The guy featured in the opening clip is an enormously talented (as in he makes seven figures) VO talent by the name of Ben Patrick Johnson. He most certainly does have a great voice, and his talent is enough to justify the money he makes (and, by all accounts, he’s a really nice guy). Here’s the thing, though…this particular audioblog entry is about why I’m not really intimidated by him, nor am I worried about him–because we’re not competing for the same jobs.
The five words that are probably some of the most harmful words to people entering the VO business (or, at the very least, those who are thinkin’ about it) are, “You have a great voice.” I’ve said it many times, and people who have been doing it for much longer than I have said it even more times: it takes much more than a great voice to succeed in this business. So I was inspired to write this audioblog entry when someone was nice enough to give me that “great voice” compliment some time ago after visiting my website and looking at some of the projects I’ve done. My response? “Well, I’m glad you think so, but honestly, I only have a good voice–at best–for the things they use my voice for.”
What do I mean by that? I mean that I only get hired for jobs where my voice and acting ability can add something to a particular VO project–be it credibility, youth, reassurance, excitement, sincerity, what have you. Knowing what your vocal specialty is in this business is a necessity if you intend to compete. For me, that’s the “young, hip, cool” sound. Whenever I get an audition that requests a “deep, gritty, movie trailer voice”…than I won’t even audition for it. ‘Cause that just ain’t my voice (or, to use the metaphor recently employed by my online VO buddy Derek Chappell, it ain’t my make and model). Unless, of course, the client is intentionally looking for a humorously fakey-sounding parody of the typical movie trailer voice style perfected by the late Don LaFontaine, Hal Douglas, and Ben Patrick Johnson…but they usually aren’t.
Weird thing, though…in many ways, this goes against what I was taught in high school and in college, where I was educated in acting. There, they emphasized versatility above all else. They emphasized the ability to adapt to any character whatsoever…anything from a neurotic teenager to a grizzly old man. They wanted you to get inside the character’s head, no matter who the character was. Whether or not you’d realistically be cast in this role in a real-life situation was irrelevant.
As well-intentioned as that may have been (hey, education is about allowing someone to flex their creative muscles and think outside the box), there’s a bit of a disconnect between the art of acting and the business of acting. In the art of acting, we’re supposed to be as versatile an actor as possible so that we can take on as many roles as possible. In the business of acting, though, the most successful actors are the ones who can market themselves effectively by telling all potential clients, “Hey–here’s how you can use me.” Casting nowadays–not just in VO, but in all forms of acting–is typecasting. “Typecasting” used to be an evil word that meant the end of an actor’s career, but now it’s simply a wise business practice.
Discouraged that you can’t do whatever you want in VO? Don’t be. The good thing about this is that I don’t have to worry about the deep-voiced movie trailer guys. Why? Because, as enormously talented as these guys are, their voices sound nothing like mine, and are so far separated from mine that I don’t have to wonder if I’m losing jobs to them. I’m not. The jobs that they’re getting are jobs that I never had any chance of getting, because my specialty is different than theirs. Similarly, they’re not getting jobs that demand voices of the “young, hip, cool” variety. VO is competitive, sure, but you’re never competing against everyone.
VO is a tough job, but there’s one universal benefit–it requires a lot of introspection about what your talents are. Remember, you are enough! Don LaFontaine once said, “The best voice actors I know are the voice actors who understand their relationship with words.” So really, I know that few people talk this way, but if you really want to compliment a voice actor, the best thing you can possibly say is not, “You have a great voice”…but rather, “You really know how to use your voice.”
I’m gonna make a prediction in this entry about where VO is headed…in the future! The thing is, I’m a tad scared to make it. I mean, aren’t some movies pretty laughable in how off they were in their predictions about what will happen in the future? Take “Back To The Future Part 2,” for example, in the clip that I opened my entry with. According to that movie, our cities will look like THAT in…2015. Three years. If they’re right, then DAMN is there going to be a rapid explosion of technology in three years! Or how about “Blade Runner,” which supposedly takes place in 2019, and shows a Los Angeles with a smog-covered sky, lots of buildings, and lots of crowds that make it difficult to see where you’re going……..actually, that is Los Angeles, never mind. What I’m trying to say is don’t laugh at me too much if, years later, my predictions of the future turn out to be wrong. However, I’m gonna use some actual examples to back up my prediction: namely, my prediction that VO will be completely replaced with on-camera and 3D motion-capture acting.
What I’m using as the basis for my prediction is…video games. Yeah, I know, “But Dave, those are video games, not your usual day-to-day VO jobs”…right? Well hey, that’s why I said this is a prediction of the future. Currently, only clients like video game and movie companies can afford this top-dollar technology, but every technology gets cheaper in time, and I can definitely see the average client using this technology when it gets cheaper.
Y’see, I’m a bit of a weirdo when it comes to video games in that a game’s story has always been the #1 factor for me, and few stories had more effective acting than a game called “Heavy Rain.” To give the plot an absurdly quick summary, the protagonist’s 10-year-old son is kidnapped by a serial killer who continually taunts the protagonist with clues as to where he’s keeping the boy. Needless to say, that’s a pretty dark and intense story, but creator David Cage was pretty vocal that he wanted to create a video game experience that was just as emotionally provocative as a movie. To do that, it goes without saying that the acting needed to be top-notch so that players could get emotionally invested. Rather than just doing voice-over, though…Cage went the extra mile.
