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

“Would you feel comfortable going back in to a studio?”

Already, we voice actors are starting to hear it asked from agents and employers: “When would you feel comfortable returning to work in a studio?” I’ve just received such an inquiry and two VO friends called me to discuss their getting asked as well.

Some employers are “just inquiring.” It may be presented as an option, no pressure either way. But starting recently, sometimes your answer may decide whether you are allowed to audition or work.

What should you say? What should you do? How should we frame an inquiry (or requirement) to return to recording in a studio- maybe even with one or more other unmasked voice actors in the same space, at the same mic- as the COVID virus continues its expansion, as society (for now) relaxes a bit in its eagerness to “get back to normal?”

Since the start of this punishing pandemic, the question of whether to work in a studio was rarely asked. Most understood it was safest for us all to just stay home. It was a shared caution and resolve that paid off substantially in lives saved. But as our economy grinds along and our longings for social interaction wear on us, that collective resolve is starting to shift.

So, it is time for us voice actors to closely and carefully consider this change.

To start:

All questions of safety or acceptability of risk should first and foremost defer to the most current scientific understanding of the virus.

This is a high stakes personal health issue for all involved. As virus avoidance standards and awareness relax around us, the count of those contracting the virus is still rising, in some places faster than ever. We are nowhere close to any “herd immunity.” With fewer wearing masks, and more visiting shops, salons, etc., the risk of transmitting and having the disease unknowingly and transmitting it also increases.

How the virus is transmitted, and questions of whether you are immune or contagious or susceptible to re-infection after surviving the virus- these are matters yet to be clarified by science. Re-contracting it has been reported, so immunity after having had COVID isn’t even clear.

Another big question of particular importance for any voice actor considering returning to a studio to record: How long does the virus linger in the air once breathed out? This is unknown.

Science currently says the transmission of the COVID virus is predominantly airborne, not as much through surface contact. The key factor to minimizing risk of transmission is to have all parties wear a mask. But even that doesn’t eliminate all risk (n95 masks are still impossible to obtain). The only truly safe bet is to just stay home. With the rapid shift to remote recording, we voice actors have been uniquely fortunate.

The current science seems clear at least on this: The risk of COVID transmission is by far the highest in confined spaces with unmasked people.

With the virus still very active, most union voice-over work appears to be still remotely recorded- and this may well continue indefinitely, a permanent alteration to our job space. Most indicate this new way of recording VO is working well, keeping animated TV, movies and game production flowing, in contrast to other realms of our economy slowing or shutting down completely.

VO’s new remote process found traction quickly. It is not perfect or necessarily as easy (though in some ways it’s preferred by many involved!), but thankfully it seems to be working very well. Collaborative isolation is both safe and productive.

Remote collaboration, it turns out, is a good fit with animation and voice acting.

After a few months of this, most studios and engineers remain cautious to change this arrangement, conducting most sessions via some mix of video and audio conferencing (Zoom, Source Connect, BlueJeans, etc). Those edging back to the old ways have resisted or strictly limited in-studio sessions- especially group records. Some have started recording with protocols now apparently “approved,” either by the state or the actors’ union, but with the virus still raging and immunity, a vaccine or cure non-existent, most on both sides of the studio glass remain uncomfortable with this prospect.

It merits pointing out that recording studios and sound engineers are uniquely burdened by the virus, but, in my experience, they remain uniquely sympathetic and understanding towards their actor clients. We are lucky and grateful for support from such collaborative partners.

But society’s patience with the virus slowly runs thin and our actors’ union has as of yet no guidelines specific to voice acting regarding any “return to studio work.” So if asked, what do we do?

If it’s allowed or legal, is it safe to go back?

There is no one way to call this, though the safest call remains clear:

Remote recording is the only truly safe and risk-free option.

But– if asked about returning to a studio to record, it ultimately falls to each of us to individually set our own standards and make the call for our own safety and for the safety our loved ones, referring to the latest viral science and gauging our own level of pre-existing health risks as well as the health concerns of those we are regularly in contact with.

Gauging the acceptability of a some kind of return

When considering an in-studio record- solo or a group – it is important for all to realize that voice actors are the only people working in a sound studio- in fact in the entire web of those employed on any of our projects- who cannot perform our duties with a mask on.

