Voiceover – the act of observation

I had an interesting conversation with a relative the other day whom I didn’t know was an artist. She was a photographer, painter, and sketch artist, and although these skills are seemingly very different from voice acting techniques we both found there to be some interesting concepts that tie them together. The biggest one being the act of observing.

Shayna doesn’t know a thing about voice over but she can draw things so “well.”  In the layman’s mind this means so accurately, so life-like, so real.  She talked about how – take an apple for example – when you want to draw something you first have to look at it. Then look some more.  And then look some more. Look at its shape. Look at its color. Look at where there may be light bouncing off one little part of it, and look at where there may be a shadow under it where it blocks the light from hitting the table it’s resting on. Look at how close or far away it appears to you. Keep looking until you run out of new observation, new perspectives that can only be revealed by studying something carefully.  Only then can it truly reveal all aspects of itself. Wow.  Not that different from really getting o know someone. We can have a first impression but to truly know someone means to spend time with them. Talk to them. Listen to them. Know them in different places, dealing with different situations, etc. Actually, not that different from acting either…..

The art of any acting, voice over or otherwise, truly comes from the art of observation. To watch a person, or people, in everyday situations comes with it a knowledge of human nature. The more you watch the more you collect impressions of how people behave, react, relate, express, etc… You can see this on many levels – facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, general tics and mannerisms. Each one of these facets tells you part of this person’s story, personality, or at the very least about humankind in general. These become the essential tools for your voice acting toolbox. Yes, converting someone’s body language responses into your voiceover repertoire will have an impact on your sound. Does it make sense to speak aggressively with your hands in your pockets?  Nope. Everything connects ultimately. This can work in your favor.

Start observing. Since voice over is often called voice acting for a reason, observe every aspect of human behavior beyond just the voice. Watch the way people are when they’re listening. Do they look interested?  Do they look like they’re thinking of their own thoughts while you’re speaking?  Are they leaning forward?  Leaning back?  Are they “uh huh”ing you in an interested way or a robotic way?  Listen to how people speak TO you.  Listen for the differences when they’re excited, scared, disappointed, encouraging, confident, etc….notice whether during each of the emotional expressions people use whether they are speaking faster or slower, higher or lower in tone, louder or softer in volume.  Notice what they do to the specific words in the sentence that are most important to what they’re communicating.  This is literally what I do as a casting director and a coach, and this is the work you can do too.  When you observe, you learn all the secrets to sounding believable, because you now can see how people really do talk. We have trended way out of the classic robotic announcer and into the REAL.  Real is based on real life, of course. So observe it.

Your tight and loose voice over

A highly talented actor friend recently shared with me some new concepts related to the physicality of the voice, and how to use your body to conspire in your voice over success. I have always been aware of the body/voice connection and have often instructed students to pay careful attention to it. A guy reading with his hands in his pockets is going to a be a bit more challenged than the arm-waver in terms of expressiveness. The woman concentrating so hard on saying everything “perfectly” is going to forget to smile, and the absence of this most basic of human expressions is going to lose her the job. Our voice is part of the manifestation of the story our bodies are telling, and if we are careful to tell the story properly in our bodies, then our voice will follow…. to some degree. Yes, our minds must cooperate as well to balance out the proper understanding of emotional motivation and context of message from the writing. But one thing at a time, and today that thing is the body, and how to use it to your advantage in your next voiceover audition.

When you’re reading your next script, try an experiment. First, read it while sitting down in a straight chair, with your arms still at your sides or on your lap. Keep your face non-animated as you read. Try to not bob your head around and just allow your eyes to follow the words on the page. Make sure you are recording this take. This is your tight read. For your second recording you will stand up. Find a place to rest your script (a script stand or other creative solution) and allow for your hands to do some of the talking. Maybe walk in place a little bit or shift hips from side to side. Let there be a smile on your face and let your head be gently moving as you talk, tilting it from side to side at times as you speak. You can even pay close attention to whether your eyes are opening wide, or crinkling a bit, or otherwise, based on whatever it is you are feeling in each moment that you are communicating something. Most importantly, just let it happen. Let yourself, your body, your mind, your voice, be uncensored. This is your loose read. Your “free voice.” Unless you’re Siri, this is the voice you will use for almost everything, and it will book you jobs.

When you think about it, we are all attracted to “loose” personalities as opposed to (up)”tight” ones. The looser and more freely someone is speaking, the more interesting and animated and authentic they feel to us, which in turn makes us free to be our own truest selves. The “tight” person leaves us wanting, wondering what’s behind the wall, but also too intimidated to want to try and break it down. We just walk away.

If you feel yourself needing to access your “loose” voice, try sounding out your vowels one at a time while walking around the house, jumping up and down, shaking your shoulders, or doing any mundane activity such as putting away the dishes. When we speak to each other, we are never standing in front of a microphone. We are engaged. So until you can “fake it” – trying engaging yourself in life activities. Let the body be first, and the voice be second. If it works for real life, it can work for the voice over.

Voiceover ACTING Part 2

It’s called Voice Acting for a reason, so to continue writing about the best voiceover techniques, I’ll continue writing about the craft of acting. I’m still so chock full of Uta Hagen brilliance, so it’s gonna be Uta Uta Uta for at least this blog article and maybe a few more. I promise you won’t bore of her and her insight into acting.

