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

Your Demo

The appealing vision of a quickly launched voice over career is a common misconception. A part of this fantasy is the “quick and easy” voice over demo.

Many VO beginners mistakenly believe that all they need to get the ball rolling on a voice over career is to produce a demo. They’ll quickly get a demo made-so the story would go- by having a friend do it, or possibly do it themselves to save money or even hire a well-advertised expert who will say “yes” to anyone with money to get a “professionally produced” demo. Then the beginner hopes to send 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! 

I hope this page will steer you away from this fantasy. Crafting a demo is a project that will take time and thought and money and will only serve you if you are indeed ready as an actor to stand out.

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A DEMO SHOULD SHOWCASE YOUR COMPETITIVE BEST– OTHERWISE, HOLD OFF.

Here 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. 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. 

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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 must be competitive with theirs if you want professional (union) work. 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, or perhaps shifts gears.

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2. You don’t need to use already produced broadcast spots.

Some worry that they need to use 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.

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3. When seeking script ideas, steal what you love:

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. Transcribe a scene that you like, rewrite it, change the names, hone it down to make it compact, simple and unique.  Make it your own little polished diamond to add to your string of jewels.

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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.

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. 

The important part is to polish down a scene or spot that lets you showcase your (hopefully good) acting. 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 it. 

I’d recommend modifying a scene you love by editing it and maybe changing it up so it’s not exactly “Luke vs. Vader” or whatever, but a scene that maintains the dynamic you like of the original piece  but makes it your own. It may contain the essence of the original piece you based your scene on, but it’s yours. 

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4. Avoid self-referential monologues

It’s a common amateur demo mistake to create “scenes” that are just the character talking on and 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 is no relationship, no dynamic, no listening.

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5. Each demo segment should be a brief mini-scene that demonstrates your acting ability.

These 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 solidly resolved. A dad goes 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. You’re not just “doing a funny voice.” If you are clear on the scene’s stakes, the events, the implied character you are playing against, the environment and the story you are telling, it will work! 

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.

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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. 

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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. These are too specific to use in a general animation demo, in my opinion.

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8. Delete redundant segments:

A 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. You want to work a variety of roles on different projects for different studios into your demo script- as much as your talent allows! Cartoon Network action/comedy, Pixar feature, Disney pre-school/boy shows, Nickelodeon wacky/fantasy, Fox animated sit-com, Adult Swim college crowd wacky, etc. Aim for as many of these as you are right for. Also, 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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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:

Let’s shoot for a demo that is 60 seconds or less. Your demo needs to be brief and feature “smash cuts” (not fades) from one disparate style/tone to the next. If this means a 20 second long demo, fine. A minute is plenty for most anyone! Few can deliver an interesting varied 90 second demo. The person listening to your demo has no time, so don’t waste it with any repetition or filler or excess. It’s only a demo as long as the listener hasn’t gotten bored and hit “stop,” so keep it brief.

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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. I’d advise most anyone to not even attempt this. 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.

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 to an engineer/producer for a worthless demo! You need a good engineer, but no amount of production brilliance can correct for an actor who isn’t ready.

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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

64 Responses »

  1. Do you recommend everyone take vocal training/coaching and/or voice acting classes?

  2. Where should I go/who should I go to to have [my demo] looked at for an opinion? (I assume a vocal coach but I don’t want to waste anyone’s time if it’s not up to par)

    • Start with your own ears. Compare it to online demos of those you would be competing with. That may be telling enough. Next perhaps a good voice coach or casting director, although there is financial incentive for any teacher or VO demo producer to find fault so they can be hired to help you.

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