Voice Over Education Blog

March 2015

Know your lines. And don’t bump into the microphone.

Among the stage-acting factors that don’t apply in most voice acting are:

  • The need to project - In VO, you need only reach the microphone, not the back of a theater.
  • Listening to your acting partner - In VO, you’re usually the only person at the mic.

Last week, we addressed the second of these, by noting that the you do in fact have an acting partner, if only in your imagination. But the question remains, how do you address that imaginary listener/speaker while you are focused on the script? Or, to adapt Spencer Tracy’s immortal advice, how do you “know your lines, and don’t bump into the copy stand”?

The clue is in the choice of verb. It’s not just “remember” your lines, but “know” them. Talent should know the lines so well that they just emerge naturally. Even with a script in front of you, that’s not always easy. The script is an aid, but also a potential distraction. What goes into knowing one’s lines as a voice actor?

In last week’s article, we discussed how to incorporate emotions truthfully -- by truthfully reacting to the words, demeanor and conditions of the imagined partners and situation around you.

But if you prefer, you can still approach it more mechanically. (As an analog to George Whittam’s technology advice that “if it sounds good, it is good,” we might say, “good acting technique is whatever works with you.” )

The key is in realizing that an entire paragraph of speech doesn’t embody just one emotion. A person’s emotion changes at least subtly with each sentence. You are always thinking and speaking a progression of thoughts, as if conversing. One sentence elaborates on what came before. Or changes he subject. If a sentence doesn’t add or change something in the course of the “conversation,” why utter that sentence at all?

Bad acting, defined. Sorta.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has a specific definition for the term “bad actor,” but it has nothing to do with voice acting or stagecraft. In our field, bad acting is harder to define. It’s important because virtually every voice over genre involves acting to some extent. How do you know bad acting – or lack of acting altogether --- when you hear it?

First, let’s review some traditional definitions of acting ... that is, beyond the general dictionary definitions, one of which is:

“To do something for a particular purpose or in a particular way.” - Cambridge Dictionary

Actually, that’s not half bad, because it includes the ideas of “doing” and “focus.”

But how have acting masters defined it?

Appearing to be real in an artificial situation. Or, to get closer to Sanford Meisner’s (or was it Stanislavsky's?) description, it’s “Living truthfully in imaginary circumstances.”

Lee Strassberg said, “Reacting to imaginary stimuli.”

Suppose, for now, we combine those, as: “Truthfully reacting in imaginary circumstances.” How do you apply that in a solo voiceover genre? How do you listen when no one else is speaking? How do you react when you’re often the only person there?

That’s where the imaginary circumstances come in. Common advice is to imagine who you’re speaking to. Specifically. Not “I’m speaking to people who like dogs,” but rather “I’m speaking to my (actual) friend Sara, who loves the most mischievous mutt.” Also imagine where you’re speaking. In a living room, you’ll speak a bit differently than in a veterinarian’s exam room, in a waiting room or outdoors. And again, be specific. Not just “outdoors,” but “at the dog park.”

But that’s just a start.

Discerning minds. How to read to preschoolers

Magicians know: children are a tough audience. Despite their inherent naiveté and typically short attention spans, they don’t miss a trick. They follow every move and assume nothing – unlike adults, who are full of assumptions and can be relatively easily misdirected. In a sense, kids are a whole lot more perceptive than some people give them credit for.

To an extent, it’s that way when reading to them, too. Except for the very, very young, don’t talk down to them, don’t use babytalk, and do anticipate that kids these days can follow some fairly complex plot lines.

If you’re interested in voice over jobs aimed at children as an audience (as opposed to jobs that use child voice actors), there are a number of genre options.

  • Audiobooks
  • Video games
  • Apps (especially for tablets and smartphones)
  • Talking toys

Although the last three of these tend to be more financially attractive for talent, Audiobooks tends to be the genre most people immediately think of. What people don’t think of is how short most young children’s books are. Since payment for narrating an audiobook is typically calculated Per Finished Hour, this market tends to be relatively low paying. It doesn’t take long to read a 32-page book. According to Writer’s Digest, that’s the typical length for a young children’s picture book, roughly a target of one sentence per page, or about 600 words at most.

How much are you worth? Why even a beginner can charge “experienced talent” VO rates

How much to charge is naturally a very common question. Answers range from absurdly little to unrealistically large, and even those extremes are sometimes valid. If there’d been voice over in Adam Smith’s day, he'd have said it's determined by the "invisible hand" of supply and demand. But is that a practical approach to use day-to-day, job-to-job? You know what and how much you can supply. But there’s an almost unlimited range of variables on the demand side. Apart from using a published scale (e.g., union scale) as a guideline, how do you know?

Factors that might influence the price of a particular job include:

  • The size of the product market or advertising market
  • What the client will bear
  • Whether the client is worth having
  • Is it truly a repeat-business relationship (not just a promise of one)
  • How your work will be used, and where, and how often
  • An intermediary’s specification (e.g., via a casting site or referral)
    and more.

So rather than simply ask “how much should I charge,” the easier rule of thumb is “how much am I worth?” The answer to that question will enable you to rule out jobs and clients that are not worth your time, rather than have to try to calculate their value.

First, though, let’s get the “published rates” issue out of the way, because they’re at least a place to start.

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