Karen Raugust talks with voice and casting directors who say that, despite fierce competition, there are opportunities for talented, fresh-voiced novices to break in.
Celebrity casting has been among the leading trends in the animation voiceover business for over a decade, and remains so today. At the same time, however, there are more opportunities for rank-and-file voiceover actors than ever before, due to the large amount of animation being made, the diversity of styles and content, and the greater number of platforms in which to work. And, while the field remains intensely competitive, there are opportunities for new actors to break in, if they are committed, persistent, hard-working and well-trained.
"I look for the best actor for the role. I don't care if it's a celebrity or not," says Andrea Romano, an independent casting and voice director who has worked on productions including SpongeBob SquarePants, Justice League, Superman and Teen Titans.
Celebrity casting -- which impacts not only the feature film business, but also TV shows, videogames, direct-to-video productions and even some webisodic series --frustrates everyday voice actors, who believe it not only has dampened their opportunities, but also often has a detrimental effect on the productions themselves. "[Celebrity casting is about] publicity, rather than a fantastic voice," says M J Lallo, a voiceover actor, director, producer and teacher, with a studio and voiceover school in Los Angeles. "You see [the production] and you say, 'that's not an interesting voice, it's just so-and-so's voice.'"
Michael Hack, a voice and casting director whose credits include Blood+, Astro Boy, and the direct-to-video production Bratz: Camp Starshine, acknowledges that celebrity casting probably brings in viewers and dollars to feature films, but he believes the marketing value is less in television, where most viewers are kids who don't care who is doing the voice. Still, celebrities often voice television characters these days; some are naturals, while others are mostly involved for their marquee value.
"I've worked with celebrity actors who are not trained as voice actors and they're terrific," Hack says. "With others, there's a struggle, even if they're great actors, because it's such a specific skill. I might give them a note about showing more anger in a line, and they do something with their face and read it the same way."
"Celebrities will never replace the rank-and-file actors, who are so good at this," says Romano. "But some celebrities have taken to it like fish to water. They've become the rank and file." She cites Cary Elwes, Mark Hamill and Tim Curry as examples of versatile actors who can play several key roles well.
Cathy Kalmenson, partner in Kalmenson & Kalmenson Voice Casting, says celebrities bring a confidence to the roles they play. "They trust their instincts and are confident in creating characters in animated roles that are essentially authentic offshoots of themselves, really. They don't need to try to 'put on' and be someone else. They've been accepted (big time) for who they are, and are fearless in being genuine. But the majority of our day-to-day casting still includes hundreds of journeyman actors, who bring skill and freshness to selling soap, cars, beer and pet food. This is what ultimately pays the bills between the elusive big animation deals."
These days, there are many opportunities for animation voice actors -- celebrity and specialist alike -- both in film and television, and in other media such as videogames, direct-to-video productions, Internet series, mobile phone content, and toys containing voice clips. Within each of these sectors, there are openings for a wide variety of voices. "It's a very diverse market now," Romano says. "There's action-adventure, there's silly cartoons, and everything in-between."
Videogames represent one area with a massive and growing need for voices. It's a specialized skill, involving line readings to be used in various situations rather than a continuous story arc, but it attracts both journeyman actors and celebrities. There are opportunities for those without much experience as well.
Lallo notes that there are a lot of small, lower-budget gaming companies that are willing to take a chance on new voices. They're even getting the word out in nontraditional ways, such as on Craigslist. Movie- and TV-themed games, while they occasionally feature the celebrities who appeared in the original entertainment vehicle, often use soundalike voices, providing opportunities for impressionists.
Some voice actors stay away from this segment. The time periods for voice recording can be long, up to almost a year in some cases, and there can be a lot of screaming involved, such as for a war-themed game. "It's hard on your voice," says Ginny McSwain, a freelance voice and casting director who has spent a lot of time lately in gaming. In addition, she says the same actors tend to be used again and again, so it can be hard for new voices to get their start.
Another growing opportunity is for ethnic actors, as productions increasingly are trying to incorporate realistic accents. "Almost without exception, they want to cast ethnic for ethnic," says Hack, who recently cast a production with Middle Eastern voices.
