voice-over narration

The One Thing That Will Improve Your Voice Acting Immediately

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Studio 26 Comments

Bradley Cooper

Question:

What’s the one thing that, if you’d start doing it today, would make you sound so much better?

Warm-ups?

Tongue twisters?

Sufficient hydration?

Well, in order to answer this question, we first have to agree on what “better” sounds like. “Better” is one of those vague words we all use, but rarely clarify. We always tell each other to do better, be better, and get better, but how? I’d better explain.

Before I do, let’s take one more step back, and find out what it is that actually needs to be improved. After all, we can’t come up with a solution if we don’t know what the problem is. 

Today I want to focus on something that many of my voice-over students struggle with. They have trouble sounding “natural.”

People who pose for pictures suffer from the same phenomenon. As soon as they see a camera, they become self-conscious, and start acting differently. Unnaturally. 

The same thing happens when you put people (even professionals) in front of a microphone, and it’s time to record. During the sound check they were chatting away carelessly, but as soon as the engineer utters the words “… and we’re rolling,” something weird happens. 

Immediately, the voice changes. With men it often becomes deeper, and forcefully resonant. Words start coming out in a more deliberate, over articulated way, as if the voice talent is impersonating what they believe a voice-over should sound like. It’s that intolerable tone that’s so cliché and contrived. It tells you a text is read aloud, instead of spontaneously spoken. 

This vocal switch-flipping phenomenon is not limited to voice-overs, by the way. I see it in grown-ups trying to interact with infants. Give them two seconds, and out comes the baby voice! Teachers have their teacher’s voice, priests have their preacher’s voice, and some nurses have this annoying way of saying: “And how are we feeling today?” 

Back to the recording booth. Apart from a clear change in diction and tonality, I’ve noticed two other things both men and women are equally guilty of, as soon as they realize they’re being recorded.

One: they start talking louder.

Two: they start talking faster

If you’ve ever sung in a choir, you know what I’m talking about. A conductor asking his choristers to sing softer, will tell you that they’ll automatically start singing slower. When asked to speed up a bit, people start singing louder. It’s almost a knee-jerk reaction. 

Because this not a deliberate process, most of my students aren’t even aware that they’re suddenly talking faster and louder. I’ll often interrupt them and say:

“Who are you trying to reach? Your deaf grandmother in the back row of some imaginary theater? Right now you’re talking straight into a microphone. Think of it as my ear. There’s no need to raise your voice. The script doesn’t ask you to. This is a simple educational narration. Adjust your gain if you feel your signal is too weak, or come closer to the mic, but whatever you do, please use your normal, inside voice.”

At this point I wanted to write “It’s easier said than done,” but that’s not true. Saying it, is the problem. Consider this.

The relationship between a narrator and a listener is delicate, and intimate. Rarely will you be closer to a human being than when you’re whispering into his or her ear, even though both of you are invisible to the other.

At that moment of connection, you breathe life into the lines, creating a world with your words. It is your job to make that experience as truthful and natural as possible. When you manage to do that, a few things will happen: 

1. The listener will be able to focus on the content, without being distracted by an over-the-top delivery. 

2. The listener will become more receptive to your message, because you sound more real. 

3. By treating your voice gently, you’ll be able to go on longer, because you’re not putting so much stress on your vocal folds. 

Everybody wins.

Now for some bad news, and some good news. The bad news is that old habits tend to die a slow death. Think of all those ex-radio people who just couldn’t shake their announcer voice. It takes awareness, coaching, and practice to unlearn what has become automatic, and do more with less. 

The good news is that even the greatest actors of our time struggle with sounding natural. When the movie Silver Linings Playbook came out, leading man Bradley Cooper was interviewed by Terry Gross, host of NPR’s Fresh Air. This is what he told her:

“As I’ve been acting the last 12 years, I’ve thought, ‘Well, the one thing I do have is this ability to make things seem … that I’m not acting.’ I’ve always felt like I can make lines that have been written come out of my mouth in a realistic way. … Then I met Robert De Niro and did the movie Limitless with him and realized that that wasn’t the case.

