You’ve spent weeks developing the perfect concept and crafting it into an impeccable script. Now you are about to hire your voiceover talent. Beyond the content of what you’ve written, how do you convey to the artist the way you want them to tell your story? As a voiceover artist for over 25 years I’ve been party to productions with excellent direction to actors and have also had to contend with very poor direction. I’ve seen clear specs (specifications) for auditions and ambiguous or contradictory guidelines, which leave the talent confused about how to give the director what they want. Here are some giving-direction worst-case scenarios and pitfalls to avoid and suggestions for how to communicate better with actors.
Specs That Don’t Convey Anything Meaningful to a Voice Actor
Specs that are vague and don’t convey anything meaningful to your voice actor help no one. Specs like “something we haven’t heard before” or “we’re looking for something different” is extremely subjective and very hard to “act.” Asking for a unique voice is like asking for a unique look. All voices are unique. Just look at voice recognition software – we’re snowflakes. Everyone is unique, so that specification is not helpful. What you want is a unique performance. Not a unique voice. Something that stands out. Something authentic…
Sometimes getting specific about vocal qualities such as “medium pitch range, nothing too high” or “a bit of a rasp” help guide an actor’s choices. Definite emotional intentions such as “warm and comforting” or “playful and fun” also give the actor something to work with.
When giving reference examples, be clear on what it is about the reference you are looking for from the voice actor. For example, when giving specifications for age reference, keep in mind that voice age is plastic and often unrelated to the actor’s actual age – Emma Stone has a deep voice and could pass for 45 even though she’s in her early 30’s. I saw a recent spec with an age reference for 35-45 and an A-lister reference to Holly Hunter, who is 62. There’s a disconnect. More often than not when directors share age references, what they really mean is what demographic they (or the client) are targeting. That bit of info is helpful because there are some differences in delivery from generation to generation.
Do You Know What You Want?
Before setting about writing specifications, ask yourself – do you know what you want? If you have a sound for your voiceover in mind, often the simplest way to convey that is with a sample of a voice you like from something else. Good voice actors are adept at creating sound-alikes and will mimic the sample you offer. If there is something you like about the sample, point that out, for example, “lighthearted tone” or “gritty inspirational feeling” or “down to earth” or anything else specific you can identify and share. The same goes for anything in that sample you don’t like. “I like her attitude, but need more joy” or “a tone like this, but more serious.”
Voice actors are aces at unwrapping or unpacking content to dig for deeper meaning. If you already have sussed that meaning out, share it with them so they can bring you more accurate performances. That being said, every voice actor is unique and will bring their own storytelling talents to your message.
Do You Know What You Don’t Want?
Just as important as knowing what you want, is knowing what you don’t want. Being able to articulate that can be helpful. Again be specific. Refer to tone (clear, gravelly), pitch (high or low), cadence (natural or formal). If you’ve provided a reference sample, as I mentioned earlier, be sure to point out anything that you want your actor to avoid – “this pace, but not sarcastic,” “this pitch range, but NO vocal fry,” etc.
It all boils down to specifics. The more information and ideas you give your voice actor to “play” with, the more likely you are to get well-rounded performances that check your “unique sound” and “looking for something new and different” boxes and the better chance your actor has of nailing what you want.
Whether you are live directing or sending direction electronically, feedback is critical to getting the best performance from your voice actor. Good communication between actor and director will make your recording sessions more effective, bring out the best in your actor, and almost always save you time and money.
Do tell your actor what is working for you. Knowing what you liked and want to keep in the performance is extremely important for the actor. This will help shore up a foundation of elements to build their performance from. For example, if you love their pacing, they can check off that box, keep it the same, and focus on the elements you’d like adjusted.
Do be specific. I cannot say this enough. Vague generalizations waste time and money. Speaking in vocal qualities can be more helpful for your actor than in qualities that may vary from person to person in interpretation – “the pitch is a little high to my ear, can you lower it” – is much more effective than “this sounds flighty, can you make her sound more interesting.”
Also when giving feedback, let’s avoid the dreaded “robotic” word…it speaks to lack of knowledge about how to pull a better performance out of your voice actor. It’s also a sore spot for many voice actors (especially in light of the threat of AI VO). A better direction is to say the performance was “too measured,” meaning the rhythm was too predictable.
Don’t be rude, instead be sensitive – it takes a lot of chutzpah to act and it also takes humility – a director’s words can crush. In my first Union job when I was a young thing, the director gave ambiguous feedback and after several devolutions, ranted “well, now that’s just all gone to rat sh*t.” I still recall my stomach dropping to my toes and a bitter taste in the back of my throat. How was a comment like that going to help me summon up a “positive, cheerful” delivery? Shaken, but not stirred, I rallied, but the callous handling of my eager to please (and looking back, bonafide darn good) performance had me second-guessing my work during the rest of the session. Eroding your actor’s confidence may momentarily ease your tension, but invariably result in the session taking much longer and perhaps not reaching your elusive desired end result. Encouraging your actor and knowing how to help them bring their best work is just smart business.
Don’t give a “line read.” This is where you say the line how you hear it in your head and want that repeated back from your actor. The problem with a line reading is that then the actor is concentrating on mimicry instead of acting. This is compounded when the actor has a good ear and delivers the line the way it was said, which doesn’t match the sound that the director had in their head (the intention of which likely didn’t come out in their unschooled delivery). The actor spends time merely attempting to imitate what they hear rather than creating an organic performance. At this point, the connection with the script and any prior direction you may have given are lost.
Tips for Better Communications with Voice Actors
Good communication with your voice actor is the key to getting a performance you love out of any session (directed or not). The better the communication, the easier it will be for your actor to digest your specifications and deliver their best work. And ultimately, the less time it takes, the better for your bottom line as well. Here are some tips to make your collaboration effective and profitable.
- Share with them what you want the listener to feel and remember
- Let them know what demographic(s) you’re targeting
- Describe WHY you’re providing the content – are you solving a problem for consumers, explaining a complex service, introducing a new brand – give your voice actor a reason they’re saying what they’re saying
- Lead with positive feedback before giving a correction – voice actors are human, and humans respond better when you lead with praise, even if you still want adjustments
- Avoid generalities and esoteric direction – “can you do that again, but with more blue tones” may lead to many more takes than “keep everything, but softer.”