Archive for the ‘Celebrity voices’ category

In the game

August 9, 2009

Confession time…

I kissed a video game, and I liked it.

For the past several weeks, I’ve been eagerly anticipating Pat Fraley‘s Game World event in San Francisco. Three reasons: (1) I had a blast working with Pat during a previous event; (2) Pat’s guest coach was Darragh O’Farrell of LucasArts, about whose directing I’ve heard excellent reports; and (3) I’ve taken a few classes on interactive game voice acting in recent months, and I’ve yearned for the opportunity to test-drive my new chops.

Yesterday, the big moment rolled around, so off I trekked — jumbo coffee in hand — to the downtown studio where Pat hosts his San Francisco events.

In a word: Cowabunga. (This assumes that you accept “Cowabunga” as a word. Which, since I attended college in Malibu and have played Snoopy onstage, I most certainly do.)

As strange as it sounds from someone who thought he was getting into voiceover to do industrial narration — not to mention to a guy whose video gaming experience dates back to (and more or less ends with) Asteroids and Frogger — I really, really want to voice interactive characters. That burning yen gained fuel under the tutelage of Messrs. Fraley and O’Farrell. (I know. It sounds like an Irish joke waiting for a punch line. You’ll just have to keep waiting.)

Prior to the event, Pat sent out a thick e-file crammed with character sides, from which each student was supposed to select four options. We ended up doing two scripts each, plus participating as examples in a series of excellent technique exercises.

My first audition script was a character from a fantasy game — an avaricious thief. (Yes, a redundancy. Hang with me.) I’ve observed in previous character workshops that I have a knack for evil — or at the very least, duplicitous — roles. This one proved no exception. I felt strong about the acting approach I took, and the specific choices I made with my lines. Best of all, I knew precisely how I wanted to play each scene before I stepped behind the microphone, and when I exited the booth, I was confident that I’d executed my plan. Darragh offered a touch of crisp direction that helped pull it all together. If this were an audition, I’d like my chances.

Round two, as I’d feared, took a slightly harder turn. I’d chosen a character from the same game as my first round selection, but one diametrically opposed to the other in type. I sometimes struggle playing good guys, and I did again here. My first take at my hero was a bit too soft — Pat told me that he sounded “like he eats too much quiche.” In attempting to make the character more vigorously masculine, I cranked in too much force and volume. I knew that was the wrong choice — how often do I have to hear “less is more” before I finally get it? — and Pat promptly reeled me back to a more monochromatic delivery. I should have played the Eastwood card straight out of the box. Oh, well… next time, I’ll remember.

My demonstration exercise taught me how to yell effectively without injuring my voice. I’ll be using that technique a ton, no question. AAAAARRRRRRRGH!

As inevitably happens at a VO workshop, I met some cool new colleagues, enjoyed working alongside some of my favorite fellow actors (Aileen and Brenda, you both rocked, as usual — I’m in awe, seriously), picked up a wealth of handy technical and career-enhancement tips, and benefited from some killer coaching.

By the time 6 p.m. rolled around and Pat sent us on our merry way, my shoes weighed fifty pounds each, but my synapses sizzled with fresh information and my heart soared as though pumped full of helium. I’m itching to spend the next couple of weeks digesting and practicing everything I drank from the Fraley and O’Farrell Fountain of Wisdom. (It’s 100% alcohol-free. Honest.)

Now, I need to go mining for auditions. Need a crafty villain? I’m your huckleberry.

Studied prototypical

August 5, 2009

Given that I’ve been working so much on character acting of late — I’m three-fourths of the way through a class on dialects, and I just wrapped a workshop on acting for animation and video game projects, with another of the latter coming this weekend — I haven’t been working much in my natural voice.

Which is just fine with me.

I’m always intrigued by other people’s perception of my unaltered sound. A while back, one of the directors at a workshop I attended told me that I sound like Seth Rogen. I don’t hear that at all — for one thing, Seth’s speaking voice is a good deal deeper than mine — but since at least one person with good ears hears me that way, I’ve been watching a number of Seth’s movies lately and trying to incorporate cues from his delivery.

In the workshop I took last weekend, the rest of the group was convinced that I’m a vocal ringer for Albert Brooks. That one makes more sense to me — Brooks’s flat, southern California affect is admittedly similar to the one I’ve developed over 30 years as a resident of the Golden State — so again, I’ve been checking out everything from Out of Sight to Finding Nemo to see what I can learn.