All of the characters in the game were designed to look completely identical to the voice actors who played them. And they did a pretty good job with it, if I do say so myself. Check out how creepy the similarities are.
The characters in “Heavy Rain” were designed to resemble their voice actors.
Conceptually speaking, that’s not quite new. Back in the old days, Disney was filming live-action sequences on film to use as a reference for their animation, and often had the voice actors serve as the physical models for the characters they played. The point behind this, though, is so that no gamer could ever complain, “That voice doesn’t sound like it fits”…because the voice belongs to the person they’re portraying.
Then, however, comes the voice acting. After designing the characters based on the voice actors who played them, and having them act out their scenes using motion-capture technology, it was time to record the voices. That’s a process that, under normal circumstances, means just having the actors come in, record their lines, and having the animators make the facial reactions. With “Heavy Rain,” though, they literally put motion capture gear on the actors’ faces while they recorded their lines, so that both their vocal delivery and their facial expressions would be captured. So the acting in “Heavy Rain” can’t really even be called “voice acting,” because it was acting on all three fronts–body, face, AND voice. To date, not even a Pixar movie has done this.
The video below shows the entire process. I’ll also end this portion of my audio narration here so you can watch the video.
FAIR WARNING: The scenes in this video from the 0:51 mark to the 1:21 mark, while not inappropriate per say, might be a little too intense for people who are bothered by physical violence, and it’s beyond my ability to edit out since I’m embedding this video from another source. So please skip that section if you’re bothered by violence.
DONE VIEWING? THEN GET BACK ‘TA LISTENING!:
“Heavy Rain” may be revolutionary now but, honestly…I think that’s where all VO is headed. Who’s to say that, when the technology gets (MUCH) cheaper, that e-learning client of yours won’t be asking if you have face-capture gear to give their e-learning program more of a personal touch? What if a major Los Angeles-based advertising company wants you to film a few sequences in your home green screen studio for use in their new commercial for Dove soap? Absurd, right?
Yeah, absurd. Just like people said home VO studios would only be a thing for the rich…before they turned into a necessity to compete in this business. Or just like people said that you had to go to a major studio to record VO…before people started delivering audio over the internet. Let’s be honest, folks…soon, more and more clients are gonna be asking us for HD audio, before moving on to more intense demands as the technology gets cheaper. Granted, I could be totally off, and either way, motion-capture acting isn’t gonna become commonplace any time soon…but I firmly believe that’s where we’re headed. Makes me all the more glad that I trained in areas of acting beyond VO!
*sound of record scratching*
EXTRA, EXTRA, EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT…OR LISTEN ALL ABOUT IT, DEPENDING ON YOUR PREFERENCE AND INTERNET CONNECTION SPEED! This audioblog entry was originally published on June 3rd, but I’ve got an update as of June 15th that I’d like to share with you all. This entry of mine received a very polarized response, with some very worried about my prediction, and others saying, “Dave, calm the heck down!” Well, this audioblog entry was written with a slight tongue-in-cheek tone, but it lies somewhere between a joke and a prediction. Like I said, motion-capture technology isn’t going to become commonplace anytime soon…but one VO talent by the name of Peter Drew was nice enough to point me to an article he wrote–years ago, mind you–on a threat that is even more imminent…a computer program that can actually mimic convincing human speech. I do mean convincing, too, not that fake stuff that you’re hearing in this particular clip. Check out the article here!
Okay, be honest…when you hear the word “dub,” it’s either this or those old kung-fu movies that you think about, right?
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Ask any voice actor what inspired them to become a voice actor, and the stories are usually pretty similar. They were told they had a great voice, they began in radio, they listened to cartoons…stuff like that. I consider myself a tad different in that regard. Technically cartoons and video games inspired me to get in, which is why I’m not enormously different. What makes me a tad different is that the cartoon and video game performances that inspired me the most…were not the original performances of the source material. They were dubs.
Shows like “Dragon Ball Z,” “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” and “Pokemon” may not have quite the same name power as “Looney Tunes,” “SpongeBob SquarePants,” or “Rugrats,” but quite frankly, they influenced me way more than any North American cartoon ever did. Even when I grew up, bought the DVDs, and was able to switch over to the original Japanese audio track with English subtitles, the original Japanese casts didn’t resonate with me nearly as much as the performances of the English actors who dubbed them. To me, the English dub casts will always be the casts that matter. Which is a pity, really, because while their appreciation has grown tremendously over the years, dub actors, as Rodney Dangerfield would say, “Don’t get no respect”…comparatively speaking, anyway.
In discussing last week’s audioblog entry, it became apparent to me that there is only so much “mainstream” respect and awareness for what we do. Voice actors are relatively obscure in the grand scheme of things. However, even within our industry, there are obscure parts, such as dubbing. The reason I’m using Godzilla as my featured image is because, in all likelihood, that’s what many people think of when they hear the word “dub.” They imagine the original Japanese actors talking for extended periods of time, only for atrociously lip-synced dialogue to ruin whatever mood was originally set up.
Well, in this entry, I’m gonna show some lovin’ for the dubbin.’ I don’t think it’s nearly respected as it should be. That’s partially because, up until (relatively) recently, the English dub actors were not allowed to be credited to specific roles, and instead the credits would simply say “Featuring the English Voices of…” and then list all of the actors in a seemingly random order. However, there’s also a lack of awareness of the process and art behind dubbing. It has come a long way since it originally started! Some of the stuff here will be “old news” to voice actors who have done ADR or dubbing before, but like I said, in the interest of spreading awareness of the job of the voice actors who inspired me most, I’m gonna talk about the three “Methods” of dubbing (and the third one, I bet, will surprise even the veterans).
