Q & A with Beginners
I recently had the pleasure of appearing on Steve Blum’s VO learning podcast (you should check him out!). Here are my answers to some follow up questions from his students:
• “… you guys talked about collaboration, and I understand you both worked together on Boxtrolls and collaborated to figure out the boxtroll language. Can you tell us a bit about that collaboration process and how to effectively collaborate with a fellow voice actor on a VO project? Thank you, Fish and Shoe! :)”
Collaboration and collective problem solving is at the heart of what we do as voice actors. All the skills vital to performers in a live situation are in play. You listen even as you are speaking.
The process is: They throw you the script and other details and you activate your imagination and access your inner well of creativity to work together to make something that works, that sings, that pops, that kills. It’s no different to me than doing a play, a musical, children’s theater, stand up or a theme park interactive show. You have the story, you take the surrounding influence of audience and script and the energy and ideas of your fellow performers and you dive in and make it great together. If your instincts are well-informed and activated, it just flows freely.
• “In regards to improving in the booth, is there a specific way you tackle creating something new? Since Improv has sort of a “Formula”, is there a fall back method you use to create something new in the moment?”
See above, but also, it’s important to realize your job is to not just come up with random ideas, no matter how interesting or entertaining you may think they are. You are serving another’s story here. You need to have performing instincts and good control on your powers to come up with usable ideas, appropriate in tone- good guesses and offerings that might work for this scene in this script.
Your goal is to provide a kind of menu of tasty options for the voice director and show runner to select from. You craft ideas that serve the context/story flow and fit with the entire story, that also provides animators an appropriate springboard for what they further invent from your performance. You are collaborating with them, though you’re separated by time.
Back to your question, you are best prepared to create something that might well “fit,” by arriving at your session “ready-” you have performer’s experience, you’ve gained control of your vocal skills (clarity, pronunciation, stamina, accents, etc) so your words aren’t work, the meaning flows.
You arrive at the session (or audition) feeling good, rested, healthy- fully charged, creatively speaking. You are full of ideas because you’ve fed your mind on shows, books, movies, video games, Life in general. You have a life running in the background, interests of your own that feed your energy and enthusiasm. All this is part of the ready energy a performer brings.
To my mind, it is our job as an actor to arrive in the studio with all of this available, ready to bring all this to bear, channeled through your well-tempered performer’s instincts, to take a swing at whatever comes over the plate.
• “What is good advice for someone who isn’t a good improv-er and moderate monster sound, what are good tools to get started and how can I make the demo reel (what app/site)?”
1. I cover demo creation on my site. I’m not a fan of creating one before you are good and ready. It’s like making a billboard for a movie that isn’t yet shot and edited.
Your main focus needs to be on cultivating the habit of doing whatever you can to discover, feed, explore, reveal, refine and weaponize your talent- that is the goal from which all growth and success flows. Your creative readiness is the top of your pyramid of concern, your North Star that guides your professional and artistic progress.
2. Try taking an improv class. There are good books (Johnstone’s “Impro” and others), but like karate, your instincts can’t learn it from a book. It is a psycho-physical flow, man– and all of you must be educated, not just your word-mind.
You need to get on your feet and walk vulnerable onto a stage to find your confidence- the stakes must be real, otherwise your lesson will be flat and you won’t find and activate what makes your talent tick.
It’s not easy and it’s often scary, but improv is the ultimate flame that tempers the blade of on-the-fly problem solving , which is at the core of how professional voice acting works. There are many ways to learn improv that I reference on my site.
• “What are some of the most difficult and easy creature noises that you’ve done? How did you prep, so you wouldn’t hurt yourself?”
“Hard” usually is some giant screaming, angry boss monster that fights with the show’s heroes all the way through the script. It’s much more difficult if the creative decision maker is unsure of what they want or they spend time getting way more than they need, which creates a less efficient and more punishing session.
I prep by watching monster movies and nature docs regularly and messing around with the sounds I hear.
Singing training along with a lot of live performing experience helped me to learn how to place more stressful sounds in a more relaxed but powerful placement in my throat. The performance fully extends without self-damage.
Half of not hurting your voice is knowing what not to do, knowing how to avoid working too hard, how to deliver the goods with an economy of effort while maximizing impact. You want to talk to the masters of that? Talk to an opera singer/teacher. They have a technical grasp of this- like professional vocal body builders.
“Easy?” Hm. I suppose Perry the Platypus was the simplest gig ever. Recorded that low-impact sound once and they reprint, reprint, reprint in each episode.
Isn’t “reprint” such a lovely word?
