How I Became a Voice Actor
I wanted to show you specifically how my career came together.
Earning my career was a sustained process of gaining experience and confidence. There were along the way many seemingly incidental detours and preoccupations that ended up being quite valuable to me personally as well as professionally. Listening to myself, making good use of luck and following where opportunity led were also important.
My method of navigating my career path seems to have been basically this: Have fun, try new things, and actively take advantage of opportunities to grow and advance.
Performing is a lifetime habit for me:
I was cast as the title role in the musical “Oliver” at my school in second grade. I had a good singing voice and continued doing plays and musicals at my school, the local university and at the local dinner theater up through high school. I liked being in front of an audience and I learned a great deal from working with performers of different ages.
I also liked making audio sketches on my cassette tape recorder and even spent a couple years doing ventriloquism, with a dummy from JC Penny my Dad modified so its head would rotate. My musical sensability was helped by my Dad being a music educator who was also a bit of a showoff. He did magic for us kids and arranged Christmas carols for my family to sing in five part harmony one year. Sort of a Von Trapp Family vibe.
I learned to love being on a stage thanks in no small part to the influence of my school’s drama teacher. He had us performing Shakespeare, musicals, dramas and more avante guard stuff as well, even making a movie.
I loved reading sci-fi, fantasy and horror:
My enthusiasm for making weird sounds stems in part from my reading interests as a kid: My first chapter book was Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” which I read in fourth grade. This was followed by a lot of classic sci-fi/fantasy authors, including Clarke, Asimov, Wells, Heinlein, Bradbury, Vonnegut, Burroughs and Tolkien.
I loved sci-fi and fantasy TV, movies and cartoons:
It’s helped me to have seen a lot of monsters: I watched a lot of fantastical television and movies as a kid: ”H.R. Puffinstuff” and “Land of the Lost,” for starters. Later, I got into “The Night Gallery,” “Star Trek,” “The Outer Limits,” “The Twilight Zone” and “The Night Stalker” television series. Lots of “Planet of the Apes” and Godzilla movies– pretty much anything with a creature or alien in it. My favorite television series of all in high school was “The Prisoner.” I remember closely following anything Jim Henson created, especially his Creature Shop work in films like “Dark Crystal” and “Dream Child.”
I watched a lot of Saturday morning cartoons, my favorite being Looney Tunes. I was also drawn to the illustrations of Edward Gorey, Kliban and Bruce McCall. My magazines of choice were ”Mad Magazine,” “Famous Monsters,” “Creepy,” “Eerie,” and “Heavy Metal,” and especially “Omni.”
I got a charge out of creating performance art:
I was always making something to perform: One summer I helped some high school friends make a 40 minute surreal sketch video movie that aired on local PBS for years. It was some of the most fun I’d ever had. We would also make what I would now call “performance art” for school talent shows and home town parades. We also produced multi-track comedic audio recordings for each other, inspired by Monty Python and Firesign Theater.
Summer movies inspired me:
I was lucky to be a kid with some pocket change when “summer movies” were invented in the 70′s by Lucas and Spielberg. Naturally, I saw “Star Wars” again and again. My parents made me an awesome jawa costume the Halloween after “Star Wars” was released. I was hired as a jawa when it was rereleased the following summer (1978). They paid me in movie passes, which was ideal. I watched “Star Wars” dressed as a jawa, making jawa sounds, all summer long. A perfect kind of job.
“Star Wars” was probably the first thing I ever saw that made me say “I want to make things like that.” I began reading books about special effects and “making of” accounts of fantasy movies and t.v. shows. I drew a lot of aliens and dreamed of helping create seedy bars full of creatures. It made me want to make something that was inventive, energetic and fun. The movies dealing with monsters, aliens, werewolves, etc. that were to follow by Spielberg, Zemeckis, Miller, Dante and Landis became guideposts for me. In fact, I’d say that movies were as important to me as my books.
I loved flying saucers and monsters:
There were a number of odd sightings reported around my home town in the 70′s regarding UFOs, “black helicopters” and cattle mutilations. I tried unsuccessfully with my telescope to view UFOs that were often seen hovering near a local nuclear power plant. I was fascinated with the possibility of real monster and alien sightings. I still have some of the newspaper clippings in my studio.
Making fantasy “real” feels an extension of a childhood dream. I remember very much wanting some conclusive evidence to emerge proving monsters and aliens to be real. I’d clip any article or watch any “documentary” offering proof of the weird or otherworldly. I can’t help but think this contributed to my eventual interest in voicing monsters. It also occurs to me that, since the cryptozoological evidence never materialized, I went on to create the creatures vocally that I yearned to see as a kid.
I loved biology, astronomy and animals (and still do):
Why am I interested in voicing animals? Well, I like animals. I always liked catching and bringing home lizards, tadpoles, snakes and salamanders, which my folks usually seemed okay with.