METHOD 1: The “Three Beeps” Method
This is, hands-down, the most common method. This is used not only in anime, but also in dubbing for foreign films and ADR. First, the actor is played a preview of what they will be dubbing. Following this, the engineer will set up three beeps at a set rhythm to be played to the actor through their headphones. Based on the rhythm of these three beeps, the actor tries to imagine in their head where the fourth beep should be, and is supposed to start saying their line on this imaginary fourth beep, taking care to match the lip movements of whatever it is they’re trying to dub. This used to be a pretty long process in the days of laying everything to film, when so many analog machines had to be timed to be in sync with everything, but ever since things went digital, this process is much faster. Here’s an example of the talented Johnny Yong Bosch dubbing the main character of an anime called “Eureka Seven”:
METHOD 2: The “Rhythmo-Band” Method
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While the Three Beeps Method has gotten faster, it’s still not nearly as fast as the Rhythmo-Band Method. This is a rare method of dubbing. In fact, it’s almost exclusive to France and Quebec. And…that sucks, quite frankly, because this method is so much more effective and useful for the actor. Rather than cue the actor with beeps, the engineer takes a blank strip of film and writes out the revised dialogue by hand onto the film strip. This film strip, the “rhythmo-band,” is then projected onto a separate TV screen beneath the main TV screen that shows the visuals that the dubbing actor will dub. Towards the left end of the rhythmo-band screen, a static red line is projected. As the visuals of the main screen move along, so does the rhythmo-band. Because the engineer took the time to precisely calculate how long everything should be pronounced, and adjusted the size and length of their handwriting accordingly, the rhythmo-band’s text scrolls from right to left in sync with the picture, and the dubbing actor simply reads the rhythmo-band’s moving text as it intersects with the static red line.
In doing so, the rhythmo-band displays to the actor the exact speed and timing at which they’re supposed to say their lines. An example of this is shown below, using behind-the-scenes footage of the French dub of “Pokemon” (fast-forward to the 3:29 mark):
YOU REALLY DON’T WANNA READ, DO YOU? WELL, LISTEN, THEN!:
Okay, actually, before I move on, I’d like to clarify one thing. I will thank all of my older readers and listens–and Herman Cain–to STOP mispronouncing the damn show’s name! It’s “POE-kay-MON,” not “POE-kee-MON.” It annoyed me when I was 11, and it annoys me now! Do you people not have ears? It’s in the theme song! Listen!
See, I’m not making this stuff up! So please, STOP it!
…Anyways. The reason the Rythmo-Band Method is awesome is because the guess work present in the “Three Beeps Method” is eliminated for the actor…
…But not for the engineer. The reason this method didn’t take off much beyond France or Quebec, is because it takes an exhausting amount of time to prepare for the engineer. Especially in the old days when they had to watch the film over, and over, and over, and over again so that they could calculate the proper length and size of their handwriting so that it would be in sync with the picture. Thankfully, they no longer write out the revised dialogue by hand, and have since developed software programs designed to mimic the rhythmo-band’s function and work in sync with audio editing programs like Pro Tools (one of which can be found here). I’ve heard rumors on the internets that a select few studios in LA use this method now. I’m all for this method replacing the Three Beeps Method, if only because I’m an actor and it makes the actor’s life much easier.
Well, that is, until we get to the third method…
METHOD 3: Revise The On-Screen Visuals
Since dubbing began, the idea has been that, since the on-screen visuals can’t be revised, dubbing actors had to do the best they could to sync their words to the mouth movements of the characters they were dubbing. Dubbing studios couldn’t go back to animation studios and ask them to draw alternative drawings to match the lip movements of the English actors, or ask film companies to shoot alternative scenes in which the actors on screen matched the lip movements of the dubbing actor. That would be absurd and impractical…
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What you just saw (assuming you clicked the link–you DID, right?) is the result of a computer program developed by New York University called “Video Rewrite,” that uses CGI to rework the mouth formations of people on screen to match the mouth formations of the words spoken by the dubbing actor. They used Video Rewrite to dub an old video of JFK, making President Kennedy’s mouth look like he was speaking the words of the dubbing actor. The idea behind this is that, when mass-produced, needing to match lip movements in dubs will be a thing of the past, and the dubbing actors will finally be able to deliver their lines however they please, without regard for how the original actor did. This technology, though, is a long way off.
So for now, it’s mostly the Three Beeps Method and the Rhythmo-Band Method. Take some time to watch a foreign movie dubbed, or an anime dubbed (anything by Hayao Miyazaki will be good since Disney is in charge of dubbing his movies). For those of you who aren’t familiar with how the technology and artistic acting ability of dubs have evolved over the years, I think you will be pleasantly surprised.
PS: From now on, I’m going to be doing something with my audioblog entries that I haven’t been doing before. Very often when I post my audioblog entries in social media forums, some GREAT discussions will come out of them. That’s good, for the most part…problem is, often some great material will come out after the fact. For example, in last week’s audioblog entry, I talked about how VO has zero presence in colleges except for Yale. Turns out…I was a tad misinformed. A few colleges do indeed offer it. They’re still few and far between, and I maintain that it needs to have a stronger presence, but more colleges were brought to my attention, and more elements of the issue were discussed. So, from now on, when I see a great discussion arise, I’ll post links to those discussion threads. Entry #20 has already been retrofitted that way, and I’m workin’ on the others. By all means, join in on the discussion! It’s not like you’re…actually, hold on a second…
It’s not like you have to wait for your time to speak!
