Many believe that all you need to get a voice over career rolling is to produce a quick VO demo. It’s an easy fantasy to buy into.
Some want to do it themselves to save money, or ask a friend with recording equipment or even hire a well-advertised “pro” who will say “yes” to anyone with money to produce a “professional” demo. Then the beginner sends out their freshly minted demo to a few top agents, one will sign them and they are off to the races with auditions and work!
Quick and easy, right?
I hope this page will steer you away from this fantasy. Crafting a demo is a project that will take time and consideration and money and will only serve you if you are indeed ready to stand out as an actor.
A DEMO SHOULD SHOWCASE YOUR COMPETITIVE BEST– OTHERWISE, HOLD OFF.
What follows is my take on making an animation voice demo, but many of the basic concepts could apply to promo and commercial demos as well:
First off, you must be ready as a voice actor for it to be worth making a demo. Your skill and talent and confidence should be at a level that you have something worth showing off. You must be competitive and ready to stand out! If you aren’t there yet, hold off on making a demo. It’ll just be a big waste of time and money.
Your demo is often your first and only shot at getting the attention of an agent or buyer, so it must be a well-produced showcase of the best of what you do. A poor demo (either performance or production) can make a lasting bad impression and set you back financially and professionally.
If you are a talented voice actor with a crummy demo that you send to a prospective agent, you will probably never get an audience with that agent (unless you can finagle a stellar recommendation from a trusted client at the agency). Same if you are an average actor with a mediocre demo.
In a business where time is precious, you rarely get the chance to make a bad impression twice.
A good demo is an essential part of what you need to get an agent, auditions and work.
The best demos are brief, avoid redundancy, and above all, show you can act and tell a story– not just “make voices.” It should sound professionally produced, not home made or amateur.
1. Start with researching your competition:
A good way to gauge your readiness for making a demo is to listen to other demos in the market you are targeting. This will tell you if you are ballpark for this, or if you need to keep working at your voice acting more before taking the financial leap.
To prep for making a demo, listen to the demos of currently working voice actors posted on their own or their agents’ websites. Google them, and learn from their demos (some as lessons in what not to do!). Your demo- acting and production- must sound competitive by comparison. You won’t be just copying what they do– yours should be uniquely yours– but they will give you a ballpark of what to shoot for.
BTW, you may find that some voice actors who work a lot have a less than impressive demo! It may be old and outdated, yet they seem to work like crazy!
Sometimes an actor’s career can actually outpace the need to update his/her promotional materials (a nice position to be in!). Everyone seems to know and trust the actor’s abilities and self-promotion becomes less necessary.
2. You don’t need to use already produced broadcast spots.
Some worry that they need to compile and edit together already aired spots or shows they’ve worked as elements of their demo. Not true.
I’d prefer your demo feature freshly produced spots that a potential buyer could easily imagine dropped into their current or future project.
They aren’t casting for a character already on a show that is airing. If you have previous work produced, the production can vary and it may not showcase your best or your potential. Why be constrained by any of that?
Your demo is to showcase what you can do now, not what you did. Your aim is to impress with your acting, your range- not your resume’. Nobody hires a resume’.
3. When seeking script ideas, steal what you love:
When creating a script, go for what’s current and popular as well as iconic. Seek script sources that suit your abilities in shows you would like to work on. You can also draw from iconic feature animated/fantasy films (e.g. Lord of the Rings, The Incredibles, The Terminator, Harry Potter) as well as popular video games (Halo, Gears of War, World of Warcraft etc.), even graphic novels. Repurpose these materials for your own purposes (example to follow).
Transcribe a scene that you like, rewrite it, change the names, hone it down to make it compact, simple and unique. Make it a mini story with a turn, a transformation-that shows your acting.
Make it your own little polished diamond to add to your string of jewels.
3a. Don’t worry about copy write or legality with your demo’s script. Worry about how well it showcases your acting.
A voice over demo is not being sold so no one cares if you use a scene from a movie or t.v. show. I’ve never heard of anyone getting in trouble for recreating or lifting a scene for use in a demo. There’s no money involved so there’s no reason for any worry. You’ll probably change the names and writing on it anyway.
The only trouble “lifting” or “copying” a scene can present is if your recreation of a recognizable scene isn’t anywhere near as good as the original that everyone remembers.
Also, if it’s from a show that everyone would recognize, if you’re using it “as is,” it may well be obvious to the listener you didn’t work the spot. It’s recognizability could get in the way of the listener listening to YOU, which should be the point of it all. This is why I like changing names and polishing it down to a compact little showcase of a scene.
