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

In-Studio Basics

HERE IS WHAT HAPPENS AT A VOICE-OVER AUDITION OR GIG: 

Arriving at the casting facility/ studio:

Hopefully, you have discussed the audition or gig with your agent so you have some idea what is expected of you when you read. If it’s a gig, you should know the role(s) and financial terms as well. I always like to know who is voice directing, too, and show creator, if possible. 

Most casting facilities do not provide parking for auditioning actors. Make sure you fill up that parking meter and that it is legal to park there right now. Look for any parking restriction signs! In L.A. at least, you will get ticketed or towed!  Many L.A. streets have street sweeping once a week and some neighborhoods have restrictive parking laws. 

If it’s a gig, the company should provide you parking in the company lot or space. 

Entering the studio facility:

You enter the studio/casting facility, sign in and confirm which role(s) you are reading. You will probably be given a script (your “copy”), which you might have a little time to look over and work on, if it helps. Note the names of those working there and (if a gig) who you are working for. 

Take a glance at any roles other than the one you are assigned that you might be right for. It’s possible you will be asked to switch roles or “read in” for someone else.

If it’s an audition:

Your wait time before you read at an audition could be anywhere from “Here’s your script, here’s the mic, go!” to maybe half an hour or more (though that’s rare). If you are not ready and want some time to look things over, ask for it.  Don’t let the casting folks rush you.

Some actors choose to spend their pre-audition time socializing and just “wing it” when they are called in. If you are so good that you can lock into your “best read” instinctively without prep, congrats! Some behave as though this were the case. How you play it is up to you, but I would note, that if you think about the hundreds or even thousands of dollars this one gig could potentially bring, you might elect to spend some time on prep. I can recall more than a few examples of seemingly “nothing” auditions that ended up paying six figures or being projects that went on for years. In addition, even if this is a “smaller gig,” those working on it will remember a good voice actor who gives a fantastic read for a long time.

Realize that an audition for one gig is really an audition for many, many others. You are also building a reputation with engineers, directors and companies, even with a single audition. It all leads somewhere. Maybe their next project will be right for you…

Of course, there is the flip of that, the “Big Gig” for the “Big Company” that never goes anywhere, but that’s more a reason to temper unrealistic expectations. Personally, I have found that if you assume the best outcome for the project you are auditioning for, and that those involved (including you) will continue to work on bigger and better projects, you will give your best read and up your chance at booking a Big One, if not now, then someday soon. The stakes for an audition can be way higher than most assume. There are no “small auditions,” is how I see it. 

You audition now for a gig ten years later.

Some actors will read through their copy to themselves in the sign in area. Others will peel off from the main “holding tank” room to work on their copy in private, maybe in the hallway. If you do this, make sure the engineer or assistant knows that you have signed in and where you are if you are out of the room. You don’t want them to pass you by because they think you have split. You can take this time to work with your scene partner as well, if you’ve been paired.

Don’t assume you will only be reading the one role you’ve been assigned. Especially in a commercial, you may be asked to try other roles as well. Anything that looks like it might be ballpark for you, familiarize yourself with that, just in case.

A few things to be thinking about: Can you nail the word flow naturally yet accurately? Is there any “seasoning” you can add (pre-life, pauses, etc.) to make it feel more real, more funny, more whatever-is-needed? What is the spot saying? How does your character support the message of the spot?

CLICK HERE for more specifics on auditioning and breaking down audition copy.

If it’s a gig:

At a gig, you enter the scene with a bit higher status- you get parking and a paycheck (eventually). There is usually a casting/production assistant to help to take care of paperwork and who will fetch the actors when producers are ready. Note his/her name.

You will probably sign a sign-in sheet (for the union to keep track of things) along with your contract(s) and any start forms up front before the recording starts. The tax forms (the “I-9” and other government forms) require evidence of your citizenship, so you need to have either your passport or your drivers license and social security card with you. Producers may also require a copy of your “articles of incorporation” if you are incorporated (see close to the bottom of my Going Pro page about that). Sometimes it’s okay for your agent to fax or send in copies of all this (they should have that info on file and up-to-date). You should probably have your drivers license and social security card on you always, in any case.

Glance through your script: Your character’s lines may be marked. If not, go ahead and do that. Familiarize yourself with what your character needs to be in each scene you are involved with. You need to be ready with ideas, but realize that the direction may change your read significantly in the session.

Also, you can connect with your cast, socialize a bit, as you wait for everything to start. If it’s a cast record, you are essentially a team of players and your connection during and in between takes is important to the success of the session, in most cases.

Your contract

The contract you sign is usually at least a few pages of legalese. With some companies it seems you are signing mortgage papers- it’s so many! There might be one or up to four copies of the entire contract to sign. Usually, they have the generic stuff (address, birthday, etc.) already filled out for you and you just sign. Some companies don’t have it together and make you do it all.

