as many have noted by now, Alan Rickman showed how he could use that voice. (Including off-camera; he voiced the depressed robot in "Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy," and the Blue Caterpillar in “Alice through the Looking Glass,” an animated film not yet released.)

Many obits have mentioned that in 2008, a scholarly study found that Alan Rickman had the “perfect male voice.” Well, yes and no to that, too.

The study was commissioned by Post Office®, the British government-owned entity providing retail mail, financial, telephony and other services. Why on earth were they investigating the perfect voice?

Well, to hear their 2008 press release tell it, “It is vital that customers using our services are greeted by a friendly voice and that information is communicated clearly. The experiment has been invaluable in terms of understanding more about this most basic human communication tool.”

In case you’ve missed the renewed citations of that study, it found that, when people rated 50 voices, there emerged a formula for the “perfect voice,” based on tone, speed, frequency, words per minute and intonation. (We’ve been unable to find the actually study, so this is based on reports from Post Office, the BBC and other secondary sources.)

The “study” concluded that the voice most perfectly associated with confidence and trust had the following characteristics:

  • 164 words per minute
  • Pause for 0.48 seconds between sentences
  • Sentence intonation falling, not rising

Or, to make a formula of it: ([164.2wpm x 0.48pbs]Fi) = Perfect Voice Quality, where pbs is “pauses between sentences,” Fi is “falling intonation” and the vocal frequency is between 34.5 Hz and 12.2kHz.

Uh-huh. We hasten to add that their head of Telephony said it was not necessary for everyone to effect a low voice with falling intonation in an attempt to become vocally attractive. And we must be missing something, because that frequency range spans virtually all audible frequencies, including extremes way outside a typical voice.

Rickman reportedly emerged at the top of the list, but contrary to some reports, apparently his voice was not found to be the “perfect” male voice. The surveyors figured that perfection would be an amalgam of Rickman and the runners-up -- Jeremy Irons and Rickman’s fellow "Harry Potter" alumnus, Michael Gambon.

(Among women, the study found the perfect mix to be British broadcaster Mariella Frostrup, Dame Judi Dench and Honor Blackman.)

So, you may already have sensed we see a “no” part ...

  • Bear in mind that the 2008 study cited only 50 voices. Did the other 22 men also tend to have low, growly voices?
  • We don’t know how statistically reliable the interview sample was.
  • Although many obits call the survey “scientific” and say it was conducted by linguist Andrew Linn, of Sheffield University, the Post Office press release suggests that the study was actually conducted by sound engineer Shannon Harris (keyboard player for Rod Stewart) and singer-songwriter Lily Allen. It seems Professor Linn merely commented on it, along the lines of “This experiment gives us an exciting glimpse into the way voices work and what makes them appealing or repellent.”

So here’s our takeaway:

Valid or not, forget the “scientific” study and the perfect voice. And don’t think yours has to be deep and growly, or like a cello, or even like the wrong end of a drain pipe. Instead, heed these other qualities exemplified by Rickman:

  • Try new things.
  • Think carefully about your craft and immerse yourself in it.
  • Be kind and generous to other actors, and others in general.
  • As Helen Mirren noted, some actors, like Alan Rickman, reach full potential in their maturity.
  • As Rickman said of the characters he played: “Am I interested, and is it truthful?"

In reality, there is no such “perfect voice” formula, except that each voiceover genre has its optimal performance parameters, and talent should know them and understand under why they’re important. Beyond that, it’s observation, credibility, and training.

In an interview for inclusion in a film celebrating the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 150th anniversary, Rickman stated, “Film actually helps me on-stage; it persuades you that ‘less is more.’” (We would suggest that voiceover can have a similar effect.) As Michael Sladek, the filmmaker who interviewed Rickman said, Alan Rickman was a “great actor, great director, and a really gracious man.” Sometimes the “more” is whatever you make of what you’ve got.

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