A recording studio- a confined space with people coming in and out- may have control over cleaning its surfaces, “airing out” their space, requiring its employees to wear masks and lowering the population density of their space’s people flow. They can set and implement safety protocols as best they can. That’s all a smart step to better protect and lower the risk for their own employees and their guests.

But a voice actor has no reassurance or protection re: the more vital variables in play: Voice actors have no data on the health state or habits of those who work at the studio, nor (most importantly) of any fellow actors they may be working alongside, confined within a closed space at close range without masks (in a group record). Nobody knows know the health status of whoever previously worked at that microphone, either.

More than anyone present at an in-studio record, a voice actor would shoulder a greater risk to personal health as well as to the health of those they most come in contact with, which can mean family, all holed up in the same home.

With all others in production, casting and engineering wearing masks, voice actors alone are unmasked and at-close-range. The director- or others who may have insisted on an in-studio group record- may be Skyping in their input from the safety of their homes.

In a group record, the necessarily unmasked voice actors alone incur the increased risk of talking and yelling close to other unmasked voice actors (of indeterminate health habits or exposure) in an enclosed space- the riskiest scenario, according to science.

If you are recording solo, science is still unclear how quickly the contagion risk dissipates after the last voice actor spoke at that mic or in that room.

Yes, studio employees and guests can have their temperatures taken or self-report whether they feel feverish. But a reminder on COVID symptoms: Those infected may appear healthy, as the virus appears to give its victims a week or two of contagiousness, without presenting symptoms. Some even have it and never realize it. This invisibility is the lynchpin to COVID’s lethal capacity for exponential spread.

With its delayed presentation feature, it seems likely that most of us will eventually get COVID. The longer that delay, the more time science has to come up with means to mitigate its worst effects.

While most will survive the virus and some will experience mild or no symptoms at all, those with existing underlying health concerns (e.g. late middle age or older, weight, asthma, hypertension, CVD, auto-immune issues, etc.) and/or who spend time with family with such underlying health issues, they incur disproportionate and risk not just for themselves, but also for those dear to them that they are in constant contact with.

As we know, this disease is not just about what you get- it’s who you end up giving it to and so both the voice actor and their family incur the risk of a studio session.

One is tempted to hope that those without any of the CDC’s list of preexisting conditions as being less likely to experience the more dreaded forms of suffering this virus can bring. But there are examples of even those who appeared free of such drags on their immune fitness getting utterly and dangerously clobbered.

With many hundreds still dying in this country per day, we must carefully consider the risks involved with any inquiry about working in an enclosed space, close to unmasked others (or the wake of their performance) while wearing no mask ourselves.

What about the prospect of staying home and missing opportunity?

In “the before times,” if you had a cold, you stayed home or at least gave a heads up and let the studio make the call. Personally, I’ve always viewed “losing” a job for the right reason as a smart as well as a considerate move for a pro. It’s an appreciated gesture that is remembered.

Previously, if a voice actor showed up to work with an unannounced contagious cold, putting others at risk or making others sick, those involved (on either side of the glass) would tend to not forget the selfishness and lack of consideration. It would become part of your reputation, in fact.

The worst case scenario for COVID is exponentially different.

How safe is “safe enough?”

How lucky and grateful are voice actors that most VO work can so quickly adapt and continue safely in a remote form! Of course we all want the work to flow. The question of safety and risk are of paramount concern for all.

Deliberation about returning to a studio setting is a complex and unfolding conversation, different for each, but always best viewed first and foremost through the evolving lens of science. The stakes are too high not to.

According to the science, the one truly safe and risk-free version of this process is still remote recording.

No matter how “comfortable” anyone may or may not “feel” about going back into a studio- this diabolically opportunistic and lethal virus is unmoved by any sense of economic urgency or wish for greater convenience or nostalgia for face to face working together.

We all miss the collaborative fun of working face to face, and we may well revisit it again someday, at least to some degree. In the mean time, we are luckily able to keep the creative process rolling along with maximum safety for all– remotely.

June 15, 2020

© Dee Bradley Baker 2020

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