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

Should a voice actor risk returning to work in a studio?

These days, a voice actor at a studio record would be the only person incurring a higher risk of virus exposure in the one scenario which science sees as the riskiest— being in a confined space with no mask where others work without masks.

Science is clear at least on this point:

The only way to eliminate risk of COVID infection for a voice actor is to avoid studio work altogether- and thereby avoid a confined space populated by a rotation of people (some unmasked) whose health status is unknown to the voice actor.

The virus is still poorly understood.

COVID’s diabolical effectiveness at contagion is not well understood. Neither does science understand how post-illness immunity works or even if it exists. There is much risk and danger and little understanding, as the virus continues to spread.

With so many unknowns in play, it’s unclear how one could meaningfully or sufficiently monitor or minimize risk at a studio record. While such efforts are welcome, science is not clear on how we can reliably and verifiably achieve any of that.

It’s in the air.

COVID-19’s ability to invisibly infect through airborne transmission is worrisome, especially for anyone with any of a laundry list of pre-existing health concerns.

The disease’s tendency to spare many but severely afflict and even kill some is alarming. This is made worse by its ability to infect and transmit undetected (symptom free), apparently through airborne transmission.

It is impossible to guess how the virus will affect any individual. Even the absence of preexisting health concerns does not guarantee being spared the virus’ worst. The effectiveness of any “safety protocols” implemented by a studio are also of unknown effectiveness in minimizing risk.

What is my risk?”

Answering this key question leads to guesses at best.

Despite any efforts to mitigate risks, the voice actor still shoulders a higher level of health risk in a studio record- higher than anyone else involved. And the fallout from this risk can be severe. (Sometimes studio records are directed remotely, even with the voice actor coming in and at the mic.)

Suggested techniques (or “protocols”) of minimizing risk of transmission are welcome but these are preliminary suggestions, and their efficacy is impossible to substantiate.

Asymptomatic victims (having COVID but displaying minor or no symptoms) in addition to airborne transmission of COVID-19 make it uniquely difficult to slow the spread of the virus.

In a world where convenience too easily trumps safety concerns, it is easy for others clear of risk to sign off on this. A voice actor should keep in mind that the main person shouldering risk with an in-studio gig is the necessarily unmasked voice actor. The only way to eliminate this risk is to work from home.

Wiping down surfaces?” Good, but surface contact appears to play only a minor role in transmission.

From NYT July 7, 2020:

Quotes:

“there is limited evidence for transmission of the virus from surfaces. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says surfaces are likely to play only a minor role.)”

Airborne transmission is the focus of concern.

“…In an open letter to the W.H.O., 239 scientists in 32 countries have outlined the evidence showing that smaller particles can infect people.”

A new statement of concern of airborne viral transmission from the Infectious Diseases Society of America (posted July 6, 2020):

Quotes:

“There is significant potential for inhalation exposure to viruses in microscopic respiratory droplets (microdroplets) at short to medium distances (up to several meters, or room scale)…”

“For example, at typical indoor air velocities [5], a 5 μm droplet will travel tens of meters, much greater than the scale of a typical room…”

“We are concerned that the lack of recognition of the risk of airborne transmission of COVID-19 and the lack of clear recommendations on the control measures against the airborne virus will have significant consequences: people may think that they are fully protected by adhering to the current recommendations, but in fact, additional airborne interventions are needed for further reduction of infection risk.”

Those with underlying health concerns appear to be at greater risk of severe affliction.

What does the CDC define as an at-risk underlying health condition?

Kidney disease

Lung disease

Weakened immune system

Obesity

Heart disease

Diabetes

The following conditions may also increase risk for severe illness from COVID-19 (partial list):

Asthma

Hypertension

Immune deficiencies (e.g. from steroid use or other immune weakening medicines)

Liver disease

pregnancy

Smoking

“Are you okay to work again in studio?”

Many voice actors have successfully scrambled to meet the acoustic requirements to enable home recording. By my experience, most union animation and game voice over projects seem so far willing and satisfied to work remotely. They recognize the safety of this scenario for all involved.

This is very good news, for with this, all parties are safe and production continues. Further, it doesn’t have to be an expensive investment to set up a workable home studio.

But some recording projects are pushing against this, wanting to go back in.

Some voice actors are starting to find themselves asked to work again in a studio. The inquiry can be unclear whether this is mandatory (a condition of employment) or merely an option, leaving it to the voice actor to inquire or push back.

How to respond?

Is any reassurance of safety good enough?

The actor might hear: “Others are doing it” “The studio has protocols,” or “The union signed off on it.”

Are such reassurances sufficient when it is the actor’s health on the casino table? The stakes are high enough that it makes sense to take a very close look at what you are being offered or even pressured to do.

At very least, an actor is free to respond: “What are my risks and reassurances?” “What is the health status of others at the studio?” “Who works before me at the mic I will use? What is their health status?” “What are this studio’s protocols and how am I otherwise protected?,” or better yet, “Can we instead do this safely and remotely?”

Or, perhaps more simply, the actor can respond,

I only work from home because science understands this as the only truly safe option.

With so much unknown regarding airborne transmission of COVID-19, it is for voice actors a choice between being a canary in a coal mine at a studio record, or choosing (or insisting) on the zero risk option of staying at home and working remotely, where there is neither risk of a performer contracting a potentially lethal disease nor risk of liability for employer.

July 8, 2020

© Dee Bradley Baker 2020

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