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Make A Break Into Anime Voice Acting

Gerry Poulos details the steps to becoming a voice over actor for anime productions. Includes interviews with six leading anime director/producers.

Yutaka Maseba, president of ZRO Limit Productions, produced the English dubbed and subtitled versions of Akira, 2001. © 1987 Akira Committee. Licensed by Kodansh

Yutaka Maseba, president of ZRO Limit Productions, produced the English dubbed and subtitled versions of Akira, 2001. © 1987 Akira Committee. Licensed by Kodansh

As children we all watched cartoons and fell in love with characters who, in our innocence, we assumed to be real. Later we discovered, with the same disappointment that comes with shedding our belief in Santa Claus, that they were not.

Beyond childhood, many continue to enjoy the art and fantasy that can only be achieved through animation. As we enter adulthood, a growing number of us are discovering anime. With its more mature themes, intricate story lines and varied genres, anime provides us with a whole new level of animation and its popularity is growing strongly in our own culture.

As adults, though, we are more aware of things that escaped our attention as children. Foremost is an understanding of the creativity that comes to bear when creating anime. Additionally, we know that there are careers to be had in the North American anime industry.

In bringing anime titles to an audience that predominantly lacks mastery of the Japanese language, one career stands out as a dream-job to many -- voice acting.

In this article you will discover the ins and outs of breaking into this career field as well as many insider tips that you can use to make your move. You will also find other helpful information in preparing for success as an anime voice actor. But be advised: show business is a fickle thing. Theres no guarantee that you will be a success no matter how talented they are.

When considering the potential of a career as a voice actor, it perhaps does one well to understand that voice acting is far more than just talking.

To gain an insight into this line of work and the most important assets needed to succeed in getting that first audition, weve gone directly to the source. We surveyed six of the most influential directors and producers casting roles in anime today, including: Joel Baral of TOKYOPOP; Peter Bavaro of Skypilot Entertainment; Amanda Winn Lee of Gaijin Productions; Yutaka Maseba of ZRO Limit Productions; Jeff Thompson of The Right Stuf International, Inc.; and Tom Wayland of Central Park Media.

Prepare To Succeed

Preparing to pursue a career as a voice actor generally involves more than being able to mimic your favorite character. You need to be prepared to succeed.

Though most successful voice actors working in anime today began their careers as voice actors without any specific training in the field, almost all of them did begin their careers with certain things in common. Among these are acting experience, vocal range and the ability to assume and maintain a character. A voice actor is first and foremost an actor.

The vast majority of voice actors working today come from the theater. It is the acting skills possessed by these folks that make them so desirable by anime studios. It is also those same skills that you should work to acquire if you want to be taken seriously and get that audition.

Amanda Winn Lee, producer for Gaijin Productions, recommends that actors develop interesting character voices instead of doing impersonations of famous people. Photo by Gregg James.

Amanda Winn Lee, producer for Gaijin Productions, recommends that actors develop interesting character voices instead of doing impersonations of famous people. Photo by Gregg James.

While few and far between, voice-acting courses are available, mostly in the form of workshops. Some of these are better than others with the most common criticism being that they teach only the intricacies of the equipment and techniques used in dubbing work, but do little in teaching one how to act, develop characters or even to read a script.

While there are valid pluses to taking voice-over courses, the best path to success is to first establish your skills as an actor, then take voice-acting courses and workshops. Remember: voice actors are first and foremost actors.

Assuming you are still in school, you can begin to shape your career by joining your school theater and/or glee club. These activities can give you a much-needed head start. Additionally, a history of acting or singing (or both) looks exceptionally good on a resume and, depending on the studio, may be key in getting an audition.

Should you attend college, your opportunities to develop your skills will increase greatly. Most schools offer courses in acting, script reading, character development, etc. that can be of great use. Most colleges today have full theater companies. There are few other opportunities where you will be able to gain professional-level experience and still have an educational institution right there to help you hone your skills even further.

Another opportunity that might be available to you at any age are theater groups that may be performing at local community theaters. Quite often these organizations also conduct their own workshops and can help you develop your acting abilities. They can also give you much-needed experience in script reading and the various styles and methods of acting.

Trying your hand in full-fledged theater productions, be they at school or a local theater, can be an exceptional opportunity. The benefits come not only in terms of experience and education but in establishing connections and friendships that may in fact lead to an invitation to audition.

Another option that you may find attractive is taking a correspondence or on-line acting course. While it is difficult to state the value of such courses accurately, they will always beat no training but stand little to no chance of equaling actual experience acting in a group or company.