They will need a copy of your driver’s license and social security card or a U.S. passport, which your agent will hopefully be able to supply if you can’t (I always have these on hand). If you are incorporated, they may need a copy of your “articles of incorporation,” again, which your agent hopefully has handy. You will also sign a time sheet, which is a list of the gig’s cast members with mention of their roles and your start time and signature. If it’s your first gig on a series, you will also have government start forms to fill out– an “I-9” document, and a W-4 so they can figure tax withholdings. If you are incorporated, make sure they are paying you as a corp without withholding any taxes (as a corp, you do this yourself!). The tax form you sign will be different if you are a corporation, as opposed to an independent contractor individual. 

If it sounds like a lot, it can be! Part of why it’s a good reason to show up a bit early! They typically want you to sign this before your session begins.

You probably won’t realistically have time to review the entire contract (it’s mostly incomprehensible anyway), but it’s good to at least make sure your name is correct and that the rate is what you thought it should be and that your agency’s address is on the form, as they should be the ones to receive and process your payment. Also, your characters should all be noted on the contract. A typical union contract doesn’t contain all the actual terms of your employment, but refers to or implies other larger contracts which this particular one is associated with. Hopefully your agent has done his/her due diligence and knows the essential details of the contract. That is part of their job. 

An agent usually wants a copy of the contract so they can keep record of when you worked and be ready to make phone calls if payment is late. Interesting little legalese additions might somehow get sprinkled in to the contract, or there might be omissions or oversights that a good agent will catch and investigate! Also, it’s nice to have to refer to later if issues come up, e.g. reuse, residuals, voice lifts, and so on. You can request that the casting or production assistant fax or email a contract copy to your agent. You could also snap a quick picture of the contract’s cover page with the terms and email it to your agent too, but a full copy (at least to start) is best.

If you are performing multiple voices, say for a cartoon, this should also be noted on your contract, so you are paid fairly. If voices are added to your work, make your agent aware afterwards so they can make sure the contract is amended appropriately.

If there is a question during the session, feel free to give a quick call to your agent and they can hash out any questions with producers for you. That’s their job, let them do it. Your focus needs to be on the social/ creative matter at hand.

Signing an “NDA”

Some projects require you to sign an NDA agreement before you can even audition. From audition to performance until the project aires, you should consider your performance and what you know about the project to be covered by an “NDA–” a non-disclosure agreement.  If there is a physical NDA, you’ll be presented with a page or two of legalese to sign, possibly asking for more personal info than you really need to give. In any case, they’ll probably be satisfied with just your autograph and the date. 

Signing this NDA basically means you agree to not talk about the project or any details about the project with anyone at all unless you are specifically instructed to tweet or post it.  Want to tweet or communicate anything about your audition/gig? Always ask first. This is the marketing department covering their butts and the company trying to maintain control over the show, their brand and awareness of their property, which is their right.  If you are identified as the source of a leak or ill-timed Tweet, it could be bad for you: You could be sued (unlikely) or just never asked back (more likely).

Whether you are asked to sign an NDA or not, gig or audition, it’s a good idea to assume one is in effect. 

Entering the recording booth:

You enter the recording studio proper, exchange pleasantries, discuss anything about the script/show you want with whoever is calling the shots and head to the booth and your mic. If this is an audition, the engineer is probably also directing you. If it’s a gig, there may be a voice director, an engineer, a recording assistant, a show director and possibly even a writer or producers from the production company. With a few “high visibility” projects, or if it’s the start of a new series or ad campaign, there can be an entire regiment of laptop-toting, opinion-giving managers or reps from the company, studio or who knows where. Generally speaking, the higher the population in the engineering booth, the longer the session will run. 

CLICK HERE for a more advanced discussion of what a voice actor needs to bring to the audition or gig.

In any case, the recording engineer will tell you which mic is yours, if that’s not clear. DO NOT adjust or touch your microphone or the “pop guard” ever. That is the job and responsibilty of the engineer. Generally, it looks bad for the engineer if the actor has to adjust their mic. 

If this is a gig, grab a bottle of water to have at your side as you enter. If it’s not there, request it. Recording booths are often stocked with water and tissue paper. If you need it, ask for it up front.

Some engineers have it set up to use headphones, many can set it up any way that is your preference. I’m okay either way, personally, but know some voice actors who always prefer to work with headphones. I don’t like how a headphone can restrict movement or even fall off if the acting gets too vigorous.

I always prefer to stand and perform as I’ve more energy and connection to my breath, but some performers prefer sitting at a gig.

I can’t think of an audition where the actors didn’t stand. Gigs, it’s a mix.