The important part is to polish down a scene that showcases your (hopefully good) acting. What shows acting? Your character is speaking to someone, wants something, has subtext at play, etc. You are not describing something or making a list in a funny voice. There needs to be something happening, relating, reacting, listening!
You are free to make it your own. You can change names, scenery, dramatic intensity or comedic beats and you’ll almost certainly need to shorten the source material.
For example, you want to do either a heavy villain or a young hero and choose a “Star Wars” scene. I’d recommend modifying a scene you love by editing it and maybe changing it up so it’s not exactly “Luke vs. Vader,” but a scene that maintains the dynamic you like of the original piece, while it your own. The villain vs. hero dynamic is conserved, but it’s not exactly a direct lift. Maybe the setting is changed to medieval or a super hero type setting.
It contains the essence of the original piece you based your scene on, but it’s yours. The listener can see that you could play a hero (or villain) in any kind of super hero type show- rather than being distracted by trying to figure out why this voice actor is trying to replicate “Star Wars.”
4. Avoid self-referential, descriptive monologues
It’s a common amateur demo mistake to create “scenes” that are just the character voicing its inner monologue, talking on about what it’s doing or merely describing itself. (e.g. “Well, here I am, the loneliest dragon just sitting alone in my cave with no one to chase or talk to. Just flapping my lovely wings that will probably never see the sun again…”)
This kind of choice is inactive, boring and should be avoided because merely describing yourself doesn’t show your acting ability. There’s nothing happening. There is no relationship, no dynamic, no listening.
A script best implies interaction and action- needing something, subtext, objective, y’know, acting!
5. Each demo segment should be a brief mini-scene that demonstrates your acting ability.
Your demo’s scene segments may be short but they cannot be static or one-note! I would like each segment to have an action taking place, externally and internally.
Another way to look at it is a “dramatic shift.” This can be seen as the simple transition from one adjective to a contrary adjective within the scene.
For example: An evil character goes from seductive to menacing when addressing a princess. A hero begins exhausted and transitions to solid resolve. A dad switches from oblivious to hyped-up wacky to deadpan. A boy addressing a servant goes from innocent to dictatorial anger. An old witch goes from wistful to fearful to furious. Each in five to ten seconds!
These acting switch ups are essential to show you can create characters that connect and tell a story, that they are part of a story- not a disconnected voice. You’re not just “doing a funny voice.”
If you are clear on the scene’s stakes, what your character wants, the events, the implied character you are playing against, the environment and the story you are telling, it will come to life!
Remember- a demo is not a catalog of voices you can do- it is instead a showcase for your very best acting ability and range.
6. Only use impressions in a demo if they are dead-on fantastic and demonstrate good acting.
Flat or bad impressions are a great way to get the listener to hit PAUSE. An impression shouldn’t merely be a catch phrase of the character imitated, but should show some acting as well. If this is one of your super powers and you are brought in to a session to do an impression, you will need to fully generate the character in ways probably not heard before, not just merely repeat a catch phrase.
Nobody gets hired to deliver only a spot-on “What’s up, doc?” then walk off the sound stage. Can you convincingly read the ingredients on a cereal box in that character? Can you narrate your day as this character? Read a book outloud? No? Then you aren’t ready to put this character on a demo. Generally, I’d recommend a separate demo for impressions.
7. Animation demos: Don’t use impressions of currently airing cartoon characters.
Why offer what they already have and don’t need? There is little need to replace any living voice actor who mostly works for scale (minimum) anyway. Classic cartoon voices (Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Betty Boop, Popeye, etc.) might possibly need to be accurately voiced again in some revival feature or even commerical, but I would devote a separate demo to these on your demo’s website, again, only if it is dead-on and shows you can wield that character like a sword. You’re not just doing voices.
Impressions are rarely helpful and too specific to use in a general animation demo, in my opinion.
8. Delete redundant segments:
An animation/game voice over demo should showcase your range and thus offer a variety of casting possibilities for you.
For example, you don’t want to only be cast as super villains if you could just as ably play the hero or sidekick or a neighbor kid. Your talents are such that you are able to work a variety of roles on different projects for different studios into your demo script.
Show them all of your best (and only your best)!
