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

Dynamic Voice Acting

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Voice acting is about bringing words to life. This means that even a sentence should have a dynamic life of its own.

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The “robot read”

Voice acting is more than just correctly and obediently reading words. It’s about acting. And acting is about committing to strong, clear choices that bring the words to life, that invest them with specific meaning and intent. Your job is to constantly make interesting, appropriate choices about how you perform each take.

Less interesting or less active acting choices (or no choices at all) yield the opposite of good acting: A flat, repetitive, uninteresting or disconnected read. Merely a series of words that sound like they are being read rather than lived. No spark. Might as well be read by a robot. 

I want to focus here on an issue that affects beginners and intermediate voice actors. It’s a read that starts somewhere but goes nowhere, resulting in a “one level” read. It lacks variation or transition, or it maintains the same pace or same level of volume (or “presence”) throughout.  It starts at “A” and ends at “A.” It lacks dynamic.

To me, this isn’t acting. 

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What an actor brings

Part of the fun (and job) of acting is varying your acting choices by applying dynamic shifts or transitions to your read. Even within a single sentence, an actor is free to flip meaning of words, add transition, dips, swoops, escalate emotion, add misdirects, speed up, slow down, vary volume, switch the subtext, and so on. A good voice over read rarely coasts along at a flat level. 

It is vital for a voice actor to bring this play and variation to your work whether asked to or not. It’s why they bring you in. 

Even within a sentence is a potential a journey that can be creatively mined by an actor. With every take, you should bring fresh dynamic color.

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Voice acting as sculpting

If voice acting were sculpting, you could think of each sentence you read as a blob of clay that you mold differently each time you read it, not necessarily aiming to perfect, but experimenting with contours and shaping to make it uniquely vital. You probably don’t want to end up with a final sculpt that is a simple geometric block! You’d prefer something more irregular, more interesting, more organic, more fun, more alive, more unexpected. You want something with more of a story to tell. 

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My favorite example of dynamic

An excellent example of what I’m talking about that stands out in my mind is Charlie Adler’s brilliant performance as “The Red Guy” in the insanely over-the-top animated series “Cow and Chicken.” Charlie’s Red Guy character would wildly switch from soft to screaming to seductive to seething to pouty to nonchalant with breathtaking suddenness, sometimes all within the same sentence. It was hilarious and fascinating to watch and learn from the fearless experimental shifts Charlie brought with each take!  His broad dynamic shifts fit perfectly with the anarchistic over-the-top tone of the script. 

None of these acting choices were mentioned in the script, of course. These were bold choices that he came up with on the spot and applied with glee with each take. No take was the same and each sentence was a fresh and unique surprise.

It was the most extreme example I’ve ever seen of a basic lesson I’ve applied for years: Don’t be afraid to slap new paint around on the canvas: Bring dynamic and color to each line you read. Never be afraid and never stop varying your takes! Don’t be boring by clinging to what you’ve just established! Take another swing at a different pitch and see where it goes!

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Examples of plotting out a dynamic shift

Remember, these are choices you make that are not necessarily laid out in the script direction or in how you’ve been directed. You supply this yourself!

This can be anything from a subtle shift in tone or volume to more pronounced variations of pace, volume and intent. This can be a shift in subtext, emotion, “heat,” or implication.

I often frame it simply as a shift from one adjective or verb to another. Some examples might be:

“Ok, so this starts smug and ends up defensive.”

“Begin measured then accelerate to finish.”

“So, she starts with pleading and ends with self pity.”

“Start confident to the group then end with a barely audible aside.”

“The tone starts bright then shifts here into frustration.”

“Clear-cut helpful into warm satisfaction

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An exercise in placing and varying a dynamic choice

Let’s take a simple sentence of exposition from a hypothetical video game as an example:

“She was gone, everything was gone, but I resolved that the coming dawn would bring a new day that the Baron would never forget.”

For our example, read this sentence three times, each with a different dynamic shift:

1. The first time you read it, start sad and shift to satisfied anticipation,

2. The second time move from numb to heroic resolve,

3. The third time from down-but-not-beaten to contained anger.

Each is a dynamic shift that might work with the basic sentence and each choice colors the story and character a little differently. Note that each choice makes sense from the sentence– they are all logical yet distinct and each arrives at a slightly different destination. 

Coming up with these useable, fresh new takes is where good improv training can really pay off. These are choices that are not necessarily powered by intellect or calculation, but rather by instinct and your gut.

It would be up to the director/creator to select which of these three takes s/he likes the best, or perhaps you select one variation and refine it with further takes or continue to provide more choices if none of these ring quite true. But it is a voice actor’s job to provide a slightly different “journey” each time you perform a take. A menu of dynamic choices from which the director can choose the “hero” take. 

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It’s your choice!

At what point in the sentence to you make the transition/shift? Placing that is part of the art of acting.

Perhaps you want to add a third adjective to the sentence’s transition. Or maybe that would clutter it up. Perhaps you want to keep just one adjective but ramp it up, escalate it as the sentence progresses. It is all your choice! (of course, it could also just end up as a line read from the director.)

Note that dynamic shouldn’t be applied thoughtlessly, generically or randomly. It should rather bring specific and appropriate life to the sentence, character or story. It should fit with what is on the page and what has already been established. The best performers generate this improvisationally and on the fly- from gut instincts, inspired sometimes from a fellow actor’s performance, informed by an inner database of story telling and guided by their live performing antennae. 

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© Dee Bradley Baker 2016
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