I was asked by a voiceover artist to give advice to people just starting out as a VO director. Here is my attempt at keeping it short…which it is not.
The hot seat. You’re in a chair and someone has placed their trust in you to deliver a project worth putting out in the world. It’s your very first time directing a voiceover session…what do you do?
Panic?! Stay Quiet?! Fake it?!
Well, I assure you I panicked on my first recording session. And I have also messed up a lot of times sicne. I have been quiet when I shouldn’t have and over directed when I should’ve let the voice talent figure it out.
So here is what I wish someone would’ve told me before my first VO session;
My Philosophy of Common Sense Voiceover Directing…
Our VO talent are our collaborative partners NOT our sled dogs.
Maybe this one isn’t just for new directors… we should all look for a creative collaboration with our voice talent. We can have the most wonderful script, cast the most talented voice actor you’ve ever heard and add a visionary creative director and it will still crash and burn if we cannot speak to each other properly.
But what about YOU, can YOU direct? Well, yeah you can! I believe everyone can give direction. Every person has their own taste and is able to make judgement calls on how the voiceover sounds to them. These are just skills that need to be practiced. Over time you will get better and better at conveying what your preferred reads are. What inflections are pleasing; what pacing sounds best to your ears. It boils down to finding out this: why certain performances are better suited for certain stories.
Do not worry about if you can/will be a good voice-over director. The talent you are working with, in all honesty, has already experienced bad to useless directors. Don’t be so afraid of being a bad director that you don’t share your thoughts at all. Your goal is to get a good performance from an artist who wants to give a good performance. It’s that simple! This also means you shouldn’t have to get in the way too often. Keep the overview of your entire project in mind. Trust that your voice actor can create the performance where everyone will be happy. You will help guide them along the way, but you shouldn’t drag them through the finish line.
Tips on how to be prepared:
Before you have the talent connected and ready to record… read the script. Then…. read it again.
Ask yourself these questions:
What is important in this script? – Are we announcing a sale? Are we telling an origin story?
What is the feeling we need to convey? – Is it fun and fast paced? Is it slow and heartfelt?
Who is our audience? – Do we need to relate to a certain crowd? Are we just trying to grab any attention whatsoever?
What are the client’s directions/goals?
Why did they pick this particular talent?
Does your voice-over have to fit in a certain time? – Time it out yourself so you have an idea where the voiceover should land…and then expect the talent to take more time than that.
Where is the character/ voice coming from? Why are they who they are?
What information should stand out and what’s our call to action?
Above all, find the most important elements. What are you selling, what needs to be most memorable? Is there a price that’s unbelievable? How is this story told best through our voice talent? How does the performance of your actor connect to the listener? Make sure the name of your brand should be clear and leave an impact!
So, you are in session with your voice actor.
Build trust by being honest. Don’t fake it, they will know.
It’s OK to tell the voice talent that you haven’t directed voiecover before and you value their opinions and instincts. Of course, you should actually mean that! Your goal should be to have discussions between takes. As directors, when we have suggestions… let’s suggest instead of order.
Your instincts… Use them.
After a take, tell your voice actor what you liked about their performance. This gives them a confidence boost and helps guide them to the best possible take.
Maybe ask your talent, did you feel good about that take? If you think it was off the mark maybe ask, what do you think about going in another direction?
Pay attention to timing. Does it need to be slowed down, sped up? Is the emotion correct? Do you enjoy the overall feeling of their read?
Critiques should never be harmful. As creatives, almost all of these decisions will be subjective and we all have different tastes. No one is wrong for a performance, maybe just off track of what the director or client has in mind. Suggest ways you think that read could be improved rather than what they did wrong in their interpretation.
We all want the same thing… a great product/performance. We can only do that together!
Don’t let making decisions terrify you. I would not be surprised if I have said the following sentence a hundred times: “Ok, I was wrong but thanks for trying the bad idea I had… Let’s go back to your original read.” You’ll make a decision, and it will either work or it won’t. Experiment. Don’t be scared to fail.
Until you are confident in how a read should be performed, I would avoid line reading voice talent. But when you are comfortable in performing the line exactly how you feel it should be read, then ask if it would help the talent if you did a line read for them. Always try your best to plainly explain what you are hoping to hear.
All actors are different and will take criticism differently. Some voice actors are pure artists and creative collaborators. In these cases, going line by line and over-directing can easily turn into a rough session and your final product will be worse for it. On the other hand, some talent have no noticeable ego and are willing to go line by line until their client is happy. Even if they internally disagree with the creative choices, they will perform what is asked of them. These voice actors are great to work with and ensures your client returns! You won’t know until you get into session and start giving notes but it’s easy to switch course.
Just try not to over direct. You may not like the robotic feel if they have a list of notes to pay attention to while reading.
Tips to become a better voice-over director;
Watch a voice acting class. Try to perform yourself. It is surprisingly hard work and can be exhausting and terrifying. Notice how coaches or other talent help with direction of others. I have been lucky enough to pick up little golden nuggets from many VO talent’s performances and voice coaches by watching them direct. Trial and error account for all the other successes I’ve found.
Before your next session, listen to a project that is similar to what you are trying to create. What stands out as good voiceover and what sounds bad to you? How did the voiceover feel? What do current commercials sound like? What do similar audiobooks sound like? How do long form narrations make you feel? Find what you love about that project you listened to… How can you convey what you like to someone who hasn’t seen or heard it? Emulate what you love and/or current trends avoid the things that make you cringe. Direct voice-over talent towards the good, away from the bad.
If it’s going off the rails… Stop, Collaborate and Listen. Wait…no… that’s Vanilla Ice.
Relax! You and your Voice Talent partner will do fine!