In fact, animation producers want very specific accents. For example, a voice would not be Latino, but Cuban, not American Indian, but Seminole, not from India, but from Bangalore. For immigrants, producers seek specific voices, such as an adult who's been in the United States for a certain number of years or a mixed-ethnicity child. "It makes it interesting to cast," Lallo says.
She points out, however, that this trend offers opportunities for some actors without previous experience. She cites a TV episode with multicultural themes where the producers needed a Cuban girl. The original actor didn't work out and she couldn't find a suitable replacement, so she called a Cuban restaurant in L.A. It turned out the owners had a daughter who was interested in acting and she got the part. Lallo points out that not only do ethnic accents add authenticity in line readings, but the actors are able to help make the dialogue more realistic as well.
McSwain, a 31-year veteran of the industry, notes that ethnic casting has grown dramatically over the years. "It's 1,000 percent better than it was when I started at Hanna-Barbera," she says. But she notes that the number of ethnic voiceover actors is still small. "When you need a special ethnicity, there just aren't layers of them. It's surprising how slim [the selection] is at different agencies." She notes that interactive gaming is a particularly strong market for ethnic dialects, especially in games with a global scope. "We need them."
The trend toward realism applies to age as well. Producers are looking for children to fill children's roles. And, at the same time, more kids are getting into voiceover acting. While child actors used to focus mainly on print and a little on-camera work, many are focusing on voiceovers now, developing better reading skills and keeping on top of the growing opportunities in this sector.
"Authentic is definitely the 'in' theme for today's casting, including children, ethnicity and, may I add, dialects," says Harvey Kalmenson of Kalmenson & Kalmenson. "If you need a Swede, you cast a Swede." The Kalmensons recently have cast everything from African children aged six to 14 for World Vision Relief Fund, to adults from Uzbekistan for in-flight safety announcements.
Realism also means characters are believable. "They're not cartoony," says Cathy Kalmenson. "Characters are personality-driven. They have motives, feelings, and are developed enough that the audience begins to get to know these characters, and can predict their responsiveness. This especially bonds an audience to characters in an ongoing series, such as The Simpsons or SpongeBob, as well as in feature films like Shrek."
Another growth area is anime. Voicing anime is unique because the voice recording is done after the animation, as opposed to the typical situation where the voice tracks are completed first. "It's a completely different skill," explains Romano. "It requires attention to a lot of different details." The fact that the actor can see a full-fledged character and personality on-screen can sometimes be helpful, she says, but it is difficult to get used to matching your words to the existing mouth flaps, matching the existing pacing, and using the ADR (automated dialogue replacement) technology.
"It's not only the acting, but the mechanical things you have to watch out for," stresses Hack, who has worked on many anime series. He points out that most anime actors specialize in this genre exclusively, although he has brought in actors from outside that pool on rare occasions. "It's a learning process, but it added something," he says.
In general, however, mainstream voiceover actors tend to stay away from anime, not just because of their unfamiliarity with the process, but because the union pay scale per session is lower than for other types of voice acting. On the other hand, "people who do this work a lot," Romano reports. Networks often buy 65 episodes of anime, rather than the usual 13, which could translate into a year of work on one series. While the pay per session is less, actors can still do well due to the steady flow of work.
Today's diverse animation landscape means versatility is one of the most sought-after qualities in a voice actor. "The best ones are able to do it all," says Romano. "As long as they're good actors, there's work for them." She points out that union rules allow an actor to do three voices for one fee, so actors who can play a main character, as well as a butler and a waiter, in the same production are valued. "Versatility is always a benefit."
Voice acting is intensely competitive. "It's a very tough market to break into," Hack says. "You only have four hours to record an episode. Part of your task is to do it within the right amount of time." Experienced actors, therefore, make the process run more smoothly.
Still, casting directors are open to new talent if the individual is right for the job and has a fresh voice that will help differentiate a production. "There's always room for excellence," says Romano.
For any voiceover actor, the demo is the key tool for getting work. "A good demo tape is like a good headshot," Lallo explains, noting that an actor should invest in professional help to get it right: interesting order, good writing from the characters' perspective, the right music and sound effects. "Without a professional demo, you're nowhere," says Lallo.
