Archive for April 2009

Actor, direct thyself

April 30, 2009

A thought-provoking insight in tonight’s first session of a four-week course in self-directing skills…

Approach every script as though you were going to direct another actor’s performance of it.

That makes so darned much sense I can’t believe I didn’t think of it myself.

After all, how many times have I, as a presenter, reiterated the well-observed point that the best way to master a subject is to prepare to teach that subject to someone else? More times than I can count, much less remember.

It simply follows, then, that one way to gain complete ownership of a piece of copy would be to prepare to direct it.

That single sentence is going to provide a launching pad for my next quantum leap.

If it’s free, I’ll take three (hours)

April 24, 2009

More often than not, you get what you pay for.

This is not one of those stories.

The ever-thoughtful folks at Voicetrax are doing a golden favor for their students this month — offering a selection of one-session group lessons on a variety of voiceover subjects, free of charge. When the schedule of free classes was released, there were two appealing options that fit into my schedule. So, with some counsel from Chuck, Voicetrax’s self-described factotum, I decided to choose the option I hadn’t tried before.

Good call, Chuck.

Last night, a dozen of us placed ourselves in the able hands of Brian Sommer, a Voicetrax-trained actor who today boasts a list of commercial, animation, and video game credits as long as my… well… let’s just say mighty doggoned long. Brian’s specialty is characters — notice that I didn’t say “character voices” (see, Brian — I was paying attention!) — so we launched into a pile of juicy character-rich audition scripts and sides from Brian’s magic bag of tricks. (Silly rabbit — tricks are for voice actors!)

I had the chance to experiment with a pair of fun pieces. In the first, an animation script, I played an evil (is there any other kind?) mad scientist. Brian found me guilty of gnawing a little too much scenery in my first take, so I dialed the broad portrayal back just a touch, picked up the pacing, and made sure I made better connection with my virtual listener the second time through.

Take two was vastly improved, though Brian nudged me about my usual nemesis — worrying about the words rather than simply playing the scene. On the third take, I relaxed a little more, and the character really came together. I love it when that happens.

My second shot in the booth presented me with sides from a Western video game. Here, my character was a charmingly roguish, slightly gonzo Mexican bandito of the sort one might have seen in old Clint Eastwood movies. Ironically, just the night before, my daughter and I were watching the NBA playoffs when a Dos Equis beer commercial came on, starring Jonathan Goldsmith as “the most interesting man in the world.” I can do a pretty fair impression of Goldsmith’s faux-Latin accent — “Stay thirsty, my friends” — which KM thought would form the basis of an effective character for me. I’d spent the rest of the evening tinkering with that voice. So, I started the character Brian assigned with a hefty dose of Mr. Interesting, ladled in A Fistful of Dollars, and built him outward from there.

Not surprisingly, then, Brian’s initial comment after my first take was, “That’s a great character for you.” We both liked the work I’d done in the second and third scenes of the three-scene script, so Brian focused his direction on the first scene, where I didn’t quite nail the balance between the character’s smarmy faux friendliness and his underlying villainy. A tweak here and there, and the whole bit gelled nicely.

In one three-hour class, I came away with two nifty additions to my character repertoire, and several useful tidbits about character acting that I’ll be able to apply dozens of ways. And all for just the price of four gallons of gas. (That’s how much petrol my aging minivan burns on the round-trip Sausalito run.)

I continue to be pleasantly surprised at how easily character work comes to me. It’s diametrically opposed to the kind of things I thought I’d find in my voiceover wheelhouse. Gotta admit, though — I dig leaping outside myself (or perhaps, discovering hidden facets within myself) and letting fly with the myriad people I can be.

The fact that a high percentage of those people are evil or crazy or both? A good subject for psychoanalysis.

Thanks to my mentors at Voicetrax — and especially to Brian — for the freebie. Given all that I learned, and the fun I had, I’d have gladly paid the usual rate. (But… don’t feel compelled to send me an invoice, Chuck.)

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

April 20, 2009

We still have some polishing to do, but you’re getting an advance preview of the new branding materials being developed for me by the World’s Greatest Graphic Designer — or Mr. G. (as in Graphics), as I like to call him.

Technically speaking, this preview isn’t for your benefit. It’s here so that Mr. G. can size-test the header graphic, and adjust it accordingly. But since you’ve dropped in, what the hey — you might as well take a peek.

I’m not in love with the new blog template, but the one I was using previously doesn’t accommodate a custom header. Of the theme options that WordPress offers that do allow this feature, this was the least offensive to my sensibilities. I’m sure I’ll grow to adore it. Or decide to spend the money to do something different. At this moment — in the immortal words of Billy Vera — this is what we have.