One additional use for these types of distance-learning programs is to perform a self-evaluation. By taking these relatively-inexpensive courses, you might be able to determine if you really have the drive and desire to become a successful voice actor. Voice acting isnt all interviews and convention appearances before adoring fans. It takes a lot of hard work and self-discipline to succeed -- or just to get an audition.

Though this may seem obvious, having some form of experience will set you apart from the hundreds of resumes and demos anime studios receive every week.

Local theater companies or singing clubs, choirs, extracurricular school activities, such as plays and musicals, college-level courses, acting workshops, voice training, even work at a college radio station, can all be used to create an impressive resume.

Every step you take in the acquisition, development and honing of your skills helps you prepare to succeed. They demonstrate that you are not only serious about voice acting but that you come with an arsenal of skills.

Plainly put, they show that you are ready to begin work as a productive member of a studios team. To a studio this translates to not only getting a good performance from you but to a savings in production time. It also greatly increases the chances that you will be called in for the all-important first audition.

Studios And Resumes And Demos -- Oh My!

Once you feel youre ready, youll find yourself faced with what can appear to be an impossible task -- getting noticed. The first thing you should realize about voice acting is that all -- I mean all -- voice actors, regardless of their popularity or resume, get rejected for roles. It is simply part of the job.

While not required by all studios, some will make their decision as to whether or not to grant an audition based on your resume. Of our six casting gurus, one, ZRO Limit Productions, reviews resumes prior to requesting a demo reel. (Actually, the term "demo reel" is a hold-over from the days of magnetic tape. Usually what is submitted, and expected, is a CD.)

Don't make a pest of yourself when pursuing a callback says Tom Wayland, video production manager and casting director of Central Park Media. Courtesy of Central Park Media.

Don't make a pest of yourself when pursuing a callback says Tom Wayland, video production manager and casting director of Central Park Media. Courtesy of Central Park Media.

Even though a resume is not the primary concern of most studios, it is a valuable tool for you to get noticed. The studio will most likely make their decisions based on the demo, but, depending on your experience and qualifications, your resume can call out to the person screening them, "Check out my demo!"

Virtually all of the studios we surveyed said they really like to see some sort of acting experience on a resume and that it does have an impact on their decisions to grant auditions. Given a good demo versus a good demo with a good resume, the resume addition will win every time.

You should take note that the studio will most likely not care to spend their time reading about every aspect of your life or even what you look like. Things like hair color, eye color, etc., are a definite no-no. In fact, not one studio said they require or even want to see head-shots.

About head-shots Peter Bavaro comments, "Hey, Im glad you spent $300 to get a professional head-shot; youre trying to do it right. And Im sure you have a nice smile and a killer body. But I want your voice -- eat as many Cheetos as you want!"

By the way, sloppy, hand-written resumes will signal to the screener that you are a sloppy and unprofessional person and will greatly detract from your chances. Use good quality paper (no neon; use white, light gray or ivory), an easy-to-read font and keep it to one clear, concise page outlining your experience and talent.

Once you have your resume in order, the next task is your demo. A demo should be short (from one to three minutes long), of high quality and demonstrate your talent.

There are two ways to get a demo made. First, you could go to a professional recording studio, drop a few hundred dollars (or more), and record your bit. This will not guarantee a good demo, just one of a high quality without background sounds or breaks.

The second option is to record your demo yourself. If you choose to do this, dont use a hand-held portable tape recorder. Those days are gone forever. The medium of choice now is digital, as in CDs.

Many home computers today come equipped with high-quality sound cards and CD burners. When recording your own demo, dont use a cheesy little microphone that comes included with many computers. It would be a wise investment in your career to buy a higher quality mic that is compatible with your equipment.

A pitfall of recording your own demo is that there may be background noises. Little things that normally go unnoticed, like a squeaky desk chair, an air conditioner, the refrigerator, or even traffic outside, can ruin an otherwise good demo. Remember, the studio wants to hear you clearly so they can decide whether or not to spend hundreds of dollars by calling you in for an audition.

As silly as it may seem, a roomy closet may be your best choice for sound isolation. Hanging blankets on the walls of the closet can even improve it by killing the slight echoes that can occur in a small space. Remember this when you get a microphone and make sure you have one with a long enough cord.

Another caution of home recording and burning your own demo CDs is to make sure you label them professionally. Another good investment might be to purchase a CD-labeling kit available at most department stores. Make sure your name, address, phone number and email address are clearly presented on the CD.

Whether you record your own or go into a booth, you will have to decide what to record. Virtually all of the studios said they want to hear as wide a range as possible so they can get a good idea of your skills and the roles to which you may be best suited.

