This is the question that I get asked most often. Everyone wants to do voiceover work, and why shouldn’t they? There is money to be made, and in the looks obsessed world of Hollywood, the “go to work in a t-shirt” promise sounds extra appealing (more about that in part 2, not always a good idea). I don’t have a prescription for you, but in this piece I’ll share my own story and some of the resources I use. In next week’s piece, I’ll share perspectives from other VO actors and discuss some online resources.
First off, a quick definition: the term voiceover is used in this industry any time you hear a voice without seeing the speaker. Sometimes it is used to convey the thoughts of a character that is also on screen, but often it is an entirely separate voice. It is used in all mediums though people outside of the industry are rarely aware of it. There is voiceover talent used in radio, television, film, books on tape, games, cd-roms, animation, industrials and on-line. There is both union and non-union voice-over work.
I’m not sure exactly what lessons can be learned from my own entry into the field. As I mentioned in my bio on the “about us” page, my initial introduction to the idea of doing voiceover work came about by accident. A voiceover agent from a major agency called me when I mailed him my headshot seeking on-camera representation (why? I have no idea! I do understand that this type of thing never happens), and while we chatted on the phone about my mistake, he said that I had an interesting voice and should look into making a VO demo. It sounded like fun, and wow! The agent seemed so nice! (I believe his was the only phone call I received from that mailing), so I immediately began to look into it.
Not knowing anyone who worked in the field to ask, I started calling VO teachers and demo-reel producers who advertised in Back Stage. There was again some serendipity at play, and one of the people I met when looking for someone to take class from actually got me an audition. It was my very first voiceover audition and I booked it, and even luckier than that, it was not just for one spot, but nine. I still remember the tag line, “The International Diamond Outlet, where even our initials say, I do.”
I was terrified and exhilarated in the booth, but it must have gone at least decently well, as they used me for all nine spots and ran them for quite a long time. I was able to use some of this material on my demo reel, along with some spots that I recorded with a demo reel producer in order to have more variety. I called back the agent, sure that he would be as thrilled as I was about my quick progress into the field. As I mentioned in my bio, he told me his roster was full and he didn’t need any more of my type. “But I just booked nine spots!” I told him. He didn’t budge, or even seem to recall our warm chat just a few weeks earlier.
As confusing as all that was, I’d just made actual money as an actor for the first time! I started calling some of the other voice-over agencies in town. Each of them told me to send in my demo, but when I told them that I had just recorded nine spots in the last week, almost all of them set up appointments to meet with me. One of the agents and I really clicked, and after following her from the now defunct J. Michael Bloom and Associates to Innovative Artists, I am still represented by that agency today.
Now, I am the first to concede that I had many lucky breaks on this path, but I think there are some things that someone else interested in pursuing voice-over can follow. First off, take a class! Your acting skill certainly comes into play, but it is not the only factor. Believe me, having a job as your first experience in the booth is supremely anxiety-inducing. You want to be comfortable in the booth, with a microphone, and with the terminology before you even have an audition. And you never know whom you will meet and how they will help you! It’s one of the ways in which you can begin to get acquainted with the voiceover community.
Even if you have done some work in voiceover, I believe classes can be hugely helpful. I had been working in voiceover for years, but I still took a class when I moved to Los Angeles. Though I am sure there are many fine places to study, I chose Kalmenson and Kalmenson. It allowed me to meet and develop a relationship with one of the major casting directors in town, become familiar with any regional differences between NY and LA, and practice after an unintentional hiatus caused by my move across country. Harvey Kalmenson is a legend in the business and a joy to audition for.
Another reputable source for classes and demos is Voicecaster. Though I haven’t taken classes with them, I have auditioned there many times (like Kalmenson, they are also a busy casting office) and the direction in the booth has always been spot on. Both Kalmenson and VoiceCaster offer animation classes as well as commercial VO classes.
Other very reputable names in the business for animation are Bob Bergen and Bill Holmes who teach together at Compost Productions Studios, and Susan Blue and Cynthia Songe at Blupka Productions. If promos and trailers are your thing, the go to woman for classes, coaching, and demos appears to be Joyce Castellanos. Another top name to study with in the promo field is David Alden of myvocoach.com. I haven’t worked with the above personally (yet, I hope to!), but they come highly recommended by many VO actors whom I trust. Just like acting, in voiceover one must be a life long learner.
Your next step is to put together a demo-reel. When I moved out to Los Angeles, Innovative Artists had already been my voiceover agent in New York for years. I still needed to put together a new and updated reel in order to work with the Los Angeles branch. Let me reiterate: they were already my agents and had been for years, and my contract covered both NY and LA, yet I still needed to give them a new, updated demo reel in order to work with the Los Angeles branch. This wasn’t so that they could decide if they wanted to work with me, but so that they would know what to do with me and how to submit me on projects. Having no money to spend, I put together a reel with a friend who had a mic and sound editing tools on his computer. I stood in his bathroom with a towel under the door because it was the only way we could knock out the street noise.
I absolutely do not believe that a reel must cost a fortune, but you must have one. In another post, I will go over a way to create your own copy so that you have something to record if you are new to the business. If you do have some money to spend, there are a lot of wonderful places that can provide you with really high quality reels. All of the studios and teachers listed above in the class section also either produce or coach demo reels. Sometimes that is the most appropriate route to follow, but money doesn’t need to hold you back. With a little ingenuity, a demo-reel is something that you can put together on your own.
Next week I will discuss the many online resources, but I will leave you with two final things that you can begin to do right away and which are free! First, If you are new to VO or just interested in getting into the field: read out loud. Read newspaper articles, short stories, magazine ads, anything which will allow you to become familiar with your own voice, with your range, with where and how often you need to take breaths and with simply reading copy out loud. Second, listen to ads, both on television and the radio. Can you start to differentiate between the types of “reads” out there? Where do you fit in to what you hear? A simple exercise while driving around town is to listen to a line of a commercial, and then turn down the volume and repeat it yourself. Can you capture the tone and feel of the spot? Is it personal, an announcement, a secret? Are they talking to you as an authority or as your new best friend?
The idea that all voice-over work is done by the same five people, and that no new people can ever break into the business is wrong. There is room for every type of voice, but you must understand what your type is, and own it. Just like on camera work, no one can do you like you.
There is much more to come! Check back next Monday for insights from other voiceover actors and the online resources they use. Leave questions in the comment section below and let me know what you are interested in reading!
Click here for Part 2