My current Thursday evening workshop is built around prototyping — using other actors as models for tonality, rhythm, and character type. The great Thom Pinto assigned me Willem Dafoe as my primary prototype. (Why do I always get the sinister ones?) As anyone who has heard him speak knows, Dafoe has several vocal eccentricities that are uniquely his, and difficult to imitate without his particular instrument. Working at modeling him, however, is helping to ground me in the deeper, more modulated range that appears to be my money voice for straight commercial and narration copy.

For character reads, I’m modeling Paul Giamatti as my primary prototype. Of all the actors I’ve mentioned in this post thus far, Giamatti is the one who sounds the most similar to me in my own ears. Like mine, his voice has both a reedy edge and a darker texture underlying that, creating a sort of indefinable quirkiness in the sound. Giamatti’s voice also reflects an intellectual-intense-yet-insecure quality that resonates with me. I’ve been practicing some of Paul’s short monologues from Sideways, and — for the benefit of contrast — a sampling of his lines as the over-the-top villain in Shoot ‘Em Up. Between the two, I’m fleshing out a couple of strong characters that I’ll be able to draw from again and again.

It’s funny…

…the more I work at becoming someone else, the more I discover of myself.

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.)

Pat-urday in San Francisco

March 9, 2009

Now that I’ve had a moment to rest and recover, here’s the lowdown on last Saturday’s workshop.

Pat Fraley titled the event Audition Technique Masters, which probably described everyone in the room other than me. Pat invited agent John Erlendson, principal of San Francisco’s JE Talent, to direct one of the two sessions. Sydney Rainin, a local voice artist best known for her work with Macy’s and Safeway, dropped by for an hour of Q&A at midday.

Paranoid that I am, I arrived at the event location, Polarity Post Production, nearly an hour early. I found convenient parking in a lot literally a stone’s throw from the studio. The extra time gave me an opportunity to decompress from the drive, finish my coffee, read a few pages on my Kindle, and arrive promptly feeling refreshed and ready for the day.

We began the morning with the usual get-acquainted round robin. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that many of the other 11 participants also study or have studied at Voicetrax. Even though I didn’t know anyone, that commonality made the room feel immediately comfortable. So, for that matter, did Pat, who is every bit as funny and engaging as his reputation (and the audio lessons I’ve downloaded from his site) would suggest. All of the trepidation with which I’d arrived fell away like dandruff.

Our first round in the booth was a brief character piece from an interactive game project. We had several scripts from which to choose. I selected three possibilities, giving myself flexibility in case one or more of my classmates picked the same copy. That proved wise, as one of the first people into the booth went with my first choice, and I observed another student carefully reviewing my second option. That meant I ended up focusing on my third choice. That was fine — I enjoy a challenge.

It’s always fun to hear other people work. Although everyone else in the class outstripped me in experience — most of the others have been pursuing voiceover for several years, and several were working voice pros with agents and actual careers — I didn’t feel intimidated. Once Pat had put a few of my classmates through their paces, I was encouraged to think that I could stand on a reasonably level competitive field with the others. At least, I’d avoid embarrassing myself.

Before my turn in the booth came, we broke for lunch. While we noshed on sandwiches and salad from Il Fornaio (“you deserve a quality lunch,” Pat remarked), John and Sydney joined us to share their insights. I couldn’t think of any questions I wanted to ask, but I enjoyed listening to the responses both of these successful artists offered to others’ inquiries.

After the break, John led us back into the studio to tackle some commercial copy. I really appreciated John’s straightforward, non-technical directing style. As he sent each student into the booth, he asked for three consecutive reads through the copy — basically the same read, without major adjustments in character or interpretation. After the third read, he offered simple direction. What quickly became clear was that by the time the talent had run the copy three times, he or she more often than not had a handle on their basic approach. For there, it was just a matter of refinement. For most, the refinement involved speeding up the tempo of the read so that it flowed naturally.

I had chosen a spot for a well-known amusement park. Since the copy seemed comfortably in my wheelhouse in terms of both vocal character and personality, I didn’t attempt anything fancy. I just focused on delivering the read with the appropriate energy, and keeping my voice within my optimal range.

“How’d you feel about that?” John asked, after I’d run my three reads.

“Pretty good,” I shrugged.

“I think you’re right in the zone. Pick up the tempo about 20 percent, and I think you’ll be there.”

I read the copy a fourth time, propelling myself along more briskly. When I finished, I glanced toward the booth window.

John said simply, “You’re done.”

Okay — that felt solid. (John thinks my natural speaking voice sounds like Seth Rogen. Who knew?)

