Does age equate with authority and wisdom?
If you enjoy listening to documentaries, no doubt you’ve noticed that the majority of documentaries and similar programs are narrated by gentlemen who have crossed a certain threshold age wise.
Why is it that some of the most trusted, busiest voices working today in narration are over sixty years of age?
Find out in today’s VOX Daily.
What’s In A Voice?
Does a voice at any other age sound as sweet to the ear of a casting director looking for confidence, experience and credibility?
Many of today’s top male narrators are what one might call “North Of 60” in terms of their age. Consider the following list of stoic, amiable narrators whose gravitas is unparalleled in their field:
Seasoned voices, just like salt and pepper hair, tend to have an authoritative effect on people. There’s something about the passing of time that shapes a voice. When coupled with familiarity, you’ve got a winner.
Voices With Instant Authority
Margaret J. King, Ph.D. is the director of The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis in Philadelphia, PA. Her body of work includes contributions to numerous books, including The Cultures of Celebration, The World of Ronald McDonald, Research in Culture Learning: Language and Conceptual Studies, The American Mosaic, and Advertising and Popular Culture.
King writes, “My think tank studies cultural values and the cues to which people respond in the environment. These voices have instant authority – we know them from previous voice artist appearances, so they resonate from memory, which is an important cue for belief buy-in. They are also low-key and self-possessed. Other examples are Leonard Nimoy and Kevin Spacey. This is why advertisers use well-known voices for their voice-overs: they lock into trust, even before we realize who’s speaking. Sound is a powerful cue that sets the tone for what we perceive with vision.”
An Air Of Familiarity
Peter Altschuler of Wordsworth & Company LLC has made a career of producing commercials, documentaries, and television programs. He has also hired and directed voice-over talent as diverse as Eli Wallach, Murray the K, and complete unknowns as well as done some voice-over work himself including audiobook narration to name just one area of voicing.
Altschuler says, “It’s not the gravitas, per se. It’s the familiarity — even subliminally. Advertisers are an insecure lot, but they also understand consumer psychology. Their insecurity drives them to use ‘proven’ talent, even when that proof came in entirely different areas, but they know that a familiar voice — even when a consumer can’t put a name to it — engenders trust.”
Using celebrity to sell isn’t a new concept. Just as Polaroid used Laurence Olivier to promote their product, Altschuler notes that marketing departments in companies and advertising agencies still adore rubbing elbows with celebrities the likes of James Earl Jones and Allison Janney, paying royally for the privilege.
Altschuler acknowledges that the days when Richard Kiley or Joseph Campanella — actors whose voices alone were their calling cards and whose lead film and TV credits were scant — may be gone, stating, “There are hundreds of comparable performers today whose vocal timbre and delivery are the equal of marquee talent, but the combination of insecurity and familiarity keeps sending advertisers and agencies to the same big names.”
The late, great Don LaFontaine also had something to say on this subject.
In addition to setting the standard for trailer voice-over, LaFontaine was one of the strongest voices challenging the status quo with regard specifically to the role of women in movie trailer voice-overs.
He acknowledged that focus groups are largely responsible for keeping women out of trailers. They want to stick with what is proven to work. Similarly, those shying away from risks are less likely to take on new talent, even if they are more than capable.
A Combination Of Factors
Fame isn’t the only factor when it comes to booking jobs.
Derek Partridge, a British voice talent based in the US, stands among the distinguished male narrators north of 60. Just this year, he has 3 documentaries due to be released, one of which is feature-length, pertaining to the story of actor Leslie Howard.
You may recall a past article on this blog about “The Mystery of Flight 777,” that tells of how Derek Partridge’s life and Leslie Howard’s crossed paths on that fateful day.
Partridge also worked on “Howard in Hollywood” for Warner Home Video, to go out with “Gone With The Wind.” Currently, he is working on a series about Charles Lindbergh’s life, has just voiced the third in a series of Intel videos and continues to read news for the blind.
Something else Partridge has going for him is his British accent. The British accent has a currency of its own. When you combine Partridge’s past experience as a polished presenter with his British accent and age, the result is just the sort of storyteller a casting director might be looking for.
Familiarity And Comfort
Familiarity, although many correlate the term with celebrity so far as voice-over or entertainment may go, can also mean simply what you expect to see.
Mike Arman, an aviation teacher based in Florida, offers this perspective, “Look at aviation. ‘This is your captain speaking…’ You’d very much like him to be 60ish, a touch of grey hair, steel rim glasses, quality wristwatch, and an air of authority. Are you comfortable if the captain is a 20-something fresh out of flight school who tells the time from a cell phone?”
Arman taught aviation ground school for over a decade and was twice the age (or more) of most of his students. The owner of the school once told him that the students were very reassured by his “touch of grey,” as it lent an air of authority to what he talked about. Of course knowing what he was talking about didn’t hurt, either.
For some people, grey hair says “This guy’s been around, he knows his stuff and is worth listening to.”
What Do You Think?
What makes narrators 60 years old or better so in demand? Is it about gravitas, familiarity or celebrity?
If you can speak to this topic or have another angle you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you.