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate what exactly screeners look for in a demo is to let a few of our experts speak for themselves. So lets hear what our six experts have to say.

Gerry Poulos: What would make a demo stand out?

Peter Bavaro:

People without demos have asked what to do. I tell them get the New York Times and read a few different parts; a straight news item, a funny blurb, a sexy ad. Whatever. Just make it short and sweet. You dont have to blow $1000 at a studio adding music and sound effects. If your voice works for a role, youre in. No big deal.

Amanda Winn Lee:

A good range and a great sense of humor.

Yutaka Maseba:

A brief demo reel -- 1 to 2 minutes -- showcasing the actors range. What I mean by range is the ability to sound like several different characters were auditioning for.

Tom Wayland:

A wide range with good coherent reads. I hate it when I get a demo where some kid rattles through 30 different voices in 60 seconds. I need to hear the person act with each character, not just spout some catch phrase or one-liner.

Don't cop an attitude at the audition warns Peter Bavaro, president of Skypilot Entertainment. Courtesy of Sharky's Photobooth.

Don't cop an attitude at the audition warns Peter Bavaro, president of Skypilot Entertainment. Courtesy of Sharky's Photobooth.

Gerry Poulos: What on a demo would guarantee that you would not give them an audition?

Peter Bavaro:

Dont try too hard. Short and sweet works wonders.

Amanda Winn Lee:

If someone tries to do an impersonation on a demo reel and they sound nothing like the person theyre imitating, thats a huge red flag for me. You wouldnt believe how often that happens. This tells me that the person doesnt have a good ear, so they may be difficult to direct in the studio.

Yutaka Maseba:

Unprofessionalism: sloppy hand-written resumes accompanied with poorly labeled demo reels.

Tom Wayland:

I dont want to hear reading. I want to hear acting. Its not enough that you can do a silly little kid voice or an evil demon voice. I need to hear this character in a scene or conveying some sort of emotion. Nothing is worse than a flat demo.

Gerry Poulos:

What are the most common mistakes people make?

Joel Baral:

Including their height, weight and hair color unnecessary. Less is more.

Peter Bavaro:

Faxing head-shots. We tell them not to -- we say it on the phone -- we put it in the ads, "Please do not fax head-shots" -- but they come; big black squares of barely discernible images that suck up all our toner.

Amanda Winn Lee:

Doing impersonations of famous people, rather than just doing interesting character voices. If I wanted to use the voice of some one famous, Id contact them directly.

Yutaka Maseba:

Sending the wrong type of demo reels. Know what type of product the person you are sending the demo creates. We're not looking for cartoony voices; in fact, natural voices are preferred.

Joel Baral, producer for TOKYOPOP, feels that actors who can take direction well and quickly are the ones to hire. Courtesy of TOKYOPOP.

Joel Baral, producer for TOKYOPOP, feels that actors who can take direction well and quickly are the ones to hire. Courtesy of TOKYOPOP.

Tom Wayland: Showing up in person is bad. Calling and e-mailing constantly is bad. Mail in your stuff and I will listen to it. I love to listen to new demos. Feel free to send a follow up to make sure that the package was received, but after that, let it go.

Playing The Waiting Game

So now you have your training. Youve gotten some experience. Youve done your resume. Youve cut your demo. Youve sent it all in to every studio in your geographical region. Now what?

You wait. Though this is extremely difficult, it is one of the things that virtually every single studio agrees on. The people at these studios have hundreds of resumes and demos coming in every week. If the person screening them has to talk to every person who sent in a demo in the last few months, he would be taking literally thousands of calls a week and not listening to demos.

Whats more, if you make a nuisance of yourself, they may simply say, "Im sorry. Were not interested," even though they might have been. They might consider you very unprofessional and decide that the time you cost them on the phone is better spent somewhere else and cut their losses by cutting you. They do have other jobs, like actually producing anime.

Most studios will let you know from a few days to a few weeks if they want you to come in for an audition. You might be thinking that if they havent called you after a few weeks that youve got nothing to lose by constantly calling them. Youd be wrong.

They may not have a part suited for you at the moment but loved your demo. They may be considering you for something else theyre not ready to start auditions for yet. They may be planning on calling you in for audition in a few days. They may be willing to throw all of that out the window if you start calling and emailing them everyday too.

Most studios dont mind a brief letter or postcard from you to follow-up on if your demo has arrived. They also, for the most part, dont mind you contacting them every few months to let them know youre still out there. But remember, they do mind having to drop whatever theyre doing to take your call. Letters, postcards and patience are definitely the way to go.

