A beginner's guide to Voiceovers in NYC

When I first moved to Manhattan, acting with a capital A was all I wanted to involve myself in. Sure, I needed a survival job, but beyond that I was going to immerse myself in theatre, scene classes and as many screen auditions as I could lay my hot little hands on.

Fair reader, you probably would not have been so na├»ve and boy, did I miss a trick during that first year. Because as it turns out, one of the best ways to engage in the acting and creative industries in NYC is through the world of Commercials and Voiceover. 

Thanks to the large number of advertising agencies and global headquarters of multinational companies based in New York, as well as the wealth of recording studios and Television & Radio stations located here, the city is arguable the VO capital of the country, quite possibly the world. Though commercials comprise only about 5% of the voice over work in the industry, New York offers a disproportionate share, and every day there is also more work on offer for audiobooks, narration and animation/ video games.  Clients from all around the U.S. and the world hold casting calls here, and there's a huge amount of both union and non-union work available.

I might have expected my odds at being pulled in for a VO with a major British oil company for ads running in the UK to be higher if I still lived in London, but nope - this only happened because I'm now based here, where the advertising agency and client also is. I am not alone - I've heard the same happen to native Spanish, German and French actors and VO artists living in the city. 

And wouldn’t you know it? Agents are clambering to represent actors who can readily be submitted for Voiceovers thanks to their ability to naturally embody 'real people.' Indeed much of an agent's bread & butter income can come from the VO jobs.

While this might not be the easiest industry to break into, it can offer enormous opportunities as well as a significant source of income.

Let’s look at how and where to get started:

Do I have a voice which can book jobs? The answer is almost certainly yes. Simply because you have a unique voice, and if you're an actor who understands storytelling and forming a natural, authentic connection, you will be in demand! Sure there are people who time and again get told 'You have a great voice, you should do Voiceovers' but that alone only doesn't cut it anymore - what advertisers are increasingly looking for are 'real actors' with 'natural' voices which ‘don’t sound commercial’ or 'sales-y'. These are actual quotes from many of the breakdowns I see. So the key instead is to embrace all the qualities that make your voice uniquely yours and learn how to flex and tailor it to your advantage. Versatility is not where it's at anymore - in days of yore VO artists were  expected to run the gamut of accents and vocal range, but now because every nationality and age range can easily be sourced, particularly in a city like New York, you are far more likely to book a VO job for being YOU. Learn to enjoy and play with the given voice you have!

Get into class. I recommend this for all the reasons actors should take any class - an opportunity to practice material, be that commercial copy, radio scripts, video game characters, etc., and learn from a range of other talents and experience. Is your voice naturally husky, raspy, high pitched, directive, energetic or seductive? All these are great things to discover and as you hit a groove with your own voice, you'll have fun with exploring your natural range. The majority of classes are also taught by VO casting directors and assistants who are constantly working on projects and who are actively seeking to bring in new talent, regardless of experience level. To begin, I'd recommend checking out classes run by Shut Up and Talk, Edge Studio as well as CDs John McKinney at Pomann Sound and Andy Roth who runs workshops all around the city. Added bonus: many classes end with some kind of showcase to agents who are also actively looking to represent new talent.  

A voice suite at Hyperbolic Studios, from which SUAT run their classes

Do I really need an agent? Yes and no - and it's largely dependent on the type of work you're looking to do. If you're just getting started there are plenty of ways to book work without an agent - particularly non union work - often featured on Backstage, Casting Networks and Actors Access, and by uploading examples of your work directly to online submission sites like https://www.ahab.us. 
You can gain experience and professional recordings from doing industrials, low budget animation and narration work by submitting directly to companies who are also often choosing to bypass traditional casting director or Agency models and saving on those fees. The downside may be that you're left with the hassle of agreeing your own contract and rates. 

