Nancy Cartwright

Why is doing voice-overs so difficult? Part 1

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Studio 9 Comments
Yuja Wang performing with the National Youth Orchestra of China at Carnegie Hall on July 22, 2017

Yuja Wang

A new year, a new career?

It’s almost 2019, and if you’re one of the many people who are thinking of becoming a voice-over, this is for you. Before you leave your day job, you need to hear from someone on the inside what life is like when you depend on your voice for a living.

I can tell you one thing right now: in spite of what you may have heard, it’s not what you think it is. Far from it. I’ve been doing this for over thirty years, so please trust that I know what I am talking about.

I have to warn you, though. You may hear me say a few things you don’t want to hear. Please keep an open mind. It’s not my job to either encourage or discourage you from following your dream. If there’s a fire burning inside of you, don’t let me put it out. Use this information to prepare yourself for what lies ahead.

So, why is doing voice-overs so hard?

Anything that seems easy, usually isn’t.

It sounds like no big deal, doesn’t it? Talking for a living. We all do it, incessantly. Human beings need to communicate, so, why not get paid for it? Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer J. Simpson is said to be worth over $60 million, just like Nancy Cartwright who voices Bart Simpson. All they do is blabber into a microphone.

Seeing them at work in the studio, voice acting looks like so much effortless fun, and that’s where you make your first mistake. What you see is the result of unique talent, and many, many years of training, hard work, and experience.

In a way it’s like watching Yuja Wang perform a Rachmaninov piano concerto. Her playing is so fast and fluent that it’s easy to forget that even at the peak of her career, she has to practice many hours a day to get to a point where it becomes seamless and second nature.

In our society, we tend to fixate on the end result, and ignore the long and arduous journey to success. Please keep in mind that those who do well as voice-overs are in it for the long haul, and they realize that instant gratification is an illusion sold to you by people who want your money.

Back to the musical metaphor.

The relationship of a musician to a score is like the relationship of an actor to a script. You’ve got to make the words your own, finding the right tone, melody, and rhythm.

Here’s a question for you: There’s a difference between playing the notes and making music.

Anyone can read, but can you actually make music?

Let me take that back. Not everyone can read. Most people think they can, but when you give them a few lines, their volume drops, they start stammering and become very self-conscious. I’ve been there. You’ve been there. You put emphasis on the wrong words. You mumble as your tongue dries up. What comes out of your mouth sounds stilted instead of spontaneous. And when I point that out, you tell me:

“Here’s the problem, Paul. This script… those are not my words. I would never say it that way. That’s why I’m having so much trouble.”

Well, there’s your challenge! At one point, Nancy Cartwright had to find her Bart Simpson, and Dan Castellaneta his Homer (as well as the many other characters they play). They were asked to say things they would never say in real life, and convince the rest of the world they meant every word of it.

That’s part of why voice acting is so difficult. You’re paid to sound authentic and sincere, even when you’re faking it and the script sucks. And take it from me that more than half of the scripts you’ll be asked to voice are written to be read, not spoken, with too many words and too little time.

Meanwhile, you and I are still working on that text I just gave you. Now let’s put you in front of a microphone, and we’ll add an audience to the mix. Let’s assume you’re in a recording studio and the client is listening to your session, together with the director and the sound engineer.

Are you ready for that? After all, people have told you that you have “such a great voice.” How would you handle your nerves? How would you deal with last-minute script changes? How would you respond to feedback that isn’t necessarily positive? Are you patient enough to work for two hours on a thirty-second script, laying down take after take? Will your voice hold up, even when asked to scream enthusiastically over and over again?

All of the above assumes that you have passed the first hurdle: the microphone. Most people become very self-conscious when someone points a camera at them. All of a sudden they don’t know where to put their hands or how to hold their head. The same thing happens with a microphone.

Once you’re aware that every sound you make is being recorded, the pressure is on. And when I say every sound, I mean every sound. Even the sounds you’re not aware of. Every breath, every lip smack, every pop, every click, every snap, bone crackle, and stomach rumble.

The microphone is like a merciless magnifying glass exposing all your imperfections.

These are just some of the things you have to confront as a voice-over professional. You have to…

Sound natural in an unnatural situation, and act as if you’re not acting.

To be honest, most people can’t do it, and they don’t need to because they have other talents and ambitions. Not every piano student wants to have a career like Yuja Wang, but those who do, better prepare themselves!

Next week I’ll talk about another aspect of what makes doing voice-overs so difficult:

It’s a freakin’ business!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Voice-Over Newbies: You Have Been Warned!

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Gear, International, Internet, Money Matters, Studio 24 Comments

Today I’m going to jump right into the topic of this blog.

No teasers. 

No anecdotes.

No mysterious introductions.

Right now I want to take a few minutes to talk about the pitfalls of a voice-over career. Now matter how many times you’ve dreamed about becoming the next Tom Kenny or Nancy Cartwright, you should never jump into the ocean if you don’t know how to swim. Too many hopefuls are drowning, and I don’t want you to be one of them. 

Here’s what you need to know.

