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

Self-Directing Auditions (home alone)

More than ever, the most advanced VO skill is required of the most inexperienced. Auditioning from home is not just an option or luxury- for most it is a necessity, especially with the pandemic still ablaze.

I’ve come to believe that all acting involves a degree of “self-directing.” That is, it’s up to the performer to continually come up with a steady stream of fresh, authentic ideas that bring the script and the story to convincing life. But auditioning from home is another matter. It is ninja-level difficult. It’s easy to do poorly, to keep swinging away and keep missing from inside a bubble of frustration.

Guidance at the gig:

In voice acting, your performance is typically part of a collaborative process, but in the end, it is up to you to analyze, invent and produce a variety of optional interpretations that suit the text and fulfill the creator’s vision.

In a typical in studio audition, you have input and feedback from a casting director or possibly some other creative decision maker. an audience as well as your fellow cast mates to help energize, guide and inspire what you make. In this situation, a good though inexperienced actor at least has some guide rails and assistance in locking into a good performance. You have support.

Home Alone

But when a voice actor auditions (typically at home) you are on your own.

The greatest challenge for a voice actor by my reckoning is auditioning, because you are all on your own. You have to analyze, direct, perform while recording and then edit- all unaided. There is a lot of instinct and finesse required here and the stakes are high.

Like a bad golfer practicing their swing at the driving range, if you’re not doing it right, you are simply reinforcing bad habits in a vacuum. Correcting your golf swing alone is about as easy as directing yourself in an audition. And if you’re not doing it right, over and over again, you are digging yourself into hole by strengthening behavior and instincts that don’t work.

It’s pretty much all or nothing with an audition. A producer doesn’t hire an audition that “might, with some work, be nudged into acceptable.” It’s either just right or not at all. And you probably won’t get any feedback from a rejection.

Self Directing: Setting Specifics

Auditioning starts with analyzing the copy or story, guessing the tone, timing, the pace, and the character choice.

With time and experience, you find your compass as an actor. You learn what tools you have in your actor’s “tool belt” and you develop an instinctive lock on what you do that works, as well as what to avoid. You also grow the kind of antenna to rapidly diagnose a script and come up with your own version of what might work. Over time, you get quicker and more accurate with this.

But a beginner is still finding these things.

As I say elsewhere, you can be a good actor but a poor auditioner. These are related but separate skills.

Getting Your Agent’s Feedback:

So- what do you do to become a better “self-director?” Here are seem ideas:

1. After submitting your audition, seek feedback from your agent. This might give you useful insight into what you can’t hear, though not all agents speak “actor” or can necessarily provide you with insightful or actionable critique, beyond vague guidance or the unhelpful, “It was great,” brush off.

Understand, many agents are more “business” than “creative.” They may not have a creative bone in their body. But it’s really not their job to be an actor or audition coach. They negotiate, advocate, schedule and handle money. That is their job.

In a nutshell, even an experienced good agent may have helpful insight, or they may not. Seek out their take if it’s helpful to you. It’s also not a bad thing to show you care and want to get better. Most actors just submit their audition and that’s the end of it.

Ask for Missing or Helpful Specifics.

2. Where an agent may be able to help you is getting more info in setting up the audition. If you feel a need for more detail on anything on the page in front of you, I favor asking for it.

If this audition were in a studio with a voice director or you were reading for the creative decision maker, they could fill you on any of this. Since this is lacking with at-home auditioning, you must determine and set these specifics upfront yourself.

For example, I may ask: Can I please see some character artwork? Who is the show runner? Where or how will the spot or show will air? What is happening in this scene- I can’t tell? Do they want an accent here? What is the action or blocking, as none is indicated in the script? Who am I speaking to when I say this? What kind of a feature film is this? Is this live action or animated? What network or game studio is making this,? Etc.

I’m just doing my job trying to get them what they want here.

I will always nudge my agent for such clarifications because an actor needs specificity and context to take a meaningful swing at a performance that has to be right on the money. With an audition, you rarely get a second chance. You gotta stick that landing.

