Originality in Voiceover?

Back when I was a full-time CG animator, I often saw people creating their own private projects. For folks looking to break into the field, it was often recommended that they do original work on their own time as a way of building their portfolio and honing their skills.

In the acting field, I see the same advice: create your own work. While many actors sit and wait for audition opportunities to drop in their lap, many others are out there developing their own projects: skits, web series, short films, even feature-length films.

I just watched a great series of YouTube videos by an established illustrator who offered the same tips to up-and-coming folks in that field. He specifically mentioned how so many other creative fields encourage original work, while illustrators have (historically) felt like they have to be hired by someone in order to do anything.

What about voiceover?

Maybe I’ve totally overlooked something, but all that I’ve ever seen in the voiceover field is a collection of people looking to get hired by others.  We look for agents to help us get hired. We sign up for services that are supposed to get us in front of potential clients. We learn how to market ourselves to potential clients, hoping that they will hire us. In short, we’ve put much of our power into the hands of others.  You might say that a lot of us behave like “vocal illustrators.”  That’s good when we’re using our voices to illustrate a client’s message, but maybe not so good if we feel that our only job is to find jobs (and sadly, I think that I’ve heard that specific directive more than once).

If someone doesn’t hire us, what do we do?

Most of the “things to do when the work’s not coming in” recommendations that I’ve read include things like:

  • Update your web site
  • Update your demos
  • Update your studio
  • Make some cold calls
  • Work on email/newsletter marketing
  • Polish your skills by practicing
  • Attend a workshop/seminar/class
  • Get private coaching

In short, it’s all focused on either trying to find new clients, or preparing ourselves for the time when we have a new client.

Again, I could be completely overlooking something here, but I can’t recall the last time that I heard anyone in the voiceover field say, “Create your own work.”  Why is that?  Is the voiceover industry really that different from other creative fields?  Are there really no opportunities for original voice-driven projects?

Perhaps a better question is this: When was the last time that you tackled a voice project out of pure passion, simply because it was calling to you?  I’m not talking about finding an awesome book that you would just love to narrate, and working out an amazing deal with the publisher.  I’m talking about something really personal, where there was no other party giving you permission (or the promise of a paycheck) to do it.  It could have been big or small, a solo project or a collaborative effort with others, but whatever it was spoke to you so deeply that you just couldn’t stop yourself from diving into it.

For me, it was about a month ago.  I had this silly brainstorm of a parody idea that tickled my fancy and just wouldn’t go away.  It wasn’t easy to produce, but I had a lot of fun, got to work with a fellow voice talent here in Dallas (albeit remotely), and learned some things about audio production along the way.  I also love to sing, and have a four-part a cappella song concept that I let sit on the back burner of my brain for over ten years before I buckled down and started working on it earlier this year.  Progress has been slow, but I’m thrilled to hear it actually coming together.  And that’s just the beginning.  Because ideas like those come to me semi-frequently, and at the oddest moments, I keep a list of them tucked away in Evernote for future reference.  As resources and time permit, I slowly chip away at that list.

They may not be earth-shattering, but they’re 100% me, and many of them are stretching me in ways that will make me better able to meet the needs of my current and future clients.  In my view, that kind of work is a win-win, which is Habit 4 in Steven Covey’s popular list of seven.  Steven also encourages us to “Be proactive” (Habit 1), and to “Live, love, laugh, and leave a legacy.”  If you’re a voice talent, your legacy isn’t going to come from the number or type of clients that hired you.  Part of that legacy is going to come from what you create proactively and share with the world on your own.

So what are you creating?

Ch-ch-ch-changes!

If you read this blog via my justinbvocal.com web site, then you’re probably seeing some interesting visual changes.  Long story short, I’m messing with theme ideas as I prepare to migrate this whole thing to a new location.  Your patience is greatly appreciated!

Bed, Bath and Beyond

Before beginning, I must make this disclaimer: Nowhere in this post will I be talking about the store chain referenced by the title.  I will not be saying a word about home decor, matching bath towels to bed linens, or how to find the perfect scented candle.  This post is about life.

I was getting ready for bed last night — well, in truth I was sitting at my computer after teaching one of my online classes for AnimSchool – and had a few thoughts buzzing through my head.  While staring at my Twitter feed trying to decide if those thoughts were worth sharing, four words shoved their way to the front:

Bed, Bath and Beyond

Um….okay.  Where did that come from?  I can’t remember if I’d seen someone else comment about that store, or if my mind was just focused on my need to get to bed, but there it was.  So…now what?  Being the lover of words that I am, I tried looking at them a little differently, and it wasn’t long before this epiphany hit me:

It isn’t just a store name. It’s a set of tips for living.

