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

Going Pro

THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND AS YOUR ACTING CAREER ADVANCES: 

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Be realistic: Building your (voice) acting career will take a lot of time and money and may not ever financially pay off:

Many aspiring actors who move to L.A. or New York arrive ill-prepared to chase their dreams. They proceed to waste years and a ton of money slogging it out, trying to get to a level of readiness that they should have had when they arrived. Unfortunately, the Big City is a uniquely difficult place to begin “cutting your teeth.” You’re in for a slog one way or the other, so how about shortening it by arriving ready to make the best of your time?

Building an acting career will in all likelihood take years of “going for it,” “paying dues,” making connections and earning trust. It will require patience and a long-term mindset. 

“Show business” is equal parts “show” and “business.” If you are deficient one or the other, it doesn’t bode well. Setting up shop among established professionals may eventually yield good results, but like most start up businesses, it will typically take at least a few years to turn a profit, if it ever does, so you’d better have a great “product” and workable plan of action that pays attention to financial reality. An actor requires a good business mind in addition to creative and marketing smarts, the right temperament and a good bit of luck.

(Side note: I mention luck only briefly, but it is definitely a factor in an acting career! The way I see it, people move to a larger city like Los Angeles to be exposed to a higher concentration of “luck” and opportunity. The down side is that there is also a higher concentration of “bad luck” and unfortunate accidental set backs in a big city, as well.)

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The actor as a pizza joint:

You could compare moving to L.A. to be a voice actor to moving to New York to start a pizza joint. First, you must have a stand out slice of pie (you) in addition to a business plan if you want to thrive and endure as a business enterprise. What’s unique about your product? What’s the word of mouth on your shop? How do people feel when they walk out the door?

Remember, you’re not just selling pizza- it’s the whole package- an entire experience. And if the pizza stinks, or the service sucks, or the ambiance is in some way unpleasant, no amount of mailers or billboards will save your business. No matter how good your pizza is, all it takes is one unimpressive experience to turn a patron away for good.

Why should someone try your pizza and not the established well-liked one down the street? What would make them a loyal costumer? It may sound crass, but there are a lot of parallels to be drawn here, because this career isn’t just an art, it’s a business. 

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Save yourself a lot of time and grief by earning some “personal armor” in a smaller market before going on to battle in the big city. Get as much paid performing experience as you can before you move to L.A. (or a big city):

Without the earned armor of experience, you and your delicate but talented ego may well not survive the slings and arrows of getting started, let alone the rocky climb to success. I hope you won’t be one of those who up and move to a city like Los Angeles or New York with no experience, no plan, and no understanding– just to “follow your dream.” Not that it can’t play out well, eventually, but it so rarely does. It’s frankly a naive and idiotic way to do it.

I’d recommend at least a few years gaining experience in a smaller market, testing out your talent and seeing if acting and “show biz” are a good fit for you. This could mean trying stage, radio, music, standup, or a combination. Good improv training is particularly helpful. Above all, you must become a good actor– an active listener with control of your powers, directable, a fountain of good ideas and fun to have in on “the party” that is the gig.The dynamic of how you get along with others in the booth is probably more important that you think.

Also, I can’t think of any voice actor I work with who can’t make others laugh. Your own version of “funny” is important to have. You don’t need to be a stand up (though it could help), but you need the confidence to hold your own as you stand alone at a mic or sit in a room with VO monsters. 

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Save up as much money as possible before moving to a bigger city:

Living in Los Angeles is expensive. It’s worse in New York. Professional voice acting is predominantly a “union scale” gig (it pays the minimum the SAG-AFTRA contract allows, sometimes with residuals, sometimes not, sometimes with months of delay before you get your paycheck). Hence, you must book a lot of work to earn a living at V.O. You (and/or your partner) will probably need a “real job” to pay the bills until your career gets traction or as a fall back.

(For more detail on the financial nuts and bolts of voice acting, CLICK HERE.)

A talented smart actor should expect at least a few years before earning a living acting kicks in, regardless of your level of experience, training or talent. And, success isn’t permanent. An acting career typically runs in fits and starts and this includes voice acting. A fallback “plan B” for paying the bills is a good thing, especially for the first few years.

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Taking a Calculated Risk

Advancing an acting career is a series of calculated risks. You establish a good thing you eventually may walk away from in hopes of finding a better thing. To pay off, that takes guts and a good sense of what you can do and what you’re stepping into.

It can be scary, but moving forward as an actor (e.g., moving to a bigger city for more opportunity) is sort of like pressing a bet that is already paying off. 

Taking a well-considered calculated risk can often pays off. Crazy or naive betting is almost always a losing proposition. You don’t pack all your money in a suitcase and head Caesar’s Palace, plunk your money down on the craps table and say, “Gimme the dice! How do I play this?”

So the project of becoming an actor is not for the timid or faint of heart. It takes guts and savvy. An actor must take chances, sometimes big ones, with your career as well as your art.

