MELeaving.jpg

voicework

I want to do voices and everyone tells me I really have a flair for it. Can I make a living as an actor/actress living in Los Angeles and doing voices for animated cartoons?

Almost certainly not — and almost no one ever does. The job you covet is really that of Voice Actor or Voiceover Performer. It encompasses animation voice work, announcing, film dubbing, video games, radio commercials, voiceovers for TV commercials, etc. Work in these areas is infinitely more plentiful and often more lucrative so no one limits themselves exclusively to cartoon voice work.  This sometimes comes as a shock to someone who idolizes Mel Blanc or Daws Butler and dreams of following in their footsteps…but only envisions voicing animated cartoons. The fact is that Mel and Daws did other things and the other things were often more rewarding. (When Mel was voicing the classic Warner Brothers cartoons, animation work never accounted for more than 10% of his income.) Cartoon voicing can pay very decently if one lands steady work but no one limits themselves to just that.  In fact, if you walked into an agent's office and told him you were only interested in cartoon voicing or only showed interest in that, he'd probably turn you down then and there.

Okay…so let's say I want to do all those things?  Can I make money doing voiceover work?

Maybe. The odds are against you but it's certainly possible.

The first thing you have to keep in mind though it's that it's a very competitive business.  Regardless of your talent, there is a simple mathematical limitation: There are not enough jobs to satisfy all the folks who want those jobs.  It isn't even close.  If you were just to look at the people who already have significant credits in the business, there aren't enough jobs to satisfy just them, never mind all the wanna-bes around.

That said, new people do break in.  Casting folks like experienced professionals but they also like finding someone new.  Not everyone who wants to break in can make it.  There aren't enough openings and to be honest, some of those who try for those careers simply aren't good enough.  But it can happen and does.

Keep in mind though that the people you'll be competing against are, with few exceptions, pursuing work full-time and often with a powerhouse agent clearing the trail for them. So if you think you're going to devote an hour or so a week to it and take jobs away from them, you're probably way off-base.

I am not suggesting you quit your day job and put every waking minute into it. Do not under any circumstances put yourself in a position of financial mercy, whereby you have to begin making a living in voice work in X months or you won't be able to pay rent. As with any kind of acting, the trick is to maintain some kind of base income as you segue into the new field. Beyond that, you have to remember that even a lot of people who do get decent voice jobs do not get them consistently and can have large gaps in their income.

So how do I break into the field without starving to death?

Well, the first thing you should do is look around at the small, available jobs. This is especially important if you're living outside a major marketplace like Los Angeles, New York or Chicago. Your city has radio stations. It has advertising agencies that produce commercials. It may well have small film companies that make productions that need narration. A top L.A. voiceover agent once remarked, "When someone comes in who says they just moved here from Kansas, my first question to them is, 'How much voice work were you getting in Kansas?' Because if you couldn't make it there, you won't be able to make it here. And if you didn't bother to look there, you don't have the right attitude to make it here."

If you are in a major marketplace, you should still look for the small jobs. There are a lot of them and they give you experience and a financial base.

Doing small jobs for small companies is not an embarrassment for a beginner. Later on, it can be. But everyone has to start someplace and an agent or producer is going to be more impressed with a person who has earned money doing voice work — even a little — than they are with someone who was waiting tables at a comparable period in their lives.  The trick though is to not do small, non-union jobs to the extent they disqualify you for large, union jobs.

Do I need to study?

Yes. In fact, an enormous tip-off to some casting directors and agents that a person is not serious is that they think they can get by without lessons. It's like the old maxim about basketball players: Every time you're not practicing, some other guy is — and someday, you'll be facing that guy on the court. There are people who work steadily in the field of voiceovers but still find it valuable to take classes once or twice a week. They feel that just working and going to auditions does not sufficiently flex all their muscles and give them a chance to grow.  It's easy to get "typed" and only called in for one kind of job.  If you could do others, you need to not neglect those other areas.

Any city that has voice jobs probably has voice teachers. Even acting classes that don't specialize in the voice can be very valuable, especially those that focus on improv comedy, dialects or cold reading. The main value though is that you have someone challenging you and giving you feedback. George C. Scott once said that the only way to improve as an actor was to read opposite other actors, and this is something you can't do alone.

