Newton’s Third Law of Physics as applied to Voice Acting

Edge Studio

Newton said that for every action, there is a reaction. That’s also true of every statement in a conversation. A statement elicits a reaction, even if the reaction is unstated.

So acting is at least as much about listening and observing as it is about speaking. This isn’t news to even budding stage and film actors, let alone veterans. But it’s sometimes news to voice actors, often working alone in a booth, that listening should be part of their performance, too. We’ve mentioned this many times before, but … just how do you go about listening when the only voice in the room is yours?

For perspective, let’s review. Voice acting is about emotions — your emotions, and the emotions you seek to instill in your listener. The first tends to induce the second. (Or if you prefer chemical metaphors to physics, consider it a rapid form of osmosis.)

Where do your emotions come from? Simple. Listen to yourself. We don’t mean listen to your voice as you’re speaking – that’s a common pitfall that voice artists-in-training need to get past. Listening to your own voice (maybe marveling at how expertly you’ve used it in the sentence just past), is merely a distraction, likely to trip you up or get you out of character in the next sentence. Listening to yourself in that way interferes with performance.

On the other hand, listening to your inner self enhances performance.

That’s important even when you’re NOT speaking. In a wonderful introductory lesson about film acting, Michael Caine tells of his experience, as a young actor in repertory, when a producer asked him …

Producer: “What are you doing, Mike?”
Caine: “Nothing, sir.”
Producer: “What do you mean, ‘nothing’?”
Caine: “I haven’t got anything to say.”
Producer: “What do you mean you haven’t got anything to say? Of course, you’ve got things to say. You’ve got wonderful things to say. But you sit there and listen, and think of these extraordinary things to say, and then decide not to say them.”

Caine’s point was “to listen, and react.”

Here’s another classic of example (among many) of how important this is to an actor. We all know the scene in “On the Waterfront” where Brando’s character laments to his brother (played by Rod Steiger), “I coulda been a contender!” Less known is that after delivering his lines to Steiger, Brando left the set early for some personal business. Steiger had yet to deliver his lines close-up, and rather than delivering them to Brando’s character, he had to work with a stand-in. And even if Steiger was getting a reaction from the stand-in, that’s hardly the same as working with Marlon Brando, especially in Method acting. Steiger is said to have remained angry with Brando over this for decades.

So listening is important. Thinking is important. Reacting is important.

We suggest taking Michael Caine’s listening lesson even further. Even when you’re the only one speaking – that is, even when you are speaking – you (or your character) have wonderful thoughts and feelings underlying each sentence you’re going to say. They’re what each sentence emerged from, and the way you deliver that sentence should reflect those thoughts, feelings, and emotions as if they had just occurred to you.

So now a syllogism: Your words are the result of your emotions. Your emotions are the result of your listener’s reactions, which reflect their emotions. Therefore, your words are the result of your listener’s emotions.

That’s the answer to our initial question, “How do listen to your partner in conversation when the only voice in the room is yours?”

The answer is that your voice is NOT the only voice in the room. Voice-over performance is virtually always a conversation. The other person in the conversation might be a moviegoer. Or a museumgoer. Or someone in the market for a reliable toaster. Or someone just waiting for the music to resume. Or someone holding on the phone. Or an animated muskrat.

You can’t hear them. You can’t see their face. So how can you listen?


Whoever and whatever they are, prepare by thinking about this: Who are you are talking to? What is their mindset? What are they likely to think in response to each statement you make? For example, if you’re talking about the struggle for survival in an Arctic wilderness, they’re likely to think one thing (for example, they may be afraid or impressed). If you’re talking about how a politician plans to preserve the Arctic wilderness, they’ll be in a different frame of mind (and perhaps unsympathetic). If you’re telling them about a wonderful product tested in the Arctic wilderness, they may be enthused or skeptical. And if your character is chasing their character around the Arctic wilderness, that’s yet another set of reactions to the various statements you’ll make.

Understand their thoughts, even as you speak. Don’t listen to yourself. Listen to them, as they react to you. If they are a casual listener hearing a radio commercial with only half an ear, they’re thinking in a certain inattentive way. If they’re drawn in, intently listening to you describe a painting, they’re listening in a totally different way. If they’re another character in the script, even if with a silent, “off-mic” role, that character has thoughts and reactions to what you say. “See” that person reacting as you speak.

Always be conversing. Because, even if you can’t hear your listener, you both have wonderful things to say.

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