frequently asked questions about working as a voice actor
So, think you want to try a career in voice talent? Well, hold the phone there, Fluffy. This ain't as easy as all those ads on the internet make it look. And, yes, you will have to wear pants.
Successful performers in this field come primarily from two places: acting and broadcasting. It's a lot easier for actors to make the transition than it is for broadcasters, however. Why? Because spoken word is not primarily about having a good voice. It's just acting, off-camera.
Put another way, voiceover is storytelling with a point of view. It has much more to do with attitude and emotion than voice quality.
Top voiceover performers can be found all over the pitch spectrum, and are not necessarily just those with deep or powerful voices. People from a broadcast background find that hard to grok (with a few notable exceptions).
IN A WORLD: Over the years, since I first posted this in 1996, two separate and distinct "worlds" of voice over performers have evolved, with very little, overlap. The "first world" is that of national media, in which performers are members of SAG-AFTRA, are represented by talent agents and/or managers, and located, almost without exception, in either Los Angeles or New York.
Okay, there are exceptions; they just probably don't include you. If you have already established yourself in Hollywood, then move to Kansas, that's one thing. But to try to carve out your place in the world of national media from Kansas? Probably not. Yes, ISDN and digital IP connection makes it possible to work from anywhere, but to get a seat at the big boy table, you really need to be here. Still. I'm sorry, but that is just the truth. So, LA, NYC, SAG-AFTRA, Agents; this is the world I know.
watch"Unseen" a short film about voice actors, including Beau Weaver
This is not a glamour field; this picture was done in Photoshop.
However since this article was first posted, a "second world" has emerged; it's a planet of independent voice over performers, mostly non-union, located all over the world, sometimes represented by talent agents, sometimes not, but who work primarily with clients directly through their own websites and P2P sites. This is a completely seperate, but nonetheless legitimate, market and it is growing fast.
The first world is where most of the big time stuff lives, but these day, not exclusively. There are some big advantages to working in the first world. SAG-AFTRA members get benefits like health care and retirement, and residuals. And, they have recourse if the client "forgets to pay," with the clout of both the union and their agency's legal department to back them up. Perhaps most importantly, first world performers are generally paid what the work is actually worth.
In the second world, the bar to entry is much lower and location is not an issue. But the huge downside of working on your own comes from the way the pay-to-play casting websites have pitted the talent against one another, and not in a good way. In this system, you compete not to turn in the best performance as much as to turn in the lowest price quote, in an insane race to the bottom. Very bad for all of us. Most talent types have a hard time negotiating on thier own behalf. It is said that if you are your own agent, you have a fool for a client. Actually, I think it was me who just said that. But, If you can do it, my hat is off to you.
When I first wrote this post, the share of the voice work pie was overwhelmingly cut in the favor of the first world, with only crumbs going to the independents. It may actually be more like fifty-fifty today. That's just a guess, but it's safe to say that the independent world has grown exponentially, while in the first world, the only piece of the pie that is growing is the celebrity voice over slice. Bummer. Do you see me trying to star in feature films? Of course not! Fair is fair, famous people: stay in the movies! But I digress.
RIGHT NOW MEANS: RIGHT NOW: A lot of people are drawn to this work because they imagine it gives them a lot of flexibility in terms of when they work. I have not found this to be the case. Whichever world you work in, availability on very short notice is key. The client's post production schedule often determines who does the job, not your convenience. Even though a producer may audition hundreds, if his first choice is unavailable at the time he needs to record, he will go with his second choice. Or his fifth. Remember, the talent pool is very, very deep.
THE COMPETITION: There may be as many as 10,000 people in Hollywood who are making a living as professional voice talent. The Voicecaster, one of the oldest VO casting houses in LA, tells me they keep nearly 6,000 voice demos on file. These are all working pros with agents, not beginners. Of that number, only about 600 actually work much, and of those who do work, there are about 60 individuals who seem to book the lion's share of the work. Add to these numbers the teeming hordes of commercial hungry celebrities and the independents, and, well...you get the idea.
It used to be an LA cliche that every waiter and parking lot attendant had a screenplay in his back pocket that he would try to palm off on you if he thought you were in 'the industry'. Now he slips you his voice demo. You think I'm kidding. Nope.
A recent google search for "voice over artist" returned 316 million results! In other words, you don't quit the day job until the volume of your VO bookings requires all your working hours!
Actually seen on the street near Warner Bros.