On the other hand, I’m in abject monkey love with Mr. G.’s logo design. He would probably tell you that he merely took a concept I threw at him and ran with it. If he did, he’d be too modest.

More wicked cool branding stuff in the offing. You’ll see it here first.

Please try to control your astonishment.

In the Zone

April 19, 2009

It’s amazing what you can find when you aren’t looking.

The other day, I dropped in at the local music store. When I think “music store,” I mostly think of a place that sells musical instruments and related paraphernalia. And indeed, the last time I was in this particular establishment, I was renting a clarinet for my then-middle-school-age daughter to play in band class. (Given that the same daughter is now a sophomore in college, you can tell that it’s been a while.)

I had a rather vague idea that this particular music store also had a recording studio onsite, but hadn’t thought much about it. Imagine, then, my utter surprise to see a sign near the back door that read, “Free Studio Tour.” I didn’t need more invitation than that — The Mic Guy’s first rule being, “If it’s free, it’s for me.”

Blair, the owner of Zone Music and Recording, welcomed me in. As it turned out, not only does he have a mighty sweet studio set-up squirreled away in the vast warren of his store, but he’s also a working voiceover pro who’s recorded narrations for Food Network and produced Dr. Phil’s latest audiobook. An entire wall of his studio is covered with awards he’s won. I considered genuflecting, but Blair seemed like a pretty humble guy. He’d have probably been embarrassed.

Standing in Blair’s booth, I found myself itching to grab some copy and perform. But I refrained. After all, I just met the man, and didn’t want to impose.

Instead, I wandered over to Zone’s Pro Audio department, and salivated over microphones there. They were in a glass cabinet, so I didn’t actually get any drool or fingerprints on them. A couple of them did speak to me, and ask me to call them “Precious.” A helpful tech guy chatted with me about my home studio setup, and offered some valuable suggestions.

Considering that I just wandered in because I stumbled upon a sale ad, my trip to Zone was a revelation. I’ll have to go hang out there again on a day when they’re a little less busy. Perhaps they’ll let me fondle a Neumann U87 or something.

Or perhaps not.

The song is ended, but the melody lingers on

April 17, 2009

Sad but true… I now have Friday afternoons free.

As I was preparing this morning for the final session of this six-week workshop, it struck me suddenly how much I was going to miss this weekly gathering, and the people with whom I’ve shared the experience.

The baker’s dozen of us — plus Samantha, of course — became our own little family as we supported and encouraged one another over the past month and a half. I’ve witnessed so much phenomenal growth in each of the other actors in the group, and have come to admire and respect each of them for their unique gifts.

I’ll see most, if not all, of them in other classes as we progress — some as soon as next week — but we’ll never be Sam’s 13 Apprentices again, or join together in this exact configuration.

I’m a touch misty, to tell the truth.

Realizing the occasion, I took my camera with me today to enshrine the moment. The pictures can’t preserve the electricity in the studio, or the raw emotions that we shared as we alternately soared or stumbled in the booth. They certainly don’t capture Samantha’s tough-love, painfully honest but maternal critiques, the hazard of which we each weathered like lobster fishermen braving a New England squall. But when I look at these faces — smiling, reflective, or focused — I’ll remember the 24 hours we spent together, and everything that we learned.

For my final exam, I performed two pieces of copy: an animation script selected for me by another member of the class, and an introspective TV spot that Sirenetta and I had worked on in a recent private lesson. I would never have chosen the animation piece for myself — I still have a hard time envisioning myself doing character voices, even though everyone tells me that’s where the core of my talent lies — but I gave it an earnest whirl.

When Samantha gave my performance her highest score, I couldn’t help asking, “Are you sure?” I’d struggled so miserably over the previous five weeks that it was difficult to accept that I’d done this well. Sam, with characteristic directness, reminded me how frequently I’d complained about my frustration with myself during this workshop. “So, when I finally give you a 3, shut up and take it,” she laughed.

The TV spot wasn’t perfect, but I was nonetheless happy with my read. Sam’s score for this one was, predictably, not quite as lofty, but still good. It also came with compliments and encouragement — I’d taken her direction following the first take and implemented it into the second. All it lacked was confidence, which I probably would have nailed if given a third bite at the apple. Still, coupled with the other piece, it represented my best work of the entire course.

It had taken me six weeks to find it, but the old mojo had returned.

Without exception, everyone in the group delivered her or his best on Finals Day. In several cases, the comparison with the first week’s work represented a quantum leap forward. Some of the newer students, in fact, pulled performances from their inward depths of which I would not have believed them capable. I was overjoyed for them.

For the more experienced of us, the increments of improvement were smaller and subtler, but still vibrantly evident.

Besides which, we gained something beyond our own talents — the connection with others traveling different, yet largely parallel, paths.

When next those paths intersect, we’ll tap into that synergy.

