The lights went out on the vast majority of entertainment productions when COVID-19 hit eight months ago, but there was one corner of the business that was able to adapt quickly to lockdown, restarting and reinventing itself almost immediately: voiceover.
In March, with sports postponed, Broadway dark, and television and film production on hold, agencies began repurposing stock footage to create new ads; graphic designers, editors, copywriters, directors, and producers began working together over Zoom, Google Meet, and Slack; and game developers and animation houses picked up where they left off, collaborating from the comfort of their homes. Eventually, production bubbles, rigorous testing, and strict sanitation procedures allowed for limited filming to resume. And throughout all of this, voice actors continued to deliver their work across many genres.
So what makes the voiceover industry so seemingly indestructible?
"To meet the demands of today, actors have been tasked with creating a professional set-up and learning how to properly record themselves at home—it’s stressful." —Alexa Magnotto
A once-centralized industry dominated by media markets in New York City and Los Angeles, voiceover had already undergone fairly significant changes in the last 10 to 15 years—transitioning away from attended studio sessions in coastal cities and toward a growing number of voice actors auditioning, networking, and working almost entirely from home. Having already created much of that infrastructure, VO was able to adapt quickly to new safety-compliant production pipelines, and it was voice actors with home studios, technology skills, and versatility who were poised to benefit most from an industry otherwise walled off from its talent.
But it wasn’t just voice actors with home studios who stood to gain. Production houses such as Funimation in Texas compiled studio packs to mail to talent that included USB microphones, stands, iPads, and software, allowing production to continue animation dubbing with talent recording and engineering themselves. Pillow forts, repurposed closets, and under-duvet sessions became the norm for voice actors. Meanwhile, production teams tested new technical possibilities on their end.
“The actors’ willingness to learn a new system inspired the engineers to continue to push and find better ways to communicate and encourage everyone involved, as well as work to refine our new systems,” says Justin Cook, senior director of audio production at Funimation, an entertainment company that specializes in the dubbing and distribution of East Asian media, most notably Japanese anime. “Back in March, when the whole country began to shut down, we could understand the reason for the precautions, but we believed we had a responsibility to our community and fans to keep getting fresh new anime to their screens. Our fans and voice talent have come to depend on us to deliver, on a weekly basis, nearly 20 dubbed episodes per week, and we felt this responsibility…. Both the livelihoods of our talent and the investment our fans have made in the characters and stories we help bring to life are real.”
Lotas Productions, a voiceover production and casting studio based in New York City moved their entire production process from their NoMad-based studio to a home-based one early on in the pandemic. “As we shifted into our regular production schedules, we had to rethink our need to hold recording sessions in metropolitan office buildings,” says Sam Ufret, producer at Lotas. “Connecting clients with casting, talent, and audio services can be done completely online, and those businesses that are agile, inventive, and open to technological change will be best equipped to serve customers in a new, touchless market.”
The traditional casting process had to adapt, too.
“Before the pandemic, I auditioned every VO actor in person at Sound Lounge. When we went remote, I didn’t want to lose that face-to-face quality of knowing the actors I was submitting, so I created Virtual Booth,” says NYC casting director Alexa Magnotto. Her system allows her to work with actors to help alleviate the pressure of self-directing and communicate expectations around booking a job.
“To meet the demands of today, actors have been tasked with creating a professional setup and learning how to properly record themselves at home—it’s stressful. I like to think I’m taking some of that stress away by working together on the copy so that the actor can feel confident with their audition…. Anxiety can change the energy of a read,” she says.
Virtual Booth has allowed her to expand her VO talent pool to include actors from all over the country and continue to “maintain that personal connection while respecting the safety of our actors and clients.”
More work-from-home opportunities have also benefited actors contending with physical challenges who no longer have to spend time, energy, and money traveling from studio to studio for auditions and bookings.
Maria Pendolino, an award-winning voiceover talent, has been working remotely from her professional home studio since 2014. “As a differently abled actor with mobility challenges due to psoriatic arthritis, there are huge benefits to being able to work from home,” she says. “I control my physical environment, which I’ve designed around my challenges for ergonomic comfort. I also have access to my exercise and physical therapy equipment.”
While it’s impossible to predict where the entertainment industry will be on the other side of the pandemic, it’s likely that media production will be forever changed. Many new processes and systems have been created, and expectations and preconceptions have been altered. In voiceover specifically, a more democratic system has emerged, one that doesn’t result in privileged, able-bodied actors inevitably finding themselves at the front of the queue.
Talent, ingenuity, and grind are, more than ever, critical indicators of success today, which is something we should all celebrate—a rare win in this unrelenting year.
This story originally appeared in the Nov. 12 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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