The Art of Voice Acting  by James R. Alburger
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JV: What else do you cover in the workshop?

James: We cover the foundation, the acting skills and the acting techniques in the first two weeks. The third week we get into single voice copy, delivering for time. The first two weeks the scripts we're working with are dramatic dialogs, theatrical dialogs, because they have emotion, drama, something we can really grab onto in our delivery. It gives the students a chance to really explore different ways of communicating on an emotional level. The third week is working a script for time. Figuring out who the character is, how to best deliver that character and get all those words in 30 seconds, understanding our own body rhythm, our body clock and how that works as we're delivering a script.

     The fourth week we do a week of improvisation. There's no script. It's all improv, totally ad-libbed. We do improvisational games, which are very common in other improv classes, but what we've done is we've taken the improv games and structured the whole evening in such a way that each improvisational game we play is designed for specific elements of voice acting and communication--communicating on an emotional level, interaction between characters, discovering a character, sustaining a character over a period of time, developing skills for spontaneity, and listening and responding. Everything is about listening and responding even if we're doing a single voice script. We still have to understand what it is that we're listening to that has caused us to respond in the way we are as we deliver the words. So, it's all listen and respond. That's what the improv night does. We get those skills developed for listening to our partners in the improvisational games, responding from the top of our head, getting out of the box, thinking in ways that we normally don't think, stretching our boundaries.

     The fifth week of the workshop is the character voice class where we take everything we've done up to that point and really focus on how to find the right voice for the characters we're creating. Where are we going to place the voice in our body? How do we effect the tonality of the voice, the attitude of that character? What is going to be the best way to portray the character through our voice? That includes some thoughts and visualizations that go along with that character, so that as we're delivering the words, we are truly becoming the character.

     Then on the sixth week of the class, we do dialog. We're now in booths. Two people are in the booth interacting with a commercial script, again, for time, this time creating real characters that are interactive, listening, and responding. The scripts we use are designed for that kind of a purpose.

     The seventh week we move into a different aspect of voice-over, which is long form narrative. The long form narrative types of scripts include things like audio books, corporate videos, training tapes, anything that's usually about two minutes or longer--messages on hold and those kinds of things are all long form narrative. The performing style is different. We're not so much delivering for emotion and for character as we are communicating the message. Again, we have to understand who the audience is, why we're talking to them, and who we are. But the way that we present the information is going to be treated a little differently. Let's say for example you're a doctor. If you're a doctor and you're just having a conversation with one of your other doctor buddies, you're going to be speaking in a certain way to your peer. However, if you're a doctor and you are explaining a medical situation to a patient, or you have to instruct the patient in how to use a certain piece of medical equipment that's going to save their life, the way that you talk to the patient is going to be different than the way you would be talking to your peers. That's what we work on in that seventh week. It's a different approach to delivery.

     Then on the last class of our workshop, we go to a different recording studio so we're in unfamiliar territory, and we do a mock audition. We set that class up in such a way that it's as real as possible. At the end of the seventh class, we give everybody a sheet of paper that says next week this is where you're going to be. Show up at this time. When you get there, you won't see any of us. You'll get there and sign in. We do it as much like a real audition as possible. And then following the audition, once everybody has gone through their audition, we discuss the business side of voice-over--agents, the unions, demo tapes, how do you market, and that sort of thing.

JV: You also have a two-day seminar. Is this basically a crash course on the 8-week program?

James: Exactly. The two-day seminar we offer here in San Diego two or three times a year, and occasionally we take it out on the road. It's basically a weekend seminar--Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday. It's the content of the 8-week. The difference is we don't have as much individualized one on one coaching. But we cover all the information; the notebook is the same.

JV: Tell us about your book, The Art of Voice Acting.

James: It's a very comprehensive discussion of the acting techniques behind voice-over. Most of the other voice-over books that were out at the time, in fact most of the books that are still out, with the exception of mine, cover a lot of scripts. They tell you this is how you read a script, how you deliver a script. Most of them don't really break down the acting techniques that build the foundation for doing that. Some of them get into it a little bit, but my book really gets into a lot of the details on developing the character and understanding the acting techniques. I also have voice-over exercises in the book--warm up exercises, articulation exercises, ways of improving the sound of your voice, improving your delivery. Some of these exercises would be great for radio personalities.

     The second edition of the book will be coming out soon. It is tentatively scheduled to come out in March. I've updated all the material from the first edition. I've updated all of the scripts in the book. There are four chapters that have scripts for the different aspects of voice-over. Each chapter has about four to six scripts completely broken down and explained and detailed, and those scripts are completely different than what was in the first edition of the book. There will also be a CD that accompanies the second edition. On the CD is the original audio track for every one of the scripts that's in the book. There are also a number of vocal exercises on the CD. A friend of mine in Los Angeles who works in character animation voice-over does about a 10-minute demonstration on how to find and place a character voice. I also have about eight demos from a number of people from around the world. There's a .pdf file that can be loaded up on any computer, which has links to literally thousands of resources for voice-over (www.voiceacting.com/aovapdf). So, it's far more comprehensive than the original edition, and I'm really excited about that.

