Dancing With a Voiceover Director
By Rudy Gaskins and Joan Baker
May 21, 2021
There are many ways to describe a voiceover director, and by director we mean any media professional (creative director, producer) whose job is to direct voice actors to fulfill the promise of the script. One possible description is that the director is one who takes the lead in a dance where the choreography is still evolving. The director leads and the voice actor follows. When the voice actor surrenders to the creative climate set by the director, great things can happen. When both director and voice actor dance in harmony, magic happens.
Awareness of the Etiquette
There are certain do’s and don’ts that come with any profession: preparedness, courtesy, punctuality, openness, knowing your role, and respecting the roles of your colleagues are some of the “do’s.” Developing one’s people skills is often overlooked because most of us feel our people skills are adequate. Your people skills may be adequate, but in the competitive business of voice acting, adequate isn’t enough. People hire those with whom they enjoy working. An engaging personality can be the difference between booking and not booking, or a one-shot job vs repeat business. If you’re shy, introverted, or aloof, that doesn’t have to be your fate. There are self-help solutions.
Establishing a Common Language
When you begin working with a director, it is your job to learn their language. Pay close attention to how they communicate, including idiosyncrasies. Listen hard and thoughtfully with the sole intent of understanding them. If the director says, “I’d like you to play it edgier.” you have to figure out his context, given the different meanings of the word. Your job is to faithfully read the director’s intent, trust your instincts, and go for it with heart and soul. The director will redirect as needed. What rarely works is offering the director a rebuttal like, “By edgier do you mean more provocative?” That sets up a subtle challenge about which word is right. The director’s words are the only words that matter, until they open the door for your input.
Stephen Covey said in his bestselling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand. They listen with the intent to reply.” Your number one job is to listen to understand, and then reply with your performance. Whatever you may personally think about the director’s talent or intelligence, it has no place in the session. Respect the director’s role and give them every benefit of the doubt. Most of us think of ourselves as occasionally distracted while mostly listening. In truth, most of us occasionally listen while being mostly distracted.
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Trusting the Vision
Directors may not always know all the steps to the dance. This is often because a given creative process may demand a more fluid path to successfully fulfilling the promise of the project. Be prepared to dance in the conversation of not knowing. Give up any notions of how you thought the job would or should go. Surrender to the process, add value wherever you can, be patient, and allow the magic to unfold.
Develop Your Improv Skills
Walk into the room with a willingness to play. If that sounds a bit foreign, run to the next available improv class and have at it. Improv is about the essence of playing and spontaneity. There are a few rules to follow, but the rules are designed to stir up more play, more fun, and more spontaneity. The goal is to dissolve inhibitions and discover the joy of playing and engaging as fully as you can. It doesn’t mean you’ll become a master improviser, but you will become a better one. That’s a huge win.
The Biggest Pitfall
If you, as a voice actor, find yourself in a perpetual loop of complaining — “they don’t know what they want, the descriptions are poorly written, the copy doesn’t make sense, the direction was weird,” etc., then guess who you’ve become? You’ve become the person no one wants to see coming – not the client, not your agent, not your fellow voice actors. Misery may love company, but you won’t find that company on the job, nor among the most successful professionals. Sure, you’ll easily find like-minded whiners in social media groups, but know that your public attitude is being noticed by the very people with the power to facilitate your success: agents, casting directors, managers, buyers, and even your friends.
Understanding the Role of Directing
Here’s an exercise that will put you in the shoes of the director. Google “negative feedback” for any brand or product of your choice. Putting yourself in the advertiser’s shoes, determine a solution that would turn the naysayers into loyal customers. Then, write a 30-second script that conveys your solution, and write a separate description that would guide any voice actor to a perfect audition. Find the right voice actor and direct them to a brilliant performance. Finally, work with a mixer (more directing) to finish your spot and then ask strangers (focus group) for their opinion on the success of your effort. After this exercise, you’ll have a newfound respect for working with a director.
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