JV: Tell us how and where your voice-over career got its start.
James: I got started in voice-over through the back door because I never was very comfortable speaking in front of an audience. When I was a kid, I taught myself how to edit music as part of a magic act that I used to do. Doing the magic is what got me in front of an audience, and that helped my self-esteem and self-confidence. As I started doing more and more magic, I evolved from doing a music act into a speaking act. So, that got me in front of an audience talking. When I graduated from high school and got into college, I didn't know what I wanted to do for a living. We knew I liked to perform and I liked music, so I got into radio and television, which seemed to be a natural place to go. I really focused behind the scenes; I was very much into the engineering side of things. That eventually led me down to San Diego State College where I did an on-air shift. I basically ran the radio station at San Diego State for a few years, the student owned and operated station. When I graduated, I knew I did not want to be in television, pure and simple. I wanted to work in a recording studio or in radio somehow. I put out the usual stream of resumes and ended up working at a recording studio in Hollywood. I didn't know it until I was about two weeks into my job at the studio, but that studio had a reputation for producing the best commercials this side of the Mississippi River. This was around 1972 or so. After about 10 months there, I came back to San Diego and ended up getting a job with the NBC television station where I stayed for 25 years. I was working as an audio producer and director at that station.
As I was working at the recording studio in Hollywood and then later at the TV station, I was actually working with voice talent almost on a daily basis. I saw voice talent that was able to do the job and able to connect with their audience and get their message across. Then I worked with people that would come in, a lot of whom were just the clients coming in to do their own commercials, and it was really clear that these people knew nothing about what they were doing or how to deliver their message. I saw the extremes. I saw what really worked from the good performance and what didn't work from the other people. Over those years in television as a director and audio producer, I really developed some skills in directing voice talent and in just knowing instinctively what worked and what didn't work in terms of putting the commercial or promotion or any kind of an audio project together.
As I got near the end of my 25 years at the TV station, they started going through some major changes in management and restructuring of the station, and it was time for me to leave television. I had already started teaching voice acting a couple of years before I left the TV station. That came about because a friend of mine and I went to a learning annex class here in San Diego. The instructor for that class came down from Los Angeles. When she came into the class, the first two things she said were, "If you want to make money in voice-overs, you have to be in Los Angeles, and you have be in the union." My friend and I looked at each other and said, "Then why are we here? This is San Diego." San Diego is a totally different market from LA, and this woman did not know what she was talking about. So, with that, I decided to approach the learning annex to teach my own workshop on voice acting or voice-over.
As I was working on putting my curriculum together, I decided that I was going to teach a class that was different from any other voice-over classes that were here in San Diego and that I was going to do it right the first time. I was going to provide comprehensive notes for my learning annex class. So, I started working on my notes, and over a period of about 2 months, those notes took on a life of their own--that's what eventually became my book, The Art of Voice Acting. It was that learning annex class that really got me started as a voice instructor. That eventually evolved into my 8-week workshop and eventually into my production company, now that I've left the TV station. I've been away from there for a little over 3 years now. I opened up my own production company, and now we're doing radio and TV commercials, everything from creative to voicing to casting to production.
JV: Something you hear a lot is that the majority of the voice-work in a given market is done by just a handful of voice-over people, and trying to get into that little circle is extremely difficult. Do you agree with that?
James: Yeah, that can be very true. Even here in San Diego there is a lot of truth in that. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that voice-over is a part of show business just like acting, movies, or any other aspect of show business. Because of that, the producers that are out there casting voice talent get comfortable with the people that they work with, so they tend to go back and rehire those same people. There is a small group of people who have developed a distinctive sound or style to their delivery, and when people are writing a script or they're thinking of a voice for a certain type of commercial or narrative project, they might be thinking of a certain performer's voice, like a Don La Fontaine or Ted Green or one of these people who's out there so much. That does make it difficult for those people who are just trying to break in. It is definitely show biz, and it's very competitive.
JV: It seems like over the past 10 years, the number of people wanting to get into voice-over has just exploded. I think part of that might be because the big voice announcer guy is no longer the type of voice-over artist producers and agencies are looking for. This has opened the floodgates for a huge range of voices to get into the voice-over game. Do you find that to be true?
James: Oh yeah, definitely, and it seems to be accelerating. It seems like every year there are more and more people who are wanting to get into doing voice-over, or at least wanting to learn about it. As far as the announcer guy, there are trends in voice-over. It used to be, 20, 30 years ago, the hard sell, in-your-face announcer style worked. It got people's attention, and it actually could deliver a message. But it's just like so many other things; when something gets used so much, it becomes meaningless or has less impact. I think that that has happened with the hard sell style of delivery.
Sometimes we get clients that come in and specifically want that hard sell kind of delivery, but we find that there is really a small amount of situations where it will still work. A lot of that has to do with the demographic audience that we're trying to meet with that commercial or with the end product. There are certain attitudes in a youth market, maybe 18 to 24, where they respond to that in-your-face, very sporadic, very chaotic kind of a delivery, and the message will actually get across, and they'll actually respond to it. But a more adult audience, a more mature audience--40s and 50s--they listen to those kind of commercials and their first response is to change the station. They don't want to hear that anymore. So for the more mature audiences, what's been happening, especially in the last 5 or 10 years, is there's been a real trend moving towards creative, interactive dialog in commercials--more storytelling commercials, where the real message of the commercial has been woven into a story. It might be a single voice actor telling the story, but it's not an announcer. It's more of a real person communicating on a one to one level with the listener.