You do me, and I’ll do you

April 13, 2009

We did an interesting exercise last week in my Friday afternoon workshop.

During our first meeting five weeks ago, we were each secretly assigned another participant to “shadow.” For our fifth session, we were to bring a script perfectly suited to the person we have been observing, and perform that script in the booth as we thought that person would — using the qualities we’ve noted in that individual’s vocal and acting style.

My challenge was both easy and remarkably difficult. Easy, in that I’ve shared several other classes with the person I shadowed, and was more familiar with his work going into this exercise than I was with any of the actors in the group. Difficult, not only in that this person’s style is in many respects antithetical to my own, but also in that I like the guy — I was afraid I’d do a lousy job of imitating him, and he’d never speak to me again.

Fortunately for me, however, I’d had a fair amount of practice.

Since my challenging experience in narration class back at the beginning of this year, I’ve been grasping at every hook I can find to help me master what is, for me, a consistently frustrating aspect of VO. Because my natural vocal quality is energetic and expressive, it’s tough for me to dial down to the lower-intensity, more understated tone necessary for effective narration. Watching tons of TV documentaries has helped some, as has my growing appreciation for “vocal colors.” (When I narrate, I have to think “blue”cool, get it?)

As it happens, the actor I’ve been observing for workshop has one of the “bluest” voices I know. A couple of months ago, I discovered that modeling his thoughtful, measured, laid-back delivery helped me find my narrative voice. So, even before this exercise, I’d been imitating him for some time in my daily workouts.

I chose a piece of narration copy for the exercise. And what do you know — the read that came out of my “impression” might have been the best work I’ve done in weeks.

After class, I had a chance to catch up with my unsuspecting “model” and let him know how much practicing his delivery has helped me grow as a narrator. I think he was more than a little stunned. This was also my opportunity to let him know how much development I’ve noticed in his work over the almost-year that we’ve been in classes and workshops together. He really has come a long way from the first time I heard him read.

The person who has been shadowing me chose an animation character script for her exercise. She’s mentioned to me on prior occasions that she thinks animation might be my niche, so when I learned that I had been her observation subject, I wasn’t surprised by her selection. It was hilarious to hear my boisterous delivery rumbling out in her angelic, childlike voice, but she made it work — I knew immediately upon listening to her read that I was the one she was imitating.

What did surprise me was the evaluation my observer gave after a month of monitoring my voice. She described my vocal quality using words like “emotional,” “sensitive,” and “vulnerable” — characteristics that I would never in a million years have associated with myself. (Even more surprising was Samantha‘s follow-up comment: “That’s exactly how I hear you, too.”)

I’ve always envisioned myself as the aloof, detached, intellectual type. But I guess I don’t sound that way to others.

I hope that’s a good thing.

Next week, I’ll get my chance to perform the animation script my observer chose for me. I’ll try to do it justice.

I’ll also be interested to see how the person I’ve been shadowing presents the copy I selected for him. I suspect that he’ll give it a better read than I did. Which, I guess, is kind of the point.

Private dancer

April 10, 2009

Today’s private coaching session with Sirenetta touched off several new flashes in the old chandelier.

We began the hour talking about some of my recent challenges. As Sirenetta rightly pointed out, confidence is the key. Once I trust myself enough not to overthink and overwork every word of copy, I’ll be better off.

Toward that end, I walked into the booth with pristine, unmarked scripts and tried to just let things fly. The technique seemed to work — although I didn’t hit anything perfectly on the first take, I managed to get to a place of relative quality within just a couple of attempts. Sirenetta’s customarily pointed and incisive directing helped.

We worked through a pair of similar scripts designed to bring out my conversational, “regular guy” side. In both cases, I started the process bigger and broader than necessary, and needed to work backward to find a more believable note. When I got there, I was pleased with the end results, albeit frustrated that it still takes me longer than I’d like to find the sweet spot. But, as I reminded myself, it’s the final take that matters. I’ll probably choose one of these two pieces for my “final exam” in next week’s Friday afternoon workshop.

Next, we played with a character script for a TV spot. Once again, I found the character work easier to hit from the start. Maybe I’m just more comfortable working at greater distance from my own perceived self. A therapist would probably have a field day with that revelation.

Last on the docket was a spot that involved an internal monologue. Once Sirenetta pointed out that I could treat the monologue as though it was the audible half of a dialogue, this came together rather well.

What I took away:

  • Confidence is good.
  • Instinct trumps intellect.
  • Frame a monologue by envisioning it as a response to an unheard question.
  • I’m still crippling myself with literal-think, but I’m improving.
  • Let the copy sell itself.
  • Less is still more. Except when it isn’t. And I still have trouble knowing which is which.

Overall, a step forward. I’ll gladly take every one of those that I can get.


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