Ooohh…now things are getting interesting!  ”Do tell!” I said to my head.  It told what it could in its sleepy state, and I dutifully expounded on the thought…well, at least as much as I could in 140 characters.  I figured that was that, so I promptly shut things down and went to bed.

But it didn’t end there.

While exercising this morning, the thought came back.  This time the potential meaning of each of the key words in that title was more fully formed, and the collective concept much more inspiring.

Bed

I think it’s safe to say that most of us have, at one time or another, professed a deep love for sleep.  (One of my former animation co-workers, John Berry, has an uncanny way with words, and once said that he was “gonna munch on sleep like a champion.”)  But how often do we wake up in the morning feeling nearly as tired as when we went to bed, saying that we don’t feel “well-rested”?  That should set off alarm bells in our minds.  Are we simply sleeping, or are we truly giving our bodies sufficient rest?

One article that I found on the subject of sleep lists several things that are affected by our sleep habits, including learning and memory, metabolism and weight, safety, mood, cardiovascular health, and disease.  As a human, I should be concerned about anything that would affect any of those parts of my life.  As a freelance professional, I should also be aware that affecting those things in a negative way will affect my work as well.

It’s also important to note that the need for appropriate rest goes beyond the idea of sleeping in a bed once a day.  There are other ways that we can — and should — be resting on a regular basis.  For example, one of the things that I do to help support my creative work as a performing artist is to develop software.  I don’t have a huge workload in that area, but there’s enough that needs to be done that I’m regularly spending hours at my computer working on code.  As a part of that effort, I need to take periodic breaks to rest my eyes, stretch my limbs, etc.  While writing this post, even, I began feeling some tension in my neck and shoulders, so I stepped away for a few minutes to relax and stretch.  If I don’t take those breaks, I definitely feel it, and that fatigue that I feel consequently affects all of the other work that I do.

Bottom line: if I want to stay on top of my game, I need to ensure that I’m getting enough rest, both at night, and during my other activities.

Bath

In my original Twitter post about this concept, I simply wrote, “get up and take a bath.”  In the extended dance remix that came to mind this morning, the word reminded me of the larger principle of preparation.

One of the things that I am guilty of doing sometimes is diving straight into a task without adequate preparation.  Sadly, that even applies to my daily work as a creative freelancer.  Many are the days when I have risen, taken care of the morning critter chores on our little farming, downed a hasty bowl of cold cereal, and shuffled directly to my techno-cave to start doing my “work” without even a thought as to what work I wanted/needed to do that day.  Looking back later in the day (often in response to my wife asking me what I’ve been doing), I’ve often felt like it’s all been a pile of semi-productive mush.  I genuinely wanted to get more things done, but because I didn’t have a plan, I didn’t make solid headway on much of anything.

Several quotes come to mind about the importance of preparation:

“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”
– Benjamin Franklin

“Prepare and prevent instead of repair and repent.”
– Unknown

“Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.”
– Alexander Graham Bell

“Spectacular achievement is always preceded by unspectacular preparation.”
– Robert H. Schuller

While preparation is the core principle that was ultimately brought to mind by the word “bath,” I feel that there’s also something to be said for actually taking a bath (or shower) every day.  In the description of my frequent daily routine above, I didn’t say anything about bathing.  Sadly, that wasn’t just because I was leaving out certain details in the interest of brevity.  One of the “luxuries” of doing a large chunk of my work from home is that I can — and often do — skip that step, using the self-justification that a) I’m not planning on leaving the house, and b) I can get to work sooner.  However, I’m beginning to see the error of my ways, which is why this particular B-word in the trio is like rubbing salt on the head wound I received while pounding fence posts the other day.

I don’t know whether or not I was aware of this previously, but I’m firmly convinced now that there is something beneficial to the morning bath/shower beyond the literal act of cleaning the physical body.  Being physically clean is important for a variety of health reasons, of course, but I believe that there’s a subconscious cleaning/renewing/refreshing that happens at the same time, and that it helps us to prepare for the day ahead.  Looking back at the recent past, I believe that I was more effective on the days when I took the time to include that step in my morning routine compared to the days when I didn’t.  As a result, I’m determined to change that (currently-bad) habit, and to be more diligent about other forms of preparation as well.

