What Voice Actors Need to Know About 'Voice Matching'

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In today's voiceover market, there's one area that actors should know more about: voice matching—what it is and when it's used. It's an integral part of the production/postproduction process on most films, TV shows, animated features, cartoons, and video games, as well as at theme parks and in ADR (automated dialogue replacement or alternative dialogue recording). Also known as looping, ADR is the process of replacing dialogue in a film, even breaths, grunts, screams, kisses—anything to do with the human voice.

"Voice matching is the ability to sound like—in tone, texture, and pitch—the way someone else sounds," says veteran casting director Barbara Harris, who has provided casting services and voice talent for the past 25 years. Her Los Angeles company, the Looping Group, has cast voices in literally thousands of motion picture and television productions. Harris has worked closely with such notable directors as Tony Scott, Sydney Pollack, M. Night Shyamalan, Tim Burton, Clint Eastwood, John Singleton, Barry Sonnenfeld, William Friedkin, Joel Schumacher, and Martin Scorsese, and that's just a brief sample.

She also does voice replacement on location. Once a scene is finished shooting, they may find that an actor's voice is not interesting enough or not quite right, so Harris is called upon to find another actor to make the scene work better. "Generally with the final product," she explains, "they'll always use the main actor again, such as Bruce Willis for four lines." But for a prescreening of the film, some new lines may need to be recorded, or if the film will be shown on airplanes, curse words may have to be replaced, and if Willis is not available, another actor will be hired to re-record the lines, but only temporarily. "Eventually they'll get Bruce to come in and do his lines," she says, but in the meantime, it means work for an actor who can sound like the star.

Examples of other instances when voice matching may be used: An animated Disney film becomes a TV series but the original celebrity cast is not available for it; a popular TV series such as "CSI" is turned into a video game using actors who sound like those on the show; the success of a film franchise like "Pirates of the Caribbean" means the public expects to hear Johnny Depp voicing Jack Sparrow in the Disney theme-park ride, so a sound-alike is hired.

With good voice matching, you can't tell whether the primary actor or the replacement is speaking. "It's easier said than done," says Harris. "Let's say you know someone who sounds like Eddie Murphy, and now you have to match his pitch. You may find a person that sounds just like him, but side by side, right next to his voice, it doesn't sound like him when you play it back. It's a skill."

Lyle Schnebly, a voiceover actor for 20 years, has done temporary voice matching for celebrities. "It's extremely precise…in how they try and match it," he says. "It's a fine line. There's a science to it. The people who cast for voiceover matching are amazingly talented in recognizing the right person. You need to know almost the exact pitch, cadence, and lilt…how much is in the gritty of your throat or the boominess of your chest. Those little things make a difference."

Along those lines, Harris offers three pieces of advice that will make a difference in getting voice-matching work:

1) Listen carefully. "The greatest tool for an actor who does voices is the ability to listen. So ask, 'Why are you revoicing this?' and then listen…so you'll know what you need to know. If they say, 'We want a little more of a Spanish accent'…or 'I really loved what he did,' that's a clue for you. Those are the clues you have to listen to so you know how to proceed. If not, you may be repeating the mistake the other actor made."

2) Truth in acting. "Let's say you have a voice quality they want for a role naturally—you match the voice or texture.… Then your acting has to be right on point, because it's just your naked voice. You've got to make sure every line you say is the truth, is real, and is great acting…. Commit to it, and summon all of your actor tools when you're doing a voiceover…. The intensity and truthfulness that's in the work of all great actors has to be there in all good voiceover actors."

3) First impressions. "If there are three people and they're all talented, I look for: 1) Are they good actors? 2) Do they have what we want? 3) Then I look for the people that are the easiest to get along with, because nobody wants to spend time with a jerk—someone who shows up late or has a crappy attitude—versus an upbeat and cool person. Have a good attitude when you walk in; be positive; show your best self. It's a job interview."