The Other Side of the Recording Booth at Cartoon Network Studios. From left, Dee Bradley Baker, Collette Sunderman, Kris Zimmerman, Robert Serda, 2001
HAPPY NEW YEAR! (I hope you can tell by the all caps font that I say those words joyfully and emphatically.)
I wanted to start off the new year with a new post. Something useful to the reader. But since every person has different interests, and you can’t please everyone, I’m devoting this post to the up-and-coming voice actors in the house. So if you’re an up-and-coming voice actor AND you’re a reader, then today is your lucky day!
The fact is, it’s almost impossible to tell what a person looks like by the sound of their voice. I remember doing a USO visit and a woman yelled out, “What? Who are you?” I explained to her that I was the creator of Johnny Bravo and she said, “Oh no you’re not. Now just turn around and tell the REAL creator he can come on in!” We playfully went back and forth, but she was convinced that I was supposed to look and sound like Johnny. She liked my impression of him, but I couldn’t help but feel that I disappointed her by not being tall, blonde, and buffed.
If you’re an actor who wants to get into voice acting, it’s not enough to be the guy/girl in your circle of friends who does funny voices. So you do a great William Shatner? The truth of the matter is, the producers are probably going to hire the real Shatner over you. There’s so much more that an actor needs to have in his/her arsenal if he/she wants to stand out amongst the regular professionals who do this full-time and are constantly honing their craft. When we’re auditioning actors, we listen to hundreds of voices. We know after only a few seconds whether or not an actor has the chops to handle a character for multiple episodes. So what does an actor need to do to stand out amongst the other hungry actors? Well, that’s a whole other master class in and of itself. But here’s my two cents…
I just finished teaching a character design course at Loyola Marymount University, and part of the course was a field trip to the Walt Disney TV Animation Studios. While we were there, we met with the wonderful (and I’m not just using that adjective because it’s synonymous with the World of Disney) Dave Wright, the Executive Director and Head of Casting for Disney Television Animation. He meticulously walked my students through the casting process from voice auditions to recording. While showing the students how to audition and direct, he did an excellent job of articulating how painstakingly hard it is to be an actor in the field of voice work.
Much to Dave’s credit, he was able to recreate the feel during a voiceover recording so the students could take what they’ve learned in the classroom and see how it compares to what folks are doing on a professional level. Needless to say, it was a priceless piece of the educational pie. Many DVD’s have extras that show you what it’s like in the sound booth, but nothing compares to listening to the mistakes, the retakes, and the decisions that actors and directors make in the thick of things.
It’s an absolute skill to be able to come in cold and read a page of sides and really nail the character. I feel for each and every actor going into the booth, thinking that they have a shot at impressing the producers and directors. Unfortunately, 9 times out of 10 they’re totally off. Which is good news to some actors and bad news for others. The thing that actors need to know is that they are coming in to solve the producer’s problem. And believe you me, we REALLY want every person that walks through the casting door to succeed. What we want is someone to match or exceed the expectations that we’ve already put down to paper. Unfortunately, the agents think that just because a person looks the part, they obviously should be able to act the part.
At auditions, I usually sit to the side and stare at a drawing to really see if the actor’s voice has merit and matches the character. Often, a person comes in who looks the part, but after hearing them, I can tell that they’re anything but. One time, a guy came in who had some really odd beats of silence, which made me curious as to what was going on in the booth. Sure enough, he was acting and getting into character amidst those beats of silence. I watched as he made faces and contorted his body to embody the character, but then when I turned away, his voice came out flat and dry.
The saddest part for me is when veteran actors come in deflated. I can recall one particular instance when a really talented guy (I’m sure if I said his name you could name a number of roles he’s played over the past few decades) entered already thinking he wasn’t going to get the part. I’d been in the booth with him before and he was always fun and witty, but this time he lacked any kind of life in his reading (at least any kind I was used to). In the end, he was better than most, but not quite what we were looking for. But it made me think, how many auditions does he do every week? And out of those auditions, how many gigs does he actually get?
I’m guessing that most actors get passed on more than they get booked. There are a select few that are constantly working, but for the most part, many of these “voice actors” end up falling by the waste side. And I don’t blame them. I would have a hard time going to audition after audition, being judged and berated, with the hopes that I might book a gig. I would go mad.
Hopefully you’re not left thinking, “Why is Van posting such a downer at the start of the new year?”
Well, there’s some good news that goes along with this. (Thank you, Van!)
There are a lucky few that make the cut. There’s always someone new that breaks through all the mucky muck that holds others back.
The other side of the recording booth at Hanna Barbera. From left: Kara Vallow, Ed Collins, Bodie Chandler, Maureen McCormick, 1997
Basically, what I want to say in this new year is, keep trying. Keep working on your craft, hone your skills, and study. Take classes. Do regional work and make your mistakes where it’s not on a national or international stage.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Honestly, if you really want to hear stories from the trenches, (mind you, this is not a paid plug, but he’s a good friend) I would listen to Rob Paulsen’s Talkin’ Toons podcast. You can get all the episodes on iTunes. It really goes into detail about voice acting and directing.
I hope to see y’all and work with you in the booth someday. Good luck!