All voice over has some element of acting but the level ranges from performance to performance and genre to genre. The goal of voice acting is to authentically capture a story and character through vocals only and to hint at physicality and movement through tone, pitch, and delivery. Imbuing the words with emotion, sounding excited, nervous, scared, confident, inspiring, or whatever the script calls for. Standing in a small booth, mostly alone and connecting with people you do not see, and who can’t see you.
The Firsts in Voice Over and Voice Acting
The first recorded instance of voice acting could likely be awarded to Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian-born inventor sometimes called the father of the radio and the first voice actor. The first historic message was: “One, two, three, four. Is it snowing where you are, Mr. Thiessen? If it is, telegraph back and let me know.” Not much in terms of acting (Mr. Theissen did reply via telegraph that it was indeed snowing, just as an FYI.) The first recorded broadcast, six years later in 1906, was more promising. One night in the middle of the Atlantic ocean a ship’s lone wireless radio received a signal in its normal, morse code, that read, “Be prepared for something of great interest to follow.” And then the soft sounds of a violin wafted through the radio and Reginald Fessenden delivered a Christmas program of recorded and live music, along with a scripture reading and Christmas greeting. Voila! Our first voice over artist and performer.
Reginald Fessenden also provided our first recorded instance of “mic fright”, as his assistant, Mr. Stein, backed away from the microphone, unable to perform. Followed promptly by a second and third case of mic fright from Mr. Fessenden’s wife, Helen, and his secretary, Miss Bent. A profession was born. The difference between the first voice over and the second does a spectacular job of demonstrating the difference between voice over and voice acting. In the first Reginald Fessenden was without performance, he was speaking to one person, delivering his own message. The second was a performance, with music, a script, and even stage fright. On a side note, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville invented the first sound recording device, but he didn’t broadcast it wirelessly.
Radio Dramas, Walt’s Animations, and “Voice Over”
Fast forward a few years and by the 1920s radio dramas flooded public consciousness, followed swiftly by animation voice over of many now-beloved characters. In 1928, Mickey Mouse in “Steamboat Willie” was Disney’s first commercially released cartoon with voice over and sound effects. Walt Disney was the original voice actor for Mickey and Minnie Mouse, later replaced by Jimmy MacDonald. Writers created content, actors flocked to the airwaves, and a new genre of entertainment was born. Through character work in voice acting, entertainers drew people together, brought distraction from stresses, enthralled and moved people, informed, and created topics of conversation, connecting people through shared experiences. Unfortunately, voice actors labored under stigma, (and still do) and were not considered “real actors.”
In fact, most voice acting roles in early films didn’t credit voice actors for their work. Mel Blanc is largely credited for the seismic shift in attitude, with well over 400 unique voices, including Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Speedy Gonzales, Barney Rubble and loads more. He was one of the first voice actors to receive on-screen credit, blazing a path for others, and legitimizing voice acting. To pay for production costs, air time was divided up and sold as advertising, creating the commercial genre of voice acting. Often ads hired both actors and announcers to create mini-dramas or deliver messages in sponsorship deals.
Authenticity and Realism in Voice Acting
In 1938, a captive audience tuned in for the new radio adaption of “War of the Worlds,” (still available on Internet Archives). The voice acting was so authentic in this radio play that audiences believed the drama was an actual news broadcast and that Martians had invaded Earth. Talk about an early example of fake news! When Orson Welles, the voice actor who brought the drama to such startling life was asked if he should have toned down the level of realism in the voice acting he replied, “No, you don’t play murder in soft words.” Today, the BBC still produces and broadcasts hundreds of new radio plays each year, and animations have their own dedicated followings, and channels, with quality that improves year on year. Proving something that still holds today, the voice acting is not about possessing a good voice, it’s about acting and a thousand other small nuances, like knowing when not to play murder with soft words.