Trends in Voiceovers - More is Less, and More for Less: A Report from the Field

announcerBy Tom Richards

The 2002 film, “Comedian,” starring Jerry Seinfeld, didn’t make much of a stir at the box office, but the link for its QuickTime trailer (www.apple.com/trailers/miramax/comedian.html) flew from voice talent to producer to agent as quickly as a new virus. It features real-life movie trailer voiceover icon Hal Douglas as a voice guy named Jack who’s done perhaps one too many trailers. He settles into the booth, the producer slates the take, and Jack proves that he just doesn’t get it anymore.

Hal: In a world where laughter was king...

Producer: Uh, no “in a world,” Jack.

Hal: (puzzled) What do you mean, “no ‘in a world’?”

Producer: It’s not that kind of movie.

Hal: Oh? OK. (pause) In a land that...

Producer: No “in a land,” either.

Hal: (pause) In a time...

Producer: No, I don’t think so.

Hal: In a land before time...

Producer: It’s about a comedian, Jack.

Hal: One man...

Producer: (weary) No.

Hal: (Revving up) When your life is no longer your own...

Producer: What does that mean?

Hal: When everything you know is wrong...

Producer: That’s wrong.

Hal: In an outpost...

Producer: No...

Hal: On the edge of space...

Producer: There’s no ‘space’.

Hal: A girl…

Producer: No!

Hal: TWO girls!

Producer: No.

Hal: Now…

Producer: No.

Hal: …more than ever,

Producer: Stop it!

Hal: A renegade cop!

Producer: Oh, I hate you.

Hal: A robot renegade cop!

Producer: You’re fired.

Hal: (As if he’d been given a line read) “You’re fired!”

Producer: No, you’re actually fired.

Hal: I’m fired!

Producer: Get out of the booth, Jack.

Hal: (Still doesn’t get it) No... I like it in here!

You really don’t want to be Jack. But the question is, does Jack even want to be Jack anymore? Today’s voiceover artist is expected to provide high-quality talent, self-contained production services, and, thanks to lots of competition, lower and lower rates.

How Real Can You Get?

Anyone who’s written a 60-second radio spot around a dramatic situation knows that there’s precious little time to waste in setting the scene. The listener’s got to immediately understand what’s going on, and that’s why immediacy of style is so important. “I’m looking for someone who gets it, who’s able to deliver consistently,” says Jason Marks of New York-based Jason Marks Talent Management, who specializes in trailer and promo voices. NYC casting director Julie Gillis agrees. “Producers are looking for someone who sounds natural, that the average person can relate to.”

The voice frequently identifies the audience. To reach 18-24 males, conventional wisdom goes, use a voice who sounds like, or appeals to — you guessed it — an 18-24 male. The idea is that the voice “talks the talk” of the target market. As Marks says, “less is more.” Frank Frederick, a voice talent from Salt Lake City, takes it a step further. “The consumer has changed the voiceover business in ways which most of the talent are not aware. Reality television has spawned the desire for ‘real’ people on the radio” and other media.

The Boys of Summer

With the exception of radio imaging and TV promo voices, the days of the big-voiced “announcer” are gone, at least for now. Commercial scripts today specify “no announcers,” or “guy next door sound.” Does that mean that producers want untrained voices to deliver their message? “Well, listeners want to hear ‘real people’ talking, but the voice talent’s got to take a script beyond the words,” says Sam Gish of Philadelphia Casting Company, which supplies voice and on-camera talent to producers from New York to Baltimore. Gish looks for talent who “kind of coil around your brain stem and appeal to your gut.” He particularly likes the intimate, story-telling style of Dick Summer, whose “Lovin Touch” ran on WBZ Boston and WNBC New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Summer was way ahead of the wave of what we’ve come to know as “one on one communication.” Today he owns a small advertising agency in Pennsylvania, and looks at voice talent the same way some look at major league baseball. “At the risk of sounding like an old fart, back when you had a dozen or so baseball teams, you had only the very best guys playing. Today, there are more teams, but the number of really good players is pretty much the same.” The rest of the rosters consist of guys who might have sat on the bench — or even not been there at all — when there were fewer teams. “So when it comes to voiceover talent today, with all the added cable channels and overall increased commercial opportunities, it’s pretty much the same situation.”

