Sunday, January 21, 2018

The benefits of doing free voice acting work

How do you make money voice acting? Well, there's not exactly one easy answer, or you know what they say: everybody would be doing it. From auditioning to networking to just being at the right place at the right time, it's a multifaceted obstacle every voice actor must continue to learn about or risk backsliding. Compared to the difficulty of pinning down paid work, however, there is usually an abundance of free work to be had on the internet – YouTube animations, video game mods, comic dubs, I'm sure you know the drill by now.

As a professional voice actor, you might say signing yourself up for free labor is a waste of time. There is money to be had in voice over, and clearly it's not with free work, right? Make way for the payin' customers, why don'tcha.

However, to completely overlook the above categories (YouTube, game mods, yada yada) is to often overlook some critical parts of expanding one's voice over career. This does not mean you should be devoting 100% of your time to trying out for Abridged Series #5,880,701, or that you shouldn't weigh the pros and cons of getting involved in something. I am saying, however, that there IS benefit to taking on some free work every now and then. It would be a little like scoffing, “Who in the world would accept an internship? They don't make any money!” Sure they don't, right now anyway, but they are the dark horses, the underdogs that know everyone, have experience, and can begin rising to the top.

First, a brief warning:

DO weigh the pros and cons of getting involved in a production. I'm sure many voice actors are familiar with the early phase of their careers where they audition for everything that might possibly involve speaking. They are thirsty artists, so to speak, and they crave work of some sort, even if it doesn't pay, just to get themselves out there. That hit-the-ground-running mentality is important for a voice actor to have. As Griffin Puatu mentioned in our interview about living in Los Angeles, you need to be both patient and impatient about getting yourself out there.

But there may be red flags that this cool production you're getting yourself into may just bite you later. If the project you're auditioning for features any of the below, reconsider getting invested:

  • A near-total lack of relevant information (no background on characters in auditions, no talk about the nature of the project, etc.)
  • Spelling and grammatical errors everywhere (not exactly professional, and therefore not encouraging)
  • A project creator that shows little respect or thoughtfulness regarding the members of their team or their audience (getting mad at comments, showing no enthusiasm for working with their teammates, or even just communicating in tiny, broken snippets rather than coherent paragraphs)
  • General...creepiness (asking for personal information without any preamble, being blunt without any humor, grace or irony, sending you pictures or stream-of-consciousness messages about the minutiae of their day even though you'd have no interest in seeing them react to a YouTube video and you barely know them)

There are exceptions, of course. Some projects like to keep their details under wraps, only doling out info on a need-to-know basis to preserve their secrets until reckoning day, but so long as they remain professional and tell potential teammates everything they need to know, that's generally okay. Additionally, lots of content creators are found outside the English-speaking realms and may have some issues with spelling and grammar, but provided the language barrier doesn't throw up too many obstacles, that shouldn't be a concern either.

Every so often, though, a project you really should have thought about before engaging in slips through your filter and bites you in the rear. There was one video game fan dub I was in a few years ago, very early in my career, where the project creator would frequently make group calls to everyone in the project and sing about his penis. No, I am not making that up, I wish I was. It got to the point where one of his own teammates with some authority kicked him out of his own group chat. I am no longer a part of that dub. In a somewhat lesser instance involving a video game mod, the mod creator (whom I suspect possessed some sort of disorder that impaired his social skills) would occasionally Skype call me out of nowhere to do things like brokenly riff on a YouTube video of video game voice acting he found displeasing (he had something of a speech impediment, as I recall). The mod was soon canceled, and I haven't interacted with him since.

The point of all this is, you don't have to turn your nose up at free work, but the internet is open to everyone with a device that can access it, and that means everyone, so weigh your options.

But enough of that: what's there to gain from free work?

#1: Connections to network with. Content creators are a creative bunch. It's sort of in the title. They may be working on a free World of Warcraft mod today, but next year they might open the Kickstarter to their brand new video game. If you were a good friend and reliable voice actor in their World of Warcraft mod, guess who they're coming to when they're looking to pay for the voice acting in their new game? On top of that, as a video game content creator, there's an excellent chance they know someone else who's making their own video game, and if they liked working with you on their mod, they may recommend you to their friend. Networking doesn't always have to be showing up in a suit and tie to a social gathering, although that's certainly nice and I will seize virtually any opportunity to dress up. Sometimes it's just working with people on the ground level and making friends.

“Come on,” some of you might be thinking, “you're exaggerating. Does that actually happen?” Yes. Yes it does. That's literally how I've wound up in some video games, and I've helped other friends get into paying video games or big YouTube productions because the project creator asked me for recommendations. All people I've met doing free stuff.

