Author, as told to
In the latest installment of our anonymous interview series, we talk to a voiceover actor who lends his talents to competing snack brands and creepy toys.
I’m a voiceover actor. I’ve been doing it professionally for six years. In my experience, people come into voiceover work one of two ways: either they pursue it intentionally or they sort of fall into it. I was of the former camp. As I kid, I definitely did voices just for fun but up until much later I never really thought about it as something you make a living from. The field is split between people who are like, “I knew this is always what I wanted to do,” and others, who were screen or stage acting or something and thought, “Yeah, maybe I’ll try my hand at this.”
I originally wanted to be an animator. Around the the time that I was starting to get alright at animation, I realized I needed to hire people to do voices for all the characters in these shorts I was making. I didn’t even think of myself, honestly. I went out and tried to cast people. Ultimately, I found that I was the one providing the example for what I wanted people to do. I was liking what I could come up with better than what they could come up with.
Then, there’s the question of time. If you’re an animator, you’re putting in hours for 30 seconds of footage. If you’re a voiceover actor, you’re putting in 30 seconds for 30 seconds of dialogue. The tradeoff was certainly favorable in that respect.
I’VE ALMOST COMPLETELY GIVEN UP animation at this point. It’s something that I can do here and there. Sometimes, I’ll use my design experience for making a website or some graphics. But, for the most part, it’s not really something I think about anymore.
My schedule now is predictably unpredictable, meaning I can expect it to be incredibly busy but completely flexible. A gig can come up at any hour of the day. The way it works is you get a call from an agent saying, “Hey, they want to hear you on this.” Then, you go into an agency or studio and record it. Or, you could record it at home. Sometimes, the description requires you to go out and actually audition for a casting director. The audition process is, I would say, similar to other forms of acting, other than the fact that if you’re a screen or stage actor, you can’t exactly record at home. Most voiceover actors have a home recording setup. They have to engineer, mix and EQ the file.
When it comes to in-person auditions, it’s fairly similar to being a regular actor. You’re showing up. You’re sitting in a waiting room. You’re going in front of a casting director. Instead of performing on camera, you’e performing into a microphone. The advantage there, compared to regular acting is that you don’t have to memorize any lines because you’re always reading off a piece of paper.
When it comes to entertainment in general, any event that’s billed as a networking event is going to be douchey. It’s going to attract the douchiest 1% of the industry. They’re endemic to the profession, but they tend to attract, for sure, the sleaziest element. There are a lot of people there that are trying to sell others on $1000.00 voiceover classes and demo tutorials. I’ll now and then. It’s really only fun in small doses, and mostly for the open bar.
The voiceover world is all about open secrets, though they’re more open than secret at this point. The anime world is where most of the enthusiasm towards voiceover comes from. It’s also where most of the scandal comes from, because it involves so much fawning and adulation from the fans. I get it. I was a nerdy kid in school. I watched cartoons and stuff. It was definitely a point of escape for me. You’d think, the way these people talk about meeting their voiceover heroes in the person, they were meeting Jesus. The problem is, some of these guys have some very major creeper allegations behind them.
For instance, there happens to be an extremely popular, beloved figure who voices characters. Well, his reputation in real life is lower than garbage. This is for a couple of reasons. One, the anime world is very pro-LGBTQ, but he’s highly evangelical, highly homophobic. Two, the allegations keep popping up that he has these really creepy, handsy encounters with the young girls who attend anime conventions. Talk to anybody who goes to these events regularly, and they know all about it. Talk to anybody anywhere else, and they have no clue.
This is something that’s allowed to continue happening because of all the hero-worship. This guy makes money for these conventions just by showing up, even though there are a couple that have banned him for being a dick to the staff. He’s a cash cow because his fans will keep turning out in droves. You’ll have 1,000 fans in an hour. Not to make light of it, but you can only grope so many of them.
In 2008, the worldwide language services market was valued at $10.9 billion. This was expected to climb 7.5% in 2009 to $11.7 billion.
