If you’ve watched any TV or movies, you’ve probably heard the phrase “What’s my motivation?” That’s a very common, and basic question that every actor needs to ask regardless of the type of performance. It’s the motivation that determines how the actor will ultimately interpret the story and play the role.
OK, sure… we might be motivated to complete a project because we want to get paid. But that’s not the motivation that counts. The important motivation is the “why” or “what” of the story in the script.
“Motivation” is the word most often used in theater, and it simply means: What is the reason behind a particular action, behavior or interpretation of a specific event taking place in the story. In the world of voiceover, we need to have a motivation for every script we work with. For those scripts that clearly tell a structured story, the motivation is often easy to understand. However, with dry, corporate or medical scripts, the motivation can often be challenging to understand. Without an understanding of what is taking place in the story, your interpretation of the script can lack inspiration and energy.
In our world of voice acting, we literally don’t have the time available to study a script in detail to determine our motivation in telling the story. A theatrical script for a play, film or television program will usually have a fairly comprehensive breakdown that explains the interaction between characters and a synopsis of each scene, or the story as a whole, that helps the actor to better understand their role.
These components also provide the actor with a history of their character and other aspects of the story. When combined, these descriptive elements form the “back story” and it is the back story that forms the foundation for every actor’s motivation.
Back story can be defined as the events or history that has led to this moment in time, or the moment in time during which the story in a script is taking place. There are two basic forms of back story:
- your personal back story and
- the character’s back story.
And each of these has two basic elements:
- Long-term back story – the history of events that have brought you (or the character) this this moment in time, and
- Immediate back story – the specific event that occurs immediately before the first words out of your mouth (or the first word in a script). Of the two, the immediate back story is the most important for a voice actor. But you may want to define a long-term back story for your character as well to provide more substance.
When performing a voiceover script, you will find it much easier to allow the character in the script to come to life. Your character’s back story is critical because:
- it tells you exactly who you are talking to
- it gives you the essential information about the character’s past that you need in order to effectively portray your character
- it provides a reason, or motivation, for the story that is taking place
- it establishes the emotion and feelings your character is experiencing
- it always answers the question “Why?”, which is ultimately the reason your character is speaking
Although it is important to understand the full story in every voiceover script, we can take some short cuts to discovering the back story. With the exception of Audio Books, we can usually use our first line of copy to determine the back story, or simply “what just happened that causes our character to speak the words in the script.”
Sometimes a script will clearly define the back story while other times, you may have to make it up. If the back story is described in the script – take advantage of it! If you need to make up a back story, be as detailed as you can be, but be careful not to get into a long dissertation of the scene. You only need enough back story, or “pre-lif,e” to give you the inspiration on how to deliver your copy. The more real the back story is the more real your character will be and the easier it will be for you to get off the page with your performance.
Here are a few tools you can use to make your back story more real:
- Use visualization to create a vivid mental image of the scene for the immediate back story
- Use sense memory techniques to recall an experience from your own life that is similar to the emotion or feeling your character is expressing in the script.
- Observe the physical sensations that come up when you recall a past experience. Hold onto that physical tension and speak from that place in your body as you MOVE during your performance.
- Remember that Movement Orchestrates Vocal Expression. MOVE your body and your face to create the appropriate energy for the attitude and moment. “If your body isn’t moving, the only thing people will hear are the words.” (Bob Bergen)
- Use a lead-in line to verbalize the back story (the action that leads to your character speaking) and to bring you up to full speed for the first word of the copy. Your lead-in line could be an ad-lib response to what the person you are speaking to just did or said.
The more effectively you can create a back story for your character, the more real your character will be in your imagination. In most cases, the goal of voice acting is to allow the real you to step aside and allow the character in the copy to speak through you, expressing the mood, emotion and feelings that are in the script.
Shirley MacClaine was once asked to describe her thoughts on acting. Her response was: “It’s all about listening and forgetting who you are”. Remember, its not you saying the words on the script – its the character in the copy who is really saying those words. Learn to “forget who you are” and let yourself step aside so the character can become real.
Listen to how your character is speaking and make adjustments as needed, but be careful not to impose your personal attitudes on the character. You need to develop your performing skills to a point where this becomes automatic and you don’t have to think about it. When you reach that point, you will be able to bring any back story – and character – to life.