Bring HIM into a booth, and then we’ll have something new to talk about!
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The other day I met a zebra from the Columbus Zoo, and learned something valuable about VO. Me and the zebra went to Walgreens to pick up some cold medicine, and then I took him back to my studio and got to know him a bit better. We talked about his family, his kids, and then I asked him if he’d like to record some stuff for a project that a client had recently given me–animal noises. I’m sure the client probably wanted me to do all of the animal noises, but since I believe in going the extra mile, I went out and got an actual zebra for the zebra sounds. I squeezed him into the booth, and he recorded some of his more traditional calls. I thought he was a blast to work with, but I know other people have horror stories about working with zebras. So to all my readers and listeners, let me pose this question: do you traditionally find working with zebras to be easy, or are they a hassle to work with once you get them inside the booth?
No, that did not actually happen…but GOD I wish it did, because it would give me something new to talk about. And c’mon, you have to admit that opening paragraph got caught attention. Few in their right minds can just ignore a blog entry that begins with someone talking about their adventures with a zebra. Granted, I’m sure a fair deal of you left once you realized what this blog entry is really about, and sure, discussions about hanging out with zebras probably exist in social media discussions among safari guides (actually, do those exist?), but never in the context of VO. If I actually did bring a zebra into the booth, that would be something genuinely new, that nobody has talked about before.
Here’s why I bring this up. One of the problems with VO–a problem that I would imagine faces any profession–is that there’s only so much to talk about nowadays. I have nothing but good things to say about how fun VO is, but it’s a profession that can be a little on the monotonous side. We follow a fairly “wash-rinse-repeat”-style routine. We market ourselves through our various marketing methods. We send out auditions, acting under the assumption that we will never hear back. We hear back from some, and then a few of our regular clients ask us to record a project. We then cheer up a bit because we get to do the fun part, the actual recording!
…Then we get to the editing. We listen to the raw audio, maybe adjust the EQ a bit, add a bit of compression, and then we spend the next hour looking at waveforms for clicks so that we can edit those out, and occasionally to correct some P-Pops that jump out a bi–
–Actually, gimme a sec. Let’s see, go to the waveform, highlight the “p” part of the word, turn the lower frequencies down…
“…and occasionally to correct some p-pops that jump out a bit.”
There we go. Then we send off our completely edited projects to the client.
And then…in that peaceful reprieve that follows the completion of our work…there is a sigh of relief…when it is done, and we remember…that we are alive…and human……
…Until we go to Facebook. Or Linkedin. Or Twitter. And find our peers discussing the things that we’ve been doing all day. Questions like…
*What’s the best microphone?
*Am I ready for an agent?
*Should I join AFTRA?
*Should I go to the VOICE conference?
*What’s the best editing software?
*What do clients expect when you say that you can write the copy?
*Could you listen to my new demo and give me some feedback?
*What about SAG?
*Will the merger help the VO business?
*I need help setting up my home studio, what materials should I get to dampen the sound?
*What’s the best P2P site?
*D’ya guys think my headshot is okay?
*What’s it like to do voice-over jobs for videogames?
*Is this rate appropriate for this job?
*Does a background in radio help for VO?
*Does a background in theater help for VO?
It can be a tad exhausting in the sense that the same old questions tend to arise. One of my readers, Susan Bernard, recently told me that she’s afraid of starting a blog because, to quote her, “I’m seeing a lot of hashed re-hash and it is hard to want to add to the noise.” Well, she’s kinda right! So why do the same questions persist?
Because they’re helpful questions to ask. They’re the right questions to ask. Don’t ever be afraid to speak up and add something new to the mix, but sometimes just contributing to the mix is both helpful and appreciative! Yeah, the discussions may be the same, but often the contexts are completely different. Here are some thoughts from a few of my colleagues on that very subject…
Dave Courvoisier: Because, even if it’s been done before, the context and the audience is different. Every year, our newsroom does a story about the last minute rush to the post office with IRS Tax forms on April 15th. Nothing new…but it’s been a year since we did it. Sometimes it’s a familiar story, but with modern twists, or a new player shows up, or new developments come around. The union-vs-nonunion debate has new life with the possibility of a merger. New mics are always coming out.
Terry Phillips: Great ideas are worth repeating….plus your opinion on a subject may not have “been done.”
Paul Strikwerda: The trick is to look at an old topic in a new way. A good message is worth repeating. I take the temperature of the VO world by looking at what’s being discussed on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and other forums. I also add my own experience to the mix. Frustrations can be a great source for inspiration.
Long story short…yeah, the same questions come up, but that’s because they’re the same questions that continue to be relevant. So yeah, it can be a little tiring thinking of new things to bring up in VO…but keep talking, and you might be surprised how “new” your opinion may be. On that note, if any of you should manage to get a zebra into your recording booth…TELL ME.
PS: Thanks to my VO colleagues who were willing to share their thoughts with me!
Do you want to see chaos easily unfold? Then here’s a fun little experiment you can do in your very own home. Go into a VO forum, and ask if a rate for a certain project is fair. In five minutes, you’ll get a response saying that it is. In ten minutes, you’ll get a response saying that it isn’t. In fifteen minutes, the person who first replied will defend their stance. In twenty minutes, the person who replied second will defend their counter-attack from the first person. In thirty minutes, a posse of people who believe in the stance of the first person will come to his aid. In forty-five minutes, a posse of people who believe in the stance of the second person will come to their aid. In three days, a holy war, fought only with words, of unprecedented proportions will have erupted. Many deaths.