If you're keen on doing Union work (or indeed already bound to those ties) then working with an agency may be beneficial as they're far more likely to have access to those higher earning gigs. All the usual rules apply: submitting smartly, forging introductions through trusted industry colleagues and meeting agents at regular showcase opportunities. And remember to keep cultivating your relationships with Casting directors.  As with screen and theatre jobs, having an agent can get you that bit closer to a submission but CDs also need to know who you are in order to add you to their audition list. Consider freelancing with a number of agents to begin with, as each will have a slightly different mix of projects they can offer you.

Listen and Learn The best way to find out what's going on in the world of voiceover and who is booking is literally to listen to all the ways the recorded voice is used in everyday life, and investigate why a voice was chosen to match that specific product or service. Once you start listening out for them you'll be surprised at how much VO there is all around - not just in traditional commercials, radio promos and animation, but things like museum audio tours, subway announcements, directions for products in a pop-up store, workout videos, YouTube how-tos, etc. etc. YouTube is also a brilliant way to watch all kinds of spots, and if you're keen on commercials specifically then www.ispot.tv is a fantastic resource for categorized and archived footage. The point to all this, as you attend classes and start learning about what your voice can do, is to have fun with all kinds of material and discover what VO work you're most passionate about.

Studio Auditions When you're invited to a VO casting you'll often be called in the next or same day, so stay nimble and relaxed as much as possible. You may be meeting a casting director at a place like Endeavor Studios downtown or Hyperbolic Studios in midtown who regularly hold VO castings, or you may be popping into your agency's office to lay down a recording with their professional set up. Either way it's unlikely that you'll receive the copy or script ahead of time, so try and get there a bit early, take the copy away with you for the time you need to get comfortable with the script and your choices, and only then come back to sign your name in to the log.   

Submitting MP3s from home - do I need a home studio? More and more frequently you'll be requested to submit an MP3 recording for an audition, especially for non-union work, and often it can be required within hours. Don't let this intimidate you - you don’t need much to get started and many working VO artists I know regular record their auditions on the fly using - what else? - their smart phone. A key consideration however is how you make the recording - you want as much sound- proofing as possible to drown out ambient noise and to highlight the nuances in your voice. One of my most successful VO colleagues began her career by recording MP3s under a suspended fort of towels and pillows! After her first few bookings she added a fancy mike and began recording in her miniscule Manhattan closet... certainly I'd suggest starting lightly and adding as you grow your business.

That's one way to do it!

If you do want to start adding a few bells and whistles, home set-ups don’t need to break the bank.  Simple microphones to try are the Audio Technica 2020 Plus - a simple USB mic that you can plug straight into a computer without an extra interface - and the Apogee Professional Quality mic. 
For software I still swear by Audacity which costs nada and does everything you need for a home MP3 recording. In time you may wish to add a foldable, portable sound absorbing, vocal recording panel for confident sound-proofing.

What about a Voice reel? Well, yes – it helps to start collecting professionally-recorded material as soon as you have it. It can become your calling card to attract a quality agent, who in turn may use your reel to start submitting for projects without requiring an audition. It's very possible to book things like Demos, Industrials and Audiobooks from the strength of a Voiceover reel alone. So begin collecting your work as soon as you have it, and if you're not keen to wait there are places who will record professionally-sounding reels for you. Do your research and connect with other VO actors who have used Demo Reel services, listen to the work and research which reels sound authentic and have attracted more work as a result.

Engage with passion - and patience! It can feel disheartening to break into this industry as it's often seen as somewhat of a closed shop - particularly on the better-paid, Union side of things. Don't get discouraged. After 18 months of working with a top VO agent and regular submitting for British and German VOs with no gig to show for it, I nervously put a call in about 'what else I should be doing to book work?' Cue empathetic understanding that "This is a real numbers game - for everyone" and it's all about staying in it to win it. Reminding myself of this every time I submitted was empowering - it made it easier to detach from any specific outcome and I treated myself as a working professional in - and in turn the jobs did start to come. So keep doing and practicing the things that bring you joy, connect with other working artists and educate yourself about the business as you navigate it. Don't feel disheartened if it all takes longer than you anticipated - your quality and consistency will pay off. Keep finding the joy and energy within each audition and submission, and then let go of the outcome.