I'm worried about getting ripped-off by acting teachers and agents. Should I be concerned?

Absolutely. A lot of teachers and agents and other services that promise to help you get work are shameless con games, while others are basically honest but just aren't very good.

Rule of thumb for aspiring actors of all kinds: There are very few legitimate cases where you should pay money to someone to help you with your career.

You can and should pay for lessons and workshops but like anything else in this world, you have to shop intelligently. Look at what others are charging and look at what other customers have had to say. Some people teach acting because they don't know enough about it to actually do it or no one wants to hire them.  At this moment, the best teachers I see around are people who are also currently doing a fair amount of acting or even directing work.

You can and may have to pay modest, reasonable fees for someone to record and edit your demo.  It used to be that a demo made at home sounded like a demo made at home and therefore amateurish.  Lately though, computer software and hardware is advancing to the point that it is possible to record, edit and sweeten a professional-sounding demo on a home PC or Mac if the operator knows what he or she is doing.  You might also, if you're serious about voiceover work, consider investing in whatever you need to have a little home studio and to learn how to record yourself, edit and add music and effects.  It can be done with a decent microphone, less than $200 worth of software and the willingness to learn that software well.

And if you need a good headshot photo, which some voiceover agents consider a necessity, you need to pay for that, too. A little investigation will show you that there are huge variations in what some folks will charge you for this.

You can and should pay for things like books on acting and instructional CDs. There are some good CDs out that will coach you on accents if you're going to do that kind of work.

And that's about it. Do not ever pay someone who claims to be an agent or to be able to help you get an agent.  Agents take 10% from those who wish to hire you.  Do not accept any other sort of arrangement.

Be wary of someone who claims to be a manager. A manager is not an agent and while some perform the same functions, they're not supposed to.  Lately, a lot of people who call themselves "managers" seem to be unlicensed entrepreneurs who want to become producers.  Instead of working on their clients' careers, they're putting together their own projects to sell and trying to fold their clients into them…so you don't get paid unless your manager sells his or her project.  That's probably not what you want.

Do not pay for "access."  Do not pay someone who claims they can get you into a showcase where agents or casting directors will see and hear you.  Do not pay for classes with someone because you think that person will hire you.  Be very wary of someone who wants to charge you to "evaluate" your demo.

How can I tell a good voice coach from a bad one?

Generally speaking, the best voice coaches are the ones who are currently or recently working in the field either as actors or directors. The bad voice coaches are the ones who never made it as either and are now coaching to make money and retain some peripheral attachment to the business. There are exceptions to this but not many.

There may be no way for you to determine this but (again, generally speaking) the good voice coaches are the ones who sometimes turn down a student who has money. The bad ones may act like they're being selective and that you need to convince them you have potential before they'll take you on. But really, they'll take anyone who can pay and even if you're lousy, they'll promise they can shape you into the next Frank Welker or Rob Paulsen.

As for how you find the good ones: The easiest way is to attend a comic convention or other gathering where star voice artists appear and sign autographs. Go up to one who works a lot, buy a signed photo and ask them to recommend a good teacher. Everyone in the business gets this question so just about everyone has an answer. Just don't expect them to know a great teacher in Billings, Montana or someplace outside of their home area. If you can't get to a convention, you can perhaps find an e-mail contact on the Internet, maybe on Facebook or Twitter.

I live in Jerkwater, Alabama and I have access to a real good recording studio and digital phone lines. I've heard that there are people who live outside Los Angeles and New York who manage to have thriving voice careers by phone. So I can do this, can't I?

Not that long ago, the answer to this would have been, "Absolutely not." Today, due to technological advances, the answer is more along the lines of: "It's possible to get work in the major markets from out of town though you're certainly putting yourself at an enormous competitive disadvantage." There are some experienced actors who, having proven their worth and established themselves as the voices of certain characters or ad campaigns, have managed to relocate outside of L.A. or N.Y. and continued working, though not as often.

