Recently in a presentation I was asked to put together for copywriters and creatives, we discussed best practices in how to direct and deal with voice actors. Usually, I approach this from a different angle: coaching voice actors on how to best approach performance, so this looking at it from a different lens was fun for me. Actors use exercises and concepts to analyze a script, connect to content and create honest and engaging performances. Many are surprised to learn that much of the “before you begin” process is similar whether the actor prepares for a theatre role, a part in a movie or a voiceover job. Whether you’re a voice actor or a creative who works with them and is tasked with helping them create better performances to lift your words off the page, this post dives into some of those concepts and demystifies secrets of how to talk the language of actors.
Finding Common A Language Between Actors and Directors
As in any field, actors employ jargon that is used to communicate effectively and reduce uncertainty. Understanding and using acting terms creates a common language that can guide a voice actor’s performance and bring you faster results with less frustration. So whenever you are working with actors, it is important to have insight into how the performance is reached. This applies to every field where you are trying to direct or guide performers. How many orchestra conductors can’t read music? How many great basketball coaches have never bounced a ball or played the game? None.
Good directors know what makes a great performance because they understand its components. Once you understand what makes up a good performance, you can work backward and fix what’s wrong or add what’s missing. For example, knowing that a good acting foundation is to be emotionally connected to the circumstances of the character.
Standard “Actor Speak” Terminology
So what, then, is some common “actor speak” terminology that facilitates a great working session between actor and director? Here are some key terms and definitions.
The sum total of every item in a script, from the characters to the scenery to the stage directions, descriptions, and sound effects, is the content of the script. Good actors use a healthy bit of script analysis to unpack that content and come up with details that help bring a performance to life. In voice over, this could include animation character pictures and descriptions, storyboards for commercials, product images as well as specifications about tone, timber, pitch, accent, perspectives, attitudes, previous ad samples, examples of voice type in addition to the words the voice actor will be speaking into a microphone. The content IS the story.
What the characters want or need within the given moment is that character’s objective. The actor needs to know this because visceral, emotional energy needs to be directed toward achieving that goal. Statements beginning with “I want” or “I need” help define objectives. And all characters in a scene have them, even just the one-liners. Associated with objective is the Super Objective, which is the overall objective a character has through the play, or film or animated short or commercial (yes, even commercial). Let’s consider a set of commercial spots for a political campaign. The super objective of the voice over is to win votes on election day. The objective within each spot may vary from alarming the electorate about the opponent, to inspiring voter confidence in the candidate. And sometimes multiple objectives are incorporated within the script to reach the super objective.
Intention is a bit different from a super objective, but it is related. The super objective is a very general desire that cannot be acted. The super objective is what you want, the intention is how you go about getting it .The intention is the specific action (or actions) you want to do in the moment, moment-to-moment (even line to line) to achieve your super-objective. Sometimes the voice over is taking those actions, and sometimes the actor is describing those actions. Let’s say the super objective is to find relief from headaches. The script may describe a progression of specific intentions to find relief from “I want to end my headaches, so I want to talk to my doctor” to “I want to get a prescription for this new drug” to “I want to start this regime to reduce or eliminate my headaches.” These are intentions. The key to remember here is that intentions can be acted, objectives cannot.
Subtext is what the character is thinking while saying a particular line. Saying “I love you” and thinking “come here, you big lug” will sound different from saying “I love you” while thinking “I really hate you and want you out of my life” as much as “I love you” while thinking “you are the best thing that’s ever happened to me” will sound different again. This difference comes from the subtext, which the actor chooses based on the content of the script and the context of the character they are playing and the choices they’ve made about their attitudes, perspectives and personality.
Context is discovered by analyzing what is happening in the scene and what has led up to the moment the character is in. Working in conjunction with objective, intention and subtext, context gives the other elements the environment for them to draw from. For example, if the script says “I love spinach” and the context is that the character has eaten nothing but spinach, has a kitchen filled with only spinach and is Popeye, then objective, intention and subtext will mean something different that if the character is a little kid who is trying to make his mom feel good about only being able to serve him spinach (when he’d really like a happy meal).
This is everything that happened to a character BEFORE they appear in the moment being portrayed. Let’s take for example a Calgon commercial (remember “Calgon, take me away?”) – a woman has just come to the end of a very harried day, and wants to escape into a luxurious bubble bath. Her back story might be, the day started with the kids refusing to wake up and get ready for school on time, causing everyone to be late, which caused Mom to rush and spill her morning coffee into her lap in the car. With no time to go home and change, she had to rush to work where she had back to back meetings all day, which ran late and didn’t give her time to get home and make a good dinner. So she stops at a fast food restaurant, gets taken out for the 3rd night this week, picks up the kids from their respective sports practices, and arrives home to find the dog has barfed all over the couch. She just wants a break – “Calgon, take me away!” So as you can see, this involves world-building and imagination and commitment to what is motivating everything that happens in the current scene (even if it is one line).
Some call it charisma, some actors think of it as a tool like a volume control they can turn up or down in a performance, but presence is the special sauce that an actor brings with them when they step onstage or in front of a microphone. It’s not always easy to define, but it exists like a lead line an actor can tighten to draw an audience (or listener) in and then release to let them sit with what the actor has just revealed. Presence is borne of confidence and commitment to the business of bringing characters to life, and “owning” that moment of performance when all eyes and ears are trained on the actor and want to be transported.
Improvisation is an important skill for any actor – to be able to riff off the script – staying in the scene and in the character and coming up with on the spot dialogue that the character might also say. This can sometimes mean phrases and other times mean non-verbal dialogue – “um”s” “uh’s”, snorts, little laughs or sounds that indicate emotion (derision, pleasure, amusement, etc) They are sometimes kept in voice over performances, sometimes not. Often voice seekers are looking for voice actors to “play” with their script to make it sound unscripted and “real” and being able to ask for improvisation helps the actor know they have permission to deviate from or add to the script in front of them.
Often when an actor is called a “method actor”, the categorization is a refers to a type of acting technique – usually linked to a major acting teacher like Lee Strasberg, or Stanislavski – where an actor fully embodies a character and in doing so, brings forth truthful, organic and emotionally connected performances. There are other methods as well, like the Chekhov Method, Meisner, etc.
When speaking about the technical aspects of acting, the focus is on observations of human movement or sound that can be applied to a performance. In voice acting, this might be a rise in inflection or closing a tag line on a commercial ending on a downward note in your sentence. Technical terms also include tempo (speed), pitch, timber (quality of sound).
Organic acting refers to feeling/being the character as a part of you as opposed to “putting it on”. Both Strasburg and Meisner approaches lean toward truthful performance – if you need to cry, tapping into the emotions that bring real tears to your eyes. So that the line between what the character is experiencing and what the actor is experiencing is blurred.
A shift (internal in focus, external in technical aspects) to “adjust” to be able to honestly incorporate a director’s suggestion into your performance. Also referred to when moving from genre to genre, like from theatre to film or award show announcing to explainer narration.
There are many more concepts and definitions. What are your favorites? Are there any that I missed that should be on here?