How to Cast Your Voice Over Project Like a Pro
You’ve posted your job on Voices, now what?
Casting and directing your voice over project is as much an art as it is a science. Not only do you have to understand who your audience is and what voice will resonate with them… you also have to find that perfect voice and guide it through the performance.
Jordan Scott Price is the Co-Founder and Creative Director of Flying Canvas Productions. Over the course of his career, he has worked with a wide range of well-known clients (such as Southwest Airlines), and has led teams of over 30 on extended projects. As a passionate storyteller who seeks to advance how brands and audiences converse through video, Jordan has honed his voice over casting skills through extensive experience.
Jordan understands that even those who have been in the business for a while can find the process to be a challenge – so in this Q&A, we asked to share his insights on how he identifies, hires and works with voice actors.
Q. Why is casting Voice Over Actors Especially Challenging?
A. Unlike directing actors for screen or stage, the process of recording scripted voice over is not very “organic.” Getting a good read from a voice over session is a very different kind of discipline.
Whether a project is inherently exciting or run-of-the-mill, the recording process is the same: mechanical and often unglamorous. Pile on that many of our voice over recording sessions are held over the phone with talent across the country, and it gets even more impersonal.
Therefore, as a director, I have to lean much more on the natural ability, skill, and intuition of the voice talent, so that everyone walks away from the voice over session pleased.
Q. What Makes a Good Read?
A. For one, the voice talent has to have command over a good voice. (Even a wonderful baritone voice, if it has no range, just won’t do for most cases. It’ll get monotone in a hurry and fade into noise, the longer the running time.)
Secondly, the voice talent’s command must include inflection, cadence, and pronunciation. These are the keys and pedals of the talent’s instrument, if you will – the requirements for a good performance.
And thirdly, the talent needs to be able to read into the script, not just be able to read the script. This doesn’t mean reading between the lines, per se. Rather, this is the necessity of intuiting what the script is trying to communicate. This goes for any kind of script.
I find this to be a subtle but extremely important detail that separates “okay” reads from the “good” ones: if the voice talent doesn’t understand what they are saying, the listener will pick up on it to some degree. Think of it like a spokesperson in a broadcast commercial or an actor in a drama. It’s not enough to just be able to read words and inflect them, the talent has to “own” them.
Q. How Important or Influential is the Script Writing in the Overall Voice Over Performance?
A. I find that most professional talent can quickly read into the script and understand the meaning and flow, but this preemptively falls on the writer. Regardless of the format of the script – e.g., radio ad, explainer, documentary narration, training video – it is the responsibility of the writer to not just cobble together facts, words, and bullet points, but to command the language. A good script shouldn’t fight the reader, but rather should have a discernible flow of thought and word.
Truthfully, a “good read” relies more on the quality of the writing than the capability of the talent.
Q. Conversely, How Does Casting Impact the Final Result?
A. Let’s assume the script at hand is commendably solid – with an airtight vocabulary, brisk pace, and poetic musicality. What’s next?
Casting. You won’t get a good read unless you cast right.
There’s an old rule of thumb for screen and stage directing that is a joke and a warning at the same time: 90% of the director’s job is casting. This is amped up a notch with casting voice talent because of the “non-organic” nature of recording. A director needs to cast the right voice talent – with ability, skill, and intuition – who is also the right fit for the role.
Not all voices are created equal. A bright, feminine voice will be a fish out of water in a Ford broadcast commercial, and the well-aged drawl of a cowboy will be a sour note in a Macy’s YouTube spot. Those examples might be on the nose, but the point is this: much of the work to get a “good read” is done before a single word is recorded in session.
I find that I have to spend considerable time going through demo reels and audition tapes, listening for the ability and command of the talents’ voices. Only once I find the right fit does having the actor “nail it” in the audition become important.
Some voice talent are better than others at intuiting the script and “owning” it – i.e. making it sound like it’s their own words, without needing to revise the script.
Some voice talent are better than others at enunciating clearly at a fast pace.
Determine what your script calls for in its technicality, as well as its personality, and find the voice talent who can deliver on both. You’ll be well on your way to a good read.
Q. Switching Gears a Little Bit – Can You Share Your Insights on What Constitutes a ‘Bad Read?’
A. Per the last point: if you cast poorly, you’ll shrug in surprise when your great script sounds awful in session, like a song in the wrong key.
You set yourself up for a “bad read,” if you cast someone who doesn’t have the technical chops and command to read your script without error, or who has natural voice qualities (e.g., timbre, range, register, etc.) that just don’t jive with your project.
Most listeners will know a bad read when they hear one. Whether it’s just one line or the whole script, a bad read sounds stilted, confused, deflated, and unprofessional – qualities that undermine the credibility of your project’s final output.
The common culprits of a bad read that I’ve seen in hundreds of hours of voice over recording would be 1) poor script writing, 2) confused or exhausted voice talent, or 3) poor direction.