Source: Voices.com Industry Reports
Bread and butter
A typical gig starts with getting an email or call from an agent and making appointment for an audition. As far as the timeframe goes, I probably don’t hear back from them for maybe three or four days after I come in (with stage or screen acting, it’s closer to a week). Then, a couple days later, I’ve got an appointment for a recording. This time, I show up with the client and the advertiser they’re working with.
I’ll go into a recording studio with a couple other voiceover actors. We’ll get the copy. We’ll look it over for a couple minutes in the room. They’ll call us in. We’ll go up to the microphone. We’ll read it one or two times. We’ll get some feedback from the client or casting director. The most common piece of advice you get is “throw it away.” Currently, in the commercial world, it’s all about sounding “natural.” “Throw it away” just means “chill out” or “be casual,” basically “act like you’re talking to a friend.”
I’ve noticed that there’s been a shift in terms of what commercial clients and creative agencies are looking for. In the nineties, commercials were very, like, shlocky and performative. They were big, bold, polished, very self-consciously salesy. Now, commercials are just like, “Yo, I’m just your hipster friend telling you to eat at Wendy’s.” It’s all about capitalizing on the vernacular culture brought about by social media and, more specifically, memes.
It usually requires several takes to deliver the read that they like, but you’re rarely there for more than two or three hours. The gigs that take up the most time are obviously audiobooks. If you’re booked on a show, you’re also going to be working long hours but they’ll be pretty irregular. Commercials are the bread-and-butter of the industry and, frankly, very easy in terms of schedule. Because the timeslots are so compact, there are definitely days where you have multiple gigs for multiple clients booked in a single day.
There’s a misconception that the industry is much more competitive than it really is. The pool of people competing in voiceover is much smaller than the pool of people competing in theater, television or film in New York City. That said, there’s a much wider gulf between those who are booking work and those who aren’t. The people who are booking work are booking a high volume at a consistent pace. The people who aren’t, are booking nothing at all, which lends itself to this idea that it’s a very cutthroat and insular industry. What it is, is that there’s a threshold of basic training that you have to pass before you start seeing success. There are a lot of people that take voiceover classes and get sucked in by other marketing gimmicks, but I honestly don’t buy any of it.
I don’t necessarily want to sing the praises of being self-taught. Most of the training courses that are out there feel like a scam because they promise voiceover as this kind of “get rich quick” scheme. Nobody, even people who are naturally brilliant at this, can turn it into something like that. It takes a lot of time to build a voiceover career: getting to the point that casting directors know who you are, learning how to be comfortable in the booth.
There are a lot of people who are in what’s informally called the AVA, or the amateur voice actor community. These are people who, for the most part, are fans of video games and anime. Their dream is to dub the characters that appear in them. They tend to labor under the delusion that being self-taught and naturally gifted means they can make it. They try to jump headfirst into an industry that they really don’t know heads or tails of.
If you’re a young voiceover actor and you want work, what you absolutely need is an agent. You’ll go nowhere fast representing yourself. In order to get an agent, you need a commercial demo. The hordes of people who believe they actually have a future in dubbing anime don’t think twice about getting involved in commercial work, even though it’s the foundation of any voiceover career.
The reason I don’t blindly advocate for being an autodidact is because the ethos behind it is understandable but misguided. The number of people coming from an amateur background who are successful in voiceover acting is probably no higher, and possibly a little lower, than the people who are coming from a professional acting background. They think, “Oh, I’ve got so much talent because I can do impressions of the voices I see on shows on TV.” Sorry, bud, that isn’t how it works.
IT’S A MUCH SUBTLER CRAFT to master than to just be a stage or screen actor. Everybody knows what acting looks like. We’re so inundated with movies and television, we’ve become desensitized to it. But very few people really know what goes into sounding a certain way. I’ve been watching a lot of Daredevil lately, which brings up the point that people who lose one sense get more sensitive and refined in terms the other ones. When it comes to manipulating your voice, there’s a lot that most people just aren’t used to doing. Most people are used to controlling a performance as a whole person. When you’re just using your voice as your medium, it can be hard for them. The hardest thing to learn is how to not sound like you’re reading.
