Archive for the ‘Reflection’ category

Unlearning

August 25, 2009

Take a look at something…

READ

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.

Advertisements

Internationally speaking…

August 14, 2009

After four weeks of toiling in my dialects and accents workshop, here’s what I’ve discovered:

  • My British accent isn’t too shabby. I did a credible Claude Rains riff for the final exercise. And in Prototypes class last evening, my Hugh Grant takeoff favorably impressed some of my fellow actors, who didn’t even realize that it was me.
  • Two years of high school German 30 years ago? I got nothing now.
  • Two years of living in Greece 35 years ago? Ditto.
  • Never attempt an Italian accent in front of a bona fide Italian.
  • I can do a pretty effective Southern dialect. But I’d rather not.

Accents are definitely not my strong suit, which is exactly the reason I enrolled in this course. But I now have some tools to work with, and some resources to utilize when the situation demands.

More than anything, I need to listen more.

That’s probably good advice for my life outside of voiceover, too.

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.

Making it do what it do

July 30, 2009

If I’ve learned anything in my recent voiceover workouts — and let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that I have — it’s about the essential importance of acting over voice quality.

Or, as Sirenetta told our accents and dialects class, “Play the scene, and the voice will follow.”

It’s taking a while — okay, like, a year now — for that message to penetrate my skull. But I think it’s beginning to sink in.

I’m trying to train myself to be less conscious of what my voice sounds like, and focus completely on acting whatever role I happen to be playing in the moment, whether a character, spokesperson, or narrator. When I manage to suppress that sometimes overwhelming compulsion to audit my voice and tinker with the sound, there’s no question but that I get more effective performances. Still, when that microphone and copy stand appear before me, that sneaky self-editing demon creeps in and starts tugging at my ears.

Deep down inside, I know it’s a crisis of confidence. I don’t always fully trust my voice to do what my acting choices require of it. Foolish, I know, because when I let it work, it works just fine.

I need an infusion of the great Ray Charles, who once said of his prodigious talent, “I just make it do what it do, baby.”

When I’m in the booth this evening, and throughout this weekend, I’m going to try to shut the editing demon off, and just make it do what it do.

Blimey!

July 24, 2009

In an effort to expand my vocal repertoire, I’m taking a four-week seminar on accents and dialects.

One might suppose that this aspect of voice acting would come easily to me, given that (a) I’ve lived on three continents, as well as in both Hawaii and the polyglot Bay Area, and (b) I have friends who speak with a variety of accents — Mexican Spanish, Australian, East Indian, and so on — and thus am frequently exposed to different approaches to spoken English.

Well, if that’s what one supposed, one would have another supposition coming.

The focus for the first workshop session was the British accent. In fact, as I discovered — or perhaps already knew, but had never given it much thought — there are a number of British accents: Received Pronunciation, as is familiar to anyone who’s listened to programming from the BBC; Cockney; Estuary, which combines elements of both of the preceding; Manchester; Liverpool; Yorkshire (if you’ve ever seen The Full Monty, it’s that Sheffield one); plus national derivations such as Scottish and Welsh. I’m sure there are several others as well.

Already, the task was tougher than I’d figured.

As instructed, I prepared for the class by watching a couple of films from the Harry Potter series, and attempting to mimic the accent of one of the characters. I chose Rupert Grint’s Ron Weasley as my model, both because Grint’s accent is distinctive to my American ear, and because Ron is sufficiently prominent in the films that I had ample material to listen to. And, although young Rupert’s vocal characteristics differ somewhat from my own, his timbre is similar enough that I didn’t have to manufacture a texture or tone to copy his accent.

When I arrived at class and began reviewing the copy for the first exercise, I immediately identified a shortcoming in my preparation. I’d done a fair amount of listen-and-repeat with Ron’s dialogue from two of the Potter films. I had not, however, considered as much as I should have how to apply Rupert/Ron’s speech pattern to words and phrases that didn’t occur in the film scripts. My greatest challenge, then, became trying to think of how to use that accent to pronounce words I’d never heard Ron Weasley pronounce.

My success was, at best, mediocre.

The next two exercises produced better results. Freed from the requirement to copy a specific individual’s accent, I was able to give more attention to the problem of acting effectively while maintaining a (more generic) British dialect. By the time we got to the third batch of copy — sides from a video game featuring English-accented characters — I felt that I was back in my element. The actor in me could take over, and just allow the accent to flow from the character I created and the acting choices associated with that character.

Ultimately, acting with an accent or dialect is not so different from speaking a foreign language. To become facile with the speech, you have to learn to think in that voice. Which is why my foreign language skills stink… and why I’m taking a course on accents and dialects.

Next week, the American South. We’ll see how I do with that… y’all.

Magic Monday

June 22, 2009

I went on an audition today.

Already I can hear you asking, “How did it go?” If you mean from the perspective of booking the job, who knows? I’ve never been any good at judging these things.

So I’m learning to evaluate from a different POV: Did I do everything I went there to do?

To answer that question, we first have to know what I plan to do whenever I audition. Lucky for us, I have a list.

1. Did I enjoy myself? Totally. I live for booth time. Anytime I get to play with new copy, it’s a good day.

2. Did I achieve focus, and maintain it throughout the session? Sometimes this is a challenge for me, but it wasn’t today. Which was a good thing, since there were several other names on the call sheet ahead of mine, meaning that I had about 45 minutes for my attention to wander.

3. Did I complete my homework? Right down the line. I studied the copy and the specs carefully, and thought about both before I began rehearsing. I made a specific note that this was television copy, and prepared reads that were appropriate to that medium. I had a firm grasp on the scenario, and made clear choices about both my character and the person to whom I was speaking. (Actually, since I was reading two similar spots targeted to different audiences, I envisioned myself speaking to a different person for each spot. My friends Donna and Randy would be pleased to know how helpful they were, in absentia.) Most importantly — because this is the one that I most easily let slip — I knew precisely why I was saying the words, and what response I hoped to elicit from my audience.

4. Did I remember to breathe deeply and center myself before I started? Check.

5. Did I take my water bottle into the booth with me? Check.

6. Did I relax? For the most part, yes. I felt the initial adrenaline rush, but managed to rein it in.

7. Did I follow directions? This is rarely an issue for me — one of my strengths is listening to instructions and internalizing them quickly — and it wasn’t a negative today.

8. Did I trust my instincts? Yes, and I believe they were solid. Second-guessing myself rarely works to my benefit. Remember the FIST rule: First Impressions Sense Truth.

9. Did I have an attack of esprit l’escalier? Thankfully, no. The worst thing that can happen to an actor is to be thunderstruck on the drive home from the audition with the thought, “Why didn’t I do this?” I do wish that I had developed an approach to either spot that was completely out of the box, but I believe that the different styles I used for the two spots were sufficiently distinct that they demonstrated at least a bit of range.

10. Did I love myself afterward? I did, and do. I acted well today. Good Mic Guy.

Ultimately, the work is the work. Whether I book the job or don’t, I love the work.

I’m thrilled that I got to work — and play — today.

Carnegie Hall, and step on it

June 2, 2009

Last Saturday, my chorus — Voices in Harmony, northern California’s premier men’s a cappella chorus (thank you, Blatant Plug Department) — presented its annual spring concert. Yours truly had the honor of narrating the chorus segments of the show.

It occurs to me that if I was as comfortable behind the mic in the studio as I am before a live audience, my growth as a voice actor would develop far more dramatically.

Then again, if I’d been focusing on voice acting for more than 25 years — as I have been on public speaking — the same would hold true.

Yes, Mr. Gladwell, I know…

Ten thousand hours.

I’m working on it.