It may be that your agent comes back with nothing. What you see on your copy is all you’re gonna get. Okay- at least you tried. Most actors won’t make this effort.

I would say that most auditions don’t require this kind of pushback from the actor. And I’m not suggesting you constantly bug your agent. But there are times where it makes sense. But for most auditions, I believe all the elements of the puzzle are essentially before you.

But if not, ask.

You are not asking for details to be a pain. You’re asking because you are a pro who wants to book the job. You want to solve this puzzle so both you and your agent can make money. And you can’t do that without the pieces.

Find the Pieces, Setting the Stage

3. The first step in a good solo audition is an accurate analysis of what the script/story needs to be. This is largely informed by your actor’s instincts that you slowly (hopefully) strengthen and make increasingly confident and effortless. You see the words, you find the performance and there’s little forethought needed— eventually.

A beginner’s instincts will be less sure and perhaps less able to rapidly lock into the target. So how does once break down the mission before launching?

With a commercial, you are trying to convince someone to do something. What and who? This starts with comprehending the spot’s point of persuasion- what it wants to say or cause the listener to do. You also need to be clear on who the audience is, who you are speaking to.

With these specifics clarified, you then you can “set the stage” in your mind where this script will play out.

You can then get specific on your role and character, tone and pace.

E.g., This is a realistic dad talking to a kid- the target audience is a young parent who the spot wants to persuade to purchase bandaids.

Or, “This is an animated series for a 12 year old kid, maybe with a parent watching, a show that has some snark but not too much because family is always affirmed in this kind of show on this particular network.”

Or, This copy is for a straight ahead R-rated horror feature and this needs to be really, disturbingly scary.

Or, This has a “Family Guy” feel and is run by a writer who has done a lot of animation for Fox.

Or, This is essentially a “Lord of the Rings” almost Shakespearean toned game.

With animation you need to be clear on who is making it and where it will air or stream. The tone and pace of the project is also very important. If you investigate details like which network or studio, which show runner, which genere of animated show this is, even when it will air- then you can start to hone in on a character and delivery that may connect.

Again, if you need clarification- ask your agent to try and hunt this down. If no dice, then you make your best guess.

For animation auditions, ask yourself: Is this project related to or “down stream from” Archer, Sponge Bob, Ben 10, Scooby Doo, Adventure Time, Phineas and Ferb or The Regular Show, etc?

Each of these has a very different pace and tone of acting, a different style of character, as well as a different target audience. All of these specifics inform a good/ interesting acting choice that might work, that might “solve the puzzle.”

It goes without saying that you should kick around the web and familiarize yourself with the network, the show creator and similar shows or spots.

If the audition is for a specific show that currently streams- watch some episodes. Find other projects of the show runner or network creating it- know what kind of shows they make. There is typically continuity of tone from one project to another with the same director/show runner.

If you’re clear on such details, you have a target to shoot for with your read.

If you are familiar with who is making this project, who it’s for and what the spot/show is trying to do, what kind of show this needs to be, you are halfway home in getting this right. You see what needs to be done, you now need to cast yourself in the role.

Find the Doppelgänger.

3. Maybe there isn’t enough detail and there is none to be found. Then you make your best shot from an educated guess. You draw upon your own inner database of commercials or TV or movies or games and select a candidate that seems a good doppelgänger for your audition and shoot for that.

“This seems like a ‘Overwatch’ or ‘Resident Evil’ kind of game.” Or “This is a Disney pre-school show, I’ve watched those and will shoot for that kind of gentle and caring tone.” Or “This is like ‘Archer,” I’ll give that kind of realistic, snappy read to this,” etc.

You find an acceptable tonal target and shoot for that.

Check Your Work.

4. When you listen back through your initial take- shut your eyes and image in the target spot or show. Does your read/character fit that? If not, circle back and either re do or record spot changes until you’ve cobbled together a fitting read.

© Dee Bradley Baker 2023

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