Watch "In A World.."  For some well-deserved time out from all the work, I highly recommend this gem - a quirky and funny look into the Voiceover business from writer/director Lake Bell. VO gigs don't get more cut throat than this!

"Speak up and Let Your Voice be Heard"

I'm always curious to know what your experience has been in navigating the world of Voiceovers - in NY and around the globe. I invite you to drop me some comments and share with the AGG community any additional tips and feedback you have! 
                                                                                                       Warmest, x EB

Accents & The Actor

by Michela Carattini

As a multi-local and global actor, I am asked to work ‘in accent’ more often than not, and I consider it an essential part of my actor’s toolkit. Growing up in Germany with a Panamanian-American father and an Australian mother, as well as graduating from a language- specialist high school, drama school and university has given me a fantastic ear, but the methods I’ve learned below are what really make the accent. For the record, most consider my natural accent to be ‘Standard American’-- though, there are hints of Sydney and New York which cannot be denied. I have worked professionally in the following accents and languages: English, Gaelic, Australian, “Shakespearean” Australian, Standard American, New York, Southern U.S., Sardinian, Italian, French, Czech, German and Latin-American Spanish.

How do you do another accent well?
  • Be Specific. For the film 54 Days, I was told I needed to do an “English” accent. There are, of course, hundreds of versions of an English accent, each authentic in their own right. I couldn’t start work on the accent until I knew exactly what I was aiming for. After extensive character work, I discovered my character was from London-- more specifically, from the Surrey-Hampshire border. Educated, but not upper class, and influenced by having lived for many years in Australia as an adult. Gender, class, and time period have a heavy influence on accent, so don’t ignore these. For foreign language accents, you must even be specific about where (from whom) they learned English. Helen Mirren tells a great story about how she produced a perfect Russian accent, but the director didn’t feel it was quite right. It wasn’t until she discovered the Russian accent she was using was that of a Russian in England rather than America that she was able to give the director (and the American audience) what they felt was an authentic Russian accent. Believe it or not, being this specific makes it easier to learn an accent, and to make it yours. (More on that later).
  • Listen. Over and over, day after day. Find someone with an authentic version of that accent. For the example above, I settled on Billy Pipher in Secrets of a London Call Girl and later worked in touches of Australian. For other projects, I have posted on Facebook cultural community groups, rung foreign consulates and even restaurants to ask if someone was willing to chat with me and/or be recorded saying my lines in return for free lunch. I like to get a version where they are ‘acting’ it, so I get an idea of cultural communication of emotion, but also, a flat version so I can make it mine. IDEA (The International Dialects of English Archive) is also a great resource if you’re speaking in English, and You Tube has a vast array of accent tags these days. For foreign accents, don’t forget to listen to the character’s mother tongue language as well, as you will usually be using elements of melody and rhythm from that language. If you can afford it, a good dialect coach, their exercises and their ear are worth their weight in gold. I do know actors who swear by the international phonetic alphabet, however this is not a method I tend to use.
  • Repeat. Work separately on the different components of the accent, such as: pronunciation, vowels, melody, resonance, rhythm & emphasis. Speak in the mother-tongue language of the accent if you can, because this sets your mouth, jaw, resonance, etc in the correct place for the accent as well. Don’t get upset if you don’t get it straight away. This takes work people!
  • Practice until it becomes yours. Get out there in the world and do it. Get it wrong, laugh at yourself, and start to own the accent, melding it with your own vocal and personality idiosyncrasies and trying out new ones that might suit your character. Did you know accents and cultures change facial expressions and body language too? Sometimes an accent can breathe the entire life of a character into me, making it that much easier to become them in every way (‘Carmen’ in Americans in Oz was like this for me). Some actors live in accent from beginning of project to end. This is not for me for a few reasons: it’s exhausting, I don’t want to lose my original accent, and I want to differentiate between me and the character while living other parts of my life. One of my favourite dialect coaches recommended to me to set aside a few hours each day where I remain in accent no matter what I’m doing, and then use my own the rest of the day. This has now become my standard way of working.
  • On the day. I like to do a vocal warm up no matter what I’m working on, as voice is so important, but if I’m working in accent, I warm up in accent. I repeat the vowels in accent. And usually, I walk on set in accent. At some point, let go of thinking about it. You should be able to wear it like a comfortable shoe by now, and if you believe it, others will too. Finally, I must agree with Helen Mirren when she says, “A good performance in a bad accent is better than a bad performance in a great accent.” Every time.