I got interested in biology and considered pursuing it as a career. My school always had good biology teachers and I attended a science camp the summer of my junior year in high school. I was quite interested in documentary television specials featuring Jacques Cousteau, “Wild Kingdom,” as well as the PBS series “Nature” and especially “Cosmos.” Cousteau and Sagan were and are my heroes.
I think this plays into why I am interested in animal sounds, why I can picture them and love giving them accurate voice. I keep my love of animals alive these days not only with my voice acting, but with a site I created where I post pictures I take of plants and bugs at: http://www.deebakerphotography.com.
I didn’t waste my teen years being a teenager:
I’d say I made good use of my time as a teenager. Fortunately, I didn’t feel much need to piss off my parents or damage myself in this chapter in life. I couldn’t have cared less about sports or the stereotypical teenage social life. I was never terribly social and usually had only a friend or two at most. I didn’t even really want a car. I mowed a few lawns for movie/book money and was happy with that. All I really wanted was to read, act and watch PBS and sci-fi/monster movies.
I processed much of my growing up by writing in a diary, which I did daily from second grade to well into my thirties. I think this daily habit of digesting my day’s events and listening to my inner self helped me know myself better so I could navigate my life more in line with who I was, as opposed to what I thought others wanted me to be. This regular self reflection and introspection probably helped me be a better actor as well.
I had no particular aspirations or expectations to hem me in at a young age:
I always did very well academically, but I never had any particular career in mind. As a little kid, I thought I might be a paleontologist. In high school, I thought becoming an architect seemed vaguely appealing (perhaps because I like drawing and watched the “Brady Bunch?”), but I never did pursue this. Law study seemed a practical choice (I reasoned I’d probably do well in front of a “audience/jury”), but again, I wasn’t all that interested.
Actually, I would have preferred exploring a career in special effects makeup or creature design, I just had no idea how. I was fascinated with the work of creature creators Rob Bottin and Rick Baker in the 80′s. Acting didn’t really seem like a real career at all to me (I thought of it more as a hobby). I had no idea voice acting existed as a career until I was in my late twenties.
I pursued what I liked in college, not what I thought would bring me money:
I attended a small liberal arts college (The Colorado College) that felt like a kind of paradise to me. I ended up majoring in Philosophy with almost a minor in German, but continued performing steadily. I spent a year studying in Germany on a scholarship. My favorite classes, aside from my major, were Invertebrate Zoology, Cell Bio and art classes. I was pretty much a poster child for liberal arts.
I took only one acting class while at college but performed in lots of plays, musicals and choirs (my college encouraged trying things outside my major– as opposed to a conservatory that would typically demand more focus and exclusivity). I didn’t study “Acting” because I didn’t want to be a career stage actor or a teacher or director. Besides, acting for me was always something you did, not something you “studied” or wrote about. Becoming an academic had no appeal to me at all.
I liked creating live performance pieces for open mic nights and creating taped multitrack comedy sketches with friends. I started a few student singing groups performing Manhattan Transfer-type songs as well as barbershop and doo wop. I co-wrote a musical with a buddy under a grant, which we performed main stage at our college.
I can’t imagine getting more out of college or having more fun than I did. I studied things in college because I liked them, not because I was necessarily good at them, or thought I would one day earn money doing them. Luckily, my parents supported my seemingly impractical attitude towards learning. It turned out, much of what seemed either impractical or incidental in my college education ended up eventually feeding directly back into my career.
After college I kept trying all the performing I could:
I graduated college with no career aspirations or plan whatsoever. My liberal arts schooling had taught me to listen to myself and pursue what I loved. I kept doing just that. After graduating, I continued performing any way I could, doing stand up, singing telegrams, improv, children’s theater, caroling, summer Shakespeare and even a stint as a mall Santa and creating a three person adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.” Some gigs payed. Some didn’t.
I liked doing stand up comedy. I performed as a duo with my college buddy. My half of the act tended to be more making weird sounds and odd physical characterizations. It was exciting and creative but it usually paid nothing and led to a drudgerous and lonely on-the-road existence that ultimately didn’t appeal to me. I also made wacky performance art sketches for local radio and stage with two other buddies I met doing children’s theater– sort of somewhere between Firesign Theater and Monty Python. Children’s theater was the first decent paying stage work I did after college. It was creative, involved improv and the audiences were great.
I liked the social interaction and artistry of “serious” stage acting as well, but the time commitment was big and, again, it payed little or nothing. One show I was in was cancelled after weeks of rehearsing when a couple cast members couldn’t make all the rehearsals. In addition, some “pros” I got to work with in a Shakespeare play came off to me as prima donnas who weren’t all that nice. One “pro” advised me the only way I could become an actor was to study at a conservatory. Well, becoming what he was didn’t appeal to me, so I thankfully ignored that advice. It just didn’t feel right for me.
