Are you good at doing impressions? Do you find yourself getting laughs at parties with impressions of your family members, friends, or maybe a boss? Is there a celebrity or two that you love to impersonate? This ability to truly capture the speaking mannerisms of another person, whether a celebrity, icon, or leader is a real opportunity for work in voice over. Audition specs often use celebrity references to suggest a certain style of speech or cadence a voice seeker is looking for in delivery. But on occasion, often in games, but in other genres as well, buyers are looking for as close to the actual celebrity voice as possible. This is referred to as a “sound-alike” and the more voiceover impersonations you perfect, the more you can sell your penchant for imitation. Let’s take a closer look at what makes a good impersonation.
Impersonation Is A Study of Human Behavior
Though the obvious first step is to focus on the voice, the pitch range and the vocal mannerisms, the art of impersonation is really a study of human behavior. To truly capture how someone else speaks, we must first understand their pitch, cadence, and vocal qualities and then also try to capture the unspoken parts of speech, body language, subtext, attitude, and viewpoints.
Since it’s a logical place to start, let’s talk about pitch first. If you’ve studied music, especially singing, at some point you’ve probably noticed the musicality of our speaking voices. Like songs written in certain keys, our baseline voices gravitate to a certain key as well. One musician, taken by my husband’s voice (which happens to be quite lovely) noted that it was in the key of E which is rather unusual for a speaking voice. The first step in working on a sound-alike will be to hone in on the key of their voice and start from there. Then notice the range of pitches they employ – are they up and down the scale with lots of highs as low, or do they hover around 2 or 3 notes in their vocal range?
Once you’ve found that key or pitch, then begin listening to the cadence and volume. The rhythmic flow of the words. Most people have a signature sound. Places where they naturally pause, where they might run certain phrases together. It may reflect an overall attitude, comfort, or discomfort level. Pay attention to their energy when speaking. Do they project? Are they intent on being heard above all else? Or are they soft-spoken?
Do some serious observing of your subject. What is going on with their body when they speak? Where are their shoulders? Are they tense? Do they shrug? What are they doing with their mouth? Where are their lips? Pay attention to how they carry themselves physically. Is their physicality loose and languid, or are they stiff and rigid?
What facial features do they have? For example, Tom Hanks’ upper lip doesn’t move as much as the rest of his face, and Steve Buscemi often speaks with teeth bared, lips pulled back. Don’t forget to pay attention to their eyes – do they squint when they’re speaking like Clint Eastwood, or are they more of an unblinking Betty Boop? Does their jaw come forward when they speak or do they have an over/under-bite? Though you are working to perfect their voice, study their body and face as it will absolutely inform your performance.
Sound-Alikes Require Acting Chops
Once you’ve got the physicality down, now you need to polish up your solid acting chops. It’s time to start existing in the world as your subject would. What is their general demeanor? Are they timid? Quirky? Always joking? Serious as a heart attack?
Cadence and volume mixed with body language are often indicators of emotion. Make note of how your subject of impersonation expresses joy, sadness, frustration, or anger. Do they have a default setting? Does the volume go up and the pace increase? Or are they a slow burn who gets quiet and deliberate in their speech when emotions are high? How wide is the range of emotions they display or are they closer to a deadpan delivery?
Look at the world through that person’s eyes until you feel you’ve connected with some aspect of them. What’s their viewpoint? Then use your acting skills to identify it, identify with it and identify it in yourself. This will help you capture their subtext and attitudes which also inform their speech.
Tips For Practicing Sound-Alikes and Impersonations
Like the old joke about the best way to Carnegie Hall, the best way to perfect an impersonation is to practice, practice, practice. Here are some tips for how to effectively do that.
If you’re newer to impersonations, start with people that you like or admire and make a list of your favorites. It is much easier to study, understand, and get a feel for the personality of someone you like than it is to choose someone you don’t like. Mimicry is flattery, after all. Additionally, empathy allows you to study your subject without judgment and with an eye for exploration and understanding.
Listen to the general sound of voices, their range, and tones. Try to identify where the sound of their voice originates – is it from the chest, the throat, or the nose? Rather than repeat the words someone says, try singing the melody of their speech to help find the musicality of it and the pitch range.
One of my favorite tools for studying an impersonation subject is an online interview. These are my favorites because the sample you get is not a person in performance but in a more natural and informal(ish) setting. I suggest finding one, then selecting some key phrases from the interview, and slapping them on an mp3. Listen, and study. Record yourself performing those phrases and then listen back and ask yourself are you close? What is off? How can you adjust it? A great resource for impressions and sound-alikes is Jim Meskimen’s YouTube series. He is a master impersonator.