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Voice actors are told “Be the animal.” Is that too esoteric?

Edge Studio

Played any animals lately? How do you play one? We advise not playing an animal, but rather, being the animal. It may seem like a small distinction, of mere academic interest to only some actors. But it can be an important distinction, especially as you seek to find some quality in an animal character that helps make you unique. Not so important, maybe if your character is just drawn like an animal but meant to sound like an ordinary human. However, it can be very helpful if you’re trying to come up with an original animal character.

The New Yorker magazine recently carried an article about some artist-types who have taken this thinking to the extreme. It opens interesting lines of thought.

The article is about two men who (separately) tried to physically become animals for awhile … in their real human lives, actually living and even trying to think like a different species. Their experiences provide lessons even for those of us who only need to be the voice of an animal.

In “The Metamorphosis; What Is it Like To Be an Animal” Joshua Rothman relates these individuals’ approaches, putting them into a literary context that goes way back. As far back as Homer, even. (If archives are not available to you, check out the May 30, 2016 edition of The New Yorker magazine at the library.)

One of these individuals was Thomas Thwaite. You may have heard of him when he made news by building a toaster from scratch. (He even mined the metal and made his own plastic. It didn’t work, but did wind up in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s permanent collection.)

A few years ago, Thwaite wondered, what it would be like to give up all the worries of the human world and live like, oh, say, a goat? So he decided to be a goat. After obtaining a grant (as an artist, we suppose), he pursued the project by dividing it into three concerns: The goat mind, the goat body, and what to eat. For the latter two, he devised some prosthetic goat limbs, and a dietary process that would enable him to eat grass (we’d rather not describe that here), and went off to graze and cavort under the tutelage of a Swiss goatherd.

It’s that first matter that concerns us here. What goes on in a goat’s mind? And for purposes of voice-over performance, let’s extend that — what are a goat’s habits?

We’ll answer that in a bit, but first, the other artist: Charles Foster, a veterinarian, lawyer, author, philosopher and ethicist who decided to become … a badger. For six weeks, Foster and his son lived underground in a forest, behaving like badgers as well as they could. Later, Foster drew on this experience and tried to see the world as an urban fox. No longer focused on TV programs, he came to know important things like, “there’s a mouse nest under the porch at number 17A.” (How a fox knows the house number “17A” we will overlook.)

The two men had interesting experiences, which – they being artists and philosophers – nicely augmented the thoughts of past authors such as James Joyce, philosopher Thomas Nagel and primatologist Frans de Waal. Is it possible, wondered de Waal, for any animal to understand another animal’s Umwelt (a term that encompasses one’s physical, cognitive and existential surroundings)? These were experiments to see.

Their experiences are interesting to read about – Thwait’s day as a goat consisted mainly of chomping grass. Despite having made a goat friend, it was fairly boring, until he happened to usurp the alpha male’s uphill position, and all the goats held their breath to see what would happen. Meanwhile, Foster became the territorial adversary of a local housecat. If you’re interested in knowing the outcome and more, we’ll leave you to read the magazine article or their books.

As for our takeaway, it rests on several levels.

One, there is there the practical level. Can you use inspirations such as these to develop an animal character? Yes. The seed may be something behavioral – for example, a goat is always chomping (stereotypically chomping on anything). And goats have distinctive sounds. (Most notably, they scream like humans.) It may be something psychological – goats are impatient and noisily excited when it’s time to be fed. Or it may be something physical. For example, goats chew their cud side-to-side, so maybe you could speak with a lot of jaw movement?

Then there is the philosophical level. In Joshua Rothman’s article, he discusses the irony that “the more Thwaites and Foster try to change into animals, the more fully they become Thwaites and Foster.” In other words, they don’t so much change themselves as they add to themselves. From a professional VO viewpoint, that’s a good lesson: You may not need to perform as an animal tomorrow, but by having explored the possibilities, not only will you be more ready to do so someday, but you may learn things about yourself and your vocal capabilities that apply to other characters. (And, considering what these two men put themselves through, don’t say that merely “being” an animal in the booth is too esoteric a concept!)

And finally, there’s an important thought that falls in-between. Consider the response of another reader who owns a small farm. She wrote to say that – after a decade of trapping woodchucks to protect her crops – she has seen that each has a unique personality. Some are meek, some thrash about, some stare at her, others turn away. She said the question should not be “what is like to be a badger or a goat,” but “what is it like to be this particular badger or goat?”

Indeed. There is more than one way to play virtually any character. The key is to find a fresh one, using any trick you can, whatever works for you.