What to do when you’re not happy with the job you did?

  • Remember that you’re not the best judge of your work. Have you ever heard your voice played back on a recorder or video and thought-- is that really what I sound like? We can’t hear ourselves as others do, and that’s important to know. Furthermore, accents are dynamic and individual, not the static stereotypes we would have ourselves believe-- the layers in your accent may have given your character more depth as well.
  • People who know you are not the best judge of your work. Once you hear someone’s accent and vocal quality, that becomes an essential part of who they are in your mind. It is extremely difficult for people to let go of that once it has formed. They may say they “can tell” your accent isn’t real, but really they are working off previous knowledge. When people who’ve never met you believe your accent, you’re doing it well.
  • Go watch Kevin Costner in Robin Hood. It will make you feel better, because you weren’t as bad as that (sorry Kevin), and probably not on that grand a scale either.
  • Learn what you can for next time. If there are specific things you know you would like to change for next time-- put those into practice-- and why not now? If there’s an accent you tend to get work in a lot, why not start before your next job? Time is always scarce, so get ahead of the game whenever you can. Continue to evolve, learn from your mistakes, and get better-- that’s the point.
  • Let it go. Your job as an actor was to help tell a story, not to mimic perfect accents. I always think of Martin Short in Father of the Bride when I think about this-- his accent for ‘Franck’ was far from a perfect mimic-- it was an artistic impression, a satire even-- perfect for the character, story and genre, and I love it so much more because of it. Audiences are usually caught up in story and not accent, and most will be forgiving. But most importantly, if you didn’t live up to your own standards, forgive yourself. You did your best, and you will keep getting better.

Guest Blogger Ashley Tabatabai: It's A Mindset Game

First of all, a big thanks to Scott and the team for inviting me to do a guest blog this month. I was thinking about what topic to write about and kept coming back to one thing; mindset! That's what everything is underpinned by and it applies to whatever you do in life, especially as actors. We know that rejections and "no's" come with the territory. We have to be able to handle those moments ; our belief systems and attitude are everything. 
The reality is that humans are all really good at overcomplicating things. Every one of us can overthink ourselves into a frenzy. And it's usually based on someone else's story. Things are a lot simpler than we allow them to be. We're just pulled in millions of different directions by other people's thoughts and opinions; usually our parents, close friends or the "ideas" imprinted on us by society. 

The bottom line is that none of that stuff matters. The last thing anyone wants is to look back with regret, so why the hell do we hold back based on what other people may think? Normally because somewhere along the line we allowed ourselves to value someone else's opinion more than our own. Life's too short for that. Why do we care so much about the casting directors opinion or what the agent or manager might think? What's the pressure in having to have booked a certain number of jobs by a certain time? Yes, I appreciate that there is a system we're playing within. But, now more than ever, the system is not the only game in town. Look at all walks of life, business models have come into play disrupting the traditional way; Deliveroo, Uber, AirBnB. As actors we can work within the system (auditions, bookings, networking etc etc) AND outside of it. Now is the single most opportune time for actors ever! Because we can create our own content and we have access to a media distribution device at will. Youtube, Vimeo, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix.......these are the new TV networks, the golden age of radio is reincarnated with podcasts; Instagram and Snapchat are audience building tools (you get to be your own TMZ). And yet, I still go back to my original point..........we have to focus on getting mindset right first.

