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Know your lines. And don’t bump into the microphone.

Edge Studio

Among the stage-acting factors that don’t apply in most voice acting are:

  • The need to project – In VO, you need only reach the microphone, not the back of a theater.
  • Listening to your acting partner – In VO, you’re usually the only person at the mic.

Last week, we addressed the second of these, by noting that the you do in fact have an acting partner, if only in your imagination. But the question remains, how do you address that imaginary listener/speaker while you are focused on the script? Or, to adapt Spencer Tracy’s immortal advice, how do you “know your lines, and don’t bump into the copy stand”?

The clue is in the choice of verb. It’s not just “remember” your lines, but “know” them. Talent should know the lines so well that they just emerge naturally. Even with a script in front of you, that’s not always easy. The script is an aid, but also a potential distraction. What goes into knowing one’s lines as a voice actor?

In last week’s article, we discussed how to incorporate emotions truthfully — by truthfully reacting to the words, demeanor and conditions of the imagined partners and situation around you.

But if you prefer, you can still approach it more mechanically. (As an analog to George Whittam’s technology advice that “if it sounds good, it is good,” we might say, “good acting technique is whatever works with you.” )

The key is in realizing that an entire paragraph of speech doesn’t embody just one emotion. A person’s emotion changes at least subtly with each sentence. You are always thinking and speaking a progression of thoughts, as if conversing. One sentence elaborates on what came before. Or changes he subject. If a sentence doesn’t add or change something in the course of the “conversation,” why utter that sentence at all?

But even with a script at hand, this progression isn’t easily expressed. There’s too much else to do and remember. So preconsidering emotion should be an important part of your script analysis. It’s part of knowing your lines.

Then indicate those emotions in your copy mark-up.

Although some jobs require a cold read, and being able to perform a cold read skillfully is a valuable ability, voice talent should always mark up the copy when there is time. Even the scantiest mark-up symbols help improve a read, by allowing you to focus on your performance, rather than having to remember how you parsed the script.

Like other talent, you probably have your own personal set of markup symbols. So devise some for common emotions – maybe the actual words (“happy”/”sad”/etc.), or happy/sad faces, letters (“H”/”S”), whatever works for you. You should know your personal markup technique well enough that you no longer see the marks, you just reflect them. (As people read a book, they see phrases and thoughts, not individual words … or as an expert musician reads music, they don’t see the notes, they hear them. Same with your mark-up.)

Thus, you’re not “thinking” about emotion, you’re merely expressing it. Similarly, use the script only as a reminder; hopefully you already know the lines well enough that they just come out.

(Is it possible that knowing your lines too well will cost you “freshness?” Maybe. But not if you maintain energy and have pre-analyzed the script beforehand – that’s the time to start thinking about innovation and fresh approaches.)

With this pre-planning, your performance can emerge naturally, truthfully, with the right hits and emotions. There’ll be no need to “push” emotions. Instead you’ll enjoy gobs of mental room in real time, for natural emotion and spontaneity.

There you have it – two ways to avoid “bad acting.” In either case (and they’re not mutually exclusive), they don’t involve just “reading.” We use the verb “to read” in VO all the time, but don’t take it too literally. It’s shorthand. Good voice acting is more than reading, or even speaking. It’s actually about expression, the sometimes subtle expression of real emotion. It’s about giving the listener insight into what’s in your mind. It’s truth in every line.

And for that, you have to know your lines.