Cartoon Network action/comedy, Pixar feature, Disney pre-school, Amazon high energy “boy” shows, Nickelodeon wacky/fantasy epic, Fox animated sit-com, Adult Swim college crowd surreal-wacky, etc. Aim for as many of these as you are right for, a mini scene appropriate for each- appropriate to the market you are targeting.
Also, your characters should vary in status, age, energy, and occupation. Versatility is part of the value a good voice actor brings to a project and all of yours should be on display front and center. All you can competitively and convincingly nail, that is.
9. Each segment should contrast significantly with the one before and after.
There must be an abrupt tone shift from segment to segment to to hold the listener’s interest.
10. Every voice of your gender on your demo should be your own!
You don’t want to be brought in for what you cannot provide. If you’re adding a two person segment make sure the other performer is of the opposite sex. If you are male, don’t use other male actors on your demo. Same for female.
11. Only feature what you can sustain:
Only include what you can easily replicate and sustain in a real session (a few hours) without hurting yourself. For example, if you have a wildly screaming characters in one segment, you’d better be able to get through a session with that amount of voice.
It makes no sense to oversell or overstretch. Just show what you sustainably can do well.
12. Keep it short but sweet:
There is little worse in Hollywood than wasting someone else’s time. If you want to piss off a pro or powerful person, waste their time. So:
I know you want to create that three minute+ demo- but don’t. It’ll come off as self-indulgent and will dilute your showcase’s impact.
Let’s shoot for a demo that is 60 seconds or less. Your demo needs to be concise and feature “smash cuts” (not fades) from one disparate style/tone/genre to the next. If this means a 30 second long demo, fine. A minute is plenty for most anyone!
Cut out the fat from your demo. Be cruel to your precious children!
Few can deliver a compelling demo 90 seconds or longer. The person listening to your demo has little time, so don’t waste it with any repetition or filler or excess.
It’s only a worthy demo as long as the listener is riveted and hasn’t gotten bored or hit “stop,” so keep it brief, varied and only the good stuff.
12a. Should I use existing/already produced material or characters in projects already airing on my demo to impress agents or casting people?
I don’t think anyone is signed or hired because their voice is recognized from having been on another show or aired spot.
A demo gets attention because it shows good competitive acting. You are hired because your audition is right for THIS show being cast. It is rare for anyone to have much use for a character already associated with another project.
Of course, if you are “famous” that’s another matter, in which case a demo is probably irrelevant anyway and they’re more likely to consider the size of your Twitter following rather than your acting ability or range.
I’m not a fan of showcasing established or known characters in a demo (I’m not a fan of using actual produced footage from shows you’ve worked either). Work already “in the can” is done and no one will hire you for that.
As I say on my site, it’s more to my liking to showcase good acting and range with as disparate a sequence of quick scenes as your talent will allow, trimming out all the excess and allowing for as much tonal shift as possible. Lean and mean!
I also want characters that feels relevant to what shows/games are now being made, highlighting archetypes that are commonly cast along with your strengths of out-of-the-box acting ideas as well.
If your demo’s voice acting is strong it will get the right people’s attention, regardless of origin or resume’. You want your talent to be applicable to future shows, not be confined to old ones. That’s my take anyway.
13. Get a pro engineer’s help:
You are a very lucky actor indeed if you can produce and direct your own professionally sounding knock-out demo. Hardly anyone is that kind of auteur savant.
I’d advise most anyone to not even attempt self-producing. You need someone to say “no” to you who knows what they’re doing. Most should seek help from a good engineer/producer who can guide and help edit and provide polished production value.
Research those who can help you on the “Dig Deeper” page of this site. Listen to their work and your ears will tell you what you need to know. I personally would want to work with someone who is picky about who they produce, someone who won’t just take anyone’s money and you end up with professionally produced junk.
A decent demo producer would care about the end result as their reputation is partially at stake with it. You want someone who looks at it this way. They will produce a demo with someone who is good and ready- or not at all. At least, that’s what I would look for. Hopefully, you also understand that a demo shouldn’t be produced until you are ready, anyway.
Remember: No matter how good the engineer/producer, you set the bar for how good your demo can be. If you’re not ready, don’t pay hundreds of dollars (or more!) to an engineer/producer for a worthless, non-competitive demo!
You need a good engineer, but no amount of production brilliance can correct for an actor who isn’t ready.
14. Publish your demo on your own website:
It’s good to have a hard copy (disc) of your final cut, but I’d prefer your demo be posted on a good “yourname.com” website for an agent or buyer to access instantly from anywhere.
Make sure it’s promoted so that it’s right up there when someone types your name in a search engine.
