Voice Acting from the Insider
By Deborah Sale Butler

Deborah Sale ButlerIn a recent online chat, I was suddenly made aware of how little most people know about the world of voice acting. Every day Iím surrounded by other actors, friends and relatives who have shared my journey for years. We speak in shorthand, "How much are you going out?" my friend asks. "Oh, I booked a narration and Iím doing a loop in Orange County on Saturday." I reply. "How about you?" I ask. "Oh, Iím up for that Disney thing against Bob Bergan, can you believe it?" she says. "Against Bob? Thatís great!"

What was THAT all about? Let me decode. . .

Voice actors are usually actors who have done (and may continue to do) other types of acting like, on-camera, live theater etc. Lately there have been a lot of Hollywood stars doing voice-over for commercials and animation. But most of the folks are just working actors like me and my friend from the conversation - weíll call her "Terri."

Actors get work several ways. You may have heard the old saying, "itís who you know..." Well, thatís true - most of the work we get as actors comes from knowing other actors, casting directors and producers. If theyíve liked working with us in the past, theyíll think of us for the next project. Thatís why it can take a while to build a career - we need to meet a lot of people.

We can also get work through a voice-over agent or manager. Inside a voice-over agency, there are several departments: commercial, animation and promo/trailer (those ads you see in movie theaters or on TV for shows that are coming up). An agent will call us into the office to read scripts for various commercials, promos or animated shows. Our "reads" are put together with other actors who are being considered from that agency for a specific project and submitted to the client (the animation studio casting director or advertising agency). There may be over twenty voice-over agencies submitting 5-20 voices each for every job out there. So you get an idea of how competitive this is. When Terri asked me how much I was "going out" she was asking how many auditions Iíve had this week.

Bob Bergan is the "voice of Warner Brothers." If she was reading "against" him, she was being considered, along with Bob, for a new character. Since Bob is so famous (at least in the VO world), being called for the same job is a huge deal.

When I said I "booked" a job, that means I actually got hired (as opposed to just auditioning for it). This is also a big deal when you remember how many actors read for each job. A "narration" job can be anything from a book-on-tape to an instructional CD on how to install your banking software. Narration for technical or business purposes is often referred to as "Industrial Narration."

"Doing a loop" or doing a looping job is what youíd think of as "dubbing." In most animation produced in the US, voice actors act first, then the animators animate to fit the action. With anime, the animation is completed before anyone has voiced it (in Japan or America). So, when we go into a studio, we are watching animation and matching the words to the mouths/actions of the characters. It requires some skill and practice. Actors also loop film and television.

When a television show or a movie is filmed, only the principal actors have microphones on them. All of those people walking around in the background, or sitting in the restaurant, or wheeling bodies down the hall of the hospital - all of those actors are extras. Extras are actors who donít speak. They mime everything. After the principal shooting is over, a group called a loop troupe comes into a large recording studio and gives all of the silent actors voices. They improvise dialogue based on the situation. This requires some pretty intense research. For example, if you are doing a show about a police station in NYC, you need to find lingo online (or from fellow loopers or, if youíre lucky, real cops) that police in NY would use. It would be different if the station was in LA (different streets, different codes, etc.). Looping directors insist that people be authentic and prepared.

Sometimes the principal actors have to come in and loop their own dialogue if, for some reason, the microphone didnít pick it up clearly or if they were outside in a windy place and the microphones would have recorded nothing but whooshing noises. If the actors are not available, casting directors may call one of us to do a voice match and replace the lines for them. There are some actors who specialize in matching a particular actor.

So what is a recording studio like? They vary - a lot. For commercials and narration work and many CD-Rom games, voice actors may be in a recording booth. This can be anything from a 3í x3í box to a 20í x 20í room. The former is not a happy place if youíre claustrophobic. The booths have sculpted foam lining the walls to absorb extra sound. Thereís a stool or chair (if thereís room) and a pair of headphones and, of course, a microphone. You donít want to hold scripts or "copy" in your hands because microphones are super-sensitive and theyíll pick up the slightest rustle of paper, so there will be a music stand too, with a piece of carpet on it to keep the voice from "pinging" on the metal. The engineer and the director sit outside the booth and communicate through a "talkback" microphone. Sessions can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours.

A looping session takes place in a much bigger studio. Where we loop Gundam, at Todd AO Studios in Burbank, the room is tall enough to accommodate a full - sized movie screen on one wall. The floor area is also pretty big (about half the size of a small movie theater with the seats taken out). There are chairs and couches around the walls - enough for about 15- 20 people to sit (some loop groups can be big). Towards the back of the room is a console with a small microphone and a TV monitor. The director sits there and directs the group or actor in the room. The engineers are in a studio above and behind you (it looks like the windows of an operating theater). They can see you and the screen and communicate with the director through the talkback microphone. There will be one or two microphones set up on the floor of the studio (one if itís a single actor, two if there will be a group). The copy stand has a small light on it, to illuminate copy in the dark. (Interesting note: our studio is also a Foley studio. Under the floor are square pits filled with water, glass, gravel, wood flooring etc. Foley artists walk on the different surfaces to create the footsteps for films and TV shows.)

If youíre lucky enough to be working in a big studio, theyíll usually have food out for you, doughnuts, bagels, chips, veggies etc. At Todd AO, they bring us fresh, microwave cookies at 3pm every day. There are also many, many bottles of water.

So, hereís a typical looping day on SD Gundam Force (at least for me).

