The most common question we hear in voice acting is, “How do I break in?” This question is followed by, “How do I get an agent or find a job?” Whatever the initial questions, they are all rooted in the premise of eventually earning a living. The question we never hear—the one that perhaps answers all the rest—is “What makes a person a voice actor?” Here, we try to answer that unasked question.
Certain kinds of personalities do better than others. Olympic athletes tend to be people who are fueled by competition and aren't discouraged by seemingly insurmountable challenges. Scientists tend to be super-curious people who are undaunted by complexity and always believe the solution is around the corner. Executive assistants excel at organizing the swarm of critical details that churn up in the wake of CEOs who must focus on the big picture thinking.
Personality type is also key for the voice actor. Aside from the dedication and persistence it takes to develop the requisite skills, one must be willing to put your abilities on the line to be judged in a very personal way. The voice actor is someone willing to step into the spotlight and let it all hang out. It’s someone who can easily incorporate direction adapt on the fly. Excellent collaborative skills, improvisational instincts are a plus. There’s a lot more that a good psychologist could isolate here, but the point we’re making is simply that voice acting takes a certain kind of person. What you don’t have naturally, you will have to cultivate to the best of your ability.
The voice is your instrument. A distinctive voice is the usual starting point for someone considering a voice acting career. Though it’s common knowledge that the voice alone does not translate into a voiceover career, you can’t ignore that the timbre of a standout voice is an advantage. Similarly, if the actor has an affinity for varying vocal tonalities, creating character voices and mimicry, he or she has an advantage. The caveat is that you’re not the only person with these natural skills—you’ve got competition and lots of it. By adding training in the craft and technique of voice acting, you increase your chances of cutting through the competition. Still, it all started with your unique vocal instrument. The physical voice does matters.
Not everyone can sound like Morgan Freeman, Linda Hunt, or James Earl Jones. The good news is that you don’t have to. There’s a place for all types of voices. In advertising, animation, video games, audiobooks, and many other forms of communications, it’s the voice of the everyday person that carries the day. Some voices are in more demand because they serve a broader range, other voices fulfill the supporting roles.
What has been the most interesting to us in our teaching practice are those people with “average” voices who have a special talent for interpreting scripts with nuance and a unique point of view. When these qualities are present, it gives the illusion that the physical voice itself has special attributes. It’s the inner voice, the soul of the actor that gives rise to what commands the listener’s attention.
Training and Practice
Training is another word for guided practice. A teacher imparts theoretical information and foundational principles, takes you through critical exercises to build muscle memory, empowers you to take responsibility for assisting in your own learning. Practice, on the other hand, is what you do with this learning to perpetuate its growth throughout your life, to have it fuse with your personal chemistry and evolve as part of you. Practice is the ongoing exploration that opens up your personal, magical access to the vastness of your capabilities. Notice that certain occupations, i.e., doctors, lawyers and architects commonly refer to their work as a practice. They understand the extraordinary dynamics of change over time and that one has to constantly adjust on an almost cellular level to stay on the pulse of what’s relevant. This same holds true for the craft of voice acting. As a craft, art and business, voice acting must adapt with the technologies, generational changes, social mores, etc. Mastery is the goal. You can’t have your vocal chords replaced with those of Morgan Freeman’s, but you can be taught to powerfully communicate ideas, nuance, emotions and the inner conflicts that represent the feelings and ideas possessed by the characters you perform. Acting!
Practice is the ongoing exploration that opens up your personal, magical access to the vastness of your capabilities. Notice that certain occupations, i.e., doctors, lawyers, and architects commonly refer to their work as a practice. They understand the extraordinary dynamics of change over time and that one has to constantly adjust on an almost cellular level to stay on the pulse of what’s relevant. This same holds true for the craft of voice acting. As a craft, art, and business, voice acting must adapt with the technologies, generational changes, social mores, etc. Mastery is the goal. You can’t have your vocal chords replaced with those of Morgan Freeman’s, but you can be taught to powerfully communicate ideas, nuance, emotions, and the inner conflicts that represent the feelings and ideas possessed by the characters you perform. Acting!
Few people choose to get into voice acting without the expectation of making a living. They at least expect to make a supplemental income. Getting paid is not what makes you a voice actor, however. There are many people willing to pay someone to record a script. Some are seasoned producers, award-winning experts and so on. Others are well-meaning novices or hacks looking for a cheap deal to just get the job done.
The quality of the producers who hire you is linked to your ability and/or your sense of worth. It’s not enough to just get paid for a booking. You want to get quality jobs that inspire you. Let’s say you get hired because you have an extraordinarily deep voice but no particular skill using it. Great. Take the check. But understand that this job has no more to do with voice acting than performing a card trick. Voice acting is a clearly defined skill that requires performing with nuance, interpretive insight, and purposeful intent all within certain prescribed boundaries of timing and direction. It’s not a card trick.
A Labor of Love
Many of the finest voice actors come to love the artistry of the practice beyond the paid bookings. You could say they walk a higher path, which harkens back to our description of the practice. They derive joy from the doing and are rewarded by the impact their work has in the world, whether for entertainment, marketing or public service. You may find them working pro bono for a favorite cause or taking part in community events where storytelling, spoken word, and various readings are presented purely for the joy of the work and the pleasure of the audience.
Joan Baker and Rudy Gaskins are the co-founders of That’s Voiceover!, an annual career expo, and the creators of the newly formed Society of Voice Arts and Sciences and the Voice Arts Awards. Follow them on Twitter @JoanTheVoice and @RGaskins1, and like them on Facebook: Rudy Gaskins At Large and Joan Baker Live.
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