Q. Yikes. So How Can You Set Yourself Up to Avoid a Bad Read?
A. The first point is a redundancy by now: you must have a good script.
The second point is usually a result of the third, but sometimes it’s from the talent intuiting the wrong things from the script. For example, the talent can get so married to a particular meaning or inflection – especially if they’ve had the script for a while in advance of recording – that they just can’t escape it, and every take sounds the same. It’s like muscle memory. If the director doesn’t know how to make them aware of this and steer them into the right direction, a seemingly endless series of useless takes will fluster and exhaust even the most seasoned of voice talent.
The third point is the responsibility of the director. I firmly believe every voice talent wants to do their best and be a part of something they’re proud of. So it’s important for the director to go in knowing what he or she needs for the project.
Q. How Can the Director Put the Project on Track?
A. If the director is also the head scriptwriter – as is my case with almost all of our client projects at Flying Canvas – then he or she should, in my opinion, know exactly how each line should be spoken.
Even if the director isn’t the writer – or if the client is leading the charge! – it’s important that whoever is directing the voice talent knows what the script means and how the voice over will fit into the rest of the project. (Obviously, the requirements of a feature-length political documentary for theatrical release will differ from that of an audiobook.)
So it’s important to have tools to correct bad reads. A particular one is condemned as taboo in directing actors in drama, yet is an invaluable asset in directing voice over: a line reading.
It’s perfectly acceptable to read a line of the script to the voice talent with the exact pronunciation, inflection, and cadence you are looking for.
Whereas that’s normally the hallmark of a junior performance director – puppeteering because he or she doesn’t have an “organic” way to direct the actor – I’m convinced in my experience that it’s an effective tool for fixing or avoiding a bad voice over read, specifically because the recording process is not organic. It’s a near-surefire way to make the voice talent’s life easier and to get the read you want.
Q. What About on the Actor’s Side – What are the Common Errors You Come Across?
A. The most common I see is probably just a simple mispronunciation, especially when dealing with technical scripts (training, product demos, etc.), or a misreading of a homograph (e.g. read and read, conduct and conduct, etc.). If the context doesn’t make clear the pronunciation and meaning, a note in the script’s margin always helps the talent.
Some voice talent – usually newer talent – will try to be too “professional” in their readings, enunciating every syllable and giving every sentence the weight of a New York Times headline. This just comes across as antiseptic and impersonal, as if the talent is trying to literally dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t.’
Like screen and stage actors, voice talent should remember that they are almost always hired for their personality and uniqueness (under their command as an artist), not to be a stock voice that has no humanity. For all of our projects, casual is never a casualty.
Q. What Stands Out in the Performance When You Hear a Good Read?
A. It’s a cliché, but, “owning it.”
It’s when the distinction between the script and the talent is erased, and it just sounds like a person talking, albeit with conviction (no one wants to listen to a boring person!).
Bringing home all of the earlier points, this is a combination of commanding writing, rightful casting, intuitive voice talent, and competent direction.
Usually, this means you’re moving through the read at a pretty good clip, with more usable takes than unusable. To that, it may be more accurate to say that, when you have a good read, nothing stands out – because it all sounds ‘right,’ with not a single rough edge left to stand out.
Q. When a Script is Read Poorly, What Impact Do You Think it Has on the Client?
A. In my company’s case, this would immediately throw a flag on our team’s work.
Did our script sound great on paper, but out loud it’s a garbled mess? Is it unclear? Is it running on? Does it sound wooden or programmed, like a waltz going ONE-two-three, ONE-two- three?
Regardless, it’s understandable that the client who’s present for recording can get a little nervous. They’re not going to perceive the subtleties, or technicalities, that the director needs to address; that’s why they’re paying you (or us) for in the first place!
So clients sometimes try to fix a problem they don’t understand – often by giving line readings to the talent or rewriting the script on the fly – which tends to compound everyone’s frustration.
Too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth.
Of course, these are all signs of fault in the process leading up to recording. But it’s the director’s job, regardless, to guide the session back into his or her control, to regain the confidence of the talent, and to start making progress again by getting usable takes.
Q. Does Performance Ability Affect Talent Rates?
A. “The arts” (a broad term, to be sure) are malleable, and they can’t be meted out as if one dollar = one ounce of talent or creativity.
That said, I’m a firm believer in paying people what they are worth – and this is something the artist defines for himself or herself, not to be defined by me. The talent presents their rate, and then I have to decide if they’re fitting for the role and affordable by our project’s budget.
As directing voice over performance is markedly less organic and more technical than directing performance for stage or screen, there is something of a billable standard that voice talent can work from: the amount of words to be read.
Yet, as for what dollar value to assign to each word, that again is not up to me. The talent should always set his or her own rate.
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