• “Have you had a character that was also heavily a creature where you needed to blend the creature sounds and abilities with the vocalizations and spoken lines? What were the influences that most stood out from nature VS fictional sources (monster movies) to create this voice….. especially based on what you get from the producer/director/writers?”
To me, most all creatures I voice “speak.” There is intent, subtext and action and that plays out for me the same whether I speak or grunt or screech or whatever.
I’m not sure I’ve favored an influence in terms of my specialized mode of non-human vocal VO, but I have always paid attention to those performers willing and able to extend their ideas and energies beyond a single default setting- Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, Peter Sellers, Jim Henson, spring to mind. Also directors and certain movies- “Roger Rabbit,” “Scott Pilgrim,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Raising Arizona,” “Brazil.”
There is an admirably audacious full “extension” to the bold artistry of these artists and film makers for me. An artist grows in their capacity to not just control but also release and extend the the reach of their creative act. Their masterful control doesn’t inhibit the power of their creative energy- it facilitates and amplifies its accuracy and impact.
When you are starting out, your reach is more tentative, you pull your punches. You may even find you fear your powers as you discover them. As you grow in mastery and competence, your power expands but also is more relaxed. You extend the horizon of your creative options.
Seek art that moves you. Art is fuel for other artists. I personally draw a lot of inspiration from music, especially Bach and the musician Frank Zappa, whose endless creative well of audacity and sharpened idiosyncrasy has no parallel to my mind.
“Music is the language of emotion,” said Chick Corea. I like setting my mood and energy with music.
By the time I’m performing, I’m not thinking of a particular artist or animal, it’s like a feeling or tone I can “see” with my mind-throat. Ha! That makes no sense, but that’s how it feels to me.
Ultimately the creative process flows effortlessly, invisible to the conscious mind.
• “Is it necessary to attend a school for acting? I know it would more than likely help with experience and such but is it a necessity or not really?”
I’m non-denominational when it comes to learning how to be an actor. You use what works, what feeds you and drop the rest. This path is different for all. I cover this on my site, but know that you must find the sources of constructive learning and inspiration that feed YOU, and that may be different from what feeds another.
There are voice actors who are trained at an acting conservatory and those who are “street trained” or come from improv/stand up or music or a mishmash of experience (I’m the latter). Acting school is expensive and doesn’t serve all students well. For some it’s awesome, for others, it can destroy or confine their talents or hamstring their confidence.
Your talent must ultimately overcome, defy and overshoot any training or mentor you’ve had to become your own radiant, undeniable, irresistible proposition—Something that cannot be refused. Your path to this should feed you, should be productive and bring you to find your talent, to strengthen it, not tear it down.
Whether considering an acting/improv/vo class or workshop or mentor or full-on academic program, always seek referrals, try and audit, ask around. See if it suits you- see whether it is worthy of your money and time.
If not, drop it like a hot potato and move on to a better source of progress, a more positive fuel.
• “As someone who does not have an agent/doesn’t audition from an agency, your “Death by Home Studio” page always looms over me. What can I do to be better prepared to audition from home so I’m not nailing those nails to my own coffin?”
My site has a couple pages on home auditioning.
Self-directing from home is the hardest thing for a voice actor to do well, mostly because you have no real time feedback to inform your read.
Seek whatever feedback you can, push back for missing details so you aren’t just throwing out random ideas that just wastes your and everyone else’s time.
In home auditioning, you are tasked to create something that works perfectly. Like writing a joke without an audience to confirm that it works.
It’s easy to forget to act when you are alone. You must listen as you speak, even though you are technically isolated. You probably have others implied in the scene/script. You must be performing with them as you read. You are not just reading words on the page. You listen and you want something, and there’s an audience listening to you- even if that audience is only implied- that too must be a specific element alive in your solo audition.
A good voice actor can conjure this in to their read, even when alone. Are you doing this? If you’re not sure, ask the best ears you can for feedback- your agent, a booth operator, a friend who does this kind of thing. Reliable feedback is golden.
Does it sound like your read could just be dropped into the show? No? Then let’s try that again, with more connection, meaningful pauses and prelife painted in, more variety of tone and pace– and play that scene for real…
• “In life in general, I continue to work on developing my comfort level with failure and making mistakes. But in the voice over industry specifically, are there any failures/mistakes that the industry considers unforgivable or career-ending?”
The greatest failure or “mistake” is to not try. The second worst is to cave, to prematurely wave that white flag at the first sign of adversity or misstep. Another mistake is to overlook your own potential, to ignore it, to never test or experiment with your limits.
Offenses not soon forgotten: Wasting someone’s time, not appreciating the work that has brought someone to where they are. Lack of gratitude.
