Monday, August 20, 2018

How to become a voice actor - AVA breaks it down

by James Wolven

“How do you become a voice actor?”

This is a question that's been around since practically the dawn of the voice over industry, and virtually every voice actor has been asked it in one form or another. Some ask out of idle curiosity, a polite probe into a friendly acquaintance's business (“Ah, you wrestle ostriches professionally! I considered doing that myself once! How'd you get into that business?”). Others are genuinely interested in starting down that path themselves, but because voice acting is such a mysterious field to most people (as I allude to in my spiel about the infamous “dub wars”) and the industry has changed so much over the years (as Kenny helpfully points out in his debut article), they have no blazing idea where to begin.

Many a voice actor has given their answer to this conundrum at conventions, in YouTube videos or Tweets, and the internet is rife with hints to your riddle. However, I don't know that I have ever attempted to give an answer before, and you know AVA by this point I hope: we go into excruciating detail.
Before we micro-analyze the industry like Buffalo Bill thoughtfully picking apart his hawkmoths, we should establish a few crucial skills and mindsets you will need before you worry your pretty little mind about the work itself.

The ingredients you will need for this particular career recipe
#1: Strong acting ability and confidence in it
#2: A basic understanding of how the industry works (so you can maneuver up through it)
#3: An understanding of what you want from this career and how far you want to travel this road
#4: A demo reel showcasing your talents (consider this like your degree or certificate for any other career proving what you can do and how good at it you are)
#5: The equipment and a treated area in your house to record from home (many auditions and even jobs these days can – and are – done straight from home)
#6: Optional, but highly recommended: a website you can direct people to that easily explains why they should work with you

Strong acting ability and confidence in it? How do I know if I have that?”

One of the easiest ways is to show a professional actor an example of your acting ability and ask them if you're ready. (More than likely it will take multiple examples of a variety of styles before one will give you the green light.) If they say yes, awesome! Endorsed by a pro! If they say no, understand they know far more about the industry than you do, and tiptoeing around them because you're eager to show these LA bigwigs who they should really be paying attention to can backfire.

Before you even get that far, here's a quick trick to see if you're ready: pretend you're sitting in a booth with a director on the other side of the glass/screen – cans on your head, popper stopper uncomfortably close to your lips and everything. As you look at the script in front of you, the director says, “Now remember, your character is a 40-year-old washed-up accountant from New Jersey. They just got chewed out by their boss earlier, so they're really despondent, but they're feeling hopeful about a novel they're writing that they swear will take off. They're emotionally drained but trying to put on a good front for the friend they're meeting at the pub after work. Really call attention to how they can switch between supposedly cheerful and being at the end of their rope, even within the same sentence. Whenever you're ready.” How confident are you that you can pull off something like that character within the next ten seconds? If the notion leaves you wide-eyed and vehemently shaking your head, there's some evidence you need more confidence in your acting ability. If you believe you can but you're a little nervous, you may just lack experience, or that could be the basic nerves that get to everyone from time to time – don't fret too much, you may be in a decent place to start, at least a little. If you think you could do that in your sleep, your confidence is in a good place. (Of course, overconfidence is a legitimate concern, but this is merely a thought exercise.)

There are many ways to become a better actor, and as a mainly self-taught actor I'd like to go over this issue in detail later, but I'll give you a quick list of pointers for right now. 1: Take notes on how other actors perform and operate, from on screen to on stage to behind a mic. All of them have styles and approaches you can learn from. 2: Record yourself reading various scripts and upload them to public forums specifically so people can critique you on them. Edge Studio has a feedback forum, though you do need to sign up with them first, and the Facebook group Voice Acting Alliance has plenty of voice actors new, aspiring or well-versed who can help you. 3: Read articles and books, watch videos on acting tips. Take what you're being taught to heart and practice them. 4: Live life. The more you experience and allow yourself to feel, the easier you can recreate a particular emotion.

Okay, I'm a well-rounded actor. How on Earth do I learn what goes on in this industry?”

