Critical listening is used in many fields, and there are different definitions for rational thinkers and public speakers. For voice actors and others refers to observing, then analyzing the sound of performances to listen for and perceive the ring of truth within it. Let’s break critical listening for voice actors down a little further and sort out how to apply it.
Observation Skills for Actors and Voice Actors
Eons ago in theater school, my classmates and I were sent out on observation assignments, where we would pick a random person and observe how they moved, spoke, and behaved and imagined what they might also be feeling or thinking. We then needed to be able to recall and use those observations to build believable characters.
Actors are excellent imitators. The keen voice over actor makes observation a study in and of itself. They note movements and ticks. A conservative voice over actor makes it their job to not only listen but emulate different characters and hone them over time. They then need to recreate every little detail and put it into their voice actor’s toolbox for later use.
That’s just half the job. A voice over artist should be aware of their physical and vocal gestures. Even though a voice actor works from a sound studio, they must still be mindful of their habits and mannerisms. By taking control of your ticks and gestures, you can roll them into the character you’re portraying or neutralize them to suit the project or narration role. By getting into the habit of listening, actors and voice over artists can begin to weave together a rich tapestry of characters with depth and quality that they didn’t have before. Listening doesn’t just help to hone your craft but enhances every role you plan to inhabit.
Subtle Ticks and Overt Mannerisms Make a Character Memorable
Subtle ticks and overt mannerisms make a character memorable and quote-worthy. Take Letterkenny, for example. One of the characters, McMurray, is a blunt, mumble talker who stares into seeming nothingness for much of each episode – but it works. So much so that you look forward to his unenthusiastic hot takes and confessionals because the acting style is hysterical in and of itself. His odd semantic differences make him loveable and endearing; the absurdness of his voice and dull facial expressions make the character more than just a mouthpiece for the script, but a live in-person we can’t wait to watch.
Letterkenny is a hilarious series set in rural Canada. McMurray hardly moves his mouth and speaks in a monotone voice. I had a neighbor who spoke precisely like that, and I saw him at the donut shop last summer and marveled.
Technical Aspects of Critical Listening for Voice Over and Acting
When I coach voice actors, I like to break things down into technical aspects and sort out the components. There’s an art to creating a memorable voice over, and you need to know when to involve imagination and when not. By separating performance work, we can start to slice into a performance and study each aspect before putting it all back together.
Let’s take a closer look at the McMurray example I referenced earlier; the almost closed mouth is what we call a technical aspect. By observing his face and paying attention, you start to notice that he pulls it off by holding the center of his lips closer together and using the ends of his mouth to vocalize his words. Another technical observation we could make would be the monotone sound of his voice and the limited range of McMurray’s expressions. As vocally restricted as the character appears, his expressions do vary. Just not by much, and that’s what makes the character work. By paying close attention to these technical aspects, you can start incorporating them into your acting style and bring out some truly unforgettable characters.
Performance Aspects of Listening and Observation for Acting
From a performance point of view, if a role is meant to invoke the imagination, it’s an actor’s (or voice over actor’s) job to apply their observations to the character they’re portraying and impart viewers with a narrative-made reality. One of the most crucial performance aspects of acting, and voice acting, is the ability to understand the emotional ticks and life of a role and share it with people in the audience. By observing the emotions, we feel when a character’s expressions shift, we can figure out how to apply them ourselves.
The next time you get into a conversation with someone, study how often their face changes; remember the inflection they use on certain words and how they react to different things. Depending on what’s at stake, our emotions and expressions can shift throughout a day or multiple times over a single conversation. Watching others communicate, and making a point of being able to guess what they’re feeling, is an invaluable skill for any actor to fold into their repertoire and should never be underestimated. By understanding what a character is trying to convey as they speak and studying the subtle nuances a pursed-lip can add to a performance, an actor can catalog real life and bring that into their own created characters.
Truth Applied to Observation and Critical Listening for Voice Actors
Listening to others is key to bringing more reality to your performance – especially as a voice over actor. It’s a common misconception that voice acting is all about eccentric tones and over-the-top cartoon personalities. About 80% of the voice-over jobs specs look for a “real person” to whom viewers can relate. It’s more about conversational tones and honest human interaction than a larger-than-life persona. When casting agents, directors, and businesses looking for a voice over artist to narrate their projects, they want to feel (and hear) something authentic; they need it to be so genuine that the truth of it is what people relate to. Go back and listen to what you’ve recorded. Pay attention and observe your narrations critically before submitting them. Identifying the differences in your craft before and after employing these techniques will help you become a better actor and bring more realness to your characters. Make it your goal to be able to point out every little detail that should set a role apart. At the end of the day, you’re listening for the truth. So what truth do you want to bring to your next role?
As Stanford Meisner said, “Acting is behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” And likewise, having the refined ability to hear, recognize and reproduce what truth sounds like is the most fundamental skill any actor or voice over artist can have in their arsenal.
My wonderful colleague and excellent voiceover coach Dave Walsh have a (trademarked) method for telling the truth in acting (called the True Tell). He comes at this process from a slightly different angle – a technique he guides you through to find your truth in a script which is a combination of script analysis and Meryl Steep’s sage advice, which is to “find yourself in the script.”