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

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

I’m leaving this post as is, but I’ve another page with new info and detail considering the risk of returning to a studio for work- CLICK HERE for it.

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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?”

Sometimes employers are “just inquiring.” Usually it may be presented an option, no pressure either way. But starting recently, sometimes the answer may decide whether you can audition or work a gig.

What should you say? What should you do? How should we frame an offer (or insistance) to return to recording in a studio 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 pandemic, the question was rarely asked. Everyone understood it was safest for us all to just stay home. But that assumption is starting to shift. So it is time for us voice actors to look closely at this.

My framing starts with this: All questions of safety or acceptability of risk should first and foremost refer to the most current science of COVID and its contagion. Of secondary importance is short-term economic necessity or “convenience.“

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 acquiring 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.

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.

Science currently says the transmission of the COVID virus is predominantly airborne, not as much through surface contact. The key factor to avoiding getting or giving COVID in any situation is masks worn by all. The safest bet, in fact, is to just stay home. (We voice actors are particularly fortunate in this respect.)

With the virus still very active, most union voice-over work appears to be still remotely recorded- and this may well continue. Most concede this seems to be working well, keeping most production flowing, despite other realms of our economy slowing or shutting down completely. It’s not perfect or as easy (though in some ways it’s preferred by many involved!), but it seems to be working mostly very well. Remote collaboration is a good fit with animation and voice acting.

Most studios and engineers are still cautious- resisting in-studio records- especially group records- at least for now, even if they are technically “approved” for allowing such work, either by the state or the actors’ union.

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 such collaborative support.

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 work.” (The work never went away!)

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 of others, with an eye towards the latest understanding of the science and gauging our own level of pre-existing health risks and of those we are regularly exposed to.

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

When considering an in-studio record- solo or a group – it is important 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. That’s all a smart step to better protect their own and their guests.

But a voice actor has no reassurance or protection re: the more vital variables in play: We have no knowledge of the health state or habits of those who work at the studio, nor (most importantly) of any fellow actors we may be working alongside, confined with in a closed space at close range without masks, in a group record.

More than anyone present, with an in-studio record, a voice actor would be asked to shoulder a greater risk of personal health as well as health of those they most come in contact with, which these days often means family and grandparents, all holed up in the same home.

While it seems still rare, it’s starting to happen or is at least being considered.

With all others in production, casting and engineering masked, voice actors alone are unmasked and at-close-range, incurring the most risk were things to return to the old ways at this point. 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 stood at that mic.

Yes, one can be tested or self-report whether they have a fever. But a reminder on COVID symptoms: While people may seem healthy, the virus appears to give its victims a week or two of contagiousness, without presenting symptoms. This has potentially deadly results, if not for the infected, then for those further downstream. It is the lynchpin to its capacity for exponential spread.

It seems likely that most of us will eventually get COVID. But while most will survive the virus and some will feel little 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.) or who spend time with family with such underlying health issues, they incur disproportionate risk not just for themselves, but also for those dear to them that they are in constant contact with.

With many hundreds still dying in this country per day, we must carefully consider the risks involved with an offer or demand to work in an enclosed space, among others and with no mask.

As we know, this disease is not just about what you get- it’s who you end up giving it to.

What about the prospect of staying home and missing opportunity? Personally, I’ve always viewed “losing” a job for the right reason as a smart as well as considerate move for a pro. It’s an appreciated gesture that is remembered. If you had a cold, you stay home or at least give a heads up and let the studio make the call.

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.

With COVID, I am concerned to start hearing of voice actors being told to incur this level of risk as a condition of employment- and, if accepted, that they are the only ones in the work chain shouldering a greater health risk. If I were the one insisting on this, I would further be concerned in terms of culpability or even liability in a worst case scenario.

Of course we all want the work to flow. Thank God so much VO work can so quickly adapt and continue safely and remotely!!

The deliberation of returning to a studio setting is a complex and unfolding issue, different for each due to each having different preexisting health issues along with those loved ones in close proximity and their health challenges. This is all best viewed first and foremost through the evolving lens of science. The stakes are too high not to.

No matter how “comfortable” anyone may or may not “feel” about going back into a studio- the evolving science of COVID’s contagion is unmoved by our sense of economics or convenience.

Be well and keep your Source Connect and Zoom updated!

© Dee Bradley Baker 2020

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