Beyond

Of the three words being discussed here, this one is probably the most open-ended in terms of its implications.  In my post last night, I wrote that we should “go beyond what [we] did yesterday.”  But what exactly does that mean?  The perfectionist in me quickly shouts that everything should be better, but I’ve learned through sad experience that the “make everything better” approach is neither efficient nor healthy.  It’s far better to pick a few specific things that need attention, and then make specific plans to improve in those areas (which reinforces the planning/preparation tip above).

When it comes down to it, this word reminds me of the importance of pushing beyond current boundaries, and of not becoming complacent.  It’s so easy to get into a certain set of habits and patterns and never change them, or to achieve a certain level of skill or knowledge and never go farther.  It’s easy to succumb to the attitude of doing only what’s “good enough.”  To stay in place requires no effort, while it takes a concerted effort to make change, and a great amount of effort to make great change.  Even if our efforts don’t end up taking us “beyond”, we’ll be rewarded in other ways for the mere fact that we made the effort.

I’m reminded of the famous quote from Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story:  ”To infinity…and beyond!”  When you think about it logically, it doesn’t make sense at first.  Something that is infinite has no end, so you can’t go beyond it, right?  While that’s true, I believe that it’s really meant to serve as an inspiration for us to never stop dreaming, and never stop pushing.  We should be striving not only to achieve lofty — and even seemingly-impossible — goals, but to go beyond them.

If you want a further dose of inspiration, fellow voice talent Marc Scott recently wrote a great post about this very subject, and I highly recommend reading it.

So when it comes down to interpreting “Bed, Bath and Beyond” as a set of life tips, I think that it means to rest, prepare, and push.  Rest so that you can have the health and energy that you need to do your best work, prepare for that work, and then push yourself to not only achieve your goals, but to go beyond them.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I need to run to the store.  My “cave” is smelling a bit ripe.  Maybe a scented candle would do the trick…

“The greatest of faults…”

While doing some computer cleanup today, I ran across a bunch of old VO files. These were all pre-training, pre-demo, pre-agent, pre-actual-professional-gigs. And boy did it sound like it! The saddest part is that I didn’t know how bad I sounded. I thought I was doing all right. Boy was I wrong!

This reminded me of my first interview with an animation studio (back when I was pursuing animation as a career). I was meeting with members of the animation team, and one of them asked me where I felt that my animation skills placed on a scale of 1 to 10. I was feeling pretty good, so I said that I felt I was about a 6 or 7. He replied, “What if we told you that you were closer to a 3 or 4?”

“Well,” I said, still feeling pretty full of myself, “Maybe you just don’t know me very well.”

Yeah.  I actually said that.  In an interview.  Talking to people who’d been animating professionally for years.

Miraculously, I got the job.  But the story doesn’t end there.

After I’d been animating on production shots for a couple weeks (or maybe months…I’m not sure of the time frame), I wrote an email to the animator who posed that question in my interview.  I don’t have a copy of the email any more, but I apologized for my arrogance in the interview, and said something like, “After further reflection, I feel now like I’m actually only a 1 or 2 on that scale…and the scale is exponential.”

Today’s tip: learn to hone not only your skills, but also your ability to see where you need to grow, where you truly fall on the quality spectrum. If you look at your work — whether it’s acting, voiceover, programming, animation, accounting, construction, etc. — and feel that you’re doing pro-quality work, look again. Really break it down and compare it to work done by professionals. Does it really hold up? Are you really as good as you think you are? Maybe you are, maybe you aren’t. Whatever the case, there is HUGE value in humbling yourself and acknowledging your faults. Not in a demeaning, condescending, belittling way, but simply as a way of tracking the areas where you need to push yourself harder to do better.

The title for this post comes from a statement made by Thomas Carlyle:

The greatest of faults is to be conscious of none.

Everyone has room to grow.  I believe that those who succeed in their chosen fields are those who are honest with themselves about where they need to grow, and then actively work on that growth on a regular basis.  Take some time now and then for a little honest self-evaluation.  If you’re in a field where you have access to work created by your peers, compare your work against that of established professionals.  How does it stack up?  Take note of what’s working and what’s not, and set some specific plans on improving the things in the “what’s not” list.  Don’t beat yourself up over those things.  Just be aware of them, and make a plan to change them.  That awareness is critical.  You can’t change what you don’t know, and as my GI Joe buddies are fond of saying, “Knowing is half the battle!”