JV: Considering all the people who are getting into voice-over these days, is that diluting the pay scale?
James: In a sense, yes, but it depends upon which markets you're talking about. There are two distinctly different areas for voice-over. There are the union voice-over people, and then there are the non-union freelance voice-over people. The vast majority of individuals who are just starting in voice-over are non-union freelance. They're learning the skills, learning the craft. Basically, they would be very happy if they could pay somebody to get a voice-over job. So that vast number of people who are willing to do anything to get the job is diluting the pay scales as far as the freelancers are concerned. In the union market, AFTRA maintains a pay scale for union talent, so once somebody gets into a union situation for major market commercial or national regional spot, then the pay scale is pretty much set and controlled by the union. So that area is not being diluted, but with the freelancers, it's pretty much whatever the market can bear.
JV: Are you with the union?
James: No, I'm non-union freelance at the moment.
JV: Tell us about your 8-week workshop?
James: I teach this with my partner, Penny Abshire, who is my dialog partner when we're doing our Commercial Clinic productions. The 8-week workshop is one that I put together shortly after I started teaching my learning annex class. I realized that my learning annex class was a very nice introductory kind of a thing, and I had a number of people who were asking for more. So, that's how my 8-week workshop came to be. I designed the workshop very much along the lines of my book, because I was writing the book at the same time that I was doing the workshop, so it worked out very nicely that way. The workshop ended up coming together in such a way that it was 8 weeks long. We meet for 3 hours once each week, and each week focuses on a different aspect for voice-over. The first 2 weeks are fairly intensive. We cover the foundation of voice-over--the acting techniques, tricks of the trade, things that the student can use to really do what I call `get off the page' so they're not reading a script, so they are communicating the message to their listeners, incorporating some emotions and drama, whatever is necessary to make the character that they're playing become real and alive to the listener. That's really where the acting techniques come into play, and that's why I call it voice acting.
JV: "Getting off the page" is one of the toughest things for many radio people to do. Can you give us a tip we can use in the studio tomorrow that will help us get off the page?
James: I can give you three. These are also on my website at www.voiceacting.com . The three best things that you can do I call the ABCs of voice acting. The A refers to Audience. The audience is simply, who is it you're talking to? What do they look like? What age group does this person fall in? How does this individual dress? What's the individual's lifestyle, behaviors? That sort of thing. The more you can know about who it is that you're talking to, the more effectively you'll be able to communicate with them. Now the real key to that A, Audience, is that you're always talking to only one person. From my experience, I find a lot of radio people make the mistake of feeling their audience is everybody that happens to be tuned into their station. If they isolate their audience down to one individual and just really focus on having a conversation with that one person and understand who that person is, they'll have a much better chance of getting the message across. That very concept alone, just the A, removes the announcer part of a performance or a delivery.
JV: That's a good one!
James: The B is Backstory. Backstory is a very common concept in theater, but not a lot of radio people know about it. The backstory is really what has led you, or led the character that you're playing in the script, up to this moment in time. Each of us as individuals has a backstory. From the day we were born until this very moment in time is our backstory. It's every event, every situation, every moment of our lives that has brought us to this point in time, to what we're experiencing, what we're sharing. The same thing is true for a character that's in a script. I redefine the backstory in voice-over a little bit. In theater, film, television, and stage, the backstory is usually told by a story synopsis, which brings the performer up to speed so they know what's been going on, what the background is for their character. In a stage or film script, the performer has an opportunity to really assimilate the character and understand a lot about the character, and they can do this over a period of time, several weeks in some cases.
In voice-over, when we're doing a commercial, we will sometimes get the script when we walk into the studio. That's the first time we know what our character is. We may have as little as 5 minutes or less to completely do what I call woodshed the script, and that is break the script down, figure out who our audience is, what it is that we're talking about, what the message is, put all the pieces together, come up with a backstory, why is it we're talking, and be able to come up with a coherent, intelligent, effective performance. We have to do that very fast. That makes voice acting much, much different than theatrical acting.
So, because of that short time we have to put all that together, I've redefined backstory for voice acting. The definition I have is backstory is the specific event that occurs immediately before the first word of the script. Something happened that's causing the character you're playing to be speaking those words. What is it? Figure out what it is. If it's not clearly defined by the script or the producer doesn't tell you what might be going on, make it up. We're actors; we can pretend. So, that backstory becomes really critical because that tells you what's been going on between your character and your audience. It gives you a reason for speaking. It's motivation. It's the basic concept in theater. That's backstory.
The C stands for Character. Who is the character in the script? Who is it you're playing? What is the role that you are playing for the particular script that you're working with? The most important thing about character is the character is generally not you; it's going to be somebody else. Celebrity voice-over is a little different because many times the script is written specifically for the celebrity. But most commercials are written by somebody in an ad agency or maybe a sales rep at a radio station, and they're writing the script based on their communication with the client, not taking into consideration who the voice actor that's going to end up delivering that script might be. So as a performer, we have to come in and take that script and figure out who our character is.
So, by combining the Audience--understanding who we're talking to-with what it is that just happened before our first word--the Backstory--and who we are as the speaker, combining those three elements gets us off the page. It can take a little practice to really get the knack of doing that, but those three things make a huge difference in the performance.
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