When John had finished with the 12 of us, Pat slipped back into the director’s chair to complete the character round. My turn came up quickly, so back into the booth I headed. I could hear my game character, described as a friendly, larger-than life auto-racing promoter, clearly in my creative ear, so I attacked the copy with aggressive abandon.

A little too much abandon, as it turned out. Pat sent his associate into the booth to demonstrate the appropriate volume level — probably one-third as loud as I’d been on my first read.

It took me a couple of experimental runs, but the final time through, I remembered at last not to over-project, while maintaining the character I’d adopted. The resulting read sounded less strident and more authentic. I don’t know whether I’d cast me in that particular role, but I was happy with the choices I’d made. (Pat’s planning to distribute the recordings later this week. We’ll see whether my positivity survives on second listen.)

Pat finished the day with some additional tips. We gathered the class for a group photo, then scattered to the four winds. (It wasn’t windy, especially. I just wanted to say that.)

I drove northward out of The City brimming with enthusiasm. All in all, a terrific day. I can scarcely wait for another opportunity to study with Mr. Fraley. With any luck, that chance will come sooner rather than later.

Another Brick in the wall

March 2, 2009

For me, a highlight of this past weekend’s WonderCon in San Francisco was meeting one of my VO idols: Scott Brick, perhaps the world’s most honored and respected audiobook narrator.

Scott had a booth at the con — how did I miss seeing that in the program? — promoting his self-published series of audiobooks. For the WonderCon audience, the draw was Scott’s recordings of Stephen R. Donaldson’s epic fantasy series, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. I enjoyed reading those books back when they were first published, so I’m looking forward to hearing what Scott does with them.

I’m always a bit nervous approaching people I admire — aw heck, let’s get real; I’m nervous approaching people in general — and my wandering by just as Scott was delving into his lunch didn’t help matters any. But I steeled my courage to walk up and introduce myself, telling Scott, “I want to be you when I grow up.”

Scott couldn’t have been more kind. When I told him that I’m a voice actor and that I’d love to get into audiobooks, he was interested to know where I was studying and with whom. I remembered to tell Scott that I’m taking a six-week intensive course in audiobook narration this spring… and promptly forgot the name of the instructor, even though I’ve taken a class from her before. (Please, everyone — let’s not tell Lisa Baney that I forgot her name. Or if we tell her, let’s be sure to mention that I forgot under the pressure of meeting Scott Brick. I think she’d be forgiving under the circumstances.)

Scott shared with me that he’s just begun a series of articles on his blog about getting started in audiobook narration. (Here’s a shock — I’ve already devoured Scott’s first installment, and am hungry for more!) He also handed me his card and offered to answer any specific questions I might have about the field via e-mail.

For my part, I smiled and nodded and tried not to sound like a blithering idiot.

It occurred to me as I was leaving Scott’s table — squeezing his card so tightly between my thumb and index finger that if it had been a lump of coal, I’d have created a diamond — that voice artists in the main are tremendously giving folk. Every working professional I’ve met or contacted has seemed genuinely eager to encourage and advise me in any way he or she can.

Given what one hears about the self-centered nature of actors and the highly competitive business we’ve chosen, this quality surprises me every time. And yet, the pattern continues to hold. Even the top players in the VO business — people at the level of Scott Brick or Pat Fraley — always take an interest in showing fledgling talent the ropes, and are astonishingly generous with their time and insights.

When I’m a big name in voiceover, I’ll promise to remember that.

No Oscar love for “That Trailer Guy”

February 25, 2009

I’m a mite embarrassed that it took veteran animation writer/director/producer (among the scads of other things he does) Mark Evanier to point this out to me, but now that I’m thinking about it…

Isn’t it peculiar that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences failed to include Don LaFontaine in the Oscarcast’s annual “In Memoriam” segment this year?

As Mark correctly observes, The Don not only announced the Oscar ceremonies on several occasions, but he probably was responsible for selling more movie tickets than all of the other departed noteworthies combined.

How quickly they forget.

Why I want to earn my SAG card

January 25, 2009

I want a Screen Actors Guild card…

…not for the prestige.

…not for the pension and insurance benefits.

…not for access to all of the really great VO jobs.

…not for scale wages or residuals.

…not so that I can cast a ballot during strike votes.

…not even for the autographed 8″x10″ glossy of Alan Rosenberg.

No, I want to earn my SAG card just so that some day I can look into the baleful, unblinking eye of a television camera and say…

“I’m Michael Rankins… and I’m an actor.”