- PROMOS 101
- PRO SEMINARS
"Voiceover" is the entertainment industry term for narration where the storyteller or reader is heard but not seen by the viewer.
Voiceover is the stock-in-trade of the TV promo, ad and theatrical trailer. The rather inelegant name is a shortening of the screenplay cue: "voice over vision"; which itself is commonly shrunk further to: "V.O."
The current job title is "voiceover artist" or "voiceover actor"; and in the best examples of the trade, the suffixes are entirely apt.
Voiceovers can range from production line, cookie-cutter reads by mellifluous baritones or sultry seductresses; to breathless retail hyperbole; all the way through to subtle and nuanced performances by professionals who are essentially actors as worthy of an Oscar as any Hollywood A-lister.
Some voiceover artists have just one sound they do very, very well.
Others are capable of providing seemingly endless voices and characters.
The range of voiceover artist personalities is equally as broad: from friendly and accommodating; to aloof and impartial; to jaded and stressed; to openly hostile and aggressive.
Add to this mix the range of possible personalities of the audio engineer, and you can start to imagine how fraught and volatile the voiceover recording session can be, if not handled in exactly the right way.
It's no wonder newbies find it one of the most intimidating aspects of the production process. After decades of doing it, I still find the occasional challenging situation arise that seems to come right out of nowhere.
What follows is a collection of tips from my experience, to help you make the voiceover session as productive, efficient, and pleasurable as possible.
In any situation, here is the general rule:
What you, the promo producer, should be striving for, is to develop a trusting and respectful relationship between all parties.
The key word is "develop". Trust and respect are not automatic or obligatory. It is your job as producer to initiate and nurture this relationship.
A dead-easy way to fix all manner of problems is: before the session, simply read your own script out loud, or get a colleague to do it for you.
This will both catch errors and enhance clarity.
The mistake many promo producers make is to write their scripts in their head; leaving it for the voiceover session to be the first time their script and their ideas are vocalised by another human being.
Here's two trust-killing things you don't want to happen:
1/. The voiceover artist reads your script and asks you what it means.
2/. You start dictating what you meant while they rewrite your script.
The best way to have the voiceover artist trust that you have a clear understanding of what you are trying to communicate is by actually having a clear understanding of what you are trying to communicate.
Voiceover scripts are (or should be) written to be read aloud; therefore the style of communication is (or should be) formatted in what's known as spoken word; which will (or should) more resemble the way people actually speak than the style of words you might read in, say, a textbook.
Don't leave it to the voiceover session to discover that your written words don't sound natural when read aloud.
• Make sure you have booked enough time to get the results you want.
• If you don't know, ask the facilities people what they think.
• Ask your colleagues.
• Show the audio engineer your script and get them to estimate.
• Have all your scripts printed and music selected.
• Make sure the video/audio materials are pre-loaded into the system.
If the pre-loading is part of the audio booking, make sure it's factored in to the booking time.
If this is the case, find out how long this will take and offset the arrival of the voiceover artist by the same amount of time. Otherwise you're just wasting their time; and your money.
• If new, introduce yourself to the audio engineer.
• Ask if they would like a copy of your script/s.
• Talk to them about the job before the voiceover artist arrives.
• Don't assume anybody already knows what you are doing
or what you would like to achieve.
• Ask that they play the pre-loaded promo bases as a quick tech-check.
When the voiceover artist arrives don't just expect them to simply "flick a switch" and start reading. Meet and greet. Ask them if they'd like water, tea or coffee. Allow them and their vocal cords some warm-up time.
You don't even have to go straight into the audio suite. Perhaps you have a comfortable area were you can first present your ideas and communicate the general approach of your scripts.
Sure, this step may be unnecessary or uncalled-for in fast-paced production line sessions where you've both worked together plenty of times and everybody knows the drill. But for each new voiceover artist you work with and/or for each new project you work on, this step is essential.
You don't have to pretend you're some kind of seasoned pro. Tell the audio engineer and the voiceover artist you are new to the game, and that you'd really appreciate their help in any way, shape or form.
Whatever you do, don't try and role-play the part of the ball-busting hotshot. Simply communicate to both the engineer and the voiceover artist what you are hoping to achieve.