Well, for one, get in contact with someone who's in the industry! Heck, you can start with me. I'm not setting the voice over world on fire yet, and I have plenty to learn myself, but I do know a thing or too and I can help you out. Even if I don't know the answer to your question myself, I guarantee you I know a throng of people ahead of me who do, and I can find out for you. It's important to have a professional voice actor who's not just an authority who can answer a question or two, but a genuine friend, even a mentor. (As Griffin Puatu pointed out in my first interview with him, the “master/disciple relationship” is still alive and well in the voice over realm.) Not everyone you email is going to respond right away, or at all, but finding friends who are ahead of you is one of the best things you can do to learn more about where you're going. Email or message a voice actor on social media, be honest about your intentions and how you're looking to learn and grow, and see if they'll lend you a hand. I hope they will, because every single one of us was there once.

In the meantime, soak in the knowledge of those who came before, both direct and indirect. One of the best places to start (and I am not the only voice actor to have said this) is Dee Bradley Baker's website “I Want to Be a Voice Actor.” It will answer virtually every basic question you have from professional demeanor to making demos to working with an agency. You can also read books like Voice Over Voice Actor: What It's Like Behind the Mic, by Tara Platt and Yuri Lowenthal. The industry was somewhat different back when it was written, but it will still shed some useful light on how this career works. Follow voice actors on social media, pay attention when they have a nugget of insight. Listen to interviews with voice actors or their appearances at conventions. Look up additional articles on what to expect and how to grow. Don't forget to subscribe to AVA, of course, because voice actor growth is sort of our thing here.

When you have a pretty good idea of things like how voice actors are paid, how they get work, how to use recording equipment, yada yada, you can start to move forward elsewhere. You're not going to know everything about the profession before you start. The biggest names in Los Angeles still don't know everything about the profession. Don't worry your head off about perfection. At some point, you do have to move forward.

People say I'm a great actor, and I know a thing or two about the industry. Time to climb my way to the top!”

Before we go skipping off into that particular sunset, we do need to address one absolutely crucial element: the plan. Or, as Kenny described it in the aforementioned article, the map. Without one, you can spend years becoming a master at going in circles. You may know every tree within a hundred yard radius in that forest, but it doesn't change the fact that you're lost.

Long before you even think about demos or marketing or websites, you need to ask yourself some simple questions, then form plans to answer them. Start with, “Why do I want to do this at all?” (While we're shamelessly plugging old articles and interviews here, I did talk about this notion as one of my first AVA posts two years ago.) Follow it up with, “How far do I want to take it?” and “When do I want this to happen?”

Be honest with yourself. Is it a cool hobby you're into? That's awesome! A lot of projects are done exclusively online and in home studios, so there's still a market for you, even if it is smaller and pays far less than the “industry tier.” Are you enraptured by the thought of working in studios, hearing your voice come out of blockbuster video games or national commercials? Well, that path is a lot longer and requires a lot more care, but many have walked it and found success in it.

Whatever path you choose to walk, be happy and successful in it. However, you'll have a hard time achieving anything without a map. There are all kinds of people who dream of “making it big” as voice actors but never graduate beyond the occasional visual novel because they don't know where they're going and they have a hard time committing. If you want to be in anime and video games, move. I know it's not easy, I move about as often as the average person gets a dental checkup, but if you want to reach for the stars then start planning where you're going to go, how you're going to get there, and when it's going to happen. There are plenty of big VO markets all around America (though for any readers beyond those borders, I am sadly uninformed), all with different strengths. Los Angeles and New York City are the two biggest. Dallas and Atlanta have sturdy, growing voice over industries. If you're of a radio or commercial mind, Chicago's great too. The point is, if you want to “take it to the top,” you can't do it living out in a cornfield two hundred miles from the nearest city. Plan your move. Which city? What do you need to get there? Will you do it in one year, two, three, five?

Sit down at some point and figure out what you want versus what you need to accomplish it. You'll have to do this many times moving forward, perhaps as often as once a month. Your life will change, you'll receive new information, and every so often you'll pass one of your own milestones and you'll have to set a new one. Figure out what you want, make a plan, then commit.

Great. I know what I want now, but I still don't know how to get there.”

We led with a medley of tips to bear in mind; let's supplement that with the foundation of making money as a voice actor.

In simple terms, your “marketing plan” is going to be whatever gets you jobs.