Set out your copy on your stand. If it’s two or three pages, try and set them all out at once, centered under the microphone, so you don’t have to mess up the record with turning pages. If you must share the mic with another actor (usually in an audition) rotate in and out from the mic as silently as possible. Remember, it’s okay to have some performance overlap in commercials, but not in animation V.O.

How a “take” is recorded:

A “take” is an unedited recorded performance of one or more actors with no stop in the middle. The engineer begins recording, you perform, the engineer stops recording. That is a take.

A take could be a single word you perform or an entire scene with multiple performers. Generally speaking, you wait for the engineer or casting director to announce or “slate” your take before you begin speaking. (This is August 17th, 2015 Cheerios Sunny Day spot, take one,” for example.) The engineer must slate every take so they know where to find their favorite “selects” later.  

Typically before each take, you wait to hear the engineer slate the number of the take in your headphones (“can”) before you begin your read. 

An animated television episode is recorded in smaller chunks or scenes. The preferred takes are usually selected in the session and then later assembled into a feature length show or episode, essentially a “radio drama,” that is then matched and timed with a storyboard (an animatic) and finally sent over-seas for animation.

A 30 second commercial, for instance, is probably recorded as a single take a number of times and then later assembled into a best take a la Frankenstein. This might be done by a skilled engineer on-the-fly in the recording session as well. 

Either way, there will be a good amount of “stop and start” to a session, with perhaps some very targeted “pick ups” (a short or partial line fix) at the session’s end that are dropped in to “near perfect” takes to make them perfect. It’s usually okay to offer to “pick up” a problem spot in a script at the end of a session. Awkward wording or death screams are examples of this. It’s also often okay to just say “pick up” in the middle of a take and re-read a flubbed line they way you want, and continue with the scene. The engineer then knows where to jump in for a quick re-edit it.

Typically, they will record at least a second take for either backup or choice, even if they have a take they like. Sometimes they are confident enough to just move on if they have that perfect take. It’s their call, not yours.

So, this is how is goes:

1. You get direction or feedback from the director/casting director re: the script, your character, tone, pace, etc. 

2. Engineer/sound assistant slates your take. (e.g. “‘Bingo Returns,’ lines 15 through 44, take two.”)

3. You perform.

4. Back to step 1, or you “move on to the next section.”

Find out the specifics you need to know before you speak:

Voice acting is founded on good acting. Good acting is founded and fueled by well-targeted specificity and active imagination.

Sometimes the script makes it pretty obvious what needs to be dialed in to make it hit right. Other times, a line could be read a number of different ways. Sometimes the obvious choice is best, other times it works better with an unexpected direction. Maybe you just give them what they say they want. Maybe you give them what they never knew they wanted, but that delivers the goods even better than they imagined!

At very least, your job is to glean what the script calls for and deliver that. Sometimes, it’s not clear to anyone what might work best and it’s your job to conjure multiple variations that might work. Sometimes your job is to tell them what they actually want, which may not be what they think they want! A good actor delivers surprises like that!

I’m surprised at how often I’m asked to record a line without having been given any context or direction. It’s a sentence that could be read a thousand different ways and there’s no way for me to know what might work. There’s only one way to find out: Ask! 

To get back to the most basic task here, try to grasp the context and specifics of the script before recording! Ask questions if need be. These might include:

“Which line are we starting at?”

“What’s my attitude at the bottom of page 3?”

“Are we reading the crowd lines in unison or separately? Or are we skipping that for later?”

“What is the action taking place during this line? Any efforts needed?”

“What level of vocal presence do I need here? What is the distance from me to the other character in this scene?”

“What’s the gag here? I’m not seeing it.”

“How do you want this line to sound? I’m not getting the sense of it.”

And so on. This info is vital to the read and you should get a lock on it before you go wasting your voice and everyone’s time on a non-specific random read. Your job is to deliver specificity.

Knowing and delivering these specifics is a voice actor’s job. If you know this before you begin speaking it saves everyone time and you voice. If you don’t know the specifics and just plunge into recording, you waste everyone’s time with an uninformed read and will have to do it over again because it won’t fit in the jigsaw puzzle of the scene. It’ll just sound wrong.

What if your question pops up just as you are about to record? Know that it is okay to throw in a last minute question after they’ve already slated you and are recording. The sound editor can either trim your extra question after the take or stop the take and re-slate if need be- not a big deal. 

Your exit:

They’ve got all they need and you are free to go. Pleasant goodbye’s and a double check that you’ve signed everything you need to before heading out. If you haven’t done so, why not jot down the names of producers, the engineer and any helpful employees at the recording facility in your contacts or calendar so you can more personally engage with everyone when you are called back in? 

Remember: Part of your job is to build connections.

A quick check-in “post mortem” call with your agent might not be a bad idea as well.

 Click here for “In-Studio Do’s and Don’ts”

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© Dee Bradley Baker 2016
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