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Voice Talent vs. Voice Actor?

The Difference and What It Can Mean To Your Next Project

What’s the difference between a voice talent and a voice actor? Are they the same thing? Is there any real difference or is this just another case of “to-may-toe” vs. “to-mah-toe?”

Most people use the terms interchangeably, as both refer to individuals who are (presumably) skilled and experienced delivering voice over audio recordings. The word “talent” itself is widely used in the entertainment industry to refer to actors and actresses, regardless if the medium is film, TV, radio, internet, etc. But there is a subtle difference between a “voice talent” and a “voice actor.”

The difference is in the extent and scope of training and experience, especially in mediums outside of voice over. Harken back to your school days and think of those mathematical lessons describing concentric circles: two circles share the same center, but each with different length radius, meaning that the smaller circle is totally enclosed and is a subset of the larger one. In this analogy, I’m suggesting that, because of their extra professional training and experience, voice actors can be considered a subset group within the larger population of voice talents.

I’m not saying that voice talents without on-camera classroom instruction may not have a great deal of voice over training, skill, and experience. Not at all! Many outstanding voice talents have never studied acting, per se, and their performances and careers have not suffered for it. But the voice actor, by virtue of having studied and practiced the art of acting, may have a deeper and wider range of performance skills to bring to the project table. Especially if they are also on-camera actors with experience in film, TV, and/or theater to complement their voice over work.

Voice over coaches often advise their students to broaden their training with acting classes, as well as with improvisation (improv) classes. Acting classes teach and develop skills in scene study, script analysis, and character development, and students learn how to understand and interpret story lines, create emotional arcs for their characters, and live in the moment during their performances. Actors study monologues to understand their construction, to show emotional range for their characters, and to compel their audiences to keep watching with interesting but authentic choices. They also work with one or more actors in scenes taken from feature films and popular television shows to learn to give and take the emotional connection and interplay between their characters, and to move the storyline along in patterns that may seem to be a roller coaster one minute, a deep dive to the bottom of the ocean in the next.

Have you noticed a common word in the above description? Emotion. Actors don’t tell their audiences the story, they show it. They take them along for the ride to feel and experience the ups and downs of their characters’ journeys. And all this translates beautifully to voice over. Voice actors do not just read or tell their clients’ messages, they live them, whether they are narrating corporate website videos or bringing to life characters in a video game.

Here’s another word: Connection. It is so important for an actor to connect with the script, whether it’s for film, TV, a commercial, or an explainer video. The listener needs to believe that the voice IS the CEO of the pharmaceutical company introducing a ground-breaking new medicine. Or the mom in the carpool line who really thinks you can take a much-needed break from kitchen duties with this new family meal-to-go kit. Or the animated, anthropomorphic beastie trying to solve the same sort of problem that a five year old viewer is learning to deal with, too. The connection is emotional, and the listener can immediately tell if the message feels truthful or not and whether they should keep paying attention - or not.

Actors are trained to express a wide range of emotion. And never to think that there is only one way or right way to interpret a script. The idea is to bring a version of themselves to the character, to respond with spontaneity and invention, while staying true to the written word and underlying message. Actors practice taking direction and making different choices: changing their characters’ motivations, needs, and wants to offer alternate interpretations to the written material. In this way, a scene could be performed as a heavy drama, a dramedy (combination of drama and comedy), or even as part of a horror film. It all depends on a chosen point of view, a character’s background and inclinations, and how that character will respond as the scene unfolds.

Improv experience is also a wonderful tool that belongs in every voice actor’s handy-dandy kit. Improv teaches actors to live in the moment, always reacting to whatever is presented by the situation or by another actor. It opens actors to being more comfortable with their own spontaneity and humor, accepting a client’s redirects, and discovering nuances in the material that they may not have noticed before.

OK, that’s all well and good, but you may be thinking: Cut to the chase. Why should I care and what do I get by distinguishing between the two? Fair questions, so here’s my list of the top three benefits you may get with a trained actor:

1. The additional level of training and experience that the actor can draw on will make your job easier. The actor may be able to nail the interpretation you’re looking for within the first take or two, plus offer additional options that you may not have considered earlier … and may like even better.

2. The voice actor may be easier to work with and direct. On-camera experience doubles the opportunity to learn from different types of casting directors and what they expect from their actors on set. Flexibility to adapt to different styles of direction allows the actor to pivot to your redirection that much more quickly and easily.

3. You’re getting more bang for your buck if you ever want to take your campaign to the next level and include an on-camera presence. You already have the actor who’s voiced your brand and understands your message, someone who knows on-camera work and is comfortable and experienced in it, all set to go.

One final consideration: More and more on-camera actors are training in voice over, particularly during this pandemic when film and TV opportunities have significantly dropped off. Casting directors and producers who wish to reach out directly to voice actors might consider posting some jobs to on-camera casting websites like Actors Access. More and more voice over jobs are appearing there, and actors can directly submit their demos with their applications to audition. Additionally, casting directors can require that actors detail information about their home studio capability, training, etc. in the submission notes, before choosing which actors they want to audition.

Happy hiring!