Okay, I’m exaggerating…but only ever-so-slightly. From what I’ve seen, the most sensitive issue to ever arise in discussions about VO is the issue of rates. Friggin’ nobody can agree on what’s a fair rate anymore. A lot of this has to do with an issue that, to be fair, is very real. Forces are certainly at work to de-value the services of VO talent, either intentionally or unintentionally, and many VO talent–newbies and veterans, dudes and chicks, young and old, union and non-union–have rightfully taken offense to this. So it’s only logical that an issue like this would lead to very heated discussions and even debates.
And ya know what? I’m sorry–kinda–but I’ve had enough!
Seriously, it has gotten to a point where they’re unbelievably annoying for me. I’ve hit the “unfollow” button on so many rates-related discussions this week that I lost count of them. They’ve become annoying because of the chastising. They’ve become annoying because of the verbiage that people have used in their arguments.They’ve become annoying because of the opinions that people think should be universal. They’ve become annoying because of the complaining. They’ve become annoying because they’re…well, depressing, quite frankly.
So no one will mistake my intentions, I’m not suggesting that the rate discussions stop (which is convenient, ’cause they won’t). I think rates are a perfectly relevant and important thing to talk about. Yeah, I’ve turned down work with abysmally low rates. Yeah, rates are under pressure to go down, and…yeah, that kinda sucks! I simply think that if we embed ourselves in those discussions too deeply, rates become the center of our attention. They become all that we think about. I too have been guilty of this for a while now…
About two weeks ago, I received an email that really made me reflect on my attitude about VO now in comparison to the attitude I had when I first started out. The email came from a 16-year-old kid, who was referred to me by a friend. This kid said that he really wanted to learn about VO, and asked if I could just give him a general overview….
Here’s the thing, though…I rarely write short responses. Almost never. I consider myself a humble person, but if you ever see me brag about one thing, it’s my kung-fu typing speed. Put any court reporter before me in a typing contest, and I will destroy them without mercy. So my kung-fu typing speed, combined with my eagerness to talk, almost always results in responses that are perhaps unnecessarily long. My response back to this kid was no exception. I wrote a very, very lengthy email, but it covered pretty basic stuff. Stuff like…
-It’s a tough business no matter what people try to tell you otherwise.
-Your ability to act is the most important thing.
-Get your first demo produced by a coach and don’t try to make your own.
-Learn your strengths and weaknesses early so you can develop a brand.
Basic stuff. Things like that. What really struck me, though, was his response to me. He wrote a thank-you email back, but ended it with, “Thanks so much, this was such a wonderful experience!”
That really took me by surprise. Really? A wonderful experience? All I did was write him an email. Nothing special. Nothing out of the ordinary. I was wondering if maybe he was exaggerating, but a few minutes later I got an email from the friend who referred that kid to me to begin with, who wrote back, “Thanks man, he’s overly happy right now!”
Then it hit me. In an instant, I was brought back to a mindset I had long ago. My mind went back in time, to when I was 12 years old, when it dawned on me that the voices that I heard in cartoons and video games came from actual people who did that for a job. My eyes lit up, and I wanted to absorb all the info I could about voice acting. Me and my friends began acting out the voices for video game characters with text-based dialogue, and we Googled everything we could. We wanted it, we were fascinated by the idea of voice acting.
Then I remembered the cartoon that truly awakened my voice acting ambitions: an anime by the name of “Dragon Ball Z.” I was enthralled by the performances in the English dub, and came to idolize the performances of those actors. Sure, I did the research and found out that their efforts were a non-union job that didn’t pay a ton in the grand scheme of things, but I didn’t care. I was amazed at how they were able to draw me into the story, and I was determined to hone my craft as an actor so I could one day give TV viewers the great experience that the performances of those actors had given me.
Then I remembered my first gig. I won’t point you to it because it’s a tad embarrassing, but it was a pretty cheap gig. I didn’t care. I was friggin’ elated when I got it, I emailed everyone in my family, and my friends and I went celebrating later that night. Was that naive of me? Yeah, sure it was. With naivete comes passion, though, and it’s a passion that I really miss sometimes. One that diminished by focusing too much on the money, and one that this kid’s response partially returned to me.
Here’s something that’s kind of embarrassing for me to admit. I’m a Motley Crue fan. I love ’em (and 80’s metal in general). In their latest album, they have a song called “Down At The Whisky,” which talks about their earliest gigs, including playing cheapo gigs at the Los Angeles nightclub, the Whisky-A-Go-Go. My favorite lyric in the whole song? That would be this one:
“We never made a dime, but God we had a good time!”
So please understand…I’m not saying that money ain’t important. It is, for so many different and obvious reasons. Furthermore, unlike many of my peers, I don’t have a family that I need to support (at least not yet), so my struggles will never be completely identical with the struggles of someone else. As such, I’m not one to issue “calls to action.” I’m only saying, for the sake of public reflection, that I think if we focus on rates so much, we’re never gonna be happy, and we’re never gonna find satisfaction in our work. So if you want a call to action–and I know you didn’t ask for one–here it is: take a moment to remember why you got into VO. ‘Cause I don’t know about you, but I ain’t in it for the money.