NUMBER ONE

Most people tend to underestimate what it takes to become a full-time, for-profit voice-over. Why is that? Because the job of a true pro is to make it sound easy, spontaneous, and seamless. The best actors distinguish themselves by their ability to fool everyone into thinking that they’re not acting. Just because it sounds easy or looks easy, doesn’t mean it IS easy. 

So, pitfall number one is underestimating the difficulty of having to be natural in an unnatural situation. It requires a special ability to sound authentic even if you don’t believe a word of what you’re saying, as well as the skill to sound sincere, conversational, and real, as someone else is putting weird words into your mouth. To be honest: most people can’t do it.

NUMBER TWO

Pitfall number two is the technical aspect of this business. The number one reason most auditions get rejected is bad audio. You may have the perfect pipes for the job, but if you’re talking into a cheap microphone with a lot of self-noise, you lack basic microphone technique, and your recording space is not isolated and acoustically treated, you’re wasting your time. 

That expensive demo you just recorded in this great recording studio is worth nothing if you have no way of producing clean and professional audio recorded in your home. 

NUMBER THREE

Let’s boil it down to one word: professionalism. It’s easy to do this as a hobby, but as soon as you advertise yourself as a voice-over professional, things get serious. That label creates expectations, and rightly so. Clients hate it when they need to hold your hand. That’s not what they’re paying you for. 

As a pro you have to know how to run a freelance business with you being the CEO, the CFO, the head of marketing, advertising, and sales. You run the bookkeeping department, and you’re the audio engineer, as well as the featured talent. Plus, if you’re online, you’re running a global business!

Too many beginners are trying to figure things out on the fly, without any preparation or training. Why on earth would they do that? It’s asking for trouble. 

NUMBER FOUR

The next pitfall is a big one: money. You’ve got to spend money to make money, but you didn’t need me to tell you that.

While it is possible to get started as a VO with a simple recording set-up, please remember that you’re competing with people who have been doing this for years. These are people with a soundproof studio, a really nice microphone and preamp, and a website that attracts clients. It all adds up. On top of that, you have to stay afloat financially, while you are building your business. Your bank wants you to continue to pay your mortgage, and you do want to keep your health insurance, don’t you?

Secondly, while the cost of living goes up every year, voice-over rates have been going down at a dramatic degree. If you want to do this for a living, you can’t rely on doing the odd job here and there, unless you have a partner who can help you out, financially. You need to make sure that you have a consistent flow of projects coming your way, and that’s easier said than done – even for voice-overs. My advice: have a cash cushion that will help you stay afloat for… a few years.

Lastly, too many newbies quote or accept a job, even when they have no idea what to charge. Can you imagine a baker or a florist running her store that way? Clients love getting a bargain, but do you really want to contribute to the problem of sliding rates?

NUMBER FIVE

This is another big one: time. We live in an impatient world. Very few people experience overnight success. You can’t buy your way into a voice-over career. It needs to be earned. Slowly. The people who are at the top of their game are not the people that just started doing voice-overs. Most of them have been at it for years. 

VO is not a get rich quick – I can do this part-time scheme. The only people who can do this on the side are A-list actors who don’t depend on VO for a living. Ironically, they are the ones collecting all the awards.

Again, most people underestimate how long it may take before their voice can be the main source of revenue. For many, it will never happen. That’s not me being mean. That’s me warning you based on decades of experience, and on input from people like you. 

NUMBER SIX

Next on the list is increased competition. In case you hadn’t noticed, you’re not the only one who thinks he can do a mean Morgan Freeman impression, or talk like a movie trailer man. We have plenty of those folks in our ranks, and the role of Morgan Freeman is already taken by… Morgan Freeman. 

If you don’t have a specialty or a niche, it’s going to be tough to make your mark because you’re basically redundant. Technology has made it a lot cheaper an easier to get started. You don’t need to be close to a studio to do your work. That means that every frustrated teacher, every burned-out retail clerk, and every unemployed actor (which happens to be the majority) is now your competition.

But wait, there’s more. Much more!

NUMBER SEVEN

If you want to hear a number other things you should look out for, I invite you to listen to Jamie Muffett’s VO School Podcast

You’ll find it on SoundCloud, iTunes, Google Play, and a few other platforms. Jamie is producing and hosting this podcast in collaboration with Backstage Magazine

In the latest episode, agent Erik Sheppard and I talk candidly about the many schemes you shouldn’t fall for when starting in this business. 

Please join us, and don’t tell me I didn’t warn you!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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One Girl. Many Voices. Perdita Lawton.

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Book, Career, Freelancing, Journalism & Media 4 Comments
Perdita Lawton with "Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing for Voice-Overs and other Solopreneurs," by Paul Strikwerda

Perdita Lawton

To celebrate the release of Making Money In Your PJs, freelancing for voice-overs and other solopreneurs, I organized a  “Who-wants-to pick-Paul’s-brains contest.”

