We all have people we admire because they inspire.
One of my heroes happens to be a dancer, singer-songwriter, comedian, stage and screen actor, as well as a first-rate audio book narrator.
Like me, he is a naturalized U.S. citizen. One of the songs he wrote the lyrics to, was nominated for an Oscar. He received five Tony Award nominations, and won one for Barnum. He also has two Grammy’s.
In July of 2014, aged 78, he finished a twelve week one-man show about his career at the Laura Pels Theater in New York called “Just Jim Dale.”
I’m sure you know Jim Dale as the narrator of the Harry Potter series in the U.S. (Stephen Fry narrated the UK version). For his voice work Dale received ten Audie Awards, and twenty-three Audio File Earphone Awards.
Dale previously held the record for creating and recording 134 different characters portrayed in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The new record holder is Roy Dotrice -aged 91- with 224 voices for A Game of Thrones.
This is what the AudioFile magazine wrote about Dale:
“When J.K. Rowling has Hagrid boom, Dumbledore hum, and Aunt Marge belch, listeners can hear exactly what that sounds like, thanks to Jim Dale’s spellbinding narration. He gives voice to every wizard, muggle, house elf, goblin, giant, and hundreds of other characters who pass through Hogwarts, Hogsmeade, Diagon Alley, and the other magical environs of the Harry Potter series. He is a major part of why these fantastical volumes are among the top-selling audiobooks of all time.”
THE BIG SECRET
This begs the question: Is there a secret to Jim Dale’s mastery? Fortunately, he gave us the answer. Dale said:
“Good acting is consistency of performance.”
The ability to deliver the same quality over a period of time is one of those things that separates the professional from the pretender, whether it is in sports, music, the culinary arts or in (voice) acting.
If you want your performance to be credible, you have to be consistent.
This may seem obvious, but as in many things in life, it is easier said than done. Imagine having to come up with 134 different character voices, knowing that many of them will return in a series of seven books.
In a motion picture, these characters are portrayed by different actors. The audio book narrator is on his or her own, and has to create and recreate these characters accurately over a period of time. It’s a daunting task, and quite a responsibility.
In an article on authentic listening, Junko Yokota and Miriam Martinez said the following:
“The audiobook narrator plays a role similar to that of a translator of a book from one language to another. A good translator can make a big difference in the reading experience through word choice and passage interpretation; likewise, the audiobook narrator helps mediate the story for the listener by selecting what tone to take, what types of voices to give to characters, what to emphasize, and how to engage the listener.”
There’s a big difference between reading into a microphone, and telling a story. Great narrators like Jim Dale are storytellers who take you on a journey you never want to end. And by the way, this doesn’t only apply to audio books. Sometimes, a twenty-second script for a commercial is a short story in and of itself.
These days, some voice-over coaches are trying to drum up business by telling prospective students that audio books and video games are booming. They are right. We’re living in the golden age of the spoken book, and successful video games make way more money than Oscar-winning movies.
Hordes of hopefuls sign up for voice-over classes because they believe they have the pipes casting directors are waiting for. Many of these beginners are making two big mistakes:
- They believe that in order to make it as an audio book narrator or in animation and video games, they have to be good at doing impressions.
- They think that being able to sing one song, makes them ready to perform an entire opera.
In the Documentary I Know That Voice, voice actor James Arnold Taylor had this to say:
“It’s not about ‘I can do Christopher Walken, I can do Johnny Depp, I can do Michael J. Fox.’ That’s great, but can you do ANYTHING as them? Can you stay in that voice for hours; scream in that voice for four hours?”
In other words: consistency is key. Consistency and stamina.
ARE YOU REALLY READY?
Like Jim Dale, you have to have the ability to stay in character, and then switch character and get back to the first character, while introducing a third. And you do this for hours at a time in a space smaller than a prison cell. Dale is usually in the studio from 10:30 am until 5:30 pm, recording twenty pages an hour for two weeks to record one book (source). This requires serious training, serious preparation, and serious self-care.
If you’re new to the business and want to break into audio books, I dare you to record for even one hour straight, and find out how your voice feels at the end. Does it still sound the same? Could you continue for another hour, or are you exhausted; do your vocal folds feel raw, and do you need a few hours to recover? If so, you’re not ready to meet that 3-week deadline for this 700-page novel you just agreed to narrate at $100 per finished hour (a ridiculously low rate by the way).
THE VOICE BUILDER
There’s a reason why some VO-pros like James Arnold Taylor study with Gary Catona. Catona calls himself the “voice builder,” and he has worked with Andrea Bocelli, Usher, Shakira, Shirley MacLaine, Tony Bennett, and many others. He approaches voice building as a sport, and encourages his students to train the voice like an athlete trains his muscles.
You can read about his method in his book “A Revolution in Singing.” Gary also developed an iPhone/iPad Voice Building App ($4.99) with over twenty voice building sessions, exercises, and video demonstrations for singing and speaking voices.
A few years ago he did a talk at Google, and if you’re interested in his work and his philosophy, you can watch it on YouTube when you click this link. At 26:34 Catona answers a question from a voice-over artist in the audience.
BUT THERE’S MORE..
Being consistent as a (voice) actor means more than being able to do marathon recording sessions, and staying in character(s). Pacing is important too. If you’re reading your lines too fast, the listener has no idea of what’s being said. If you’re too slow, the listeners’ mind will start to wander.
It also means being able to deliver audio files of consistent professional quality. People like Jim Dale go to a studio and work with an audio engineer, and perhaps a director. Most narrators do not have that luxury. They run a business out of a walk-in closet, hoping the dog next door won’t start to bark. They self-direct, self-record, and they edit every minute of every file. One hour of finished audio can take many hours to complete.
Dale realizes how much work goes into the production of an audio book. When Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire came out, he told reporter Rochelle O’Gorman:
“The magic of the Harry Potter books is really in the hands of the editors and engineers. They take all the mistakes that I make – and I make thousands of them – and edit them out, and splice the tape reading into such a beautifully seamless production. They’re the geniuses; they’re the ones that we should applaud because nobody knows how much work they have to do.”
Credit where credit is due, but at the same time, Dale gave those engineers something magical to work with:
Constant, consistent brilliance.
And that’s why he is one of my heroes!
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
PS When this story was first published, I received the following message from Jim Dale:
“So many thanks for the words you have written about me, truly embarrassing. I also wish to congratulate you on all your work in the narrating world, very impressive. I have also traveled through your website, really amazing. My thanks again for writing about me and my sincere best wishes in whatever you choose to become involved in next. Jim”
PS This is part 5 in my series on performance and script delivery. You can read part 1 by clicking on this link, and part 2 by clicking on this link. Click here for part 3. If you’d like to read part 4, please click here.