Why did you get into it? Are you still having fun with it? Were you ever having fun with it?
Just some thoughts from a guy who recently remembered why he got into VO to begin with: because it’s a blast. Nothing more, nothing less.
The Sennheiser 416: a popular voice-over mic and, more significantly, a symbol of Ernie Anderson’s legacy.
DON’T WANNA READ? THEN LISTEN!:
The microphone you see near the top of this blog entry is the Sennheiser 416 shotgun microphone. It’s extremely popular in the L.A. area, and many VO talent praise it for its “up close and personal” sound that can cut through the toughest of music and sound effects mixes. However, this mic was not at all designed with VO in mind. So how did it get so popular in the VO world? It got popular, and became one of the most used mics in the VO industry…all because a man named Ernie Anderson was difficult to work with.
I suspect many people who have been doing VO for are while are familiar with this story, but for the benefit of those who aren’t—and because I love talkin’ about it—it bears repeating. You see, one of my biggest influences in the technical world of voiceovers was the late Mike Sommer, who tragically died late last year. I learned so much from him, but one of my favorite stories that he was able to impart to me was the “origin story” (for lack of a better term) of the Sennheiser 416.
Again, for the benefit of those who don’t know, a shotgun mic is a thin, longer mic that is designed to zoom in on a single source of sound. In doing so, it cuts through a lot of background noise so that whoever the mic is pointed towards can be heard accurately and clearly. It was designed primarily for film, TV, and on-site news reporting where someone needed to be heard above other background noise (for the record, shotgun mics don’t eliminate background noise, they only mitigate it, but often that’s all people who were using the mic were asking for). As such, it was not primarily designed with VO in mind.
To be fair, the only mic made so far that was constructed and actively advertised as being a “VO mic” is Harlan Hogan’s MXL VO:1-A mic, as most other mics that voice actors use were made with musicians and vocalists in mind (including the legendary Neumann U87). However, those are very sensitive condenser microphones that need to be in very carefully treated recording environments, because they will pick up EV-ER-Y-THING. Going into a booth and recording voice-overs behind a sensitive mic had long been considered the standard for the voice-over industry…
…Until one day…
Back in the late 70’s, the 80’s, and the early 90’s, when the industry was much smaller, the king of the industry was a voice actor by the name of Ernie Anderson. Anderson had a deep, warm, kind but authoritative voice that he put to use for pretty much everything ABC did. In fact, on one appearance on the Dave Letterman show, when introducing himself he said, “I am the voice-over for ABC.” I have been casually told by people who knew Ernie that he was a nice guy, with a very wry sense of humor.
He was, however, also known for not being the easiest man to work with. He swore constantly, he rarely had anything nice to say about the copy he was given to read (or the writers who wrote it), and if he was in a bad mood, he wouldn’t attempt to hide it.
No, seriously. Here’s a few outtakes of his. I’ve transcribed them for those who prefer to read, but Ernie’s actual audio samples have been inserted (and censored) into my audio narration of this blog entry.
ERNIE: “Soooo, if any of you or your friends—AWW, JESUS!”
ERNIE: “JESUS CHRIST!”
ERNIE: “I’m ****** leaving here!”
ERNIE: “Roll the ****** thing and shut her up. Just say ‘we’re rolling, quiet on the set.'”
ERNIE: “It ain’t gonna mean one more ****** video, Jesus God…there is a way to do this ****. And this isn’t it.”
ERNIE: “Aww, ****! Call Vince! I’m part of the ****** show, I don’t want to have to repeat—(producer interjects)—no [you may not have said anything], but you gave me that god-**** look.”
ERNIE: “Jesus, this is terrible ****** writing.”
ERNIE: “See…I’m gonna tell you how you can save this piece of ****.”
ERNIE: “Where do they find these ****** writers?”
ERNIE: “WHOEVER is responsible for producing this thing has no idea what the **** they’re doing!”
ERNIE: “Let me just also say that not only did I think it was not funny, I didn’t think it was well-done.”
ERNIE: “And, you’ll meet our special gue–**** it, *****, ****!”
ERNIE: “And you’ll meet our special gue–AWW, ****!”
ERNIE: “I’m not gonna do that whole ****** thing again—(producer tells him to “chill out”)—I’m chilled out, you should see me when I’m really ******.”
ERNIE: “WHERE ARE YOU, *******!? ****, ****!”
See? Told ya.
So one day, Ernie decided that he was fed up with being in a stuffy booth, and said that if he was going to be constantly doing so much voice-over work, he wanted to be comfortable and sit in the bigger, more comfortable mixing room. If I made that request today, the clients and engineers would tell me, “too bad,” as they would for almost every other voice actor. Ernie was the king back in the day though, so rather than tellin’ him, “too bad,” they immediately began looking for ways to make him more comfortable.
Enter the Sennheiser 416.
The problem with having Ernie work in the mixing room was that it was not as acoustically conditioned as the booth was. Furthermore, there were a ton of noisy, analog editing machines (remember that this was long before everything went digital). An engineer who was working with Ernie walked over to a nearby TV set and grabbed a 416. He set it up in the mixing room, figuring that a shotgun mic would help cut through the background noise of the editing machines. Some acoustic foam was slapped on the walls of the mixing room, and they tested Ernie out on it. They thought he sounded good, he thought he sounded good…and he was comfortable. From that point on, Ernie carried a 416 to all of his gigs, and never worked in a booth again unless it was an absolute necessity.
