Archive for the ‘Strategy’ category

The Voiceover Entrance Exam

May 6, 2009

Every now and again, I read something that makes me say to myself, “I wish I’d written that.”

Today’s entry into this continually expanding category is The Voiceover Entrance Exam, a brilliantly succinct, pull-no-punches e-book that every — and yes, I do mean every — new or aspiring voiceover talent should devour like a hunk of medium rare prime rib. (Or tofu, if that’s how you roll.)

The author of this brisk slap in the face is Peter O’Connell, a veteran VO talent and producer who really knows his stuff. I’ve been a fan of Peter’s blog for some time now, and have learned a tremendous amount from his posts there and at the various VO forums around the ‘Net.

My “I wish I’d written that” is entirely wishful thinking, of course. Because I lack Peter’s depth of experience and insider’s perspective on this crazy business, there’s no way I could have written anything close to his eye-opening treatise.

But I’m grateful that Peter did.

Did I mention that The Voiceover Entrance Exam is a free download? You know my motto: If it’s free, it’s for me. This one’s for you, too, because we’re just all generous like that.

While you’re at Peter’s site, take a browse through the other blog posts, articles, and other resources available there. You can tell him The Mic Guy sent you.

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.

Pardon our dust!

April 4, 2009

Don’t be surprised if you drop by here sometime in the next couple of weeks and see a strikingly different look.

A friend and colleague from my corporate days — who also happens to be a graphic designer par excellence — is putting the finishing touches on The Mic Guy’s new branding elements, including a stylish new logo.

Steve is the artist who created the branding elements for my copywriting and editing practice, SwanShadow Communications, when I went freelance in 2002. I’ve received so much positive feedback on the SwanShadow logo over the past seven years that I’d have been insane to go to a different artist to develop the branding for my new career direction.

The new graphics include a custom header for this site. Since the current WordPress template doesn’t support custom graphics, I’ve chosen a new template that I’ll implement when the banner is ready to launch.

Given that I’m a strong believer in the philosophy that you have to name it before you can claim it, I’m excited about this step in my professional evolution. The ongoing development of this site affirms that I’m moving in the right direction.

Also, based on something I overhead yesterday, traffic here may be on the upswing in the near future. I might as well spruce up the joint before company arrives.

Stay tuned.

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.

Thinking ahead

March 6, 2009

Tomorrow, I’m participating in Pat Fraley‘s Audition Technique Masters workshop in San Francisco. Given that I’ve never worked with Pat, or either of the other directors, I suppose this is something of an audition in itself.

As I recall, I was always a dreadful first date.

This workshop begins an intensive four months of VO training. From now until the end of June, I have exactly one week when I don’t have at least one class, and some weeks I have two or three. It’s a bit like immersion therapy, but it’s time. By the end of these four months, I’ll know with certainty that I’m either ready to make a serious splash in this business, or better off bowling.

I might be in over my head in tomorrow’s workshop.

Or, this might be right where I need to be at this point.

Whichever is true…

Here I come.

New lightbulbs for my chandelier

February 24, 2009

Now that I’ve had a night to sleep on it, here’s a summary of the lessons learned in yesterday’s coaching session.

  • I have a tendency to cut my projection too much when reading at low-to-medium volume. I’m not sure whether I’m subconsciously being protective of the microphone (afraid of overamping it) or simply feel awkward about the sound of my voice. I need to feel free to project with full voice and plenty of forward resonance, even when I’m performing an intimate read.
  • By the same token, I need to stay tighter physically on the mic. (Note to self: Review notes from last fall’s mic technique class.)
  • It was interesting to hear that I have a unique sound. I’ve always thought of my voice as nondescript in a good way — I can make my voice sound a variety of different ways. But I’ve never considered my “natural” sound especially unique.
  • Also interesting to know that my “money voice” may be the deeper, chestier, “superheroic” end of my range. To my ear, my lower range sounds manufactured. Apparently, it doesn’t sound that way to other people. The director: “It’s bassy, but not too bassy. A lot of nice texture. That’s where I’m going to want to hear you.” Gravitas is good.
  • Along that thread of different ears hearing different qualities: On my one narrative read, last night’s director thought I sounded as cool, laid-back, and conversational as the copy called for. I’m certain that other directors I’ve had would have found the same read too bright or dramatic. (Note to self: It’s selection, not rejection.)
  • My greatest vocal asset — warmth and brightness — is also one of my greatest challenges. I first learned that in narration class, and the lesson was reinforced last night. How often that happens in life: Our blessings and burdens coincide.
  • Appreciating my gifts, part one: I do an effective job of sustaining a character — not only in vocal placement, but also in attitude and style — throughout a read, even through changes in range and emotion. Consistency, thou art a jewel.
  • Appreciating my gifts, part two: I take direction well. That’s a reputation I’d like to maintain.
  • The less I think, the better my acting. I really need to trust my instincts. They’re good. I’ve been told that frequently since my very first VO class. It’s time to start believing it.