There are also occasional newcomer exceptions and in the future, working with out-of-town voice talent will become more feasible but at the moment, such cases are the exception. Remember, you have to convince them not only that you're better than the 3,000+ actors in the L.A. area who are actively seeking voice work, but that you're so much better that it's worth the inconvenience of working with someone who can't come in at a moment's notice. Generally speaking, the kind of L.A. and N.Y. jobs you can phone in are the non-union ones that pay very little.  On the other hand, you may be able to service non-major markets.  There are some good, lucrative jobs not in New York and Los Angeles with less local-based competition.

I'm about to prepare my voice demo. How long should it be?

Shorter than you'll probably make it. A top voice agent recently told me, "It's getting so that if I don't hear something fabulous in the first 20 seconds, I turn it off and throw it in the reject pile." That is probably not uncommon, given how many thousands of demos get submitted to agents and casting directors. You need to be absolutely ruthless in omitting all but your absolute best work. Lead with those one or two unique voices you may have and then keep the whole thing down to three minutes. Two is better…and if that seems impossible, remember that they'll probably make up their minds about you in the first minute.

Agents and casting directors are sick of hearing men imitating Joe Cipriano, Beau Weaver and Don LaFontaine. Women seeking character work all seem to imitate June Foray's witch voice, Gail Matthius's valley girl voice and Nancy Cartwright's Bart Simpson voice. Replicating those does not prove you're as good as those actresses. It demonstrates that you have nothing to offer that many others can't do…including June, Gail and Nancy, all of whom are still around and available to be hired.

But I do so many different voices! All my friends tell me I can sound like a hundred different movie stars…and I have three hundred of my own character voices. Shouldn't I put them all on my demo so the agents and casting directors can hear everything that I can do?

First off, your friends are holding to you a different standard than is employed by professional agents and casting directors…who, by the way, are never going to listen to a demo with 50 voices on it, let alone 300.

The truth is that few voice actors are as versatile as they think they are, and a casting director doesn't need someone who can do 300 voices. He or she needs someone who can do the one or two specific voices they need to cast…so show them only your best work. (Also, there's this: To emphasize quantity over quality is generally a sign of amateurism. Most agents, when they hear someone say, "I can do 300 voices" automatically assume they're in the presence of a pushy neophyte.)

One other point: Beginners often tout their talents by saying things like, "I can do a great Homer Simpson and a terrific SpongeBob SquarePants." What they don't get is that there's a very limited market for those who can imitate classic voices and virtually none when the original voice actor is still around. The guys who do Homer and SpongeBob are alive and well and there is no need for anyone to imitate them. When a voice actor dies or becomes otherwise unavailable, there are often jobs for "sound-alikes" but most of these go to folks who are already at the top of the profession. In any case, casting agents are always much more impressed by a good original voice than by your ability to mimic someone else's creation.

I want to break into voice work but I know that there's an "inner circle" of people who hire their friends and keep outsiders out. Is there any way I can break into that clique?

Not with that attitude. First off, those who get work are hired because the folks doing the hiring believe that these are the people who can give them what they want. Yes, they often hire the same people over and over. That's how it is in every business. If you employ someone and find they're good at what they do, you hire them again, or at least give them preference over utter strangers. That's not favoritism; that's experience. One of the skills that casting directors and voice directors are supposed to bring to the job is to know good people and to be able to cast quickly and without doing hundreds of auditions. The notion that there's any sort of clique or inner circle is just "sore loser" talk by folks whose work, rightly or wrongly, failed to click with those who do the hiring.

Do I have to belong to the union to get work doing voice work? Once I join, will the union get me work? Do I have to have an agent?

You don't have to belong to the Screen Actors Guild to get your first job. You will have to join when you qualify for membership, which usually occurs with your second. But I've never heard of a casting person saying, "I won't hire that person because he isn't in the union." (Of course, those who cast non-union projects like it if you're not in the union. Having seen a number of performers get exploited and cheated on non-union films, I am of the opinion that it is foolish to venture too near them. It can also make you look a lot less desirable for the decent-paying union gigs.)

The union does not get you work. They have nothing to do with that end of the process except to stop its more abusive practices.