Today, I’m excited to introduce one of the winners. Her name is Perdita Lawton from the UK. She’s been a professional (voice) actor since June 2006. The photo she sent me immediately stood out, and I had to know the story behind the picture. Perdita:

“The picture was taken on my first scuba diving holiday in Malta. One of the dives was near the set of the 1980’s film Popeye starring Robin Williams. It was taken during a surface interval (to allow residual nitrogen to be absorbed). I thought it was a perfect setting, and time to read your book while taking a picture.”

When and how did you know that you wanted to become a (voice) actor? Who inspired you?

“I guess it was in training at drama school that I realised it was an equal option to theatre, television and film acting. My tutors often told me my vocal work was very strong, and a tutor and mentor Pal Aron (a professional actor) told me to get a demo done as it’s another string to an actors bow. Pal was an inspiration as well as the late Daws Butler, Nancy Cartwright, and Michael Winslow (Larvelle Jones in Police Academy). As a child I watched that series in awe of Michael’s talent!”

A lot of VO artists have a radio background. What’s yours? What kind of training did you have?

“My radio background was limited. I did a few weeks of work experience when I was 15 at a hospital radio station, and then a local radio station respectively. I really loved radio work but focused more on stage acting as I’d got the bug. I went to University where I studied English and Drama, and then I went to drama school. Vocal training involved accent, and general voice classes where you focus on breathing, pitch, tone, resonance, and projection for the stage.”

Do you have a niche, and if so, how would you describe it?

“I think a niche of mine is definitely character and animation voices, I especially enjoy doing eccentric and comedic characters. My range gets wider the more I practice and it seems to be scoring jobs in that market.”

What came first for you: voice acting or on-camera/stage acting?

“Professional stage and screen acting came first, then voice acting came due to circumstances. My late father invested money in some amazing equipment for me so I could set up my own studio in the house, while caring for him as I couldn’t commit to work away from home.”

Do you think on-camera/stage actors have a tendency to underestimate voice-over work? If so, why do you think that is?

“I think most drama schools teach vocal work, so for a lot of actors, the training is already there, and they appreciate how hard it is to convey a message and character just through the medium of voice without a physical form. They do however underestimate us being a ‘one man band’ as described in your book. They certainly underestimate the cost, marketing, business skills and technical knowledge required for a professional home set up (without paying a professional).”

How do you land jobs in this very competitive industry?

“I started getting jobs on a Pay-to-Play site. This got me a body of work built up which lead to an agent, and now I’ve got returning clients as well as new ones from the Pay-to-Play site. I’m also recently scoring some big auditions from my agent.”

Perdita Lawton headshotWhat project or projects are you most proud of and why?

“I’m actually very proud of what I did Tuesday. It’s the biggest step on the ladder so far. It’s an award-winning Polish animation that’s being dubbed into English, and I’ve voiced the lead female role along with a few smaller roles.

I spent the day with a great audio engineer directing me, and we had great fun doing so, the ‘Auntie Hen’ character I play is hilarious as are the storylines. Animation voice acting is similar to pantomime. You have to go as large as possible, and I really like that.”

What has been your greatest obstacle/challenge in your career, and how did you overcome it?

“My greatest obstacle was getting work initially. It’s the catch 22, that I’m sure many have experienced. Without experience you aren’t offered work which prevents you from getting experience. I overcame it by getting local experience voicing newspapers, and magazines for the blind. I also make my own clips when I have time, and post them on SoundCloud, social media and my website. It allows me to be creative, whilst keeping my tools sharp, and lets people see I’m active. The dating.com girls are probably my creative highlight.”

How do you approach your auditions, and how do you deal with not being selected?

“I approach auditions making sure I’ve done everything in my control to get the job: I’ve warmed up, stayed away from dairy products, and done my research on the production/company/writer or whatever may be useful to know. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. I also never take rejection personally. What is for you will not pass by you, and just because you weren’t right for one voice over job doesn’t mean you won’t be right for another. The world is subjective, and it would be a boring place if we all liked the same thing!”

Tell me about your ambition. What would you really love to do, professionally speaking, and how are you working toward that goal?

“My voice acting ambition is to be England’s answer to Nancy Cartwright. I’m working towards that by getting my cartoon video seen by as many people as possible. It’s already attracted clients as well as making people laugh which is awesome.”

And lastly, back to Making Money In Your PJs. What has been your biggest take-away? Why should colleagues read it?

“There are several take-aways. It was so good, I re-read it to answer these questions to the best of my ability!

My primary light switch moment was about asking for a testimonial at the same time as agreeing to the job. I’ve been chasing after testimonials for ages with no joy. As soon as I’d read that chapter I had a job come through, and I put it in my terms of agreement, and they were happy to oblige.

Also customizing each and every demo, and not playing safe with demos too, knowing my worth and value, how to chase clients that haven’t paid and asking for a raise. I may get the Freelance Creed printed to keep in my studio.

Colleagues should read this because it’s seasoned advice from a professional, mixed with an amazingly positive attitude, and with tips that really work!”

Many thanks, Perdita!

You can follow Perdita on Twitter @LittleMissVO, and on her website at www.perditalawton.com.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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