Little victories

February 23, 2009

This evening, I had my first private coaching session with a new director. I’d heard from others that this director had a reputation for being difficult to please (I’d heard another student comment that he had “worked her over” in a recent session). All trepidation aside, I was looking forward to working with this individual, who has an insider’s perspective on the casting process.

My concerns — and my initial nervousness — proved to be for naught.

The session was fast-paced, exciting, and yes, even fun. And never once did I feel “worked over.” It was as successful an hour as I’ve spent since I began my voiceover journey.

Since we hadn’t worked together before, the director took a few moments at the beginning of the session to talk about my background and interests. Then, we were off to the races.

We worked through six pieces of copy during the hour, under conditions very much like a live audition. The director handed me a script, gave me a minute or so to read through the copy and make a choice about my read, then we slated and recorded. After the read, he’d offer brief comment about things he liked or didn’t like, gave me direction for the next take, and we’d dive in again. A little more direction, and a final take. A couple of times, we didn’t even need a third take to get to the read he wanted.

My customary tendency toward excessive analysis and self-critique evaporated in this environment. I simply didn’t have time. There wasn’t an opportunity for writing an extended breakdown of the scene, a character bio, or answers to my five key questions. I had just long enough to make a decision about what the copy was saying and what approach I wanted to bring to it, and the tape started rolling. (I know, everything’s digital now — no actual tape was involved. You know what I mean.)

I loved this.

For one thing, it felt much more “real world” than sessions where I have far more leisure to address the copy. I know that in most actual audition scenarios, I’ll have just enough time to make a swift, solid choice, and go big with it. So, it was excellent practice under lifelike conditions.

For another, I work better when forced to go with my first impulse. After all, that approach has served me quite effectively on my Jeopardy! appearances over the years. It’s also what I do several times a week in a speaking situation — rely on my preparation and instincts, and not sweat every turn of phrase.

And, to be honest, it’s the way I manage my daily workouts. I open a copy document, find a piece of script to read, look it over in short order, then start recording. Most of the time, I’m more than pleased by the second or third take. And I haven’t burned out my brain pan conducting in-depth analysis. It’s not that I don’t analyze. It’s just that I don’t let myself over-think.

For me, that’s what works.

I felt encouraged by the work I did this evening. I found myself relaxed, confident, and energized throughout the hour, once the initial jangle of nerves passed. I liked the choices I made, the voices I found, and the characters I created on the spot — at least a couple of which were entirely brand new to me, and you’d better believe I’m going to record them before I hit the sack tonight, so that I can firmly ingrain them and pull them out again sometime.

I’ll write more tomorrow about some of the other lessons I learned in tonight’s session.

But for right now, I’d just like to bask in a little momentary victory.

Rainy days and Wednesdays

February 11, 2009

If I have to trek 40 miles through the rain, Sausalito isn’t a bad place to wind up.

Before my private coaching session this afternoon, I sat in my car atop the hill behind the Sausalito Public Library and looked out over Richardson Bay. The sky was glowering gray, the air clean and clear, and the view magnificent.

My narration work felt more comfortable today. (Blue merging into green helped.) Despite my recent struggles, my directors seem to believe that narration will develop into a good niche for me. Whether that’s true or not remains to be proven. At any rate, I’m enjoying it more now that I have something of a handle on working into the appropriate tone.

I had one narrative read that sounded reasonably tasty the first time through. By the time Sirenetta coached me through a couple of takes, I was actually pleased with the final result. Two factors helped: (1) it was copy from a medical documentary, so I called upon my dozen years in the healthcare industry to find the comfort zone; and (2) it was a cold open, allowing me to lean into more of a promo voice, which lands more centrally in my wheelhouse than straight narration.

I continue to find myself challenged in my commercial reads, balancing conversationality with my demon perfectionism. Once I get over my “terror of error,” as I like to refer to it, I’ll be in good shape. I didn’t feel I was fighting my copy quite so tenaciously today, so that’s a positive sign.