That sounds like such an obvious statement, but a lot of people cause themselves stress by looking for the “right” way to make money. They ask if there's a “list” of potential jobs they can just apply to ad nauseum. (Short answer: sort of, but it's not where all your work will come from and it isn't that clear-cut and easy.) There isn't one set formula. Everyone gets into the business a little differently, and they all progress in different directions at different paces. At the end of the day, to “be a voice actor,” you just need to do what gets you clients. Sometimes you have to think outside the box, which is both a liberating and terrifying feeling. “Being a voice actor” could mean auditioning for a role in a casting call, sending your information to people who might want to use your voice, going to a meet-and-greet within your city (did I mention how helpful it is to move?), or getting to know fellow content creators on Twitter. As a fringe example, my uncle runs a home business and went into a diner to get a meal one day. He got to talking with a stranger at the counter and walked out with a new client. “Whatever gets you a job” is going to be at the heart of your operation.

However, I'd be lying if I said certain tools weren't conducive to giving you an advantage. Which is why when you're finally ready to move forward and work as a voice actor – you have the acting chops, the knowledge, and the correct motivation – you need to make some investments before hitting the pavement to get jobs.

What exactly is a 'demo,' and how do I get one?”

In layman's terms, a demo reel, or sometimes just “demo” for short, is an audio clip showcasing your talent as a voice actor. If anyone has any doubts as to whether or not you're good at what you do, the demo is what confirms your talent. The specifics of what each demo will be like will depend on everything from what you sound like, to what your best characters are, to who records it, to what genre of voice over you're making a demo for. My current “character demo” (for video games and animation and the like) has six character voices on it and lasts one minute. My audiobook demo has four narration samples and lasts about seven minutes.

Essentially, it will be up to you and whoever is actually making your demo (director, engineer, maybe both rolled into one) to determine which of your characters and/or voices will get you the most work when presented in a demo. You'll carve out some time to record yourself speaking lines as your characters, whereupon a professional engineer will edit the recording down into the brief audio clip you'll market as your demo. It is possible to record some demos at home, but depending on what market you're going for and who else in involved in making the demo, you'll often be expected to record this in a professional voice over studio. For reference, my first character demo was recorded at home, but the audiobook demo before it was done in Earshot Audio Post in Indianapolis.

A curt warning: many people rush this stage. Do not rush the demo. Remember, the demo is what convinces people you're worth hiring or working with, and if it comes off as cheap and shoddy, you've just wasted your time and money. Also remember that studios, directors, and talent agencies can spot cheap work from a mile away, so don't think you're going to sneak one by them. They literally listen to people like you for a living.

Another rule of thumb: perhaps surprisingly, most of your demo is not going to be a result of your own ingenuity. An industry-standard demo (here meaning what you'll use to convince Activision they should hire you to play the lead in their next Call of Duty video game) is usually scripted by the individual(s) making your demo. They will work with you on which characters and voices you should portray, but all those cool lines and characters you spent all night coming up with are going to be more “food for thought” than “hard rules.” You may feel slighted at first, but this is for the best.


Let me answer another question alongside that, just in case you were wondering it:

If I'm a great actor, I know my strengths, and I know how to edit my own audio, why can't I just make my demo myself?”

Because you don't know what works.

Remember, your demo is part of your “whatever gets you jobs” philosophy. You can do an amazing portrayal of a character that no casting director is interested in hearing. You can put your demo together in a totally clever way that annoys everyone who might otherwise want to hire you. (This, by the way, is often what kills so many self-made demos the moment anyone with hiring power comes into contact with them.) Work with people who produce demos professionally. Do your homework to make sure the demos they have produced are top-notch and actually getting their clients work, then invest. They know what they're doing. It hurts to hear, but you don't.

Okay, so how much am I going to invest?”

If you're recording in someone else's studio, working with a team to make an industry-level demo reel? Anywhere from $800-$2,000.

What the %#*^!?”

Well, I didn't say it was cheap. It is worth noting you can shop around, and to reiterate, demos geared toward the “indie level” can often be recorded from home (since most indie work is done from home anyway) and used for almost all of your online work. If you're living in Los Angeles trying to work your way into SAG-AFTRA, you're probably going to need bigger guns. The high cost of entry is also why I recommend you don't put your demo together until you're genuinely ready to hit the ground running, not just dipping your toes into the indie end of the pool. If you know you don't have the time or resources to commit to hammering at your voice over career full time (possibly even while maintaining another full-time day job), you may be sitting on that expensive demo for a long time before making any real use of it.