JV: What one exercise you'd recommend to radio people?

James: One of my favorite exercises is what I call The Cork. What you do is you find a paragraph of copy or a script or maybe a paragraph out of newspaper or a magazine and interpret that, find your best delivery, the best way that you can read it--audience, backstory, character. Figure out who your character is and how the character would speak those words. Just come up with the best interpretation you can. It takes maybe a couple minutes to do that if you're taking your time. Then I suggest that you record yourself delivering that piece of copy or that paragraph. Now turn off the recorder. This is where the exercise starts.

     Take the cork and insert the cork between your teeth lengthwise, horizontally. Put it so that the cork's about a quarter of an inch behind your front teeth. For some people, its really uncomfortable to do that. They can also use a pencil or a pen. You just place the pencil between your teeth fairly close to the front. The idea is that you're creating a situation where your jaw is in a fixed position, and your tongue is going to be obstructed a little bit either by the cork or by the pencil. Now take that same piece of copy that you just read and read it again with the cork in your mouth. And you do this out loud. You do this very, very slowly. We're not going for time. We're not going for emotion. We're not going for inflection. The objective of the exercise is to improve articulation. The idea is to take the sound of every word in that script and over emphasize every sound including the ends of words, and especially the ends of words, so it's overly articulated. Someone who's never done this before, by the time they get through the script for the first time, their cheeks are tired. Their tongue is tired. Their jaw is tired. Their lips are tired. These are the muscle groups of your face that this exercise is really working out. It's working the muscles of your vocal instrument, or at least the facial muscles of your vocal instrument. It's helping to improve articulation. Once you've done this exercise a couple of times, usually a couple of minutes, and you feel that you got some real work happening in your face, take the cork out, turn the recorder back on, and redeliver that same paragraph. Record it again. Then listen to before and after. Generally, there's a big difference in articulation--not so much that the words are overly articulated in the second delivery, because that's not what we want to do. The objective is to create a more real, more comfortable, more listenable type of delivery. So what often happens is the words are just more clear. You can just hear better what the message is or what the words are.

     Some people have a habit of what I call lazy mouth, where their lips and their jaw and their teeth just don't move a whole lot when they're speaking. This cork exercise helps overcome that because those muscles are being exercised and they're being used. There's an area on our website at www.voiceacting.com called Voice Over 101, and in that area there are lots of tips and tricks.

JV: What are some marketing tips for a free-lance voice talent?

James: For voice talent, the single most important thing is a good demo. Our demo is our portfolio. It's just like a photographer would have a portfolio of what he can do, what his work looks like, his style, his technique. That's what a demo is all about. It presents to the talent buyer or the producer what we can do, what we sound like, our ability level, our skills, our style, how we can communicate emotion, how we can communicate the sell of a commercial, how we say the client's name. All of those things are important to have in a demo. Without a demo, it's difficult to market yourself. That would be the first most important thing to have is a good demo.

     A mistake that a lot of people first starting out will do is they'll think that well, I've taken an 8-week workshop or maybe I've taken a couple of classes in voice-over, and now I really want to get out there and market myself, so I'm going to go put this demo together. I've got a good computer at home with some editing software; I can do all this stuff at home. They make a couple of mistakes. The first is that they think they're ready without being ready. They don't have a solid grasp on the performing skills. So, they'll go ahead and start working on their demo. And the second mistake many people make is that they do it themselves. They come up with a demo that they burn off to a CD and start making copies and start sending out to people. Two things happen. If you don't know what you're doing, it shows through like a fish out of water. It's glaring when you put a demo CD on and you start listening to it--a good producer, talent buyer or agent will know if you've got your chops. They can tell within the first five or ten seconds. They will know if you know what you're doing. The second thing is, it costs money to put this stuff together, to duplicate the CDs, to do the mailing, to make the phone calls, and do whatever print materials are going to go with that. It could easily be just a waste of a lot of money. So, you really want to have a demo produced. You want to be ready before you put the demo together, and you want to have the demo produced by somebody who knows what they're doing. That's either somebody who teaches voice acting or a recording studio that works with voice-over talent a lot. They know what works. They know how to direct the talent. They know how to get the right delivery from you. It's very difficult for voice actors to direct themselves.

     Now, it is possible to do a certain amount of self direction, but what happens is, when we try to direct ourselves, especially if we're truly doing the voice acting process and becoming the character on the script, what happens is we're so focused on the character that we become the character and our objectivity kind of goes away. It becomes very difficult for us to really be objective in our performance. We might think that we did a killer performance, and then we go back and listen to it or have some other professional listen to it, and it's not quite up to par. So, it really takes that outside director, that extra person to listen to it objectively and to be able to direct you as a performer into the delivery.

JV: How important is it to have an agent?