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Be prepared for your reputation and career to “start back at zero” when you move to a bigger city or market:

You may be an established “pro” in your home town, so it may come as a shock that you reset your “success meter” at zero when you start over in a new city. Why? Because those that create and cast don’t yet know or trust you

No matter your level of talent or experience, you must still earn your connections, your reputation and other’s trust in a new city. This takes time and work. 

You may have already made it up the “smaller mountain,” but that doesn’t give you a free pass halfway up the next biggest mountain. You still have to climb the new one, though you will be better suited for the rigors of the climb, thanks to the smaller mountain you already conquered. 

Ultimately, you never stop having to earn your career and your place in the on the casting roll call, because of the turnover rate of those that create and cast.

Your talent and experience don’t entitle you to a free tram lift up to the top of Mount Actor that everyone else needs to climb.

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Be realistic about the business side of your craft in a larger market and you’ll have an advantage over most:

Moving to Los Angeles to start a career in voice/acting is similar to setting up shop in Las Vegas to become a professional gambler. The odds on most games odds aren’t favorable, the house edge is steep and your competition appears overwhelming. But it may not be quite as bad as it appears.

Consider that most arriving in Vegas lack an understanding or even appreciation of the games being played. Most head to Sin City, hoping to quickly “get lucky” and win big, perhaps with the help of a book they picked up at the airport or a tip from a friend. Sure, there are a lot of players, but judging from their success rate, they are really just playing for the dumb thrill of an occasional payoff–not for a sustainable winning streak. For most, Vegas is a losing game, financially speaking. 

In L.A. as in Vegas, a big part of your eventual success depends on how you play the game and how you frame the game in your mind. To a large degree, your mindset and strategy set the limit for your success.

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Cultivate connections:

An essential part of building a career is making professional connections– earning the trust of those who create, cast and work regularly. This will take time.

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Be careful driving in L.A.:

Driving can be dangerous in Los Angeles: Don’t get mad at someone else while driving in L.A.

An actor’s job is to have unfiltered, honest passions ready at the surface for hair trigger delivery, but you can’t let this interfere with your driving, where you are surrounded by crazy unsafe driving everytime you go out. At the gig you can go nuts, but behind the wheel, keep it cool.

Don’t text and drive or handle your cell phone while driving (both are illegal in L.A., though few seem to care). Also, check the parking signs carefully or you’ll be towed. Some lanes must be cleared during rush hour times. If the tow truck the nice traffic cops call hooks up to your illegally parked car before you get there, they’ve got it and you owe.

You may also notice that for many in L.A., turn signals are apparently optional and a yellow stoplight apparently means “floor it.” In most cities, “green” means go. In L.A., a green stoplight means “check both ways then proceed with caution.”

Lock your vehicle and don’t have any valuables visible sitting on the seats. Smash-and-grab is an easy crime.

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Don’t be a jerk:

It may be Hollywood, but the Golden Rule still applies, at least for voice-actors.

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Respect the pro: His/her time is precious.

There’s nothing wrong with asking a pro for advice. Don’t be shy– be respectful and ask for advice or an opinion. Nothing to be embarrassed about. The pro was where you are once and so long as you don’t come off as needy or creepy, you may well get some good advice or help, especially if you have specific and thoughtful questions. What’s the worse that could happen if you ask for help? They say “no?”

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“Should I incorporate?”

This is generally a question for a well-established actor who is already earning a living at it.

Weighing the decision to incorporate should happen only with the advice of a good CPA and/or entertainment lawyer who knows the specifics of your finances and can weigh the advantages and disadvantages specific to your income and general financial situation. It depends not only on your amount of income but also the amount of professional expenses that you incur. It seems everyone eventually does incorporate, after a certain level of income.

Why incorporate? A corporation is a separate legal entity that enjoys significant tax advantages and enables you to put away more of your income for retirement in a tax deferred way, depending on the sort of corp you set up. It can also be more advantageous for you when dealing with professional expenses. Legitimate professional expenses are more easily written off when you are a corp.

Legally creating a corporation is expensive and there are yearly costs associated with maintaining it properly (legally). You need to keep on top of changing tax laws and other formalities, like keeping your personal and corporate finances properly separate. This may well call for ongoing legal and financial expertise to maintain a legal and smoothly running corporation, in addition to your work as an actor. You’d need a lawyer or law firm familiar with the law and an entertainer’s unique situation.

Only set up your corporation with good professional advice and help.

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My special thanks to actor Paul Pape who gave a terrific speech I heard once upon a time about the business of acting at a SAG seminar. It helped me to grasp the benefits of aiming at a professional acting career and how to approach it intelligently.

24 Responses »

  1. …LA is a big area. Would it be better to move somewhere more in the surrounding area or in Los Angeles itself?

    • The San Fernando Valley and Hollywood area are good places to live if you want to lessen your drive time. The further out you get can be cheaper or more aesthetically pleasing, I suppose. Most the work I’ve done happens in Burbank, North Hollywood, Studio City or Hollywood. I would probably start out living in L.A. more centrally located to where the work/auditions are.

  2. How would one go about joining a union and how much non-union work should one do before joining a union

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