The problem with not having an agent is that it's difficult to let the casting folks know you exist if you don't have an agent. They get so many submissions from accredited, known agents that they can barely deal with them, let alone the unagented actors. As a result, they tend to view voiceover agencies as a kind of pre-screening process, assuming that if someone doesn't have an agent, they probably aren't worth considering. That is not necessarily an unfair assumption. Most of the submissions that come from non-agented performers are pretty awful and even if yours is an exception, it's likely to get lost among the chaff.

So: No, having an agent is not an absolute necessity. But it sure makes the odds against you a little more tolerable.

Is it possible these days to have a career as an on-camera actor and as a voiceover performer? I see all these celebrities doing cartoon voices lately…

Yeah…and those particular people would probably not be considered for those jobs if not for their on-camera credits. With some exceptions, they're being hired for their celebrity by a production that feels, for either marketing or personal reasons, they want to work with "name" actors.

Most of the current voiceover performers who are working steadily are ones who have made a conscious decision to subordinate on-camerawork to voice work. There is, in fact, an agent who says to potential new clients, "If you had a chance tomorrow to audition for a regular part on a sitcom that might be the next Seinfeld or a regular part on a cartoon series, and you couldn't go to both, which would you choose?" The actor who'd pick the sitcom is, to the agent, much less appealing for representation.

I hear about this thing called "Financial Core" and it sounds to me like a great deal. It enables me to not be a member of the union, to pay reduced dues and to accept non-union work? Why shouldn't I take advantage of this?

There are a number of reasons. "Financial Core" (sometimes called "Fiscal Core") is a special category that enables one to opt out of a union but still work in its area of jurisdiction. The person must pay the portion of union dues that go to actual enforcement of the union's contract but is under no legal obligation to obey certain of its rules, including the usual prohibition of working for non-union shops.

You might not want to do this for moral reasons. Mainly though, Core status is probably a bad idea just as a career move if you want to work in the majors. It's tantamount to announcing to the industry that you're desperate…and the only folks who want to hire desperate actors are those who are looking for talent that will work cheap and not complain if the check bounces.

Okay, I've read all the questions and answers. I want to do cartoon voices. Can you just give me a straight answer as to what I have to do to get that job? And please be honest with me.

Okay, here it is: On each project, the decision as to who does the voice(s) is done by a small group of people — usually a casting director and a voice director (often, those are the same person) and a boss or two. On a commercial, the boss may be the client — i.e., the maker of the product — or it may be the advertising agency. On a cartoon show, it may be a producer and maybe a studio head or two. Once in a while, writers and directors can effectively recommend someone. So what you have to do is to get those people to decide you're the right person for a given role.

If you already have a personal relationship with one of these people, they might consider you. That doesn't mean they'll hire you but they might give you a real consideration. It is rare that one person can make a casting decision for regular roles. Even if your uncle is the casting director and he decides you're the best-possible choice for a certain part, he still has to convince his co-workers. On a cartoon show, a network may also have approval rights and there may also be merchandising people and folks who have ownership rights in the property who have to sign off on major casting decisions. Sometimes though, one person can cast a minor, non-recurring role.

If you don't have a personal relationship with one of these people and you approach them directly, you will almost surely do yourself more harm than good, and could really anger them. They get bombarded by a lot of amateurs and expect the agent system to protect them from that, and to weed out the new people with talent.

Getting an agent is difficult but the process is pretty straightforward.  You work up a demo recording of your work and you submit it to the various agencies. Submissions used to be done by mailing them tapes and then CDs.  Now, it's more likely done online.  If they all turn you down, your only real option is to keep submitting samples of your talent to them. There really is no other route.

I'm sorry I can't give you any magic shortcut and I'm sorry that this may not sound fair to you, or that 98% of all those who want to do voice work will never get the opportunity. But that's the way it works.

For reasons you can probably guess, it has become necessary to institute the following policy: Please do not send me voice demos or requests to hear your samples or to hire you or to refer you to an agent. I get way too much of this and have had to vow never to hire or refer anyone who approaches me this way. If you saw my e-mailbox, you'd understand.


blackline