James: It is possible to do voice-over work without having an agent. I know lots of people in this business who do not have an agent. Agents are good however, because agents have access to resources that we as independent freelancers don't have. They have connections with the production companies or advertising agencies who may have a tendency to call them first. They will call the agent first rather than just arbitrarily hiring a freelancer, even if they've got a stack of demos on their shelf. So, agents are a good thing to have. An agent can be hard to get however, especially in a major market like Los Angeles or New York. It can be very difficult simply because the market is saturated, and the agents may not have any room. They may not be able to get work for most of the people that are on their roster already.

JV: And they probably have the cream of the crop in that market on their roster, right?

James: Oh yeah, especially in union talent. Heavy union markets like LA, New York and Chicago, they've got the best of the best in those markets.

JV: So, unless you are one really good talent, you probably don't stand much of a chance of even getting hooked up with some of the larger agents in the major markets. Would you agree?

James: Right. As far as working with the larger agents or the larger ad agencies or the larger projects, it takes time to get yourself to a level where you can be into that circle.

JV: Many radio people will market themselves to other radio stations looking for some commercial or imaging work. Outside of other radio stations, there are the independent production houses and the ad agencies. What's the best way to approach both of these types of companies? Is it best to mail a demo? Is it best to go in person? E-mail a demo?

James: From my discussions with producers and people who hire voice talent, the best approach that I have found is one of two approaches. E-mail is a good approach if you have an e-mail address for whomever it is you're trying to contact. Sometimes that can be hard to get. But if you have an e-mail address, you can compose a nice e-mail message and send off the e-mail and maybe attach an MP3 file of your demo. But what I usually recommend is that you make a phone call. Call the production company. Call the ad agency. Find out if they use outside freelance voice talent because a lot of these places don't. And they'll usually tell you if they do or not, or if they're even interested in hearing your demo. So call these places. Try to get the name of somebody, maybe one of their producers or a director or whoever would be in charge of hiring voice talent. And if possible, try to speak with them briefly on the phone. If you can't get them on the phone, then at least you want to get their name and find out if it would be okay to send them your demo. The receptionist or whoever you're talking to will usually be able to at least tell you if they're interested or not because they have other people approach them on this all the time. So, it's not something totally new to them. It's best to have that permission first. Unsolicited demos are rarely listened to. As long as they know that you've contacted them and they're expecting something to be coming in from you, you have a much better chance of getting your demo listened to.

JV: You also offer one-on-one coaching in person as well as on the phone. What can someone expect in a one-hour session with you?

James: In a one hour session, the first thing that I will do is spend probably five or ten minutes to get a handle, an understanding, of where the individual I'm working with is, where they are as a performer. What's their experience? What kinds of things have they done? What are they doing now? I need to know what their abilities are because that's going to gage how I will coach and direct them. Most of the time, I'll be working with some of the basic concepts that we've talked about, the ABCs, and I have a few other things that we will get into. Movement, physical movement, as part of the performance is another big aspect of doing voice acting. I'll work with the techniques. Usually we'll have a script or two that we will work with during an hour, and we'll focus on a lot of the acting techniques that go into creating the real and believable characters for that script.

JV: You mentioned you had a production company. Tell us about it.

James: It's called The Commercial Clinic. I put that together as a way of getting my voice-over work out there and doing voice-over work. My background is in television and sound design and audio production. I have 11 Emmy Awards and 5 Omni Intermedia Awards, so I've got a lot of award winning work behind me in 25 years as a sound designer in TV. I come from a technical background in that sense, but I'm also a performer. So I've worked both sides of the glass or both sides of the microphone. The production company, The Commercial Clinic, was put together as a way to take my voice, put it to good work, and create commercials that actually achieve something for our clients. We use creative production techniques and produce creative advertising. We work a little bit out of the box. Most of our scripts are story scripts, usually a dialog interactive script. We're always telling a story. There's usually something a little quirky about what we're doing. We try to develop scripts that get the attention of our listeners, hold onto that attention, and deliver a message, usually on an emotional level. We do that in lots of different ways. We kind of blend traditional advertising techniques that have been done for years with some rather non-traditional things that help make the commercials interesting and keep the attention. That's basically what we're doing with The Commercial Clinic is those kinds of commercial projects, and we've had a number of commercials on in various places around the country. We have some things up in Canada airing right now as well.

JV: You have some other websites other than www.voiceacting.com. What are they?

James: One is www.commercialclinic.com for the production company, and I have a third website which is www.speakingmagic.com. Penny Abshire and I are professional speakers as well, and in addition to the 8-week workshop and the 2-day seminar we do, we also do professional speaking. We'll go wherever people want us to talk and explain our techniques. We speak professionally for corporate trade shows and events, and we speak on how to get off the page. We're dealing with CEOs and executives on how to deliver a scripted message to their audience so they actually have the audience paying attention. That happens a lot in corporate events where people will just get up there and just read their script and put the audience to sleep. So, we talk to those kinds of audiences and teach communication skills for the corporate community, sales and marketing people especially.

Our thanks to James for this month's informative interview. James welcomes your comments and questions at [email protected], or call 858-484-0220. You can check out some great sounding demos online at both www.voiceacting.com and at www.commercialclinic.com.

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