Casting directors advise actors to make sure they're ready before they record their demo, which can cost from $400 to $2,000, including artwork, and encourage them to participate in a workshop right before recording to make sure they're in top form.
"I caution people not to overproduce their demo," Romano counsels, pointing out that some actors use too much music and too many sound effects. One of the best demos she ever received, she says, was an actor reading Dr. Seuss's One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, changing his voice with each page.
Romano says actors should include clips long enough (15 to 20 seconds per voice) to show they can sustain a character. Just one line is not enough. "Don't put too much in a demo, just your best, those [voices] that you can call on at any time," she says, adding that an all-inclusive demo should be under five minutes. "That's enough for your ancient man, your anchorman, your animal and baby cry." (Some directors prefer demos that are as short as two minutes.)
Cathy Kalmenson encourages actors to focus on the one thing at which they excel, a defined voiceover signature that encourages typecasting or, as she terms it, "truth casting." "Rather than be all over the place, in this competitive market, a voiceover talent must present his or her strength only. Make it clear to the casting director, for example, that 'when you think nerd, think me.' Make it easy for us to cast you."
Technology has had an effect on how demos are recorded and distributed. Agents can post MP3 files to their own sites or to sites such as voicebank.net; actors can record script readings on MP3 and e-mail or post them immediately, as well as uploading clips on sites such as voice123.com, www.voices.com and www.mktmania.com. Actors also can expand their audience through sites like MySpace and You Tube. Technology also has made recording easier, enabling actors to record from remote locations through ISDN technology, so that the director has a copy in hand immediately after the session, instead of having to wait for FedEx. Not only do these technologies help casting directors meet producers' ever-tightening deadlines, but they allow them to more easily search for talent worldwide.
Casting directors say they'll sometimes listen to unsolicited demos in their search for fresh voices, but caution that these typically come from reputable colleagues such as agents or teachers, rather than from the actors themselves. Romano notes that during the 18 years she was an independent contractor based at Warner Bros., she listened to every unsolicited demo that came in (something that in-house casting directors tend to do). But she learned that, unless the actor already had an agent or a SAG card, "they really weren't ready."
"There's always room for people who are talented. But it's not a dabbling business," says Romano, noting that an actor might have to go to five auditions a day and that it could take two to five years -- or more -- of full-time work before a person becomes established in the field.
Voice and casting directors counsel actors to watch (and especially listen) to a lot of animation, looking for trends in the types of voices being cast and listening to how actors create their characters. Actors also should study acting, and determine what types of voices they're best at. They should develop contacts and a career path in the sector of animation they're interested in, whether anime, videogames or TV; make sure their agent sends them out on plenty of auditions for that specialty; and keep up with what the networks and producers are looking for. And, if they want to focus on voice acting for animation, they need to be in L.A.
The main thing to remember is that it all comes down to good acting. Acting classes can cost $350 to $400 per class, but are a good investment, starting with general acting classes and moving on to classes specifically geared toward voice acting. (Most voice and casting directors teach, too.) While technical issues such as mic technique and pacing can be taught during the recording, actors need to bring the talent.
"Keep working on your acting chops," Lallo says. "It's not just about the voice, it's about the character under the role. The training is so important."
"It's not just standing in the studio doing funny voices, it's acting," Hack adds. "It's not Warner Bros. Bugs Bunny voices any more. It's more realistic CG animation and more realistic voices. You need to be trained and have instincts for real acting." He points out that good acting is important not only from an audio point of view, but because it affects the visuals as well. "The acting is a guide for the animators. If you don't bring anything as an actor, the animation suffers."
"You need to know it's an art form, and you have to study and know what you're doing," agrees McSwain. "And if you really want to do it, you've got to hang in there."
Despite all the challenges, new voices can break in. "I encourage people to follow their desire if they really want to get into this business," Romano concludes. "It's maybe the most fun job on the planet."
Karen Raugust is a Minneapolis-based freelance business writer specializing in animation, publishing, licensing and art. She is the author of The Licensing Business Handbook (EPM Communications).