In being difficult to work with and demanding certain working conditions, Ernie would perhaps unknowingly affect an entire industry. All of a sudden, EVERY studio had a 416 on hand specifically with voice-overs in mind. Especially for deeper-voiced male voice actors who did promos, like Ernie did. It’s so popular in Los Angeles, where he worked, that the mic was eventually given the nickname, “The LA Mic.”
Before I go any further, I’d like to be clear that I’m not endorsing any particular microphone for anybody’s voice-over needs (you go to George Whittam for that). In fact, many people don’t have nice things to say about the 416, and the general consensus is that it sounds horrid on female voices. In fact, popular character voice actor Corey Burton wrote an entire article—which I’ll link to here—describing in great detail why he absolutely LOATHES this mic.
Rather, I want to talk about something else that absolutely amazes me to this day—that there was a guy whose influence was so powerful that an entire industry essentially adapted to his requirements…and all because he was uncomfortable and difficult to work with! How many among us can ever say that we have that kind of influence? Ernie may have set trends, but most of us have to follow trends.
So that got me wondering…to what extent is it our job to set trends as voice actors, and to what extend is it our job to follow trends as voice actors? On the one hand, we have to be able to do what’s popular as a way of being marketable, but on the other hand, we have to inject our own unique personalities into VO as a way of establishing our own unique brand. Several of my fellow voice actors have said, “The VO industry has enough voices, they don’t want another voice, they want you.”
I go back and forth about that. Yes, clients nowadays don’t want anything too generic. Leaving one’s mark on the VO world makes their VO projects not only memorable, but in many ways profitable. It’s also certainly nice to think that someone wants you, and when you get to the top of show biz, your very name can be your brand. In other words, rather than making your brand, “the tough, rugged, macho voice,” when you’re at the top, you have the power to brand yourself by simply stating your name—i.e., “My name’s Harrison Ford.” Ford can simply book jobs because he’s his own brand!
How many of us will reach that level, though? In the end, we have to provide a service to clients and give them what they want. They’re only so interested in someone who’s obsessed with their voice and putting their mark on another product, clients want someone who will accurately communicate their message, whether it be a promo, a commercial, or a character. Hence the reason that “voice acting” is considered “acting,” not talking in front of a microphone. If a client calls me back and tells me to deliver a piece of copy differently, it would be unbelievably rude of me to tell them how to do their job and say…well, actually, let’s drop another quote of Ernie’s.
ERNIE: “(In response to a producer): **** you. I’m not even gonna talk to you.”
ERNIE: “I won’t walk out the door if I don’t think it’s right.”
I could never get away with that. So, who knows what different life experiences will affect my opinion. For right now, though, here’s what it is: clients want voice actors who can deliver what they want. Injecting your own personality in small doses is a great idea to keep it from being too generic, but make your personality the absolute center of the project, and you’ll be treading too far from popular trends. The very same trends that clients hire us to follow.
Maybe some of us will reach the level one day where our name is our brand. In the mean time, whenever I see a 416, in my mind, I can hear Ernie Anderson’s deep, warm, kind but authoritative voice, saying…
ERNIE: “I am sitting here ******* dying!”
PS: For those interested, I’ve attached a separate audio clip at the bottom of this article that contains a string of Ernie’s outtakes, totaling ten minutes. They’re absolutely hilarious, and just like the samples used in this blog entry, all instances of swearing have been beeped out in the interest of considering those with sensitive tastes. Still, be careful how loud your speakers are when you listen to this.
ERNIE’S (BEEP)ING HILARIOUS OUTTAKES:
Ernie Anderson: Not only was he a legendary voice actor, but if the outtake at 7:39 is anything to go by, then if he had a horse, he’d buy it oats and **** it.
Y’know…those old Western movies are so cool. The ones where two dudes have a showdown on an old, dusty road, and then out of nowhere the good guy draws his gun and, aiming from his hip, takes out the bad guy in one shot. It’s so damned impressive…and there’s a reason it’s so damned impressive–because in real life, that almost never works.
In real life, both of the dudes in the showdown would take care to aim carefully so that they could hit their target–their life is on the line, after all! If one of them missed, then in all likelihood they’d run away screaming like a little girl while the other one kept shooting until they got a successful hit (and quite frankly, I really wish they had made a Western movie where one of John Wayne’s characters did just that, if only for my amusement).
All of this to say, if you want to hit your target, you have to aim very precisely and carefully. Carelessly aiming from the hip seriously downgrades your accuracy. And if you miss your shot, you’re just wasting your time and your ammo. Now, in the interest of honesty, I’ve never held a gun in my life except for this one time when I was 12 years old and shot clay pigeons with my Dad. I’ve also held guns before in video games, but I’m pretty sure those don’t count. However, I’ve watched enough episodes of COPS to know that no actual police officer aims from the hip.They raise their gun to eye level and are as careful and as calculating as they can be given how dangerous their situation is.
…Oh, what!? Don’t judge me, COPS is a good show!
In any event, here’s why I bring this up. I’m not switching the focus of my blog from VO to guns, weaponry, and 2nd amendment rights. Rather, it’s a metaphor for how best to approach VO–aim carefully! Think about the copy ahead of time. Think about where it will be used, who the target audience is, what words to emphasize, where to take your pitch during your reads, how fast to deliver certain lines, what tone to use…thinking about all of these things ahead of time will always, always, always lead to much better reads! Will it guarantee you the best conceivable read in the world? Absolutely not. It will, however, guarantee you the best conceivable read that *you* can give with your current skill level.
