“I’ve been thinking about doing a bit of voice over work to make some extra cash. How do you get to be a voice actor?”
I love this. People ask me all the time. I think it’s adorable, but the answer is so loooong.
The thing is, I don’t know how you get to be a voice actor.
I know it took me six years and some quite terrifying errors of judgement before people eventually began to pay me to voice their projects. Maybe if I tell you what I did, that'll help? Let's break it down a bit...
I don’t mean Drama School, although there’s nothing wrong with Drama School. Drama School is, I’m sure, great.
I mean practice. You need to know how to say the things you’re going to be saying. I recorded my voice and listened to how I sounded. I read aloud and pointed my face at different bits of the microphone to find out what happened.
I also signed up to some of the courses at City Lit. Living in Bristol made attending an evening school in London a little tricky but I worked my job around it and bimbled off on a megabus every Wednesday for months to learn about voice over work and microphone technique. I did a course in Alexander Technique too, plus a short course in Radio Drama at Central, and a clowning workshop.
I read books – Patsy Rodenburg, Michael McCallion, Cicely Berry, Alan Beck, Bernard Shaw... I watched youtube videos, listened to accent CDs, voice podcasts from Voices.Com, scoured forums, and followed high flyers in the industry on Twitter. I packed everything I could find into my head and tried to use it to shape what came out of my mouth.
I lived it and breathed it and dreamed it and learned and learned and learned.
An Invisible Voice
One of the things I learned is that everyone has vocal flaws, and that the key thing is to spot them, get rid of them, and work towards complete flexibility. I had a couple of problems that needed work right away:
Being a voice actor, you become acutely aware of what’s going on inside your own nose. Early on, a voice teacher friend listened to my Myspace profile and noticed that I was talking with a touch of a nasal buzz. Horrifed, I gave up dairy for a month and then, when that didn’t work, I had a doctor prescribe me a nasal spray for allergic rhinitis. Using the spray was much more fun than living without cheese, and a complete success, although my nose is still an obsession – any hint of stuffiness and my head goes straight into a washing up bowl to steam.
I also noticed that where an S was followed by an L in a word (slap, for example, or even the sentence “my name’s Leah”) my tongue made a clicking sound at the sides. Very annoying but avoidable with a bit of concentration.
Also, I’m from Manchester, and although a regional accent is immensely useful and obviously not a flaw, you have to be able to filter it out to open yourself up for wider opportunities.
Everyone’s got vocal flaws of some kind. Figure out what yours are so you can fix them… quick! Before anyone notices…
A Demo or Five
People need to know what you sound like. Maybe you really do have a warm, empathic, corporate, bubbly, youthful, conversational, mature, authoritative, caring and sophisticated voice, but writing it all down doesn’t count.
The first demo I made was an entirely deranged mix of pieces on Myspace. It featured a ten page article about unusual sounds in foreign languages and half a chapter of Terry Pratchett recorded with a bunged up nose – some great character voices but they all sounded a bit under the weather. There was also a monologue in a Welsh accent that was so bad it prompted a drunk friend from Cardiff to spend nearly twenty minutes using all the swear words in the world to get me to take it down.
The second demo was based on the BBC’s Radio Drama Company Sound Start template. It’s hard to know which of all the billions of possible pieces to record, so having some subheadings to work with helped to narrow the field a bit.
I printed it onto a hundred CDs (this was in the past, don't forget) and sent them off to all the BBC and independent radio drama producers I could find. I gave them to family and friends, and even surreptitiously gifted one to Sir Ian McKellen when he visited the high school I worked at back then.
I don’t think anything ever came of doing this but it made me feel proactive, and that’s nice.
Later, I put together a more sensible narration reel and a commercial reel. These started off with items recorded especially for the demo and then, as I secured more and more work I replaced them with actual examples of real projects.
It’s a slow process, you know. But you can do it! Check out the next post; "All That Technical Stuff"