REQUIREMENTS: To compete in either of these voice over worlds, you will need:
1) A killer demo reel
2) Representation by one of the top agents
3) The ability to audition really well
4) A home studio
5) Entrepreneurial DNA
When I first wrote this article, 4 and 5 were optional, necessary primarily for the indpendents, but now, almost all voice actors work from home studios, and must have enough entrepreneurial savvy to build and maintain a small business. Even in LA and NYC, you can no longer rely on your agent to do all of it for you. And, I suppose number two does not apply so much to the second world folks.
And yes, all the top people audition. Even George Freakin' Clooney! Today, even the smallest projects go out to the talent agencies for casting. So, every time you step in front of the microphone, you are reading directly against hundreds of the very best voiceover talent in the business. To say it is a very competitive field is a huge understatement.
READING: Still interested? Okay: For beginners, I recommend you read James Alburger's The Art of Voice Acting. Not just because I wrote the forward. But hey. It provides a great overview of how both first and second worlds of the business work today. A classic text by now is: Word of Mouth, by Susan Blu and Molly Ann Mullin. This is one of the best introductions to the field I have seen, if maybe a little bit dated now. (Also, there is a rare old picture in it, of me with short hair!) And, for newcomers and veterans alike, a must read is: V O: Tales and Techniques of a Voice-Over Actor by Harlan Hogan, one of the heavy hitters out of Chicago. It's a delightfully well written collection of stories from the trenches, told in a way that will entertain as well as educate. Round out the book list with Secrets of Voice-Over Success: Top Voice-Over Actors Reveal How They Did It, by the fabulous Joan Baker. There are a lot of other VO books out there, but many are not much more than 'listen to me discuss how awesome I am' vanity titles. Just saying.
COACHING: If you are a Los Angeles local, there are many fine workshops, classes, and coaches for voice actors, a list of which can be found in the very excellent periodical: The Voice Over Resource Guide. The VORG, published quarterly, includes the most up to date listings of West Coast agents, producers, studios, unions, rates, demo producers, duplicators, and just about every other resource a voiceover pro or beginner might need. The guide is published by Dave Sebastian Williams, the man who introduced me to voiceover. He is the curator of the website: EverythingVO.com. Call Dave & Dave: 818-508-7578. If there is a one-stop shop for voice actors, this is it.
A caveat about coaching: there may be more coaches than voice actors out there now! And, some are, er, eh, better than others. Marice Tobias, Nancy Wolfson and David Lyerly are top notch. But, do your homework. A lot of voice actors have been advised to start blogs to drive up their talent website's search engine rankings, and so, have hung out a coaching shingle. This could be the blind leading the blind. Oh, and another thing: don't pay someone to produce a demo for you until a reputable coach says you are ready. Especially if you come from broadcasting, you will think you are ready right away. You will be wrong.
AGENTS: There are about two dozen talent agencies on the West Coast that have voiceover departments. Unfortunately, only about five of these agencies are really in the game in a meaningful way. The top talent agencies that represent major voiceover performers on the West Coast are: Atlas Talent, DPN (formerly ICM Voiceover), Cunningham Escott, Slevin, Doherty (CESD) , Sutton, Barth & Vennari (SBV), TGMD, Solid Talent, Sandy Schnarr (now AVO), VOX and William Morris Endeavor.
In New York, top shops include: Atlas, Buchwald, Access, Paradigm and CESD. There are regional talent agencies who appear to have a roster of voice talent, but they generally specialize in print and on-camera actors, and voice over is something they minor in (There are a couple of exceptions). All of the above generally accept tapes only on the recommendation of their client advertising agency producers or casting directors. Sending unsolicited demos is not recommended.
What? So how in the hell do they expect you to get heard if they will not even listen to you? Ahh, grasshoppah, that is the zen koan you must solve for yourself. You will. Wax on, wax off, etc.
ON THE BRIGHT SIDE: All this talk about how very competitive this field can be is not meant to discourage you, but rather to inform you about the considerable challenges that face the newcomer. Knowing where the roadblocks are will help you plan another route around them. It's not easy, but not impossible. New voices break through every year.
I have had lots of help along the way, but my most valuable tools, perhaps even more than natural talent, have been persistence and consistent hard work. I did the work required to get myself prepared, then I simply refused to go away. Eventually, the industry gave up and let me come in to play, and for this, I will be forever grateful. If you love this, don't let anything stop you. Good luck!
And remember: It's really not about having a good voice.
Beau Weaver | Ojai, California
Did we mention the "no glamour" part?