Finally, A Phone Call

If a studio liked your demo, you may well receive a phone call asking if you can come in for an audition. Say yes. If you dont have time to come in, then theyll decide that you dont have time to be a voice actor.

There are exceptions of course. If youre getting married that day or have a death in the family, they will most likely simply schedule another day. But short of those circumstances -- and they had better be real -- you have to always be ready to come in for an audition.

There are five things you have to "be" when the day of your audition arrives: Be early, fifteen to thirty minutes is good; Be ready, have your voice warmed-up and your acting underwear on; Be confident, directors hate having a shy person who cant get their "sides" (lines) out; Be prepared, they might ask you to be practically anything from an elf to a dragon; Be friendly, youre there to make friends and win a role. Attitude and posturing will get you nothing but gone.

I asked our friends, "What do you look for from an aspiring voice actor during an audition?"

Joel Baral:

That they can receive direction and adjust immediately.

Peter Bavaro:

Step oneshow up. Then try a clear voice, respond to direction and make an effort to please. If you want to try it once more, ask us. Auditions are hard, no question. You have very little to go on, so listen to what the director is asking you to do. If you need a little more info, ask for it.

Amanda Winn Lee: First of all, talent, of course. Other than that: range, enthusiasm, sense of humor. Basically, if I cast them, I will be spending 4-8 hours a day in a small room with them. I want to make sure theyre pleasant to work with.

Yutaka Maseba:

A good performance by an actor who can lip synch to the picture.

Jeff Thompson:

It is a potential actor's job to convince a casting director/producer/director that they are perfect for a project.

Tom Wayland:

Be on time. Be relaxed and cooperative. Take direction well. Have fun.

When asked, "What preparations would make an aspiring voice actors audition really shine?" our group of industry pros responded:

Joel Baral:

Get to know the property the character [youre auditioning for. Theyll let you know beforehand what it is].

Peter Bavaro:

Get warmed up outside the booth. Sign in and get your head together in the lobby. Focus on the roles that are listed and be confident in your natural voice. Ill ask you for any variations once were rolling.

Amanda Winn Lee:

A wide range of character voices really helps. Also, warn the sound engineer if you are going to drastically change volume (i.e. go from speaking to screaming). This allows the engineer to adjust the input levels so the take doesnt get distorted. This also shows that you know what youre doing.

Yutaka Maseba:

Find out what role you are auditioning for. Ask if the auditioning role requires a special accent or characteristic. Do your homework based on the information given to you. For example, if they ask for a Southern accent, find someone with an authentic accent and observe their speech. Come in early and ask the casting director for your side. Study it and get familiar with your lines.

Jeff Thompson:

Arrive at any audition on time or even early and have completed your vocal warm-ups. Take a course -- offered at most college acting programs -- on auditioning.

Tom Wayland:

Take direction well. Be vocally warmed up just in case you have to read for a 10 year-old kid -- and then we ask you to read for a tentacled beast 3 minutes later.

Finally, I asked, "What would definitely make an aspiring voice actors audition an utter failure?"

Joel Baral:

If they cant hit the note.

Peter Bavaro:

Any type of attitude or distracted nature wont help. Hey, we understand if youve got to be somewhere else in 20 minutes, but you came to audition so we like to feel youre interested.

Amanda Winn Lee:

If they get "mike shy" -- meaning they freeze up in front of the microphone. That doesnt help us or them. I have seen veteran actors who have been on stage for years just clam up and get nervous once they set foot in the studio. If an actor is nervous or holding back, we can hear it in their voice. Also, if they act like a diva or are rude to the sound engineer. I fired an actor in the middle of a session once for being snippy with the sound guy. I dont care how many VO projects youve done -- the world is crawling with voice actors, but its really hard to find a good sound tech.

Yutaka Maseba:

Showing up late.

Jeff Thompson:

Being late to an audition is typically fatal. Having a schedule that does not lend itself to the production environment means that many roles will not be available. Living far away from the studio is also difficult to overcome.

Tom Wayland:

Lack of confidence. In this business you need to have confidence. It is just you and a microphone in there, so if you get all self-conscious emoting to this piece of machinery, you wont get the part.

Waiting -- Again

Now that youve gotten your first audition, there are a few things you should know. First, be patient. All casting directors handle things a little differently. Some will pull you aside and say, "Yes," on the spot. Some will say nothing, and call the winners of the parts at home later. Still others will narrow their choices to a few actors and have them come in again. All the same rules for waiting on a response from your demo apply.

To give just a little more insight into what to expect following an audition, I asked our experts, "How soon does it usually take for you to let an aspiring voice actor know the results of an audition?"