Affleck

While driving to a job a week or two ago, I was thinking about the then-recent announcement that Ben Affleck would be playing the title role in the next Batman film.  It didn’t take long before a commercial parody idea leapt into my mind, so I wrote to another local VO friend and asked if he’d voice the other character in the new version.  He did a masterful job with his lines, and I then got to work re-creating the rest of the audio track.  I haven’t taken audio mixing to this level before, but it was a ton of fun, and I learned a lot in the process.  Sadly I wasn’t able to find a higher-quality version of the original spot, but it does the job.  I hope you enjoy the result!

Synergy

Have you ever wanted to share one keyboard and mouse with multiple computers? Sure, you could buy one of those KVM (keyboard-video-mouse) switches and wire it all up, but there’s no need for that when you can just install Synergy.

The beauty of Synergy is that it works over your network, and it’s available for multiple platforms. No new wires to mess with. Just install the software, set some parameters, and you’re off and running. Drag your mouse off the edge of the screen on one computer and it instantly appears on the other. Boom!

And that’s just the beginning. Want to copy text from one computer to another? Synergy supports that. The developers are even working to support file drag-and-drop between systems. How cool is that?

If you have multiple computers at your desk, skip the hardware KVM (or worse yet, separate peripherals for each) and get Synergy.

Was that actually marketing?

I recently responded to a casting call for a local training video shoot that was looking for actors to portray employees and customers.  The initial reply that I received thanked me for my submission, and then asked if I had any video that I could send along.  It was explained that video demos were being used as a key casting tool because some actors would portray salespeople in the store, and needed to demonstrate “clear speaking ability.”

I replied with a link to a recent piece I’d shot that (in my opinion) demonstrated my on-camera “sales” presence most effectively.  Following the link, I said, “I also do voiceover work,” and commented that because VO work naturally requires clear speaking, I was confident that I could deliver what they needed on-set.

That’s it.  ”I also do voiceover work.”

There was no “Please hire me as the voice talent for your project” sales pitch.  None.  Everything else about the message — including the commentary following those five words — was about selling myself as an actor.

Well, I just got the final word on the casting call, which included the following:

I think I will pass on you as an actor, solely because I think I want to use you for voice work.  The project has a lot of voiceover work needed and you were one of the few people that had a decent VO reel.

Wait…what just happened?

I barely made mention of my VO work, and suddenly it switches from a potential acting gig to a potential VO gig!

After that realization, I quickly ran through what must have happened on the casting director’s side of the Interwebz, and it hit me that while I originally didn’t think that I did very much to promote myself to him as a voice talent, I’d actually done quite a bit.

Working backwards from the end, what ultimately got the casting director’s attention was my voiceover demo.  If I hadn’t invested the time and money to create professional demo material, I might not have made such a favorable impression.

The demos wouldn’t have been heard if I hadn’t posted them on my voiceover web site.  While the site is self-designed (and is in the process of being redesigned), I made sure to keep things simple and clear, making it as easy as possible for people to find my work.  This recent experience is just one of several that seems to indicate that I succeeded in that regard.

How did he find my web site?  My email signature contains a link to it.

And how did he even know to go looking for that link?  I said a simple five-word phrase: “I also do voiceover work.”

This last link in the chain of events mystifies me the most in terms of its impact on this whole situation, and is what prompted the title for this post.  I often think of “marketing” as a large and complex machine, something that involves detailed plans and mission statements and projections and so forth.  When I casually toss out a phrase like, “I also do voiceover work,” it doesn’t feel like marketing.  Consequently, when such a casual comment actually leads to a result that I would normally expect from a more conscious and elaborate marketing effort, it’s very gratifying, but I’m still hesitant to call it “marketing” because I wasn’t trying to “market.”

Then again, perhaps that’s the very reason that it worked so well.

It’s like that old philosophical question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”  In my case, the question is, “If you get the attention of a potential client when you weren’t consciously trying to do so, is it actually marketing?”

Have you experienced similar not-really-marketing success?  I’d love to hear about it!

Nerd!

When I was a kid, I fell in love with acting.

In doing so, I realized that I was joining a minority in some respects, especially after discovering the sometimes-derogatory term used for some actors: “thespian”.  I say “sometimes-derogatory” because the word isn’t always used in a negative way, but when I discovered it, it kinda was.  Things like the “Master Thespian” skits on SNL didn’t exactly do much to improve the picture, either, so “thespian” ended up equating to “acting nerd” in my mind.  Still, I was having fun, so I didn’t really care what I was called.

At roughly the same time, I fell in love with computers and programming.