Still a road to travel.

“Less is more”

February 3, 2009

That’s the mantra that was drummed into my skull over the past four Thursday evenings in my Voicetrax narration workshop.

The problem, of course, is that I am by nature a “more is more” kind of guy.

I’m working on that, though, at least in terms of my narrative reads. I spent a couple of hours this morning focusing on documentary copy, and as I play back the recordings, I feel good about the work I did. I’m hearing more conversational flow, more consistency, and best of all, less internal struggling to maintain the appropriate pacing and inflection. My narrative acting is improving daily. And I’m happy about that.

Before class last Thursday, I had an excellent private lesson with Sirenetta. What I appreciate most about working with her is that she really challenges me, and I need that.

We worked through four scripts, the first two of which were industrial narrations — one in a more straightforward style, the other with a lighter tone that was closer to character work. I tried to apply everything I’d been learning in narration class, perhaps even going a bit too far in measuring my tone and pacing. Sirenetta had to keep pulling me back in a warmer, freer direction.

Man, this is hard work sometimes.

The third script was a commercial spot that I felt was right in my wheelhouse, with a character in whose skin I felt right at home — a neurotic dad. The description called for a Greg Kinnear type, so I tried to hear Little Miss Sunshine in my head as we worked the copy. I felt good about my read from the start, but it really opened up when Sirenetta suggested an alternative approach that brought more life to the piece.

That’s something I need to work on, because being literal-minded me, I too often go for the obvious interpretation. I have to practice thinking, “What would be a completely outside-the-box way of viewing this scenario?” And then, have the guts to go in that direction. That’s the added zing that will make my reads stand out from the masses.

The fourth script was a comic read that Sirenetta thought would be fun for me. In fact, it proved difficult for me to get my mind around. The description called for a character tone that I don’t feel that I do very well. Chuck, listening in the office, thought my take captured the essence, though.

I was feeling a bit frustrated at the end of the evening class. The center point of the evening was to rerecord the first piece of narration copy we had performed on the first night, and compare the quality of the two reads. In listening to my playbacks, I could hear how much progress I’d made in my narrative acting since week one, but I was also disappointed that I could still sense an undercurrent of lacking confidence and control. I muttered to myself, “I feel as if I understand this narration stuff less now than when I started.”

Clearly, narration is a genre that will continue to daunt me until I find my own circuitous pathway into it. I’m certain that time will come. When I spoke with Chuck on the phone Friday — I was booking my next private coaching session with Sirenetta — he assured me that I’m farther along the road than I think I am. That was comforting to hear.

“Less is more,” kid.

Call me sometime, when you have no class

January 23, 2009

At some point during last evening’s narration class, I figured out why voiceover classes are cool.

Not the voiceover part, of course. I already know why that’s cool.

The class part.

Anyone who knows me at all knows that I’m something of a lone wolf. Simply understood from a psychological perspective — I grew up as an adopted only child in an emotionally distant family that relocated annually. No wonder I’m insular.

No wonder, also, that voice work would appeal to this element in me. In the booth, it’s me, and that mic.

All of this being true, one might suppose that learning in a class setting wouldn’t resonate with me. I’m not outgoing, not gregarious, uneasy meeting new people, awkward at small talk.

But I do enjoy my voiceover classes. And now I understand why.

I feed off the energy that’s ignited by the enthusiasm and passion of my fellow actors.

I also benefit from the direction and guidance given to the other students. Often, I hear advice that I can apply to my own reads. I can hear and evaluate that advice with clinical detachment, because it isn’t aimed at me. Sometimes, that’s an easier way to learn. Not always, but sometimes.

Then too, there’s the spice of variety. In an audition situation, I’ll hear my own work and no one else’s. I have no idea what interpretive ideas, what creative spark, other actors will bring to the same copy. Therefore, I only get my own take on the work. But in a class, I can compare and contrast a dozen different reads.

Sometimes, I’ll think, “Man, I wish I’d thought to do that.” Or, “I wish I could replicate that tone, or that emotional quality, or that energy.” I pick up tools to play with in my personal practice time — tools that I’d never discover if I read the same copy myself a dozen different ways. Because someone else’s way might never have occurred to me. Next time, it will.

Sometimes, I learn what not to do. And that’s helpful too.

I learn almost as much from the other people in my classes as I do from the director.

And I think that’s cool.