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

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

“Show business” is equal parts “show” and “business.” If you are deficient in 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):

Many aspiring actors move to L.A. or New York and arrive ill-prepared to chase their dreams. It’s as if they arrived at the big race track without having first built their car or learned to drive it. 

They proceed to waste time and 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?

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 pay off or not. But 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 selects for savvy gamblers. An actor must take chances, sometimes big ones, with your career as well as your art to advance your game.

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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 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 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 (they’re really for suckers), the house edge is steep and your competition of good players may appear overwhelming. But it may not be quite as bad as it seems if you’re only looking at the sheer number of competitors.

Consider that most arriving in Vegas lack an understanding or even appreciation of the math and statistics that underlie the games being played. Most hit Sin City the lazy way. They hope 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 (well, a little losing can be fun)

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 limits for your success and failure.

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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 drivers in a big hurry to get in front of the car in front of them everytime you go out.

What’s the rush? Don’t get swept up in the frantic energy of those who want to be anywhere but where they are. At the gig you can go nuts, but behind the wheel, keep it cool, man.

Don’t text and drive or handle your cell phone while driving (both are illegal in L.A., though few seem to care). Deadly dangerous.

Also, check the parking signs carefully or you’ll be towed. Some park lanes must be cleared during rush hour times. If the tow truck the nice traffic cop calls hooks up to your illegally parked car before you get there, they’ve got it and you owe, even before the tow.

You may also notice that for many in L.A., turn signals are 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 or insight,? 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 (thank you Screen Actors Guild for sponsoring this awesome outreach!). It helped me to grasp the benefits of aiming at a professional acting career and how to approach it intelligently.

28 Responses »

  1. New York and LA are the standard ‘big cities’, what about Atlanta and/or Nashville?

    • I’ve no direct knowledge of those markets. I’m sure there’s plenty happening, but if you want to earn a living in VO, probably not much in terms of movies, television animation and video games, which is my focus.

  2. This website has been so helpful!!! Thank you so much for posting these tips! But I have two quick questions:
    1) you suggested getting a back up plan for work until you hit the “big leagues”. I know it usually depends on the person, but what back up plans do you recommend? Any that are still kind of artsy, but won’t stick me behind a desk for 8 hours?
    2) I personally want to become a SINGING voice actress along with normal voice acting. Are there any additional steps when it comes to this particular career, or is it kind of the same?

    • Good questions. L.A. is full of people working a “real job” while they wait for their luck to hit. Many aren’t too thrilled with whatever service-type job they’ve landed and L.A. consequently isn’t really a place I’d go for the “good service” in general. (That said “good service” here really gets you attention.) There are some who are a bit more creative in what they find to pay the bills as they build their web of success. They have a job that at least is along the lines of something they love or like to do. If this happens to put them in contact with people working in their intended direction, all the better.

      What could this be? You gotta be creative. Just off the top of my head: website designer (if you have a reputation as a great website designer, there always seems a demand), app designer (anyone successful out here seems to want to make their own app of something), people who care for pets of busy industry folks (like dog walkers or trainers), even those who create birthday party experiences or shows, or maybe personal assistants or fitness trainer, fortune teller, home studio contractor, masseuse, a painter of childrens’ rooms/nursuries– these are ideas of jobs that pay better than minimum wage, are flexible, and don’t have you slaving away in a position of menial servitude but possibly one of higher status, even a creative partnership that might allow you to show your smarts and talent and passion in a more favorable light. And you might be in a position to impress someone in power with what you are made of, or at least keep you working something that feeds your life. Don’t get too comfy with your side job, though. Remember, you become what you do out here!

      It might be that you have to take work you hate when you move to the big city. Hopefully, not for too long. Chock it up to experience and learn what you can from it before you move on!

