Take a look at something…
What do you see in the box above? The word READ, yes?
Now here’s a fun exercise: Try NOT to see the word READ there. Try to see a series of four random symbols with no particular meaning. Go ahead… I’ll wait.
Can’t do it, can you? No matter how hard you stare at the writing in that box, it’s always going to say READ to you. Your brain can’t interpret those symbols any other way. The concept of reading is so thoroughly ingrained in your mental processes that when you see something that can be read, you can’t not read it. (Double negative intentional.)
There was a time in your life when this wasn’t the case. If you’re anything like me, that time is practically ancient history. But when you were an infant, you would have looked at that box and not seen a word there, but only unintelligible pictures. You hadn’t yet learned to look at these symbols and interpret them in a narrowly specific way. You hadn’t yet learned to read. But even though that was once true for you personally, you can’t compel your mind to return to that state, as our little exercise just demonstrated.
Once you’ve learned to read, you can’t unlearn.
The point of all of this is that it’s infinitely simpler to train the human mind than it is to overcome training that’s already there. Learning is easy. Unlearning can be nigh onto impossible.
I’ve taught and illustrated this principle in lectures and classes for at least 20 years. I’m just now beginning to understand its effect on my voice acting development.
For nearly a quarter of a century, I’ve been an active public speaker. I’m in front of an audience a minimum of four times each week. I’ve learned to project my voice so that it fills space, whether a classroom or an auditorium, frequently without amplification. Like a stage actor, I’ve become skilled at reaching a listener at the back of the hall with the same nuance heard by someone seated in the front row. After 20-odd years, my “speaker voice” is as much a part of me as my brown eyes or my curly hair.
It’s difficult now to unlearn it.
I’m trying to think more cinematically in my reads. That is, to speak at the conversational volume of actors in an intimate film scene. The actors don’t project. They don’t have to — expensive, technologically brilliant microphones hover inches away, just outside the camera’s focus. Not to mention the fact that much of the dialogue will be looped in a studio, with those same incredible microphones isolated a hand’s breadth from the actors’ lips.
Whenever I’m in the studio, I always have to remind myself not to project to the hall. The mic is right there. It hears me just fine. I have to trust that, and not do what Pat Fraley calls “creating emotion with volume.” In the moment, I have to unlearn my decades of stagecraft.
Listening to, and mimicking, the voiceovers in television commercials is helping. No one ever yells in a TV spot, unless they’re attempting to become the next Billy Mays. TV VO is always intimate, tucked under, and as smooth as glass. That’s the quality I’m working to capture. It’s not easy, but I’m showing signs of progress.
Every day, I learn something that helps me grow into a more proficient and marketable voice actor. Some days, I’m just unlearning the things that hold me back from that goal.