More obvious things: Being inconsiderate of others. Being difficult to direct, rude or thoughtless. Undermining another voice actor for selfish gain. Making timid or thoughtless choices. Not acting, just reading. Or- Just being “nice” or “pleasant,” or trying to get people to like you and think that will make them want to hire you. (The opposite it true.)
A beginner should also avoid self-limiting errors such as being recklessly cautious or tentative in your pursuit of excellence.
•“Has Dee ever had a bark off with Frank Welker?”
Ha. Nope. No need to compete with colleagues/friends once you both book the audition! It’s all collaboration from there on out!
• “I was wondering about doing evil laughter. What mindset should the actor have to approach doing that?”
Tapping into convincing laughter means, I think, having a good tap on your own primal core, your emotions big and small. Each artist/actor finds their own tunnel to that.
An actor must have ready access to unfiltered emotion that you can then guide and shape. Once you have a tap on those more primal inner forces, you can train or learn to harness them to your professional artistic advantage.
You put a saddle on that volcano.
So: To produce the “Evil Laugh,” you must have a tap on the evil laugh that lurks down deep inside YOU. You must have your Scary in a box on your lap, ready to open. You hopefully have other forces at hand as well. Hair trigger ready.
How you drill down into this is an actor’s journey, which never ends.
• What happens when you want to venture outside of specialization (like creature vocals)? Would all that experience being a master monster put you in a niche role, where directors don’t consider you outside a monster? If so, how do you break out of that cycle?”
Beyond basic acting competency, any specialization exists as another asset on your tool belt. It’s not limiting, unless you begin to define yourself only as that. If you buy into any limitations that come with inexperience or success, you will never get beyond it because you won’t allow yourself to.
Any specialization or landmark success you may have is just another sign of your value, your powers, your cast-able worth. You start with good basic acting/improv ability, but if you have unique skills- accents, certain types of roles that fall easily out of you, baby sounds, speaking like a child, improv comedy, a foreign language facility, etc., these just add to your value, assuming you can bring the typical range of character most voice actors are called upon to deliver.
Just don’t buy into the falsehood that what you’ve done is all you can do.
• “As a new actor, not established, I understand the importance of getting out there. When you are doing little free projects, do you put those on your resume? at what level do you put on projects you do or are you better off just creating a good demo w a professional and getting in with a talent agent?”
I see a resumé is of little practical value, though good experience always informs and reinforces your talent and performer’s confidence.
Nobody hires a resumé unless you’re famous or an “influencer,” or some other stupid reason.
Also- nobody hires “polite” or mere people pleasing.
Also, for beginners, having a demo is a secondary project for later- your focus must be on constantly discovering, excavating, refining and weaponizing your creative powers, your acting, your improv and any skills specific to your chosen mode of acting.
Once your talent is at a certain level of energized and refined readiness, the agent, the demo and the work will all naturally follow. There’s your bullseye.
• “What are some good vocal excersises to strengthen your voice and vocal cords?”
I’m more concerned with strengthening your acting and improv abilities.
Vocal exercises are best learned from a pro one-on-one. I had a great singing teacher who was opera trained. Vocal coaching can be a very good thing to strengthen your voice and learn how to recover from (or prevent) overuse, but the most important task is to super-charge your acting and improv ability to channel through your vocal skills (diction, stamina, accent control, the technical stuff).
You don’t learn how to win at a bar fight by doing push ups.
• “Not related to the class perse, but how do you guys deal with being asked to “perform” at parties for friends and family? Personally, it can get kind of taxing, but I’m curios if you’ve run into this ever.”
I’m a show off. I’m happy to showcase what I do if asked to. It makes people happy and feeds my vanity so why not?
You must take delight in what you do and it’s fun to share with others. If you find this “taxing,” choose an easier sequence of things to show off with. Your audience doesn’t want you to kill yourself, they just want to delight in something amazing. They want to see a superhero lift a car, or an unclose magic trick. That shouldn’t require great effort from the super hero magician that you are, right?
• “How and where do you draw inspiration for near silent characters / creatures like Pascal the chameleon from Tangled?”
My inspiration for non-verbal character behavior and movement includes nature docs, Harpo Marx, Buster Keaton, old Looney Tunes, and the best source of unfiltered honesty, children and animals. Watch vaudeville, “Bambi” or “Wall-E.” Silence can be golden with good visual story telling, and that’s what must be playing out in your mind as you perform. With the animation doing all the expressive “heavy lifting,” what vocal performance there is must support the tone, intent and subtext/objectives of the role, even if very little vocalizations is required.
A pinch of seasoning can transform the soup!