Dee Bradley Baker's "All to Know About Going Pro in V.O."

What About Making Creature Vocals?

“What is creature vocalizing?”

Creature voice performance involves everything regular voice acting does, except it is often unscripted and/or performed “to picture” (A.D.R.). It calls for detailed performing that is often quite taxing vocally. And often there is little in the script to guide your performing.

Though it may be all non-verbal squeaks and roars, chitters and growls, at its core, non-human VO is three dimensional acting, not just “sound effects.” With voicing all creatures great and small, there is timing, context, intent, tone and subtext.

More than just “sound effects

Creature VO is not just “making sounds,” in the way regular voice acting is not just “making words.” The creature character is usually sentient and intelligent. It listens, comprehends and reacts. The range of expression often plays out as a kind of conversation.

Some creature sounds in a cartoon or movie or game don’t require an actor. If a script calls for merely a simple sound- a distant eagle cry, for instance- that can probably be covered with a sound effects file. But if the creature interacts with the other actors, or impacts a scene with blocking and behavior, you need an actor to vocalize it convincingly so the scene won’t feel flat, so it “lives” and doesn’t feel generic.

“Generic” is always an enemy of good storytelling. A disconnected animal sound effect can kill the best animator’s work. A sound effect roar can deflate a monster’s menace. It sounds like other roars in other projects, plus it’s not connected to the action of a specific scene.

If you can make some weird sounds, that’s a great start. But realize that creature voice performance calls for more than mimicry. You bring an entire animal with you to the session.

Creature voice acting is problem solving

Creature vocals call for a great deal of on-the-fly problem solving- more so than regular scripted VO.

There are usually no written lines of dialogue and producers may not even know specifically what they want or need. This means more creative “heavy lifting” for the voice actor. If you can bring the vocal performance that fits the visuals playing out in the story, they’ll know it when they hear it!

Non-human vocals are often delivered “to picture” in A.D.R. to support already produced visuals, so its placement and timing must be precise. There’s no room for error or excess.

How I found it

Creature voice acting found me because it suits my interests and performing capacities. With its weird mix of acting, improv and oddball character exploration, it gradually dawned on me that creature VO might be right for me- that I should focus on it, alongside my more straight-ahead voice acting career.

How did I find my range of creature and animals sounds? For a start, I had already filled up on monster movies and nature documentaries as a kid. I also had many years of exploring acting and improv already under my belt. So in a sense, I was ready to go. Once I realized the need in Hollywood for creature vocals, I focused on mimicking natural sounds, animals and monsters I heard on TV, movies and video games. I sought out animal sound CD’s to play in my car (how quaint!).

Role models: I realized it helps to study pets and pre-lingual children. They may not have words, but they comprehend subtext and their sounds always harbor specific motivation and intent. A baby is saying something specific, as is a dog or an emu, whether you understand it or not. This is a core aspect of creature voice acting.

Along with my lifelong acting experience and affinity with creatures both weird and familiar, I was also drawn to a kind of uninhibited exploration of oddball characters and weird sounds as a performer. I wasn’t shy about doing nutty vocals and physical characterizations when I did stand up or open mic performances. The ”weird stuff” suited me and audiences seemed to agree.

In my later twenties, my improv experience mixed with some very good singing training to allow me to push my vocal boundaries further. Singing training taught me to produce a broader range of sound with a “relaxed energy.” By learning where to place vocal effort for a more efficient and powerful sound, I found I could do more with less effort. I could reach further and avoid pushing my voice past previous limits, but without injury. And I could also recover faster from strain.

Once I was on the hunt for creature vocals, I spent a lot of time driving around mimicking real animal sound recordings, driving around in my car. Anything I found I could do that didn’t hurt my voice and that allowed me a range of expression, I noted and kept exploring it until I was comfortable with it. I kept practicing it until I was familiar with it and felt I had it ready to wield. I had a kind of psycho-physical memory of where the sound resided in my throat and what it could do. Then I had it ready to use in VO!

I kept discovering and collecting until I acquired a sizable arsenal of vocal possibilities, an easy-access orchestra of vocalizations I could mix and match on the fly.

How you find it

If creature vocals is right for you, then you must become a good actor/improvisor who has a keen sense of story telling that approaches the sensitivity of a good director or an editor. Using that, you channel your growing cache of non-human vocalizations to help tell stories.

Your acting channels your sounds. You need not just the ability to channel emotion and conversational nuance. You also need an at-hand fountain of vocal ideas ready to spring to life.