#2: Making friends. Speaking of which, yeah, you can meet some awesome people doing free work. It sounds like part of a speech Tea Gardner from Yu-Gi-Oh would make, but that doesn't make it untrue. Think about it: the people operating YouTube channels or making video game mods will often share your same interests – video games, voice acting, artistry, music. And hey, if you really want to spin a business angle on it (you corporate mogul, you), they can help you out the next time you need assistance. Want to learn how to draw and need recommendations for teachers or classes? Ask your artist friend. Working on a project yourself you'll need voice actors for? Ask the actors you met doing that comic dub.

#3: Experience. It may not pay, but it is still a chance to try on a new character and learn something new. Every so often, I get tempted by this unhealthy mindset (and it is unhealthy) that it's only a fandub character and therefore I don't need to try as hard. First of all, that's unfair to the project creators because, go figure, they want the best for their projects. Secondly, I would be robbing myself of an excellent chance to learn and grow. Maybe it's a role I'm not used to, a young, spunky teenager who yells a lot but has a really emotional scene later. Maybe it's an old man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Maybe it's a comical alien who likes to make fart noises with his tongue. Free work has plenty of opportunity to try new things which you can then apply to paid work in the future.

#4: Exposure. Hey hey, stop rolling your eyes, I can sense you through my screen. If the term “exposure” casts too negative a light on it, then think of it as “expanding your brand.” Working in free productions leaves your mark there for all to see. It's proof to your friends, family, and potential followers that you are, indeed, still doing voice work and also pretty darn good at your job. Beyond that, it's impossible to tell when a project will really take off and when it'll flop over when it hits the ground instead of running. It seems like there should be some magic formula to ensuring success, but there isn't. That one-off video game you thought would be a nice voice over opportunity but nothing more will explode into the latest hit. That incredibly unique, special video game you thought would go places will make barely enough to cover its expenses before fading into obscurity. You never know when something will really gain traction.

#5: Keeping your skills sharp. I read once that a true actor never backslides or forgets how to act. I suspect that's true, though I'm not an acting coach with forty years of film and theater under my belt, so I suppose I'm not the greatest authority on it. However, I believe it's entirely possible to get overconfident or complacent. You may never really forget how to act, but you can get into the habit of rushing a performance and not giving yourself time to bring the character out properly, or deciding not to warm up your voice this time and suffering for it later. Filling in the gaps between paying jobs with free work can help you critically examine your voice on a regular basis, giving you less opportunity to develop a bad habit.

#6: Validation. Just like it's important to know when you're doing something wrong, hearing that you're doing something right is a valuable part of this career. I have a sneaking suspicion most actors are perfectionists, and it's easy for us to get trapped in our heads and question if we're really any good or if people are enjoying our performances. If we're not careful, that can lead to a downward spiral where we're convinced we're terrible performers and nobody wants to listen to us, leading to us cutting back on the thing we love or giving up. Hearing someone say, “Yeah, you really were great in that last performance, and we all really enjoyed it” can do wonders for lifting your esteem when you start to feel discouraged. You need that validation, that positive reinforcement, to keep you going.

Any career centered around arts and entertainment is a career of highs and lows, but isn't that part of the reason we pursue it? A stable job has a tendency to just plateau, and rarely does it get much better, even though you're stable. Acting can have plenty of lows where you beat yourself up for not doing as well as you know you can, but also some shining highs where you feel like all the struggling has been totally worth it, even for just that one moment.

#7: Keeping your voice nice, warm and ready for acting. Constantly having something new to audition for, or a new batch of lines to go through, is a great excuse to keep your voice and face ready for voice acting. I don't necessarily talk a lot when I'm not, you know, voice acting, and voices tend to grow a little weaker when they're not revved up every now and then. It can make the difference between a silky smooth, golden voice that the audience loves to hear, and a weak-sounding broken one that you swear doesn't actually sound anything like you. Plus, well, a fully warmed up voice with perfect diction is just an awesome place to be. It feels good, so keep the engine warm.

#8: It's fun. Welp, we're back to the Tea Gardner speeches. If I were to hazard a guess, you don't voice act because you think you have to or because it's easier than working a steady job, right? You do it because you want to, because you like it. Being involved in a production other people will view or play, and seeing those people happy, is something to look forward to. Point #8, I suppose, is the first seven points all wrapped up into one. At the end of the day, you voice act because you love it, regardless of whether you're paid for it or not.

Now, the point of all this is not to say that you should feel ashamed for not auditioning for every fandub or that you absolutely need free work to have a healthy career. Far from it; if you're already doing really well for yourself and you have little time for free work because it literally cuts into your schedule of making money doing voice over, don't feel like you really need to put your own career on hold for it. For the rest of us, focusing too much on free work can stifle the process of actually advancing on the professional, paying front, since you may not be spending time, say, sending emails to potential clients or expanding your rapport with fellow professionals. All that being said, though, I do think there's a point to be made about free work, that it does come with plenty of benefits if you go for it in moderation. Don't be too scared about taking it on.

1 comment:

  1. I feel like this advice about free work can extend to just about every kind of content you can produce as well. I'll definitely keep this page in mind in the future!