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

What About Creature Sounds?

“How do I learn to do monster & creature sounds as a voice actor?”

Most seem to think of “creature vocals” and a sound effects gig, but it isn’t. Non-human vocalizing in voice acting is essentially acting. You must think of it as acting- not making sounds. All that a voice actor must do to perform with normal word-speech applies to creature performance. Timing, intent, tone and improv are all involved. It is the opposite of a generic “sound.” 

A non-human character must be able to display a range of expression, like a conversation or reactions to a variety of common scenarios. That is what you are hired for. If it’s merely a single sound like an eagle cry, that can probably be covered with a sound effects file. But if the creature is interacting with the other actors, you need an actor to vocalize, and a good one at that.

A vocalization, be it a chirp or bark or roar, must make sense with what is happening in the story, the scene, just as any vocals would. It must fit seamlessly and sensibly with the rest of the acting and action in a scene. 

So, if you can make some weird sounds, great. But sounds are but the sails on a performance that is animated by the winds of acting. Directors and show runners hire actors, not a generic push button sound device. 

Finding your sounds with exploration

How did I amass my range of creature and animals sounds? I filled up on monster movies and nature documentaries as a kid, along with years of acting and improv. When I decided to focus on creature vocals, I began focusing on mimicking natural sounds, animals and monsters I heard on TV, movies and video games.

Along with my lifelong acting experience and affinity with weird sounds, I learned a kind of uninhibited exploration of weird sounds. I liked doing weird vocals and physical characterizations doing stand up. It suited me. In my later twenties, my improv experience mixed with some very good singing training to allow me to push my vocal boundaries without injuring myself.

You always want to deliver the good without self-injury. For me, good singing training helped with that. 

Everyone has their own path to find their default strengths, to follow their unique curiosities and to discover and establish their own unique niches in their craft (if they are lucky). My wandering path lead me to plays, musicals, then stand up and improv and then voice acting. Once I saw a demand for creature vocals, I focused on that. 

Get good experience and vocal training while actively exploring and pushing the boundaries of what your voice can do. Fill your internal database with animals and monsters, but seek good experience and training- especially improv- to deepen your acting chops as well. 

“How do I get good at creature sounds?”

Start by exploring and collecting sounds you can make through improv. I spent a lot of time driving around mimicking real animal sound recordings 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. Then I had it ready.

I kept practicing it until I was familiar with it and felt I had it ready to wield. I kept going, discovering and collecting more sounds until I acquired a sizable menagerie of vocal possibilities, as easy access toolbox of vocalizations I can mix and match on the fly. I still add to this.

What about a creature vocals demo?

I view a demo reel of creature sounds the same as a regular “animation” reel. It must showcase good acting, range of expression and it is best created with specific projects, shows or networks in mind. It is created to appeal to a specific workspace.

You thus want to showcase not only what vocal characters you do well (e.g. an accurate dog or bird or monster), each character should demonstrate reaction beats and behavior such as you would find in a TV show, movie or game that you want to be cast in. 

For example:

Let’s say you want to have a “dog sounds” segment. What are the acting beats of a family dog in a Disney children’s show? You will often encounter: happy, excited, panting, fear, getting tummy rubbed, suspicion, whimper, eating, licking, menace, suspicion, a yelp, confusion, etc. Each beat is very brief and specific. If you’ve a variety of dog sizes and ages, show that.

You want to feature the most repeated and useful acting beats for each creature you are displaying. If you can only bark but can’t provide the “whole dog” options, I wouldn’t make a demo segment for it. They aren’t hiring a “woof,” they’re hiring a whole dog.

Maybe you want to do some monster sounds, as in a superhero show or video game: sounds might include: ambient, alert, attacking, taking damage, menacing, roar, fighting, frustration, bites, running, pain, exhaustion before death and dying. These are the typical acting beats you would expect to find in many specific shows, that could be broadly useful.

And again, these aren’t sounds, you are demonstrating acting along with behavior typical of these projects. It’s a range of sounds and efforts the beast makes, not just a roar.

It doesn’t take much time to stack each creature’s reactive emotes back to back before you move on to the next creature. Remember, what you’re hired to perform is very specific in detail. You’re not wallowing around in a particular event, like words, you speak it and it’s done.

Myself, I post each of my creature demo sound files separately on my website, so the casting director or producer and 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. Remember- time is money. 

As with a regular VO demo, only feature what you are good at. Poor or mediocre performance will bring down the impression of good performance. Range is great- but only if you have it. Don’t attempt to show more creature range than you have. 

As with all VO demos, the acting must be very good and concise. Specific and useable in current shows, movies or games. Not generic or random sounds. 

Creature vocals is a very odd niche of acting, but great fun. It tends to be more a kind of problem-solving mission than regular spoken VO is, since the producers often may not know specifically what they want or need. But they definitely know when they hear it- if you can bring it! And it often must be delivered to picture in A.D.R., so there’s no room for error or excess.

It is a kind of super seasoning that can make all the difference in the scene’s impact.

© Dee Bradley Baker 2021

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