Directing the Voice-over Actor, Tips for Better Communication

Advice for directors and producers, written from the perspective of the voice-over actor. Intended to improve the recording session experience. Use this article as a crash course, or to tune up your directing skills. These tips apply to voice acting of all types. The terms voice-over actor/voice-over talent/talent/actor are used here interchangeably.
By Vicki Amorose

When you are in the director's chair at a voice-over session, the process can sometimes become a struggle for both you and the talent. You have a vision you need to share with the voice actor, a person who knows far less than you do about the product, message, or concept. At the same time, you hired that actor to bring his or her own unique skills to the project. Unlike the making of a film or a stage production, you do not have weeks to rehearse and analyze the script. The studio clock is ticking and that alone adds an element of anxiety to the recording session.

The following tips apply well to both in-person and long distance sessions. Because I want to bring you more than just my own opinion as a voice actor, I have enlisted the help of some of my talented voice-over friends. The opinions of Diane Havens, JS Gilbert, Bill Painter and Kevin Cooke are included here. As artists we may not reach consensus, but I am including the areas where we find agreement.

THREE QUESTIONS YOU MUST ANSWER FOR THE ACTOR

For the actor's sake, always supply this information: Who is speaking? To whom are they speaking? How are they speaking? When you answer these three simple questions for the talent, communication is well underway and confusion is reduced drastically.

  1. Who is Speaking? Diane Havens: "The first thing I expect to hear from a director is the role the voice will have in achieving the intended impact. Make everything into a role, because that's what it is -- who is speaking? Neutral bystander? Impassioned preacher? Wry humorist? Helpful teacher? Caring nurse? Smiling enthusiast?"

    If you are not getting the performance you want, it is sometimes helpful to imagine and suggest an alternate idea. For example, the script may call for the role of the fairy queen attempting to calm her warriors. If that's not working, suggest the actor play a life coach teaching mediation to stressed-out execs. Any number of roles may produce the voice you need.
  2. To Whom are they Speaking? The age, gender, geographic region, and socio-economic group of your intended audience all factor into an effective performance. I would be a very poor voice actor if I used the same voice delivery for an arthritis medication and the National Football League. Communication is everyone's goal, so help the talent develop an accurate mental picture of the audience.
  3. How are they Speaking? Provide clear descriptive words like "excited, surprised, reluctant, certain, exasperated." The greater variety of words you can provide, the better you will be able to communicate the ideal you are hearing in your head.

Bill Painter: "I'd recommend hitting the books. Keep a good dictionary or thesaurus at hand -- and use it. The more accurate your description, the more likely an actor will be able to understand and deliver exactly the tone you're after. Use colorful, terse, meaningful adjectives."

Descriptive words will tell the actor how they feel but not WHY they feel that way. This is important because actors like to dig up their own emotions to apply to the scene. "Backstory" is an acting term referring to who the character is, how they feel, and why they feel that way. Backstory provided by the director in voice acting can sometimes serve to confuse rather than to clarify.

JS Gilbert: "Often the director will provide way too much backstory to the actor. Backstory doesn't often work because I have analyzed the copy on my own and determined my own set of 'who and why and what and where', which may not process well with the backstory a director may give. For example, I may have determined that I am an avid user of a frozen enchilada dinner and the commercial calls for me to extol the virtues of the product. I create a backstory that has me speaking to my friend Charlie who occasionally has to fend for himself at dinner time. The director starts giving me direction like, 'Pretend that you work in the supermarket and you're telling a shopper about the great things you've heard.' This breaks up my organic process, but more importantly, it does little to relate what in fact the director is hoping to get from my read. This often can happen when recording video games and animation to the point where instead of direction, the talent is simply getting fed the entire storyline and plot."

So allow the voice actor to arrive at his or her own authentic emotion. It does not really matter what excites him or why. What matters is that genuine excitement is expressed in the voice.

THREE THINGS THE VOICE ACTOR HATES

  1. Line Reads: A 'line read' is when the director says the line and instructs the actor to repeat it exactly, as a parrot would. "No, no, no, instead of I LOVE the way YOU smell baby, say it like this, I love the WAY you SMELL baby." You may have a very legitimate reason to phrase something precisely. In that case, explain this to the talent before they start recording. You are the boss and we will gladly give you what you ask for. But you could ask for a line read, and then ask for a different interpretation. You might be pleasantly surprised by a new twist. The problem arises when you feed a voice actor your delivery line by line, and we can't help but wonder why we were hired in the first place.
  2. Vague and overused phrases: As the best example, the word "conversational" is overused to the point where it has lost meaning. Instead of saying, "Make it more conversational", it would be helpful to say something like, "Toss off that last phrase like it's something you've discussed a million times", or "I don't feel like you are speaking directly to me."
  3. Too many cooks in the kitchen: Directorial input from several people is confusing and very hard to follow. A strain is added when we must interpret the meaning and weigh the reactions of different personalities. We appreciate the director who remains the spokesperson for the group, summing up the input from the agency and the clients and whoever else might be involved. We prefer to take direction from just one person.

THREE THINGS THE VOICE ACTOR LOVES

  1. Specificity: We love it when you are specific. Kevin Cooke: "Things I love? Producers who tell me why they want another read. I'll read all day to get it right but if they don't provide even a nugget of information as to what they want different from the last read, we're stuck. Like saying, "That was good, let's do it a couple more times." I'm going to pretty much do it the same way, thinking they liked it but want a few more similar reads in order to hit gold. I find myself rereading it more than 3 or 4 times, and then I realize the "That was good" comment really wasn't true! Flattery will get you nowhere quite literally! What specifically do you want to hear that you're not hearing?" The voice actor will also appreciate specific audio references like a voice clip you might provide. A reference to the talent's demo or to their audition is always very helpful.
  2. Context before we record: If you are able to provide any context to the project before we begin the recording session, please do. A draft of the script, a character description, an answer to any of "The Three Questions"---all of this is useful, nerve calming, and welcomed by the actor.
  3. Receptivity: Actors are trained to be open, receptive and present in the moment. Remaining "open" means you might surprise yourself and everyone else with something unplanned and perfect. We adore the director who is also open and receptive, who lets us play and allows the unexpected to enhance the process. Bill Painter: (referencing a favorite director) "His genius was his absolute lack of what I call pride of authorship. He didn't care if the words weren't exactly what he'd written; he was committed to the best possible advertising message, and if it was the result of an actor's input, so be it." Remember that creative gems are forged in an environment of receptivity, so keep an open mind!

And of course, mutual respect will result in the best communication between those striving to do their jobs well. Best of luck on your audio projects. Find me at www.voiceofvicki.com

My thanks to JS Gilbert, Kevin Cooke, Diane Havens, and Bill Painter.

Copyright 2009 www.voiceofvicki.com