I'm trying not to be all douchey and banging on the "ra ra positivity" drum, but that stuff is real. Before focusing on which agent to approach or the headshots we should get, I think there should be a real focus on self-awareness. Because that, combined with patience will allow for a smoother enjoyment of the process , which will have highs and lows!

I believe that we should all start by defining why we want to act. Yes, I'm going all Simon Sinek on you! But that stuff is legit and has been around in different ways before he did a great job of making it more mainstream. It fascinates me as to why people spend so much time on creating mission and vision statements for companies but not themselves. We'll slave over a film logline and yet turn away from that level of self introspection. 

If people only take one thing away from this piece, then I hope it's that they allow themselves to truly explore and define their why and then consciously live from that place. And I want to add something to that, because I've seen a lot of actors describe why they want to act. 90% of the time it's always got something to do with them; how it makes them feel, what they get out of it, what it lets them explore. That stuff is great and massively important. However, I urge you to go deeper. Define a why that is beyond just yourself. What do you want your acting to contribute to others. That's the deal and it's counterintuitive. But it's where the power is at.
From there your focus can be so much clearer. When you approach agents or casting people you come from a place of knowing what you bring to the table. And, more importantly, if they or the project doesn't resonate with that then you can save your time and focus on what does. Beyond that, I think we should all just do more. As in, make more of our own work. Invest the time and just go for it. When you define your why you can be much more clear on the type of stories you'd like to tell, the people you'd like to resonate with.........you "live on brand"; which really just means you act authentically. It's in every one of us to do that. And you don't need to wait for the system to give you permission.

I'm sure some may read this and think that, yes it makes sense............but my situation is different because *insert reason here* . I get it and I empathise, because we all have stuff in our lives to handle. We all have had things happen that can stop us in our tracks and we can find reasons not to do something. However, what's the alternative? Because when it comes down to it, it's your life and things are very clear, either do what you want or don't.  Both options are fine, just be aware of the path each one leads down. You can't make a short film of your own because you have no crew or cast? What about the people in your acting class or the crew you worked with on that student film? No film credits to your name, find film students on Instagram or Twitter whose stuff you like and DM them to see if they'd be open to collaborating. You don't have the money to make a piece? Try crowdfunding, see if a 0% interest credit card will help out, hell.....sell stuff you don't use on ebay or Facebook Marketplace. We have so many more option available to us then we may think. Just go for it............and give yourself the luxury of allowing your opinion of you to be the one that matters the most! Now..........in the words of the 1980's WWF legend Hulk Hogan:

Please do reach out on any of the social links below if you want to share any of your thoughts on what I've written.

Ashley Tabatabai
Ashley Tabatabai is an award winning International actor and filmmaker from a culturally diverse background. After growing up in Spain and then attending University in the UK, Ashley's focus gravitated towards an acting career. He has worked with numerous leading acting coaches in LA and Europe, namely Backstage winner Anthony Meindl. At whose studio he continues to study. Ashley has appeared in various independent films, including Allies (eOne Entertainment), featuring alongside Julian Ovenden. His degree in Management has provided an opportunity to add value as a producer as well, a role that he undertook on the Feature Film "Digital You", in addition to starring as "Charlie". He went on to work on "Color Me Grey", where he once again was involved in both capacities, helping to produce the project and performing as the complex and enigmatic "Johnny". He produced, wrote and starred in the award winning short film Falsified, which was his first project under his production company Taba Productions. The film premiered at the prestigious Los Angeles International Short Film Festival in August 2017. Ashley is represented by leading talent agency Mondi Associates.

Love and the Actor

by Katharina Sporrer

“Don’t you get jealous?,” is often the first question people ask my boyfriend, when he says that I am an actor. And the answer is yes, he does. There is something strange about the blurred lines of intimacy that our job brings with it and yet, it is just that - a job. 

