Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Art of the Pick Up

No. This is not a post on dating advice. You can stop reading now if that's what you thought it was...

You guys have heard me rant a lot on my opinion of voice actors recording themselves. In short, I think it trains voice actors to be better editors than performers. Nowhere is this more evident than when I record a new talent for the very first time.

The established VA will have an innate ability to digest and analyze copy which will border on the intuitive. They've read words out loud to such a degree that they'll already have formed an idea of what their performance should consist almost before the rational thought sectors of the brain have kicked in. Watching a seasoned professional like Clancy Brown or Mark Elliot read through a piece of copy cold is a fascinating experience. They quite literally "feel" their way through the read, and largely before decision making skills have kicked in, their instinctive cold read is often better than most other "rehearsed" reads I will encounter.

Making Mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes. Fact. No way around it. Doesn't matter how good you are, most days you will flub a piece of a recording. What we're discussing here is the disparity in tactics for recovering from a mistake. In my opinion, this is related to two elements of experience, reading comprehension and relationship with the director/engineer. The former the performer has total control over, the latter needs to be developed over the course of a session.

Reading Comprehension

You have to read out loud every day.

I've harped on about this before, but it is still the primary tactic one has to developing the skills necessary to be competitive in this field. You need to train like a pro athlete. You need to be in shape. It's part mental, part muscular, but it HAS to be done. The benefits are cumulative, and until you're receiving session and audition copy every day, it's the only way one can bridge the gap between those entering the craft and those established.
The pure immersion in language will make an individual far more flexible at finding their place on the page, a skill as necessary to the VA as "finding your light" is to the stage actor. As one progresses beyond simply reading aloud, eventually the amount of information one can retain will begin to increase as well, which will aid in making decisions within a piece of copy, absorbing punctuation and formatting as a secondary method of informing delivery.
At later stages of experience, the eye's ability to scan, the brain's ability to interpret, and the mouth's ability to mechanically deliver will seem to work independently of each other. This level of proficiency is most readily witnessed in ADR and anime dubbing, where the performer is reacting to multiple stimuli simultaneously (makes it an even greater shame that dubbing doesn't pay better).
Before you think that you're already pretty good at reading, know that I've worked with dyslexic VA's, blind VA's, and even a couple VA's afflicted with demyelinating diseases that routinely crush otherwise "able-bodied" people. You've got to be good. VERY good.


Here the VA has far less control over the experience, as largely they will not be able to set the rules for the session, but there are still habits and behaviors which can aid in copy delivery.
Flexibility will be key. Listening to and interpreting direction is insanely important to developing a rhythm early in the session or audition. The better the director and actor communicate, the better the session will go.
Questions are important (within reason), especially to inform booth etiquette. Every director has different rules for how they like copy delivered, how they like takes organized, how they like pick ups to be delivered. Asking:
"Would you like me to say 'pick up' or do you just want me to take the line over again?"
is a simple way to know what is expected of you when it comes to correcting a mistake. Of course this is where flexibility will be important. If you're used to noting your pick ups, and they ask you NOT to note pick ups, then that might distract you from your usual method of delivering copy.

At no point is it acceptable to make a mistake and just continue reading. I typically encounter this from the newest and greenest VA's entering the craft, but every now and then I'm surprised by someone who should know better. If you know you've made a mistake, picking it up or asking for help is preferred. Just continuing to plow through a piece of copy (in a take we can't use because of the mistake) is a really bad habit to cultivate, and will probably cause friction during sessions.

How do I handle pick ups?

I'm a CRAZY purist when it comes to pick ups. I will not acknowledge a mistake during a take. I find it rude, invasive, and interruptive to the process. Hitting the talkback is often a shock, so I only jump in when I know the take will not be serviceable or usable to avoid wasting time.
I do not want my actors to note pick ups. I don't want to hear them say "pick up" or "sorry" or anything else.
First it is distracting. For that instant, the VA is no longer their character, but themselves, and potentially frustrated. Immediately following the pick up acknowledgement, it typically takes a few words to get back into the flow of a piece of copy, which makes a clean edit slightly less likely.
Secondly, it's largely unnecessary. I often know a VA has made a mistake before they will. It's my job to listen and facilitate.
If the vibe can be maintained, simply taking the line over again is the best way (again, my opinion) to maintain both the emotional and technical consistency of the performance should a mistake be made.
A personal pet peeve is the performer who leaves the mic between every pick up, or every take. It means the proximity to the mic is constantly changing, which means it becomes increasingly difficult to make sure audio from different takes will match.

Tackling Frustration

This is the easiest topic to discuss, but the hardest to execute.
You can't get frustrated, not with a high powered acoustically sensitive piece of equipment RIGHT UP IN YOUR FACE and cranked to eleven.
You must treat the mic as a film actor would treat a lens that intimately close. We can practically hear every nuance of the performance on your face, every tick, frown, smile, blink, everything. This is often illustrated by what I call "the grind", where one small passage will stump or tongue twist a VA. In trying to pick the piece up you'll hear a series of re-takes, each getting louder, more urgent, and faster than the re-take before it as the VA tries to power their way through the challenge.
Voice actors are generally some of the most passionate performers I've ever had the pleasure of working with, and often some of that passion will manifest in their eagerness to please. I routinely encounter VA's who will mercilessly punish themselves over mistakes. It's not necessary. As both a casting and session director, if you're in my booth I want you to succeed. Simple as that. I'm on your side because you are solving a problem for me. You aren't letting me down. You aren't letting yourself down.

I fully expect mistakes to be made. I'm there to help if they are, but how the voice actor responds to making a mistake is far more important than whether or not a mistake is made.

1 comment:

  1. I got in the habit years ago of making a mouth click noise before a pickup when recording myself. This way I can go in and delete the previous audio before the obvious click in the waveform when editing afterward, sometimes without even having to listen to the flub (you cant miss the clipped vertical line). It has been a tremendous time saver for me but the habit is so ingrained that I have inadvertently done it quite a few times in-studio. Occasionally the engineer is taken aback but usually they say that it works well for them too. One guy even told me he was going to recommend the same technique to other talent to save him some time once they leave.