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How to work with a VO director, including when it’s you

Edge Studio

With so much work being self-produced these days, the idea of working with a Director might seem foreign to some of the industry’s newer talent. Although a lot of work is still produced in commercial studios (that is, studios that serve multiple clients and/or record more than one particular person), and most of that work involves a Director of some sort, it’s conceivable that you have not worked with a director since your last coaching session. How should you work with one? And how should you direct yourself?

First, recognize that there are all sorts of Directors. Some, like Edge Studio coaches (and many other coaches), are highly experienced at working with talent. They may or may not be working voice actors themselves, but they are definitely experienced and proven as teachers. Not every voice-over professional is. The world is full of people who are great at their art, sport, or whatever but are not so good at coaching or teaching. It’s a matter of aptitude, interest and training as much as skill.

But sometimes a person designated as “Director” is not trained or experienced in directing. In fact, in Commercials and some other genres, the director is likely to be the scriptwriter, or an advertising Creative Director – a title that means they can direct copywriters and art directors but not necessarily voice talent.

So, sometimes the Director knows more than you and is skilled at drawing a better performance out of you – often better than you realized you could give. But sometimes the Director is less experienced at voice performance than you are. If they’re the copywriter, they know what they hear in their head, but may or may not be able to convey that concept to you.

As with any other personal relationship, first, give the other person the benefit of any doubt. Assume they know their stuff, and accept what they ask you to do. Put aside your ego, and become a tool (or a medium, if you prefer) that they can work with. They are the artist; you are their clay. They are the rider; you are the steed. They are the conductor; you are the orchestra.

By “put aside your ego,” we mean that you should not begin by thinking of the job as a source for your demo. The job is about the script, the subject, the client … not about you. A case in point: We once had a script around here about apples. (There are many “apples” scripts in our Practice Scripts library, but this one doesn’t happen to be in it.) The script concept was that there are many kinds of apples, each having its own personality. Over the course of 60 seconds, the talent was to make various statements that would be made by various apples. Aha, thinks the student – here’s my chance to do a variety of different cartoon voices and really show my stuff. With experienced animation talent, that might be cute, but it’s not what the director wanted. And it’s not what the script “wanted.” The script was written to be a heartfelt pitch made by the spokesperson (aka the talent, the “narrator”). It was much more effective when the statements were read with an appropriate range of emotions and attitudes, but all in the original narrator’s voice. It was much more human and credible. In other words, it sold apples, not the talent’s vocal range.

Regarding this script, we listened to a student resist the director’s request for restraint several times. Then, finally, the student caught on and delivered an admirable, convincing performance. A pro might have tried pushing the envelope on the first take, but when asked to pull it back, the pro responds, without pushing back. Accept the direction and build along that vector. If it turns out that the advice doesn’t “work” – if the resulting read falls flat – then it may be up to the talent to find something else, something more, to add a spark.

On the other hand, even if a great director might know your performance range better than you do, you at least know your physical range and what’s worked for you in the past. And it’s possible that the person sitting in the Director chair is getting on-the-job training. If that becomes apparent, it’s time for you to gently, maybe even imperceptibly, offer additional options. Don’t “take control,” but do give the director more for them to control. In fact, that’s always the case – talent is expected to add something special to the mix. Otherwise, the client would have hired almost anyone, or even done it themselves.

One thing an experienced director will probably not often do is to give you a “reading.” That’s when they read the line for you, exactly as they want it repeated back. And as talent, asking for a reading can be equally awkward. It’s not a good regular practice for several reasons. For one, they may or may not be an experienced voice actor, so what comes out of their mouth may not match what they hear in their head. (How are you to know?) Another reason is that you may not hear what they’re saying. They don’t have your voice, so what are they demonstrating? The pitch, the emotion, the tone of voice, … what? (In that case, politely ask them to clarify.) Yet another reason (and this is the big one) is that they want to hear what you can do! (As we’ve mentioned, great talent adds an element of his or her own, often something useful that the client likes but didn’t anticipate.) If an experienced director resorts to giving you a reading, it’s probably because you’ve fallen into a rut. They want to force you out of it. But it’s not necessarily where they want the end result to be.

And if you’ve given it several takes and the client is happy, accept that, too. You don’t always know what sounds best, at least not until some time has passed for you to listen dispassionately. And clients themselves often have restraints they must work within. Maybe their client doesn’t like funny commercials. Maybe the brand (its “product personality”) calls for a subdued performance. Maybe the spot will run only once and isn’t worth spending additional time. (Although some one-shots are worth a LOT more care since they have only one chance to have effect – for example, the classic Apple “1984” commercial.)

As you see, almost none of this applies when you’re working alone in your home studio. But you should nevertheless have this mindset – “typical” and “good enough” are not good enough. What special quality or insight can you add? Are you serving the purposes of the script, rather than your own purposes? And are you in a rut?

It will help if you:

  • Imagine a director is there with you. What would they say? How would you work with them?
  • What was in the copywriter’s mind? In other words, what is the script situation’s “story”? What is the ultimate goal of the commercial, the promo, the documentary, the lesson, etc.?
  • Who are you? Where are you? When are you? What just happened? Who are you talking to? … Ask all the usual acting situational questions. Even a “narrator” is rarely just a voice. You’re the voice of the author, a character, the producer, the series, the product, and the store, whatever. You sound like you, but except in cases where you’ve developed a characteristic sound (e.g., Tom Bodett for Motel 6), you’re someone or something else, with emotion, surroundings, all that.
  • Try at least three very different approaches. Can’t imagine more than one or two? Then you need to work on this ability. Because that’s what directors often ask talent to do.
  • Work with a coach and/or take group classes. As we’ve said, working with a coach gets you used to working with an experienced director. And hearing other students in class – whether in-person or over the phone – exposes you to multiple interpretations of a particular script.
  • Allow some time before sending the file. Listen again. Is it everything you thought it was? Is it everything you thought it could be? Hopefully, with experience, the answer to these questions is “yes.” But even so, there will be times when, with a bit of distance, you realize “that didn’t make sense,” or “I could have done it this way,” or “that’s boring; it could be better.”

When you’re able to hear such issues when playing back your recording after only a short time-out, you have the hang of self-direction.