Click here to continue to my Example of Making an Animation Demo
I was about to start getting my first demo produced, and in the last minute, I wound up getting signed by an on camera film and tv agent… I decided to post-pone the demo production, as I wanted to make sure I put enough money and energy into the resources needed for my on-camera work (headshot, casting service fees, some more acting classes, etc.) It is my absolute DREAM and biggest aspiration to act in animation, and I am wondering if I should go ahead and produce a demo now so that I can try and gain representation from the voice demo at my agency and/or somewhere else, OR if I should wait, spend time working with my agent, and really honing my chops with on-camera auditions/work, then try and find an opportunity through all of that.
I spent a few years courting two careers (on-camera and VO) before “calling off the dogs” and going exclusively with VO. In pushing for both, I quickly came to see that on-camera doesn’t tolerate or willingly accommodate voice over work. VO may move to accommodate an on-camera gig, but on-camera won’t budge- the latter owns your time exclusively for the duration of the shoot- generally at least a week in TV, at minimum for a day or two in a commercial, but they aren’t flexible. And they don’t want to hear you whining about some voice over gig, which is probably seen as a nuisance and a waste of time.
You can pursue both campaigns, sort of like dividing your troops to fight on two hills, but it is only after you are established in VO that they will accommodate an on-camera obligation. Once you are up and running in both camps, you may be able to work in all realms of acting you’d like (Clancy Brown and others for example). But earlier on you will probably soon have to make a choice.
For animation demos, you write “[…] Versatility is part of the value a good voice actor brings to a project and all of yours should be on display front and center.” Would you say the same for commercial demos?
No. The union animation contract counts each character when figuring your pay (for scale) and you’re often asked to voice two or more characters. Not so with commercials. Hence, versatility and range is more important to billboard with an animation demo. But the most important thing for any demo is always to show good acting.
Just did my first Union VO gig and am now a must join. I only have a manager now but have been finding many gigs on message boards. Is the union side of it going to be absolutely necessary at the stage I’m at or should I hold off and join when I get an agent who can more regularly submit me? (or just wait till there’s a union job that will effectively pay off the initiation fees?)
As for reel, I’m thinking of having a mentor of mine who is a crack music/sound guy but has never done VO reels before. We’ll have a professional setup. How do you feel that their skills might translate?
Congrats on your progress!
A couple points:
Unless you’re paid well over-scale, the combination of your first two union session fees will only partially cover your union initiation fee. It’s well worth it, but it ain’t cheap to make the commitment.
With your first union gig in the can, you are now eligible (not obligated) to sign up with the union. But you cannot set foot in the studio of your second union gig until your union initiation dues are fully paid up. So, if you get an offer of a union gig tomorrow (and gigs often happen quickly), you are stuck unless you can fully pay up today. So, if you hold off on joining until later, you have in place a kind of barrier to a sudden booking.
A good agent books only union work and may sign an actor ready to join, but you’re even more attractive to such an agent if you already are a member, that is, if there is no potential impediment to you working right away.
Also, your second union gig may help “pay off” (at least partially) your initiation fee, but that session check will arrive a number of weeks after you’ve already paid your union entrance fee.
Yes you can continue working non-union work for a little cash until you join without getting in trouble with the union, but remember that once you join, that’s it- it’s all union from then on. It’s about dignity and quality of working conditions as well as pay and a higher level of professionalism and creative fulfillment.
I’m not sure about doing a demo with a sound engineer with no VO reel experience. Kinda like have a theater’s light engineer direct a play. It could work out, but it is better to wait to make a great demo under good supervision than hurriedly make a mediocre demo. Remember you often don’t have a second chance to make a good first impression.
Hi Dee! I’m British so what would you say the best thing for my reel is? Just British voices or a mix of British and American? Also when you say short and snappy for each clip, how would you connect 3 short quotes from the same piece together?
Visit the websites of agencies you aspire to be at and listen to the demos of their “internationals” for whatever genre of VO you aim for. If you can nail an American accent or dialects, mix them in with your native flavor spots- I’d probably lead with your native accent then switch to a dead-on usable American accent and keep varying it up from there. Only brief scenes that showcase your acting for the targeted market- not just accents or “voices.” Any accent or dialect other than your native default needs to be perfect.
My version of a demo favors a series of disparate “micro scenes,” where something dynamic is happening or revealed for each. Not sure about connecting short “quotes” unless it better showcases your acting to do so.