While I don’t recall times when people specifically used the term “nerd” or “geek” in reference to this interest of mine, I have no doubt that it happened.  Maybe my lack of recollection indicates how well I handled it, because I also don’t remember feeling ashamed of this particular passion at any time during my childhood or adolescent years.

To complete the nerd trifecta, I fell in love with 3D animation.  I could go on about how I further isolated myself from those around me with this interest, but I’m sure you get the idea.  :)

In the end, I had very few close friends growing up because my interests varied so greatly from theirs…

  • While my classmates were trying out for football, I was auditioning for the school play.
  • While my friends struggled to grasp computer concepts, I picked them up rather quickly, and even got paid to do small computer-based jobs here and there.
  • While the kids in my neighborhood were collecting toys, I was collecting animation videos.

Thankfully my parents were quite supportive of all of these bits of geekdom.  Not once do I recall hearing either of them tell me that I should stop acting, programming, or dwelling on animation.  On the contrary, they would frequently give me suggestions on how I could further develop these interests.

My teachers were also quite supportive.  In fact, when I signed up to take a Pascal programming class in high school, the instructor gave me the manual and let me teach myself, partly because a) I was the only one who’d signed up, and b) he knew me well enough to trust that I would actually do the work.

Was I a nerd?  Absolutely, though at the time I’m not sure that I would have looked upon the term very favorably.  However, my views have changed since then, and I’m now quite proud of my nerd-/geekdom, in part because I’ve worked over the years to reach the point where people are willing to hire me for these specialized skills.

While the terms “nerd” and “geek” are most often used in reference to very specific interests — like computers, sci-fi, fantasy, etc. — I think they can apply to any specialization.  Is someone a master architect?  They’re a construction nerd.  Is someone at the top of their field in equine studies?  They’re a horse geek, or a herd nerd!  (Granted, using those terms in those ways may not appeal to those being so labeled, but you get the idea.)

Bottom line: nerds and geeks are everywhere, and rather than being shunned or put down for their passions, they should be embraced.  As Wil Wheaton so eloquently put it at the recent Calgary Expo, “Being a nerd is not about what you love; it’s about how you love it.”

Auditions and Bold Choices

One of the pieces of advice that I see very frequently when referring to actors preparing for auditions is this:

Make bold choices!

Do your homework. Dig into the character’s past. Understand them inside and out, and then make bold choices on how you will present that character at the audition. If you’re auditioning for a role and clearly haven’t made bold choices, you’re not likely to get the role. People will be able to see that you’re not committed, and therefore they’ll have a hard time trusting you with the portrayal of the character throughout the course of the project, whether it’s a film, play, voiceover, or whatever.

Clearly, bold choices are important, and the actors who make them in their auditions are much more successful.

But what do some actors say about the process of auditioning?

They hate it!

I’m not talking about the specific presentation of a character in a moment to a camera or casting director, but the entire process of auditioning for roles of any kind.  Some actors will talk your ear off about how much they despise the audition process.  ”It’s so painful,” they say.  ”I can’t stand it!” they complain.

Guess what?

That’s also a bold choice.

It helps to remember that the technical details of an audition are just that: technical.  They’re mere bits of data…

  • We have to memorize a script (or read it cold).
  • We have to meet new people.
  • We have to give our all to the portrayal of the character.
  • We have to take direction.
  • We have to deal with traffic.
  • …and so on

How do we respond to each of these bits of data?  In short, we react.  What does it mean to “react”?  Some see any reaction as involuntary, something outside of our control.  In some cases this is true, such as the reaction to touching a hot surface.  That kind of reaction is built into our brains as a safety mechanism.  However, many other types of reactions are not involuntary, even though we frequently believe that they are.  Part of the medieval Latin meaning of “react” is very telling: “done again.”  And what is it that we’re doing again?

A bold choice.

Some have made the bold choice that meeting new people is an uncomfortable experience.  When they later meet new people, they “react,” and that discomfort choice is done again.  Others have made the bold choice to be angry in heavy traffic.  What happens when they’re caught in heavy traffic?  That anger choice is done again.

The audition process is what it is, and we actors (most likely) can’t change that process to suit our tastes.  What we can change is how we feel about it.

Many years ago, I discovered a quote from Mildred Barthel that quickly became one of my favorites.

Happiness is a conscious choice, not an automatic response.

The concept behind that statement can apply to a lot of different feelings, so to rephrase it in the context of auditions, “How we feel about auditions is a conscious choice, not an automatic response.”

Therefore, if we want auditions to become experiences that we enjoy rather than dread, what do we need to do?

Make bold choices!