This is key: You always want to deliver the goods without self-injury. For me, good singing training helped with that. Such training reveals that you can produce more powerful and varied expression with an economy of effort. Without proper training and vocal placement, you end up working too hard to produce too little. And without good placement, you more quickly tire or self-injure when you reach for vocal extremes (which often happens in creature vocalizing).

Imagine a translated sentence

In a session, staring at your script of vague creature cues, it is helpful to have in mind a specific sentence to guide the creature’s utterances. These might be nailed down in collaboration with the show creator before you start growling or squawking. (You’re not alone- this is a collaboration!)

Every line of creature dialogue should probably have its own “translated subtext.” For example: “Let’s play!” or “I’m tired,” ”Huh?,” “What the heck is that?” “How dare you?” or “Your doom is near!” When doing multiple takes for choice, As with spoken vocals, switch up the intent of the subtext sentence with each take. (This is where improv experience comes in handy!)

Any action in the scene is also part of the vocalization. Remember, you are delivering part of a conversation with behavior in a scene, not just random sounds.

Exploring the possibilities: Breathe in & breathe out!

How should you start? I recommend a multi pronged approach. anyone interested in creature vocals should get live performing experience and vocal training while actively exploring and pushing the boundaries of what your voice can do. Flesh out your version of acting (see elsewhere on my site) and get good at improv.

Creature vocals isn’t a gig that requires obedience. It requires active offers and a keen eye for story timing. And good acting!

Hunt for sounds to collect that might be useful in a conversation or other interactions, not “sound effects.” You may be able to realistically mimic a helicopter, but unless you can converse using that chopper sound, it’s usually useless in voice acting.

Start by seeking sound/characters that are broadly used and branch out from that. Dogs, cats, parrots, rodents, monsters- these are creatures commonly found in TV, movies and games. Find the vocalizations that capture what these creatures do.

Many creatures in children’s shows essentially function as a dog that doesn’t sound like a dog. (E.g., an alligator or little friendly dragon that pants and whines and wants its tummy scratched like a puppy.) The acting beats are fundamentally that of a pack animal- a canine companion. A dog is a good basic reference for many companion creatures.

In other fantasy projects, the creature’s vocals may be a combination of animal sounds (e.g., a snake/bat or a platypus/bear). Monsters may be a combination of various voices (e.g., attacks are low and loud, taking damage may be a shrill screetch). Usually there is an active sentient intelligence at work, that is beyond what any realistic creature would make.

They often don’t want “realistic” or “accurate!”

A show creator ultimately wants something that “reads.” An accurate sound can work against that. A lot of realistic animals sounds would sound too odd and distract from the story being told. And many real-world animals don’t make much (or any) sound (a lizard, turtle or bunny, for instance), but the story calls for some kind of vocal presence to deliver the right story tone, to sell the character’s behavior or blocking. So your performed cat may be chatty for a real cat, but it may be just right for that animated show.

Also, sometimes a “realistic” animal sound just sounds wrong to a viewer and it must be modified to feel right, to elicit the right reaction for an audience that may have no reference point for that creature’s sounds anyway. The performed sound that works may be way off from ”authentic.” Do show producers really want a realistic dolphin or ostrich? Often, not. (Interesting side note: even nature documentaries often manufacture their animal sounds!)

BTW: Make sure you know what the realistic animal sounds are! The more you know, the more show runners will (rightfully) trust your instincts and input.

Hunting for vocals

You can start by exploring inhale and exhale sounds. A pig sound, for instance, is often produced with an inhale. That tone can then be modified by placing it lower in the throat or chest or moving it up into the sinuses. Change your mouth shape and see what that does. You may find it can be extended or warped into other sounds as well.

Don’t limit your exploration to just your voice. Some sounds are vocalized (made with the two sets of muscles of the “voice box,” mixing combinations of your “head voice” and “chest voice”) but you can also use the flesh of your throat or soft palette to combine with vocalizations or even do much of the effort’s “heavy lifting” to save the finite capacity of the voice muscles. A growl, for instance, can sound much more animalistic or threatening (and is easier to produce) by using the soft palette’s fluttering against the back of the tongue.

And sound doesn’t have to exit through your mouth. It can also be directed out the nose or the side of the mouth after you’ve set it’s location in your head. Some sounds you can make usefully with your mouth fully closed.

What’s made with an inhale can also be made with an exhale (though it will change the character of the sound and may cost you more voice). Try talking with an inhale. Try screaming (don’t hurt your voice!). Try moving that up into your sinuses or down into your chest.

You can also modify your face to change the sound chamber in your head by pinching your cheek or blocking your nose, to vary the resonance of the sound cavity. I find roars are more impressive and massive sounding with my nostrils blocked (inhale or exhale).