      How did I do it? My first gig in L.A. was doing the Beetlejuice Show at Universal Studios Theme Park. I’d worked that character before in Orlando and they had auditions for a rock show here. It paid better than minimum wage and was flexible and I loved it and made a few good friends going the way I was. I worked it a few months while I was auditioning for commercials and occasionally booking and doing local improv. My wife worked a temp office job for a year, until I was making enough with my commercial work for her to quit. She didn’t love the job, but the office skills she acquired have since come in very handy in managing our books and corporation.

      So, starting out, my line of thinking might be, “What can I do that is remarkable, along the lines that I love, that people might pay for– skills that busy, successful people along my direction might need–maybe those established with families or those who are doing well in the industry and need help with getting their career to the next level. Voice coaching? Maybe a class you could teach in some skill you have that others need (singing for actors or kids)? Partner with one of the local private schools (that might have money for an extra “enrichment” program) and begin a special performing arts or improv class as a special adjunct. Translating? I dunno. I’m just throwing out ideas…

      As far as the singing path, I don’t know enough about that specialty, but I would seek out the specialists or session singers and their agents where you are moving and talk with them directly about their experience and any ideas of how to make a go of it in that direction.

      Good luck!

      • I actually saw that Beetlejuice Show at Universal when I was younger, and I wonder if you were a part of the particular performance I saw. I stumbled across the site today while looking up some details about your bio. I thought, “Hm, maybe I can gain some insight into the voice-acting business by trying to figure out how he did it…” I never expected to find an entire website, authored by you, that broke everything down for aspiring voice actors. Thank you so much for what you’ve done here.

        I’m an aspiring voice actress myself, and listening to your work, (as well as some commentary you’ve done over the years, such as the commentary for “The Northern Air Temple” episode of Avatar) has really helped and inspired me. Sometimes I watch shows with the volume turned down and try to think, “What sound would that make? What about that?” It is a method inspired by you, which has helped me tremendously.

  3. Hey I was wondering in your opinion what is the best major for college for an aspiring voice actor?

    • Hm. I just studied what I liked in college (Philosophy and German) while performing a ton in plays, open-mics, improvs, radio sketches, etc, so I’m not going to tell you to study Theater or Acting or something like that in order to become a voice actor (though it might be the right choice for some). The important thing is you study what you love in college. If you love performing and acting- you will find a way to do that too, whether you major in it or not. Don’t shut out personal growth by specializing in only Acting too soon– taste a variety of “soups” at college. You will find the path, maybe sooner, maybe later. The best classes I ever had were improv workshops I took with TheaterSports in Orlando a couple decades ago. Good improv training is probably more important than anything I’ve ever learned in terms of becoming a good auditioner and actor. You may be able to get that at a college, but I’d probably want to get that outside the Ivory Tower.

  4. I wanted to say thank you. For this site and the panel at the con, when you could be working or have some personal time; and for helping me realize that while I may never make a career out of my creative side, one thing I DON’T want to do is look back with regret at having given up on it. Going to start with the rest of your site now.

  5. I know already Im going to be a professional voice actress when I grow up, however I also love science. How can I incorparate science into my life, while voice acting is my main focus? Im going to be getting my bachelors in science by the way before Im going to move to LA.

    • I majored in college in my hobby, Philosophy, and nearly minored in German, which I also loved. Some of my favorite classes were Biology classes in college (liberal arts was my school– I loved learning). I was trying all sorts of things with no career intent at all. I don’t regret any of that one bit.

      All these studies I use all the time to the better of my career and life. I’m “Klaus” because I studied German. My study of invertebrates helps with some of my creature noises. My Philosophy classes help me analyze scripts and break down story ideas. I’m a good singer because of all the choirs and singing groups I was in during college. Plus the plays and open mic nights. I could go on.

      I had no idea all this would work for me professionally, but it all has to some degree. I say, study and explore what you love above all– as much a variety of things as you can. If you practice and dig down into the things you love it will feed your life forever, often in unexpected ways.

      That said, please try lots of acting before moving to L.A., as I advise on my site. Make sure your ability as an actor extends beyond being a hobby before taking that leap!

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