Voice Over Techniques to Enhance On-Camera Performance
Beginning voiceover students are taught to “lift the copy off the page.” Likewise, beginning stage/TV/film actors work to “bring the script to life.” The idea is pretty much the same for both VO and on-camera: to create believable characters who seem to the audience to be experiencing events as they unfold, moment by moment.
I am both a voice and TV/film actor and have been consistently taking classes in each for about the same amount of time. While outwardly the work may seem quite different – on-camera classes focus on script analysis and performance in front of the camera, and voice over classes work on tone and character behind the microphone – each develops the student to become a compelling story teller. They teach the techniques unique to their medium (visual vs. auditory), but share a common acting foundation. And in my experience, that provides a wonderful bit of cross-training!
Many voice over instructors, in fact, advise their students to study both acting and improvisation. Acting, because it teaches the process of creating and developing a character and placing that character in a specific place, time, and circumstance. The Meisner technique, in particular, trains the actor to be “in the moment” and let the words spoken by the other actors affect him as if he were hearing them for the very first time. Improvisation strengthens the imagination and the ability to play with the material, helping the actor to discover something new each time a scene is rehearsed or performed, so that it always seems fresh and alive to the audience. I’ve studied improv at several studios, including Second City in Chicago, and heartily agree that it’s invaluable! Not to mention a great deal of fun, too. Many voice talents would agree that acting and improvisation training go a long way in helping the voice actor create interesting, unique characters to enliven many types of copy.
The reverse – teaching voice over techniques to on-camera actors - doesn’t seem to happen quite so much. Yes, some acting academies offer voice instruction, but I think they’re more the exception. Aside from teaching vocal warmups and encouraging acting students to learn how to do accents, not many techniques taught to VO students seem to cross over into acting classes.
That’s too bad, because I’ve found that my voice work greatly informs my on-camera performances. It especially helps me out when find myself in a rut or when I’m trying to break free from old habits that are holding me back. Most often, it helps me see things from a different perspective, so that I can bring more to my on-camera work. Here are a few tips that I’ve brought over from the VO world that I’ve found to be most helpful in my work in film and television:
When less is more. Film and TV actors know to keep their reactions small (unless perhaps they’re in a broad comedy), since the camera provides a tight focus on facial expressions. I’ve had to work at this, since I’m naturally very expressive and a little bit of Laura can go a long way on-camera. I’ve found that keeping the VO conversational read in mind has helped me to “dial it down.” Just as in voice over, the conversational read used on-camera is relaxed, often quieter than other tones, and associated with an approachable, believable persona on screen. It’s often a friendly voice, which most audiences appreciate and therefore are more likely to absorb the message or story being told.
When I decide on the nuances or need to quickly settle into a character. Acting classes teach students to imagine that the scripted scene is just a fragment of the character’s life. The job of the actor to create a complete character with back story, hopes and dreams, and personality quirks, just like any real human being. This character exists and is busy living a life before entering the scripted scene, and (unless the character dies in that scene) continues on afterwards. Script analysis teaches actors to think about those moments before (and after) the scene itself and to imagine what the character may be thinking, feeling, and doing as he/she enters the scene.
I’ve found that voice over helps to overlay the character with additional qualities: what’s the sound of her voice? What’s her mood, as relayed vocally? Are there certain regionalisms or quirks that add to her character? What is she saying just prior to beginning the script? Additionally, adding a realistic lead-in phrase helps me launch into the character. This is a technique that VO coaches suggest: start off with an improvised phrase that leads into the script, one that makes sense to the character and helps make the scripted copy sound natural and real, like the continuation of a thought. When recording, I would delete this improvised intro before submitting the audition or final audio file; it’s just a tool to help me deliver the lines as naturally as possible. With an on-camera script, I’d give myself a similar realistic lead-in conversation or action before the director calls “action!” to shift into the character’s mindset and physicality. Acting teachers call this a “moment before.” Voice over training, in my experience, provides a solid technique to help move this script analysis tool into practice.
When I’m asked to provide different takes on a scene or for an audition. On-camera actors are taught to make definitive choices: what their characters want to achieve in each scene or in the overall story, what they want from the other characters and how they go about getting what they want. Often for an audition or during a shoot, the actor will be asked to provide different takes, or choices, on the scene. For example, in a scene with one other character, the actor may choose to do one take as manipulative and another one as helpful. Same lines, different motivation or attitude.
I’ve found my VO work useful in being able to apply different types of reads (normally applied to commercial copy) as my choices. In an acting class recently where I was asked to give three different reads in rapid succession without prior preparation, I pulled out my three favorite VO tones: friendly conversational, business-minded authoritative, and the smartass sarcastic attitude. The result: three totally different takes on the scene. Other options include different voice pitches and tempos to present different personalities, like bold and direct or shy and hesitant. The VO technique of giving a line the ABC treatment (saying the line three different ways in rapid succession) is also great practice for making varied interesting choices on camera.
When the other actors aren’t giving much to the scene. On film and TV, the audience wants to see a dynamic relationship taking place between two or more characters. It can be playfulness. Or intimacy. Or friction. Or downright conflict. As long as it’s SOMETHING. Otherwise, it’s just plain boring and the audience will lose interest and move on. So the actors must really connect and work off each other, ideally giving each other what they need to give their most to the scene, and in doing so, receive that energy back in kind. Acting is the dynamic transfer of energy between characters and it’s always moving and transforming the characters as the story plays out.
Voice over work, in comparison, is almost always done in isolation. One voice actor alone in a booth, whether that’s in a professional recording studio or in a converted walk-in closet at home. Without a scene partner, a set, hair and makeup team, costumes, or props. Everything takes place in the imagination and, at the time of the recording, the actor’s voice creates the story’s entire world. A tall order, and yet the ability to use the imagination to this extent gives the versatile actor so much more to work with, especially when delivering a monologue on camera, in scenes with inexperienced actors, or when working with lazy scene partners who aren’t trying to connect and provide little to work off from.
Creating a believable character who “brings the script to life” and convincingly “lifts the copy off the page” takes thought, preparation, and a toolkit of ideas to trot out and play with to see what fits. Voice over provides a useful array of techniques that translate well to the on-camera world. Who knows? It can be the “secret sauce” that helps the actor nail the audition or book a most memorable character.