Because let’s be honest, for all the talk of how we should aim carefully, sometimes…we don’t. Not everyone will admit this, of course. That’s to be expected. There will inevitably be one or two voice actors who read this and proclaim otherwise. “Absolutely not! I put every ounce of energy and thought I have into every single piece of copy that I read, taking lots of careful time to get the details right!”
…With all due respect, pardon me if I don’t believe you for one second.
Nobody is immune to habits. In anything we do on a day-to-day basis, we inevitably fall into certain habits. Even if we don’t intend to. In the rush of a busy VO day, it’s very tempting to not mark up the copy, or not think about it before we send out an audition. Which is not to say that we don’t put effort into it, but rather, we don’t put that much thought into it. We’ll take a quick glance at the overall feel of the copy and go, “Okay, I’ll go with my warm friendly voice,” or, “Okay, I’ll go with my intense promo voice.” I think there’s some benefit to this very quick style of thinking in that it helps our cold reading skills, but the benefits of aiming from the hip are outweighed by the benefits of aiming carefully from the eyes. It sure beats turning out a quick audition, only to go back to it later and think, “Ugh…no, no, no, that wasn’t my best take!”
Let me end this blog entry with a quote by a guy named Shigeru Miyamoto. You may not know him, but you know of his work–he made all the Mario games, the Zelda games, the Metroid Prime games, the Donkey Kong games…even if you don’t play video games, all those iconic video game names that you’ve inevitably heard tossed around were his idea. He had a reputation for committing to a release date for his games, only to push it back again, and again, and again, all because he felt the final result wasn’t ready. When his producers asked him why, he always responded, “Because a delayed game will be good eventually, but a bad game is bad forever.” Same thing with VO. A take that you took slightly longer to think about, or an audition that you took slightly longer to edit, will be as good as it can be eventually, but a bad take or a bad audition…is bad forever.
“I’m so jealous, Dave, you just get paid for talking”….
These were the words spoken by a great friend of mine outside the voice acting industry. Immediately when he said that, I punched him in the face.
Okay, no. I just thought that would be a funny way to begin this entry. 😀
Nothing of the sort happened. I was just hanging out with him recently, but told him that I had to leave a little early because I had to record a spot for a client in a few hours. He responded with the quote you see above (or rather, heard a few seconds ago, if you’re listening).
I certainly wasn’t offended, of course. I’m sure to someone outside the voice-over industry, that’s probably exactly what it looks like. Many people come into the VO business under the misconception that it’s this easy career where all you have to do is read in front of a microphone. That couldn’t be farther from the truth, though. Our job is, more often than not, to make the words given to us sound natural, and it’s not the easiest thing to sound natural with words that are not our own. You need to be able to act. You don’t necessarily have to have acting experience per say, but you do need to have acting talent. Because every job we get, no matter what it is, is still an acting job.
If the idea of acting is intimidating to you, then I suggest you try it out. Sure, show biz is difficult, and Hollywood may not be very accessible, but acting, in and of itself, is very accessible. Try it by taking acting classes, or doing Community Theater or improv classes, and find out what you like about acting. If you try it and you don’t like it at all, that should be your first red flag. However, if you do find that you like something about it, figure out what it is, hone in on it, and let that be your passion for why you act.
And yeah, you guessed it, this blog entry is going to be about what my passion for acting is.
Something that a lot of people don’t know about me is that I am autistic. I have something called Asperger Syndrome, which is a disorder on the “Autism Spectrum.” To give this disorder an (absurdly) short summary, it means that I have difficulty in the area of social interaction. Thankfully, I had a very mild case of it to begin with when I was first diagnosed at the age of four. The signs were pretty clear, though. I didn’t really interact much with the other kids, got really quiet in large group settings, I usually couldn’t complete a conversation without imitating a Disney character, and despite being unable to carry out a full conversation, I memorized the entirety of “Phantom of the Opera.” When I was three years old. I suppose one could say I had a hard time understanding people.
Thankfully, because of consistent, effective occupational therapy, I have grown up into a functional adult. As Asperger’s is a life-long disorder, though, I’ll never truly be “rid of it,” and even to this day I’m given reminders of that. I still struggle with it in that I still hate interacting with large groups, and after about a half hour of being in one I just sort of “shut down” and stop talking. I’ll often drive to big events separately from my friends so that I can leave early. And every once in a rare while, you’ll hear me breaking the conversation entirely to bring up a funny YouTube video that saw the other day–even if it’s not at all related to the conversation at hand.
Speaking of which, have you guys seen this?
Anyways, joking aside, it has always been hard for me to be “normal.” And voice-over often calls for us to play the “normal, everyday guy that you’d go out and have a beer with.” That’s…not really who I am. In trying to figure out the mindset of someone like that, though, I feel I can get closer to that mindset and understand it more. For that reason, I’ve booked many jobs playing that kind of guy. With every character I play, I have to figure out why they think the way they do, and that helps me understand them. Which is why I credit my acting experience in addition to my occupational therapy to helping me mitigate my autism: I love acting because it helped me to understand people, and it continues to do so.
Someone once told me that you have to be borderline-insane to actually want to be an actor, because of how difficult the job is. It certainly is difficult, but it’s one that I have an uncontrolled passion for. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. So find out what gives you your passion to act, hone in on it, and all of your shortcomings in this career will, in hindsight, look trivial against the successes you have had.