When you make mistakes, admit to them. Claim them. Learn from them. Don't try to cover them up or to shift blame.
Before you start recording, ask the audio engineer if they would like a test read to set the audio levels. Ask the voiceover artist if they'd kindly oblige.
Most voiceover artists don't need guidance on how to properly pronounce words like February, Wednesday and Library.
Most voiceover artists know their pre-emptivelys from their peremptories... their prostrates from their prostates.
But... it's your job to have worked out in advance any one-off pronunciations; including foreign places, words and phrases.
And especially all these new tongue-twisting actor names like Saoirse Ronan, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Zach Galifianakis, to name a few.
Many, if not most voiceover artists have been doing it for years.
They have read it all and seen it all.
Now... there is nothing wrong with you being enthusiastic about a new idea you have, nothing at all. Just know that there's a good chance that the voiceover artist has seen/heard your "new idea" a gazillion times before.
Once you have given the voiceover artist a rundown of what you are hoping to achieve, then one of the best things you can say is this:
"why don't you read it first the way you think it should go."
There's a very good chance the result will exceed your expectations.
This is a tricky one. Because unless you have a longstanding professional relationship with the voice over artist you will just end up insulting them.
In your own head, you sound like Richard Burton.
But in real life, you sound like Peter Lorre... with asthma.
Firstly, ask the audio engineer to playback the read in full, so the voice over artist can hear the whole piece. You also may want to invite them to step out of the booth and hear their performance through the studio monitors.
Try to guide the voiceover with some subtle, modifying language.
You need to have a few select words (prepared in advance) that describe the style of read you're after. Avoid words that have no literal meaning like "edgy" or "orange". Instead stick to basic descriptions like faster, slower, happier, friendlier, louder, more authoritative, softer, more intimate etc etc.
If the voiceover artist is good at impersonations, name the person you hear in your head.
If, in the rare instance, you still don't have what you want, never criticise the voiceover artist. The failure will usually be in either your ability to communicate what you want and/or your choice of voiceover artist; neither of which is the voiceover artist's fault.
Sure, voiceover artists are often selected by the management; and you have to make the most of who you have. In any case, you have to be honest with everyone and confess you still don't have what you want.
Secondly, bring in a colleague, or (better still) your creative director to help you.
Lastly, if you still can't get what you think you're after in a few takes, then the best advice would be to courteously close the session and go back for a rethink.
Albeit rare, this situation will happen every now and again in everybody's career. It's not a time for recrimination or finger-pointing. Don't make a big deal of it. Just go with it and learn from it. The fact of the matter is: as a producer, everything is your responsibility... so, no buck-passing.
Of course, most of the time, you'll get what you want and be happy.
Good audio engineers will pick up 99% of technical problems and let you know, or may even direct the voice over artist to go again.
But when it comes to glitches in the performance, then that's your duty. You need to listen out for pops, clicks & rattles; any kind of mispronounced or wrongly emphasised words.
In any case, you should only ever ask for one "safety read".
Recording more than two versions of the same read is just ridiculous.
It is certainly kosher to have a take that you're happy with; and then ask to experiment with different styles of reads, if time and patience exists. But you had better still have some firm ideas of what direction you want those alternative takes to go... and why you need them.
In production-line voiceover recording sessions, asking the audio engineer to playback the whole recording may be somewhat of an indulgence.
But again, if time and patience allows, a final listen to recording can be a wise decision... especially if you are working to a tight deadline, or on a super-high priority project. (Once a voiceover artist is out the door, it's not always easy to get them back again.)
One really great recording or playback trick is to put your script down, turn away from the TV monitor, and... just... listen. You'd be amazed at the things that you pick up aurally when you shut down your visual channels and concentrate on the sound.
1/. Voice over artists can charge by the version; and/or by the hour.
As a producer, it's your job to monitor all that.
2/. If your script is for a 30 second spot,
it's your job to ensure the performance is read to length. Your job.
Buy a stopwatch. Or a stopwatch app.
Thank all parties for their input at the session.
And make sure you thank them at the completion of the project; maybe even give them a chance to see/hear the final mixed result.
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If you're a working promo producer or voiceover artist, don't bogart that point, man. Please feel free to share your tips and tricks with the world here by leaving your words of wisdom in the [moderated] comments box.