The theme music from "All Things Considered" blasts from my alarm clock at 6:30. Ugh. I hardly need the alarm though, my devil cat, Jake, has been howling for his breakfast since six. I stumble around the kitchen, feeding the cats and putting on a kettle for some Yerba Matte. That always wakes me up. I Pop in my ĎRodney Yee yogaí DVD and do a half-hour workout. Gotta get the blood flowing. The Yerba Matte has steeped in the French press. Pour myself a cup and eat a bowl of granola and lowfat milk (the milk is bad for my throat, but I canít stand dry cereal - besides Iíll clear it out with a couple 8 oz glasses of water before I go).

Now itís time for a shower and vocal warm-up. Iím sure my neighbors just LOVE hearing me blare out showtunes and old folk songs at 7:30 in the morning, but the steam really opens up my throat, sinuses and lungs. Hair, makeup, dress and a quick e-mail check then Iím out the door by 8:15.

8:45 - itís a short drive from my place in Studio City to Todd AO in Burbank. Quick pitt stop in the bathroom and grab a cup of hot tea for the session. In studio 3, I eye the Krispy Creams and walk on by (good girl), grab 3 bottles of water and head to the microphone. James, the engineer adjusts the mic to my height (4í11 and a half - he usually has to lower it about a foot). Rick tells me which episode weíre on. Sometimes we have to skip around in the order if the scripts arenít ready yet (remember, the script has to be translated from the Japanese script and fit to match the number of lip flaps in the film - it can take a while to get it right). I grab the script from a pile next to the sign-in sheet. We start at 9:00 sharp.

When the session begins, the lights are dimmed to better see the screen. The director has lined up all of the cues that need voicing. The film is advanced until the cue is reached. Then the actor hears (either in the room or in headphones) three beeps. You need to speak immediately after the three beeps (or on the "imaginary" fourth beep).

Rick, the director, Michael and James, the engineers, and I fly through the script. We donít preview anything. The script is marked so we know where the pauses are and what the shot will look like. A carrot , or ^ , marks a pause and a double line, //, marks a longer pause. "om reax" means open mouth reaction and "blasted reax" usually means Iím screaming into some kind of explosion. "mns" means mouth not seen (our favorite - no lips to match). I try to follow the posture and movement of the character and react, as he does, shot by shot.

Although I donít get to see the film ahead of time, the director has seen it and clues me in on whatís coming up in the next shot. Rick will say something like, "OK, Tallgese is going to create this tornado and youíre going to be blown down into the dark hole. Itís a long fall and youíll be bouncing off of rocks and stuff and then I think you hit a wall. You wanna chase it?" If a series of cues is all reactions or very short lines, sometimes Iíll just "chase" them or let the film keep rolling and follow the action without stopping. Usually we do it if the series of cues looks like this:

70 10020. to 10022 om reax (falling) ow
71 10022-10024 cm bouncing reax
72 10024-10026 tubling reax
73 10026-10028 on Ahhh//Hey^ where am I?

The first number in the series of numbers represents the cue number, the second column shows the timecode on the film that we need to match, the third column gives a clue what the character is doing and the final column shows lines, if any. Since there are few lines, itís easier to keep the flow going and react to what the character is experiencing.

In between takes, as the engineers cue up the next shot, we sometimes play a game. We have a "word of the day." Each of us tries to come up with as many songs using that word as we can. It happens very, very fast. Part of the game is to get the songs in without slowing down the work rhythm - so you may have only a second or two. Rick and I are very good at this game, but sometimes the engineers doubt us. If the engineers think weíre making up a song, theyíll suddenly flash the overhead lights. We call this the "bulls**t light" (as in bulls**t - that is NOT a real song). Because the work is so focused, the songs help keep it light.

About an hour and a half into recording, Iíll need a bathroom break. Iíve usually had about a bottle and a half of water by now. We blink at the bright lights in the lobby, refresh our coffee or tea and head back into Studio 3. Sometimes Iíll break down and have that Krispy CrŤme about now.

We keep on doing the same from 2 - 4 hours, then I leave and the next actor arrives. Sometimes, before I leave, we both step up to the microphone to do a quick walla session (walla is the background noise for a crowd or group of people). Each of us will do six or seven voices to make it sound like a large group. Usually though, we just say "hello" as we change shifts. Then, I sign out and go home.

Because Gundam sessions are only 2 - 4 hours, I have time to do more than one job in a day. Some days, I leave the session and drive across town to Westwood, where I enter the very high-tech looking offices of LRN (they actually have a palm - scanner to enter the offices). A guy named Chug (real name) puts me in a booth (5í x 10í) and I read for a CD-Rom series that trains corporate types in how to stay out of legal trouble (I hear Enron is a new customer). Not as much fun as Gundam, but easy work. I read from 4 to 40 pages in a session - it takes 20 minutes to 2 hours - depending.

I get home in time for an early dinner and to make calls to agents, casting directors and clients to line up more work for next week. Iíll assemble a few packets with my voice-demo and resume to mail to some casting directors. Every once in a while, I have time to write something like this, but not very often. Although I should go to bed early, Iím never tired before midnight. My husband writes music for The Dr. Phil Show and Entertainment Tonight. Since we live in an apartment, he usually takes a break around 10pm (neighbors go to bed early) and weíll stay up and watch The Simpsons and King of the Hill before bed.

So thatís a rough idea of what voice actors do. Hope you had fun reading it. If you get a chance, check out SD Gundam Force its out on DVD, and could very well be popping back up on Cartoon Network for the next season which we started recording last November (26 Episodes).

Thanks for reading.

- Deborah Sale Butler

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