I just kept performing, doing a year in an educational puppet musical that played in Denver schools, along with more stand up while making more improvised audio tapes with my stand up buddy and sketch shows with other friends.
I moved to a bigger market (Orlando) and learned even more:
I was always open to trying something new. After booking an open call audition in Denver, I moved to Orlando to do open a sketch/improv show that was opening at Disney World’s EPCOT Center in the Fall of 1989. I was also hired the next year to be the first walk-around Beetlejuice look-alike at the newly opened Universal Studios, Florida, while continuing performing in top notch stage productions at the Orlando Civic Theater and varsity improv with SAK Theater (some of the most fun I’ve ever had on stage was with that gang!). Good improv training was invaluable to my career and my life in so many ways!
I didn’t really consider acting my “career” until my early thirties and voice overs only gradually emerged as a career goal. I think my Mom held out hope that I’d come to my senses and become a lawyer. Fortunately this never happened.
Also important– I studied singing while in Orlando with Manny Lujan for a couple years and began booking occasional voice over gigs. My voice and stage confidence continued to strengthen and stretch.
In the early 90′s, I landed my first television series in Orlando, with the Nickelodeon gameshow, “Legends of the Hidden Temple” (voicing “Olmec” and reading prize copy). Things were going very well in Orlando, with lots of fun ways for a performer to earn a decent living and health insurance. I began to see it was as good as it was going to get for me in Florida, which was very good. But I didn’t feel it was good enough.
I made one of my very best decisions: marrying my wife:
Getting married not only made me happier, it also added a stability and foundation to my life that sustained and inspired me through the ups and downs of a freelance acting career. I don’t think I’d be half as far as I am now without my wonderful wife.
I finally took the calculated risk of moving to the biggest market– Los Angeles:
I took the advice of Kirk Fogg, the host of “Hidden Temple,” to check out Los Angeles as a next step. After one visit, I sensed the blue sky opportunity I craved. I also had in mind to try making some money voicing cartoons and that meant I’d need to be in L.A. So, I handed in my resignation at Disney World and headed out to L.A. with my wife in late 1993. We never looked back.
While my wife sustained us doing temp work, it took me about a year to earn a sustainable living so she could quit. I was employing my improv and stand up skills to book mostly on-camera commercials, as well as a gig as Beetlejuice at a rock-n-roll review at Universal Studios, Los Angeles. I then spent a few more years trying out on-camera television acting while also beginning to book animation voice over work. It was all fun to me, but I liked voice acting the best.
I started getting the kind of voice work I wanted: My first animated series was “Cow and Chicken” (as “Dad”) and my first major film role was Daffy Duck and Taz in “Space Jam.” I learned a huge amount from working from the incredible people who made those shows. I also got in on the ground floor doing various voices on other great shows– “Sponge Bob: Squarepants” and “Fairly Oddparents” at Nick as well as “Power Puff Girls,” and “Johnny Bravo” and other shows.
I began to focus on voice overs and to specialize:
As my voice over career picked up steam, I decided to stop my on-camera efforts and focus exclusively on voice overs, since it became clear that I couldn’t pursue success in both effectively and voice overs was the most fun for me. With experience, I began expanding beyond my default “comfort zone” characters (typically broad, comedic characters) to include animal and monster sounds– something that resonated for me from my youth and my days in stand up. The more I focused on expanding my non-human sound repetoire, the more I worked in that area. I did a number of creatures for WB’s “Teen Titans,” and then for Nickelodeon’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” series, one of my very favorites. I also began booking video games (which I loved) doing inhuman sounds for titles like “Doom 3,” “Left for Dead 2″ the “Halo” series and “Portal 2.”
I had learned not to be afraid and not to impose limits on myself:
One of the things I learned was that mere obedience didn’t book the gig. I had the opportunity to audition for a new Fox series called “American Dad” which needed a French talking goldfish. I chose to read the audition instead with a German accent, using my German language skills from college, and booked the role that was to be renamed “Klaus.” Finally, I began booking more “straight ahead” roles as well– roles I would never have considered myself right for in earlier days– most notably, the clone soldiers in “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” series. Voicing the subtle variations of the clone soldiers was one of the most challenging and satisfying projects ever, bringing me back around to a creative universe I had deeply loved as a kid.
I continue to work and live in Los Angeles with my incredible wife of 23 years and my two daughters.
My view of becoming a voice actor is thus as a kind of life-long project that solidifies over many years of work and experimentation. This is the backdrop that informs my view of becoming a voice actor that I share with you on my site.
Click for: Dee’s IMDB credits, Dee’s demos, Twitter: @deebradleybaker