When I first started out, a more experienced colleague gave me an important piece of advice: if you really fancy an actor you’re working with, wait until the production is over. At first I thought she meant that mixing work and love (or sex..) is not a great idea but it’s more complex than that.  On my first professional gig, I fell hard for my co-star. We played a romantic couple, with intense, passionate scenes and spent every day together - on and off set. We were both in (failing) relationships and when he needed a room after his break up, after our work was done, I offered him one at my house. I was sure we were going to end up together. Instead, without the lines written by a brilliant writer, we had nothing of great depth to say to each other. All our chemistry was gone - it had only existed inside the bubble of our work.

The other fact is that a romantic scene, or even a sex scene for that matter, isn’t necessarily as seductive as one thinks. There are at least a dozen people around watching your every move, you’re more often than not cold, and it is very, very rare that you are put together with someone who you’d really like to kiss or date. Sometimes it does happen and then yes, it is great (I am still human), but still not like in the real world.

The more complicated part of dating an actor is the lack of consistency. Every day is different. I hate Friday afternoons for example because I know until Monday morning nothing can happen - no phone call might change my (professional) life. As much as I love to travel it is impossible to plan far ahead for me. I enjoy making the plan, but an uncountable amount of times I had to change my flight, cancel a trip etc. -- and the thing is I do it happily. Imagine planning an amazing trip with your loved one and the moment that work comes up, they gladly cancel it. And not only for the lead in a Steven Spielberg film (I’d miss my best friend’s wedding), but even just to say two lines playing the waitress. So, I am flexible and incredibly inflexible at once. Spontaneity is a quality you must possess as an actor and as a person dating an actor.

I also have to admit I have never actually dated anyone who wasn’t at least somewhat in the industry. My best friends are doctors and teachers but I don’t happen to have crossed over romantically. I don’t know why. 

One can get caught up in the inconstancy that the job brings, the ever changing people and environments, but the truth is, that film sets are like very close-knit families that immediately fall apart after the shoot is over and with rare exceptions these people will never become part of your real life. So, always stay in touch with the people who love you in your old pyjamas.

And actors dating actors? Well, for me it was horrible. It was like we were trying to outperform each other. One ex (actor) of mine constantly wanted to turn me into his audience and he was only happy when it was him “advising” me but as soon as I got any job that he would have liked, he got bitter. While I do know of other actor couples who are more benevolent towards each other, I would still never advise an actor to date another actor. Directors, Writers, Editors and Composers are a much better fit ;)

Don’t shit where you eat is a good motto to date by. For Actors and Lawyers.

De-Stress! Go on a vacation!

Hello Friends,

I spent over a week on vacation in Cartagena, Colombia this month

 I made new friends, ate at the same restaurants Anthony Bourdain raved about, explored new sites, jumped into a bottomless mud volcano and fell in love all over again with myself and with my life.

It was a big deal to get away from the hustle of LA LA LAND. 

The day before my flight to Bogota, Colombia, I was on avail for a commercial and promised my new commercial agents, if I booked it, I would cancel my trip. 

Originally at the casting and callback, the dates did not interfere with my trip.  As much as I wanted to book that $50,000 commercial so I could travel even more, I am glad I didn't because I would have had to cancel my July Colombia vacation.   And what would that have meant, I am putting my personal life aside again and again for my career.  I love traveling.  It truly makes my soul sing. And what I have learned since returning back to LA LA LAND is, I am a better actor and an even better person, because of all the places I have been, people I connected with and experiences I have had. 

Since returning back from Colombia, my energy is more in the flow.  Casting opportunities are falling in my lap and I just know I will be on avail again real soon for another spot and book it this time.  More importantly, I am enjoying life even more and embracing every step of this journey and ready for my next vacation.

New Mexico and Buenos Aires, Argentina is next on the list...for this 2018!

As I slip back into "work mode," I'm noticing the reappearance of stress already.  So my advice to all of you, (myself included), wherever you are in the world, wherever you are in your career, is to TRAVEL.  Get out there and visit those friends you haven't seen in years!  Go to that country you always wanted to travel to and try new foods, meet new people.  It will make you a more interesting actor, and ultimately an even better person!

Bottom line, Do what brings you joy!  Joy leads to more Joy!

Much love!
Christina DeRosa