“Why don’t you just act?”

These days it’s not enough to simply read the words in a nice way. Today’s listener can spot a phony in a heartbeat — or so he thinks. So you’ve got to sound credible, and what better way to sound credible than to act? If that sounds like baloney, consider that there’s a certain threshold you’ve got to maintain. It’s the same as talking with your afternoon drive jock off the air, and then listening to him when the mic’s open. Big difference.

You’ve got to extend yourself, and acting classes can help. “You’ve got to act to sound convincing,” says DB Cooper, a New England radio and voice talent who found that things really clicked for her after she took a voice acting class. “Whatever I read, I find an active verb that represents what it is that I’m trying to do. Sometimes it’s ‘to clarify,’ at other times, it’s ‘to inspire,’ or ‘to challenge,’ or ‘to invite.’” The process enables you to interpret the script as if it were literally your own.

Of course, there’s acting, and then there’s really acting. The story goes that when Dustin Hoffman was shooting Marathon Man with Sir Laurence Olivier, Hoffman ran miles every day to get a closer feeling for his character, a man who pushes himself to the limit by training for marathons. At the end of one particularly grueling run, he doubled over, gasping for breath, sweat dripping from his body. Olivier coolly regarded him and said, “Why don’t you just act?”

In fact, the VO gig that you didn’t book might have gone to an actor, for their very ability to assume the persona that they’re reading. Jason Marks cites one of his clients, Rick Wasserman, as one of many who have stepped from acting to become a voice talent. Miguel Ferrer’s also highly sought. And while not everyone can be a Wasserman or Ferrer (or Peter Coyote or Donald Sutherland or Linda Hunt), “even basic acting lessons can really help,” says Julie Gillis. Female actors particularly like voiceovers. “I don’t need makeup; I don’t even need my hair to be done,” says EG Dailey, the voice of Tommy Pickles on Nickelodeon’s Rugrats.

Reading the Tea Leaves

Having the right vibe is important. As a casting director for hundreds of national commercials, Mindy Verson of Chicago Recording Company reads the mood of the public at any given time. “For instance, after 9/11, no one wanted to use any sarcasm at all. Dark humor was out, and gentleness took over.” At the same time, “I have to be able to be forward-thinking enough to make my own trends. Many times, advertisers want me to find someone new to push their image forward.”

So where are the new voices? Producers frequently click Voicebank.net for some of the best voices, represented by some of the country’s top agencies. Then, like Dick Summer’s example, there are the dozens, maybe hundreds of other sites with thousands of voice talent, each with their own little button for you to audition their demo, each with their own home studio capable of zapping an mp3 to you in moments. The result is an essentially turnkey situation with producers auditioning, even booking talent online, without ever coming fact to face.

One major casting company in Philadelphia, Mike Lemon Casting, has downsized staff to totally automate their voice-casting department. “Talent learned to go around us and pitch the client directly, so that takes the casting director out of the loop and drives non-union rates way, way down,” says Scott Evans, formerly of MLC.

A budget-conscious producer has to wonder why he should pay an A+ voice hundreds of dollars, when he can get a B+ voice for as low as $75 or even less. It’s become a numbers game, and Mindy Verson notes, “producers are relying on me more to offer a more complete production service. Not just casting and producing, but everything involved in making their job easier.” To stay competitive, you’ve got to offer more for less. Says Evans, “cutting costs is the number one priority.”

The Lean, Mean Voiceover Machine

So the trend in voiceovers today is toward the stand-alone voice guy or girl, shooting self-recorded mp3’s across the web, cyber-schmoozing with anybody with an e-mail address and a budget. Robocop with a microphone.

At the same time, nothing matches the human touch. “I’m always looking for a fresh, contemporary-sounding voice,” says Jason Marks.

And if that voice is attached to an ISDN-equipped actor who works 20 hours a day seven days a week, who can nail it first time, every time, all the better.

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