The Voice

When casting voice over talent for a film there are a number of issues to consider. Here’s a brief overview.

Casting services like voices.com and greatvoices.com make it easier than ever to quickly find and hire voice-over talent. Using online services, it’s possible to post an audition script, receive readings of it within a day, and have a finished recording delivered within 48 to 72 hours.

Just because it’s possible to get the job done quickly, however, doesn’t mean one should be in a rush.

For films that need them, the voice over is a critical production element that can make or break the effectiveness of the piece. Getting a boffo voice-over track is more likely with appropriate planning and allowing enough time to make good creative choices.

A good script makes for a good performance. The voice-over starts with a script. Talented voice-over artists can sometimes make a bad script sound good, but there are limits to how much lipstick a pig can wear.

In our experience authors of video scripts sometimes forget that scripts are intended to be read out-loud, forgetting that there is a big difference between meaning on the page and in the ear.

When writing a VO script, read it out loud — to yourself and to others — with every draft to catch phrases that don’t trip off the tongue and that are unclear or ambiguous when heard.

Keep in mind that the character of your message will depend to a large degree on the character of the voice used to convey it. One should write with a clear idea of who is speaking to whom in or through the script. This focus will not only suggest the language to be used, but also the tone and vocal color required of the speaker — good things to know when it comes time to cast the script.

A good script is one written like someone in the real world might actually speak in the circumstances the script assumes. Conversations should like conversations. Instructions should have a appropriate pedantic tone.

Audience. The people who make up your audience will have expectations about what a voice in a film like yours should sound like and kind of language it should be using. When planning a script, it is good idea spending some time learning what one can of such audience expectations.

Pitch, tone, and vocal color. While every human voice is unique, there are broad, fundamental similarities of pitch, tone, and color that do and can be used to convey familiar meanings. Based on these characteristics most human listeners (and some animal ones too) can identify a familiar individual’s voice, or, if the voice not a familiar one, the sex and age of the speaker. Pitch, tone, and color also signal the emotional state of a speaker. Listeners can distinguish between, angry, sad, excited, suspicious and many other states.

Don’t forget that pitch, tone, and color can be designated in the script with specific directions to the voice over talent.

Character. Beyond pitch, tone, and color, some voices also have “character” a unique sound that suggests personality and that is more culturally determined than fundamental vocal characteristics suggest.

Consider the voice in this Smuckers commercial from 1983:

The voice is that of Mason Adams who was the voice of Smuckers for a number of years. His voice is not only instantly identifiable, but also conveys the character of a down-to-earth, wise, likable uncle kind of guy, traits that almost perfectly matched Smuckers’ message of wholesomeness.

Another admirable voice is that of Will Lyman, who has been doing narration for PBS’s FRONTLINE program for many years.

Lyman’s voice conveys an objective, authoritative tone well suited to FRONTLINE’s journalistic documentary work.

Accents. Accents convey important aspects of character, often defining, depending on the audience and cultural context, education, class, and ethnicity. Selecting vocal talent with a specific accent can be important to establishing credibility and authority with certain audiences.

Because there is a very fine line between character and charactuer, it’s unwise to hire vocal talent whose accent is not native to them. Those raised in the British Isles, for example, generally know a fake accent when they hear one. Use of non-native accents can alienate a native audience.

One voice, or two, or many. A voice over does not have to be one voice. Using multiple voices can very useful for effective conveying certain messages.

Reading with meaning. Finding a voice that sounds right is one part of casting vocal talent. An equally important task is finding talent that can analyze and then effectively present the meanings in a script.

Our experience of listening to hours and hours of VO auditions instructs that finding talent that sounds good is far easier than finding talent that can also read for meaning well.

The talent for conveying meaning is a bit mysterious, but because it’s easier to talk about what one is familiar with, it often depends on some knowledge of the subject being discussed. For this reason, you may want to consider talent that has performed work dealing topics similar to those contained in your script. Online VO talent websites make this kind of search relatively easy.

Actors often excel at VO work because they have been trained to, and their work requires, analyzing scripts for meaning including subtexts and contexts.

Because reading well is rare, it’s important to audition potential vocal talent on your script and compare auditions. One can increase the chances of finding the right talent by providing them with background material about the topics in your script.

Patrick Stewart costs more. The cost vocal talent depends on the length of the script, the talents’ experience and reputation, and the territory in which the talent’s work will be used. VO work for national broadcast will cost more than local use. If, however, you want a specific recognizable voice like Patrick Stewart, costs can reach the limit of the sky quickly.

VO artists will generally quote a fixed flat. The fee generally includes a specified number of iterations beyond which additional costs will be incurred.

Casting properly takes time. Given the range of subjective variables involved in the casting process and the variety of available talent, it takes time to find the right voice for a project.

Due care is especially required when one is considering recruitment of a voice to brand a cause, product, or service. One will want to ensure that the talent is capable of entering a potentially long-term relationship and will be available for the term required.

You might need a casting director. If your project has very particular requirements or time is short, you might consider using the service of a casting director. Casting directors have done the hard work (which will be reflected in their fee) of listening to a range of talent and separating the real talent from the wannabes. Casting directors are familiar the range of types and abilities producers seek and can help find the right voice for your project quickly.

Some casting firms, like Kalmenson & Kalmenson, specialize in VO talent.

Production companies also generally have established relationships VO talent and casting firms and can advise about how locate the right voice for your project.

Questions about voice-over casting or anything else related to video production? Drop us a line and we'll do our best to answer them.