While I’d say I’m more in the impressions category of people, 99% of the work I book is still in a natural speaking voice, even if it’s not my natural speaking voice.
My main source of income is announcing for brands. New York is really the hub of that sort of work. The commercial voiceover industry mostly lives in New York. If you’re looking for American cartoons, you’ll want to be in LA. If you’re looking for dubbing, like anime and whatnot, you might be looking at Texas. For the most part, New York’s voiceover industry is very much concentrated in the commercial realm.
My clients really run the gamut, too. I’ve done educational cartoons to get kids to floss their teeth. I’ve done just pharmaceutical commercials for allergy medication. I’ve done stuffed animals that speak when you squeeze them. It’s one of those things that makes you realize how much we hear voiceover in our lives. We don’t think about it. Voiceover is, for a lot of people, just background noise. There’s just so many things I’ve heard my voice in. I’ve got friends who do phone answering line stuff. I know people who do advertising on the radio. But I’m mostly working on TV commercials.
ONE OF THE BIGGEST ADVANTAGES of voiceover work is that nobody sees your face. Because of that, there are a lot of people who can get away with quite a bit in the industry, particularly when it comes to doing non-union work while being part of a union. Obviously, that’s not legal. If you’re a screen actor, it’s very easy to get caught. If you’re a voiceover actor, it’s virtually impossible. Somebody needs to know your voice so intimately that they recognize it from some minor non-union project. Nobody who works with the union really is putting in that kind of legwork.
That’s what happened when I did this junk food thing. When you take on voiceover projects, you’re also taking on exclusivity. Let’s say I do an ad for a certain brand of cereal or breakfast sausage; that usually involves me signing a contract for exclusivity, which stipulates that I can’t take on a competing cereal or breakfast sausage product. It’s because the client doesn’t want people to get confused and say, “Oh, the voice of this thing sounds like the voice of this other thing.” I understand why it makes sense, but the economics of being a young voice actor often involve some level of struggle and compromise and, more often than not, and a little bit of creative dishonesty.
There was a period of time where I was the voice of a snack food brand that wanted me to be exclusive to them. I signed the contract, but then I got the offer from their major competitor and, yeah, I jumped at it. They were two chip companies. I did just a different enough voice that nobody noticed.
I told my wife. I think my agent at the time also knew. There’s a funny phrase they use in the industry when it comes to dodging your contractual obligations to the union. There’s a legitimate way to be union and do non-union work, and it’s called “financial core,” or “fi-core” for short. But it’s generally frowned upon by the union people because you don’t really get the same kind of benefits. When you are doing it illegally, as I was, the common industry nickname is “lie-core.” I wouldn’t say everybody does it. Most people are pretty cautious, but for the most part I don’t know a single unionized voiceover actor who hasn’t taken non-union jobs in the past.
Actors by age
ARE MIDDLE AGED
ARE YOUNG ADULT
Actors by gender
Source: Voice.com Inforgraphics
When you’re first starting out in voiceover work, you have to take a lot of jobs that you might not otherwise have taken and are not necessarily proud of. I think that goes for almost any freelance industry. When I was new to the game, I’m ashamed to say, I took a job for maybe the creepiest toy I’ve ever seen or heard of. It was called “Vampire Boyfriend,” and was no doubt inspired by all the Twilight fandom. It think the rate was only like $300.00. It was this really not very pleasant looking beefcake vampire felt doll. It would only talk when you squeezed its abs. I’m the one one who provided the voice for it.
I had to say stuff that I was deeply uncomfortable with because I knew it was a toy. Sure, there were going to be some women in their thirties or forties who picked this thing up, but it was mostly catering to a demographic of, like, thirteen-year-old girls. I was saying stuff like, “I vant to suck your blood” and “You’re just my blood type, baby.” It was just so creepy. It’s something that I can look back on and laugh about. But, back then, it was a pretty surreal experience.
Anyone who thinks, “Oh, it can’t be that hard to get into voiceover work”—well it’s my career now, but there was a point and time where I voiced a sexy toy for preteens for a couple hundred bucks.