(cue Inception noise thanks to the circular title)
So, this is the third in a series of posts emptying the cup of everything I know about being a voice actor thus far. In this article I’m going to be talking about performing. As always, take the advice here with a grain of salt.
I only know what works for me, and if you ask me next month, I’ll tell you that this is the month I’ve finally built a robust set of tools around performance.
IT’S NOT ABOUT SILLY VOICES.
At least, not initially. And then it is.
The thing that got me interested in voice acting to begin with was accents and impressions; aping a particular cadence of speech, or a way of pronouncing a certain word. But the first big revelation I got from the advice of learned folk is that voice acting is not about silly voices and vocal tricks. That’s the ‘sauce’ on a voice that gives it those memorable characteristics. And that’s a huge part of what we enjoy in a polished performance. But there needs to be a solid foundation of acting beneath it. An authentic connection to what’s going on in the lines you’re speaking.
Now, I imagine that means different things to different performers. Everyone finds their own road to that authentic connection. There’s a brilliant moment in a behind the scenes video for God of War: Ascension where Troy Baker talks about how he can picture everything in the scene as written happening around him; he actually places himself in the reality of the scene, which is amazing.
For me, that’s what got me going to the Melbourne Actor’s Lab to train under Peter Kalos, following the great advice of friends. I won’t claim to fully understand the purpose behind a lot of the techniques there (what’s that old line about if you think you understand it, you don’t get it?) but I’ve found it invaluable in being able to develop the skills to place myself in an imaginary context, and the stamina to maintain that world in my head and heart. I’m only a few steps along the journey, but I can already feel the benefits, and I’m excited about where it’s going.
The core of what I’m learning there is putting myself in a particular circumstance, and just being. Not forcing a particular emotional result. I’ve struggled for so long with busting through that layer of artifice and cheap tricks we all pick up on as tawdry bullshit. Now, as trite as it might sound, that ‘just being’ can be scary, too. I’ve worked at sanding down layers of emotional armour as part of that work, which can make you feel really exposed. If you’re not throwing up cheap tricks to hide behind, you know that all people are getting is you. Scary stuff.
So in building a great voice acting performance start with the core of the performance, and build on it from there. And that means you should…
GET ALL THE COACHING YOU CAN
There are coaches out there for different parts of performance. People who work in the field you’re most interested in, whether that’s audiobooks, video games, animation or whatever. And those people can help you build specific muscles. There are coaches out there who can help you with the technical aspects of accent work, or breathing and projection, or microphone technique. Get all the coaching you can, because it will fast-track your development. I wish I’d found my voice coach Anna McCrossin-Owen years ago. I can’t say enough good things about her. Same about the Actor’s Lab.
The difference both of those are making is huge, and I’ve really only started on each of those paths.
Coaches give you external input and insight, and a critical ear for where you’re at and what needs correction. And when you’re working with coaches, follow every thread. If a specific technique is suggested, follow it up and work on it. I’ve been working on vocal resonators for six months with Anna, and the difference it’s making is HUGE. And that was following up a suggestion by Crispin Freeman in some awesome one on one training. If you get a suggestion, follow it up. If a specific book is recommended, find that book, and read it. Otherwise, you’re leaving money on the table. Or potential improvement, if you prefer to be less cliched.
And if you keep doing that; if you keep following up those threads; you will never be at a loss for things to improve on, which is EXACTLY where you want to be. Busy hustling on getting as good as you can, rather than scratching your head about what the next step should be.
…and that means you’ll never stop improving, which is exactly what you want, right?
I cannot recommend improvisation theatre strongly enough as a foundation skill, and here’s why:
I haven’t found another skill which does a better job of teaching you to turn up to a moment and just see what happens, listen, and respond to what’s going on. With impro, if come into a scene with preconceived ideas, you will trip yourself up.
Now, that might sound a little woo-woo, but a lot of what creates a great, believable performance on stage is listening, and responding to what’s going on. If you’re just waiting for the moment where you should be talking, your performance isn’t going to be connected. And while a lot of voice acting is (sadly) recorded in isolation due to cost constraints, improvisational theatre still brings in that all important willingness to play and experiment. In this episode of Voice Acting Mastery Andrea Toyias, casting director for Blizzard Entertainment indicates that’s exactly what she looks for in voice talent: a willingness to play and experiment.
There’s a great story about Alyson Hannigan got the role for Willow in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series. Rather than delivering a line that most people would read as full of pathos, she turned talking about a dark moment on its head, and injected the self-effacing humour and goofiness that became one of the hallmarks of that character. And improvisation can help you build the muscles for those off the wall choices. For the twelfth way to say a particular line when you’re scrabbling for options.
That’s particularly valuable when so much of voice acting is emotional hopscotch, too. Having to jump from one emotion or set of circumstances to another, often without a bridging transition.
BUILD A CONSISTENT TRAINING REGIMEN
This is one I’m only just getting really effective at. One of the key things to follow up all of this excellent coaching and external training you’re getting from industry experts is a regular training regime of your own, to make sure you make the most of that advice. While turning up for the training you’re paying for shows a level of commitment, going beyond what you do in class through consistent effort shows a whole other level. And it may have the side benefit of showing your coaches and teachers that you’re in it for the long haul, and encouraging them to give you everything they can. Because they know their efforts in teach you aren’t being wasted.
Last of all, play hard, and play often. Find people to collaborate with, and make stuff regularly. There are sites like:
…to name a few, where you can find people to collaborate with, and make stuff regularly.
This also means that you should get comfortable with recording at home, even if it’s just for your own use, and not professionally. That will help you get comfortable in front of a microphone much quicker. And that’s where you want to be comfortable. In front of a microphone should be your church, your holy ground.
So my advice is to start with solid acting training to create an authentic connection to the lines you’re delivering. Get as much coaching as you can, from as varied a group of people as you can, and look at improvisational theatre training, because it’s one of the most solid workouts your creative muscles can get.
Find people to play with, and play regularly to exercise your skills and put training into context.
Now, I haven’t gone into specific technical skills here. Microphone technique, how to set up your own equipment, and the like. And that’s a deliberate choice, as they’re not my core area of expertise. But as part of building your own skills, you’re going to find mentors who will help in different areas. If there’s something specific you’re interested in, leave me a comment and if I can, I’ll direct you to a community/resource where you’re likely to find what you need. I did think briefly about listing the resources I’m finding useful at the moment, but it’s both exhausting, and something that dates quickly.
In the last of our posts together, we’re going to talk about being a good freelancer.