“I … still remember the table read for Limitless. … He comes in on about page 25. … The beginning of the movie is basically my character talking — there’s a lot of voice-over — and then all of a sudden he says something to me, and I stopped the reading, and I turned to him and I said, ‘I’m sorry. What’s that?’ And I realized he was actually saying his first line, but it was so grounded — as if he wasn’t acting — and I realized, ‘Oh, I’ve just been acting my tail off for the past 20 minutes. And here’s an example of somebody, you know, saying what they mean and meaning what they say.”

Of course there’s a difference between playing a role in a motion picture, and narrating a documentary, or an eLearning project. However, being a narrator is one of the roles voice-overs play, if you will. Good narrators give the impression that they’re not playing that role. They say what they mean, and they mean what they say with the least amount of performance. They create the illusion of spontaneity, giving the audience the impression that they’re not acting at all. 

Great (voice) actors are masters at pretending not to pretend. 

So, what’s the one thing that, if you’d start doing it today, would make you sound so much better? To put it bluntly:

Quit trying so hard!

Relax.

Breathe.

If you want to sound more natural, use your normal speaking voice and volume. 

Stop yelling, and start telling. 

Imagine you’re talking to someone across the table from you. 

It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? 

Well, there’s the rub.

Only a true and talented professional knows how to make something unnatural seem natural, even if it’s as normal as making conversation. 

The great acting teacher Sanford Meisner explained it best when he was asked for his definition of acting.

This was his answer:

“Acting is behaving truthfully in imaginary circumstances”.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Drunk and Lazy

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles 7 Comments

The rumors started a few years ago.

It all began when they had seen her struggle to get to the car.

It was not a pretty sight.

Swaying from one side to the other, Jennifer stopped to take a breath and regain her balance. Her brain was telling her body to walk upright, with that strong, steady gait she had always been so proud of. But somehow, that message didn’t reach her muscles because she kept on waddling like a duck.

As she looked down, she realized how uneven the sidewalk was. Every tile that was sticking out turned it into an obstacle course.

She stopped again and looked at her neighbor’s porch. A shadow quickly moved away from the front window.

When she finally reached the car, she had to hold on to it, to stay on her feet. Jennifer opened the door and swung herself into the driver’s seat. When she drove away, she already felt exhausted, and the day had barely begun. She wondered how well she would do at the audition.

NEIGHBORS

The people next door were old school. They didn’t say much, and when they did, it was usually behind her back. Much of the world was a mystery to them, and yet, they acted as if they knew everything.

For one, they thought that Jennifer was lazy, because she hardly ever left for work in the morning. They had no idea that Jennifer had a state of the art voice-over home studio equipped with ISDN and SourceConnect.

Secondly, they were pretty sure that Jennifer was faking a handicap. One day, they had seen her walking with a cane. The next day, she seemed to be totally fine. Besides, she looked great. Sick people usually don’t look that good.

Perhaps Jennifer was feigning disability to get money from the government. How else could she afford the mortgage? After all, she had no job and people abuse the system all the time.

The neighbors also knew something else: Jennifer liked a drink or two. That would explain the swaying and the stumbling on the sidewalk. In short: Jennifer was a jobless, lazy drunk who shouldn’t even be driving. She should be ashamed of herself!

THE STAGGERING TRUTH

This week is MS Awareness week, and like many other people who suffer from multiple sclerosis, Jennifer was gearing up for the annual Walk MS event in May. She needed sponsors for the walk and she decided to stay close to home. Jennifer loved to bake and had an idea: she would go door-to-door with her delicious home-made cookies and raise funds for the event.

As the oven was heating up, she thought back to the last meeting of her support group. That night, they had discussed the many misconceptions surrounding MS.