The good news is that (to an extent) the voice over work you'll be getting as result of your first demo usually replaces said demo. If you provided some voice work for an anime, you can (and absolutely should) ask the people in charge if you can have an edited sample of your lines to put on your demo. When some time passes and you feel the need to update your demo (which proves you're getting jobs and helps your marketing tools adapt to the times), you can pay an engineer to sort of rearrange your demo with your updated work samples. So it does get easier. I'm not totally sure how that might relate to work done on, say, indie games, considering they often have lower standards than million-dollar video games and voice actors record from home, but in the “big leagues” it's common procedure.

Let's say I make an awesome demo with the most amazing production team. Now how do I start?”

It's worth noting that you will certainly need recording equipment at home before venturing out into the world to prove your worth. This also gets expensive and endlessly complicated, and I haven't the time to elaborate much on it here. Suffice to say you will need:

  • An XLR microphone for "industry tier" work (and an XLR cable to go with it)
  • An audio interface (which your XLR microphone needs to plug into in order to work - USB microphones don't require this)
  • A spot in your house where you can record without reverberation or other unwanted sound effects messing with your recording (say, there are some AVA articles about that!)
  • A computer that can take the abuse (don't worry, mine is about as cooperative as Skynet and still lets me perform well enough)

All this could wind up being a lot of money, but it's part of being a professional.

If you have the means and the space to record auditions and jobs, you are physically ready to tell the world you're a voice actor and ready for work.

Great! ...Now what?”

There is no easy answer aside from “find jobs.” A shortlist:

  • Find public casting calls on sites like Voice Acting Club and Casting Call Club – a good bit of indie work gets posted in these places
  • Research clients and studios who might have use for a voice like yours (le plug)
  • Get to know your fellow voice actors on social media
  • Submit your demos to sites that will host them
  • If you live in a city with a robust talent agency system, try to get on their talent lists so they can work with you to get you more auditions
  • Search out casting sites and organizations online – they're basically talent agencies for the indie realm

The end goal of all your work is not to repeatedly get lucky and find isolated jobs (although when you first start out that will likely be the case). You're looking for repeat clients and referrals. If you did awesome work with one client or studio, there's an excellent chance they'll want you back for further work, and there's also an excellent chance they'll refer you to someone else who could use your talents.

The truth is, when you first embark down this path as a voice actor, you are a tiny snowball on a very large and rather flat hill. You are going to bust your unmentionable body part of choice trying to push yourself down that hill and pick up momentum, and in the beginning it will feel like an impossible hurdle just to move an inch. But eventually, one job will turn to two, then three, and that snowball will slooooowly begin tumbling down the slope. Slowly. Over a period of years. Due to various obstacles in my life, I haven't been able to devote all the time I've wanted to my voice over career, but I can at least say I've picked up some momentum so I'm not just blindly submitting auditions and hoping some casting director is sappy enough to get me hired. The people I work with and have worked for play a semi-active part in getting me new jobs, for which I am extremely grateful. By the same token, various others have been cast in productions (some of them fairly big for the indie/online scene) based on my own referrals.

If there's one thing I want to emphasize here, it's that your voice acting career is usually a very slow burn in the beginning. You're still building up your pool of peers and clients, learning new skills, and pushing your snowball down the hill. Don't give up, because it does get better.

So to summarize this lengthy treatise, you “become a voice actor” by:

  • Being a good actor in general
  • Knowing the industry at least well enough to not get in the way of your own success
  • Having at least one demo (and other means to prove your talent, such as a website)
  • Being able to record using equipment at home
  • Using your skills and tools to convince people to hire you

And the rest is sheer persistence and luck. It's easy to get discouraged with a career like this, and your mettle will be tested, but if you truly feel compelled to travel this road, do it and don't look back. I'm considering writing another article on dealing with failure and rejection as a voice actor, but that is for a later date. In the meantime, if you were one of many people curious at how to be a voice actor, or perhaps you're already one and you want to point people to a step-by-step process, I hope this has helped.

Remember, AVA's whole point is helping people grow as voice actors. If that's you and you like that cause, subscribe to the blog using the forms at the top or bottom of the page, and/or follow AVA's Twitter page for even more interactivity, like polls, surveys, and looks at upcoming content.

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