Explore trills, not just in the front of the mouth (tip of tongue against front teeth) but also in back of the throat. Inhale and exhale! You can find ways to place sounds in different areas of your sinus cavity for differing effect. It’s an endless playground to explore! I can’t explain it- you’ll have to mess around with it! (It’s [voice + relaxed gargle], if you want the equation for Perry the Platypus or Momo.)

Remember: Always avoid self-injury. If it hurts, back off. Never push your voice to failure or scream or yell to the point of tasting blood (it can happen). A voice can be overworked or blown out like a hamstring. Recovery from serious injury can take a long time. “Vocal nodes” are an extreme example of a misused and overworked voice that can take a vocalist off-line for months. Permanent injury isn’t impossible. Oh, and try to not give yourself an aneurism (forcing too much energy that you can’t control, overstepping your physical limits).

It’s best when you can produce a great range of effort from a relaxed energy, so there’s an economy of physical effort, even with loud or aggressive sounds. Singing training or a good vocal coach should assist with this.

In a nutshell: Start by exploring and collecting sounds you can safely produce in a controlled and conversational manner. Meanwhile, keep strengthening your acting chops. Fill your internal database with animals and monsters from TV, movies, games and documentaries. Watch a lot of cartoons. Study animals and children. Feed yourself all forms of stories to sharpen your story teller’s intuition and insight.

You will need all this when they play the video and look to you to bring that creature to life.

What about a creature vocals demo?

I view a “demo reel” of creature sounds the same as a regular animation demo. It must showcase good acting, characters with a range of expression, and it is best created with specific projects, shows or networks in mind. A good demo is created to appeal to a specific workspace and a specific audience. This should guide the tone of your demo and your character performance. (See my pages on making a demo from the dropdown menu above).

You want to showcase only what vocal characters you do well (e.g. an accurate dog or bird or monster). Each character should demonstrate your acting– with reaction beats and behavior such as you would typically find in a TV show, movie or game that you want to be cast in. It is alive, after all! You’re not making a ”sound,” but rather, a living scene and often not alone!

For example:

Let’s say you want to create a “dog” segment. What are the acting beats of a family dog in a typical animated show? (If you don’t know- do some research!) Time and again on screens big and small you will encounter a dog or puppy that is: happy, excited, panting, fearful, getting tummy rubbed, suspicious, whimpering, eating, licking, menacing, yelping with surprise, confused, etc. Each beat is very brief and specific- a reaction to what is playing out. If you’ve a variety of dog sizes and ages, you can show that too.

Remember- you are performing a character living! These are never sounds ”in a vacuum.” A scene is playing out! You want to feature the most repeated and useful acting beats for each creature you are displaying. If you can only do one “bark” but can’t provide the “whole dog” character options, I wouldn’t make a demo segment for it.

Nobody hires a “woof!” They hiring a complete dog (and a versatile one at that)! They hire a dog that can say, “Hi Master!!” and “I’m tired” and “Yikes!” and “Back off!” and “I’m disappointed” and who knows what else. Your pup must be fully direct-able! Want ideas? Watch some scripted dog movies.

Maybe you want to showcase your monster sounds, as in a superhero show or video game. What is the creature’s life, what story is it experiencing? Well, what happens in these kinds of shows/stories?

A monster’s vocalized acting beats might typically include: ambient lurking, alert, challenge, attacking, taking damage, menacing, roars, fighting, frustration, bites, running, sleeping, pain, struggling before death and dying. These are the typical acting beats you would expect to find in many shows and games, that could be broadly useful for many projects.

Remember, your demo’s audience- the show maker! What do they make? What are they looking for? Could your performance be lifted into a show or game? Can you envision the monster you’re performing and what it’s doing? If you cannot, the listener certainly won’t be able to either!

Imagine the scene playing out with your vocalized character doing its thing!

Stack a disparate sequence of a few of each creature’s emotes back to back before you move on.

Remember- time is money. Myself, I post each of my creature demo sound files separately on my promotional website, so the casting director or producer can just click on the creature of interest, without having to endure a whole group of sounds that are of no use to get to it.

Since each project is unique, hopefully your demo is close enough to what they want, or at least demonstrates your versatility and good acting instincts to convince them that they can work with to get exactly what they need.

As with a regular VO demo, a creature demo should only feature what you are good at. Poor or mediocre performance will bring down the impression one gets of the rest of the demo. It’s a counter productive calling card. Range is great- but only if you have it. Don’t display more creatures than your best.

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