Larry, the facilitator, warned everybody:

“When it comes to a chronic illness like MS, if it’s not visible, it does not exist. In other words: as long as you’re not in a wheelchair, people tend to think that you must be doing alright.

Some folks think that MS is the result of a poor diet or negative thinking. In other words: you’re basically doing it to yourself. Eating healthy and an optimistic attitude alone could solve the problem. Wouldn’t that be lovely?

As you know, many MS symptoms are silent. Different people have different symptoms and some of them come and go. There’s poor coordination, fatigue, vertigo, visual disturbances, tremors, spasticity, weakness, slurred speech, unstable walking, sensitivity to heat… do I need to go on?”

POLLING THE PEOPLE

“When they surveyed people in the UK about MS last year, almost half of the respondents couldn’t name a single symptom. Others believed that MS was contagious or inherited and almost always fatal. None of that is true. Mind you, the people that were interviewed were from a cross-section of the population. They weren’t exactly uneducated.

So, on top of suffering from a nearly invisible autoimmune disease, people with MS also suffer from these myths and misconceptions.”

At that point, Carlos interjected. He had been a flight attendant for many years, until MS had him grounded.

“I always tell people: Even though I have this disease, it’s not who I am. I’m still the same person. I don’t want your sympathy. I want your understanding.”

FEELING IT

Have you ever wondered what it feels like to have MS? Singer-songwriter Kristie Salerno Kent was officially diagnosed in November 1999. She made a short film about living with MS. Please take a few moments to watch it. I think you’ll like her approach. Depending on your computer, you might have to turn the volume up a little:

DOOR-TO-DOOR

Let’s pick up Jennifer’s story where we left off. Her scrumptious chocolate chip cookies were ready and wrapped with an orange ribbon. Within the hour, she had sold almost her entire batch to the people on her block, and there was only one house left: the neighbors. On her last legs, she rang the doorbell.

“What’s up with you?” asked the neighbor. “It looks like you were hit by a truck.”

“Oh well,” said Jennifer. “It’s the fatigue. I’ve been going door-to-door to sell these cookies for the MS Walk…”

“I know exactly what you mean,” interrupted the neighbor. I get tired too. We all do. Just get some rest and you’ll be okay. Why are you selling cookies? Did you join the Girl Scouts?”

“It’s for people who want to sponsor my team for the MS Walk in May. You get three for a dollar,” said Jennifer.

“MS… that’s what Michael J. Fox has, right?” asked the neighbor. “He looks fine to me. Saw him on the Olympics a few weeks ago. Once an actor, always an actor.”

“I believe he has Parkinson’s,” said Jennifer. “I raise money for Multiple Sclerosis.”

“I’ll tell you what,” said the neighbor. “I just gave money to those poor people in Haiti, and I’m sure you’ll make someone else happy with these cookies for Multiple… whatever it is. Right now, my pizzas have arrived.”

As Jennifer walked back to her house, the guy from Domino’s made his delivery.

“Sir, that’ll be $18.98”.

“Here’s twenty five,” said the neighbor. “Keep the change.”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

 

FACTS*
MS is a chronic, unpredictable neurological disease that affects the central nervous system.

Approximately 400,000 Americans have MS, and every hour someone is newly diagnosed. Worldwide, MS affects about 2.1 million people. Even though there is no cure, there are now FDA-approved medications that have been shown to “modify” or slow down the underlying course of MS. In addition, many therapeutic and technological advances are helping people manage symptoms.

MS SOCIETY
The National MS Society is the largest nonprofit organization in the United States supporting research for the treatment, prevention and cure of multiple sclerosis. Approximately 83% of Society income is devoted to research and service programs that enhance the lives of people with MS and their families.

WALK MS
Every spring nearly 300,000 people unite across the country to participate in Walk MS. All walks have an accessible route so people of all abilities can participate. Funds raised support the Society’s research and services programs. 

*Source: National MS Society

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