Insight into acting, for Uta at least, but probably for many acting teachers, is really about the insight into human nature. On a personal level, if you are translating this information for yourself, the pursuit of acting truly begins with insight into yourself. Your character. Your emotions. Your body language. Your voice. Your behavior. Dig deep. As Uta might have said, this pursuit is about finding the essence of who you are and trusting it, respecting it, and working with IT, not putting on a mask. I see this every day with the actors I work with – they all want to be something they are not. They either believe acting is about being something totally different from what you already are (rather, think you are) or they too are subconsciously mistrusting their own selves and what they have to offer, and simply can’t accept that acting may involve their own actual and true selves. I can see the conundrum here perhaps – many actors are in pursuit of a new possibility for themselves, and therefore are trying to escape the very things they don’t like about themselves. But yes, the problem here is that most acting techniques will draw from the well of experience and therefore of developed character that already exist within. Perhaps the very crux then of acting, and therefore voiceover acting, is understanding and acceptance of oneself. Uta elaborates on this problem with self acceptance. She believes this need to stray completely from oneself, to put on a mask, comes from an inherent distrust in our own selves. She suggests that perhaps we all feel we are boring, and that only by becoming something else can we arouse interest from the audience. She uses the example of a cat to illustrate some possible hope in our own depth of character – a party of actors are in the midst of a dramatic moment onstage and yet the audience’s attention is laser-focused on a cat who is following a bit of blowing lint with its eyes. The cat is truly in the moment, and not following any prescribed notions of how to be or what to do. He is in a spontaneous, focused, and forward-moving situation with his attention. The cat is engaged, truly engaged, and therefore captures our attention in a way that the actors onstage who are predictably going through the scene cannot. Uta poses that we can learn from this cat to trust in our own spontaneity – that the only boring thing would be the mechanical execution of our “part”, not the real “us” in action.

For those of you trusting in your SELVES already, I’ve stumbled upon a new site for voiceover auditions and other information related to the voiceover universe at Behind The Voice Actors. I haven’t fully vetted it but I did notice an award given on the site to an excellent voice actor I knew when casting commercials in NYC –John DiMaggio. John now lives in LA, is constantly busy voicing projects such as Futurama, Adventure Time, and Penguins of Madagascar. Here’s to John, who most likely is bringing the best of HIMSELF to his voice work.

Voiceover ACTING Part 1

In the next coming months I’ll be teaching you voiceover technique from the acting side. What I mean by side is that there are two major “ways” you can get to your voiceover mastery. One way is the left-brain strategy employed by many in this business. These are multiple strategies that have many different names but they’re generally categorized as such: pacing, inflection, volume, energy, projection, pitch…..the list goes on, and some of these might even be considered redundant, but either way this is not the focus right now. The focus will be on that other side….the acting side. When I refer to some of the acting strategies with my students I’ll often just use the word intention. I’ll ask them to forget about raising their inflection on the second syllable of the third word in the fifth sentence, because it’s not working. Instead – I ask them to remember what they’re intention is. In one case it may be to convey confidence, in another…warmth. Intention is what grounds you in your person. It’s what allows you to BE, instead of read. It’s acting. Let’s make it work for voice acting.

Uta Hagen has taught us so much about what it means to be an actor. She focuses on the fact that we are not actually hiding behind some façade, some character, that is not US. In fact, when we discover the many many facets to our own selves, is when we truly begin the work of acting. She has seen so many people write themselves off as “quirky” or “aggressive” or “cuddly.” I am so NOT that, she hears. But when faced with a brand-new puppy, does that person get down on their needs, raise their inflection higher, and get very, very affectionate? Yes. This person is in fact cuddly, they only needed to recall the situation that brought it out. Our own image of whom and what we are can get dangerously pigeon-holed by us, which is to our own acting detriment. Allowing ourselves to see those parts of ourselves that we have forgotten or denied will expand our acting toolbox. Everyone has these facets. What Hagen stresses here is that accepting them, analyzing them, and deeply knowing them will grow their emotional repertoire dramatically. It is when we fight those parts of ourselves that we find distasteful in “real-life” that we lose the incredible opportunities to channel them and capitalize on them in our acting life. The final key here is to understanding the feelings and emotions involved with these traits and aligning them with the actual behaviors we witness accompanying them. In Voiceover, this means at the very least noticing how fast or slow we speak, how high or low, how loud or soft, etc….when experiencing a certain feeling. This will channel the voice into conveying the proper personality trait.

To reinforce those last few points, recall a recent emotional moment. It could be anything from an argument with a family member to getting excited over some great news. We often can recall the feeling that accompanied the situation with ease, but it is the behavior that ensues during that accounts for filling our technique toolbox. Do you speak with gritted teeth and a low serious voice when angry, or do you launch into a loud and aggressive monologue? HOW are you when angry? How do you act when you are excited? Does your pitch go up? Do you talk faster? Do you pace? Do you speak positively but with a bit of whisper as if it is so exciting that you feel the need to control your response so you don’t get over-the-top? The feeling is for you, the behavior is for the audience, and you must use it. Start by paying attention to your own body language, your facial expressions, your voice. Notice how it changes based on the situation at hand. Start taking notes that detail the behaviors. Noticing is half the work, so get started.