Joel Baral:

A week.

Peter Bavaro:

Sometimes we give a basic response right away if someone is very good. Ill tell them they did a great job and even if they dont land something from us on this show they should keep in touch. We cant confirm anything until weve had time to really live with the reads and run them by our clients and/or associated producers. If someone does land a role, well be in touch over the next two weeks.

Amanda Winn Lee:

Anywhere from one day to a week, depending on how long we are holding the auditions.

Yutaka Maseba:

We tell the actors that we will call them within a week if they are cast for the role.

Jeff Thompson:

Due to the sheer volume of people being auditioned, calls are made to the people who actually land the roles and not to the people who are not chosen for a project.

Tom Wayland:

Around 2 days from the end of all auditions.

Gathering more info for you, I asked, "How long after an audition should an aspiring voice actor wait before contacting your studio regarding their audition?"

Joel Baral:

Sorry, but we will call you, meaning we are generally in a rush to fill the roles, and finalizing actors is incredibly important. Calling us will not move the process forward. How about a quick follow-up postcard or note? Then, as you get other roles, keep the people you hit it off with updated on your career progress.

Peter Bavaro:

Give us two weeks before you follow up.

Amanda Winn Lee:

Actually, they shouldnt contact us at all. If Im going to cast them, I will call and let them know. Our schedule is so crazy busy these days, I dont really have time to sit and chat with someone about why they didnt get a role, but someone else did. (Sorry.) Also, just because they dont hear from us then, that doesnt mean they wont still be considered for future projects.

Yutaka Maseba:

We tell the actors that we will call them within a week if they are cast for the role.

Jeff Thompson:

If the factors warrant a call to an actor, then someone will make this call; contacting the production staff more than a few times will not improve the odds of being cast.

Tom Wayland:

If you dont get the call within a week or so, you didnt get it. If you really feel you had a great audition but maybe just werent right for the part and youd like to inquire about future auditions, give it a couple of weeks and then drop an email.

Finally, I asked, "How often should aspiring voice actors contact your studio to keep in the running for future parts?"

Joel Baral:

Every few months.

Peter Bavaro:

The best time to contact us is when you have something to tell us -- such as youre in a show, you read at some other audition, change of address, etc. Faxes are better than calls or emails. And ALWAYS put your contact information on any correspondence. We sometimes cant reach talent because their contact information has changed. This is frustrating for us and unfortunate for the talent.

Amanda Winn Lee: Different studios have different policies. Personally, I keep all auditions/demo reels that I find promising, even if they arent right for a role in the current project were doing. As a result, I often request that actors not keep sending post cards, updates, etc. If Im interested, Ill definitely call you.

Yutaka Maseba:

Generally, when there is a new "demo" reel created [by the aspiring voice actor]. Make sure the demo reel is updated not just a rehash of a previous reel.

Tom Wayland:

Not too often. Pushy actors dont get work. We are on top of what were doing here. If we want to work with you, you will get called. Just so you know, we audition for shows about once a month, but certain shows have more roles than others. That being said there may be a few months where we dont need too many people, but there may be other times when were casting 20-30 people in a month.

In Parting

Aside from what Ive already offered by way of guidance, advice and giving you a peek at what happens from the inside to give you an edge on the competition, there are some final pieces of advice to offer.

Persevere!

Most successful voice actors working today didnt get the first role they sought or even auditioned for. Some didnt even get the first six.

Never say no!

With rare exception you should never turn down a part, however small. The studio will interpret this as "prima donna syndrome," i.e. you think youre too good for the part and may be difficult to work with in other, more significant roles. Most successful voice actors first parts were small roles that didnt show in the credits. Others just did background noises. Some have made a career of doing these small "bit" parts.

Continue to improve yourself!

If you felt that you lacked a certain something in your demo or audition, find it, fix it and try again. Besides, continuing to perform in other areas, such as theater or taking some extra acting classes, gives you a reason to submit a new "updated" resume and demo.

Well, we hope youve found some useful information for pursuing your dreams of becoming an anime voice actor. Good luck. We look forward to seeing you in the credits soon!

For a ton of other articles regarding voice acting, casting and voice over, visit http://www.awn.com/magazines/animation-world-magazine and use key words in the search function to access AWN's past articles.

Gerry Poulos is an anime fan and engineer specializing in three dimensional design and animation that switched to a career as a well connected freelance writer on all things anime. Gerry's hobbies include working (which means watching lots of anime) and other things we won't go into here. If you want to know more about Gerry (hey, it could happen) visit http://www.animefreelance.com.

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