Wednesday, July 16, 2008

VOICE ACTORS! Struggling with Longer Copy? EXHALE FIRST!

Had the pleasure of directing auditions on a wall-to-wall :60 second radio spot a couple days ago. Standard spec: sincere, non-announcery, authority but friendly.

The spot was a tad over written, not horribly so, but came in comfy around :70 seconds.
No prepping or warning on my part helped any of the actors auditioning.
"Take your time."
"It's a touch over written."
"I DON'T CARE if it's under 60."
"Leave yourself room for air."

Most of the actors looked at me like I was trying to explain how water was wet. OF COURSE they'd breathe, DUH...

Like clockwork, around 35-40 seconds, trainwreck.
The two or three actors that did make it through without error sounded so rushed I couldn't have sent the audition off anyway.

Now these are voice over pros, but even they seem to run into a fairly common problem. I just now clued in that the problem isn't "running out of air" it's having TOO MUCH USED AIR.
Throughout longer copy, you start taking really shallow breaths to replenish. After about 30 seconds of this you're pretty much full, but since you've been speaking at a consistent rate, with no room to exhale, you're pretty much full of CO2. The body starts to send distress signals, you surge to try and finish the copy, in surging you start stumbling, this adds more stress, and the end of the audition is tanked.

I started making my actors do breathing prep, a trick I learned in musical theater to calm stage nerves (singing on stage terrified me).
"I'm going to push record. I want you to inhale for five seconds and exhale for ten seconds before you start speaking."
Now, don't even get me started on the number of actors that said "yeah cool ok" then went right into the copy IGNORING what I had just asked them to do, but forcing them to do this trick resulted in something just a little fantastic.

I got calm, engaged, personal reads. Almost everybody was able to come in under 70 seconds. Almost no stumbles were made.

People who read legal copy often tell me that the fastest legal is usually the most relaxed legal, and I totally buy it.
Those same techniques are working like gang-busters on my commercial recording sessions.

What do you do to prep longer copy?


  1. Audio Guy, this is an AWESOME observation and tip! So many spots seem overwritten these days that your advice is sure to be used frequently. Also, the preliminary exhalation would give the voice actor time to become more present in the script and therefore more focused on the motivation behind each word.

    I just had a coaching session with Jeff Freeman. He advised me to break up these mammoth scripts into the individual ideas -- akin to cutting up the 20-ounce porterhouse steak into bite-sized pieces. Once the script is dissected, it's easier to see how the ideas should be grouped for phrasing.

    Thanks again for providing such helpful info! Karen Commins

  2. Thanks Karen!

    I had a teacher, really into Meisner, that would also treat monologue as dialog. Physically breaking up the script into more manageable ideas.
    The idea being that, for keeping the language fresh, you'd be responding to the other character (or audience) as if they were talking to you, interrupting you.

    Either that or you're anticipating what the response or question is going to be ahead of time as you speak.

  3. Juan:
    This is one of the best posts I've read about voiceover technique! Breathing is so important, as is listening! Listening is such a great skill - especially in the studio. I find taking it slow (getting to the audition early, rested, relaxed, etc.) and focusing on what the client wants and needs, rather than looking at the entire script and wondering 'how well I'll do' helps. It's too daunting to look at an entire script and wonder 'where is the key phrase the client is looking for?' or 'should I emphasize this word...or that one?'.
    Thanks for keeping everyone aware - and focused on what matters in the studio (besides good voice and delivery). Listening!

  4. I KNOW Donna!
    I have to wonder if maybe it's an LA thing. That maybe, because of things like how awful our traffic is that it makes it harder to focus on what's really important.
    I had a woman today, 5 minutes late for her time, near tears because she couldn't get to the studio on time to prepare. She was so worked up, I had to give her 20 minutes to calm down.

    Could it also be because of the way "on camera" auditions work here too? You show up, and try and fit into some mold the producers say they think the want. All image no room for personality?

    I'm not originally from LA...

  5. Juan!
    What an AWESOME post!
    I am tacking this up in my booth as a reminder!
    I'm originally from yeah....walking into the booth, closing the door and starting right away is a habit I need to work on!
    (Although I DO always listen to the PRO on the other side of the glass!!!! ;-)

    Have a GREAT day!



  6. Hey Liz!
    I wonder if maybe THAT's another thing affecting voice actors.
    Quite a few of the actors I record on a regular basis have their own home recording kit. I wonder if they are having a problem turning off the engineer part of their brains.

    I'll push record sometimes and wonder if their analysis had stopped at the volume of their voice...

    That might be my next post LOL!

  7. Great observations! This post reminds me again of how hard it is to really do voice acting. I have tried it once at school before and I sucked at it. I never get to play the part. I don't know much about the proper way to breathe so I ended up just eating out the words in order to finish the sentence.

  8. LOL!
    It's funny that the more time I spend behind the mixer, the more comparisons I make to my time on stage.
    Translating a performance to make it microphone friendly can take some time, but a lot of the physical technique involved can be quite similar.

  9. Thanks. Great post. And I'm with Juan, so much of it is in the listening. Too many voice overs (pros included) forget that.

    1. Gotta keep it honest. Can't be honest if you arn't comfortable in your own skin...

  10. You are my new hero! I have been longing for this trick as I rampage through :60 spots that are written for twice that.

    **bats eyelashes**

    1. So let me get this straight Producer/Writer person. You've given us a full page of single-spaced pt10 font, plus a tag, and a legal, but you want us to sound like we're "talking to a friend" honestly and not anncr-y.


  11. Thanks for the reminder! I learned that in broadcasting school and a few decades later my recent VO coach reminded me of it. Have a bitchin' day!

    1. You're more than welcome. It's too handy a tip NOT to share it. Have a bitchin' WEEKEND!