I never dreamed that my voice could land me paying gigs. It’s fascinating, because there’s really no obvious or easy path into the industry. I studied acting at the University of Iowa and, though I’d recorded voice tracks on video projects during college, I didn’t know what “voiceover” meant until my professor told me I might have a future in it. Theatre never became more than a curiosity for me. I have an immense appreciation for the craft of stage acting—so much so that I think it may have scared me away. I ended up in film editing and post-production which, ironically, led me to voice acting.
Though I consider what I do acting, I wouldn’t call it art. I have difficulty referring to myself as a voice artist. My idea of an “artist” is someone who expresses something that will be left untouched. In the commercial world this refers to almost no one. I prefer either “actor” or “talent.” However you want to term it, what follows is my path.
When editors begin cutting a commercial, they record what’s called a “scratch track” to get the right timing for both the cut and the announcer, who is usually cast during the editing process. While I was an assistant, editors began using my voice for their scratch tracks, and, eventually, I was cast as the final announcer on a commercial for Denver Mattress Company. After a couple more gigs I was able to join the Screen Actors’ Guild. At that point I decided to pursue voice acting further. I put a reel together. I sent copies to several Chicago talent agents and ended up signing on with Stewart Talent, with whom I’ve been ever since.
There used to be a bit of stigma attached to doing commercial work if you were a celebrity or a "serious" actor: it implied a sense of desperation or failure. That’s completely changed. George Clooney is no longer hiding in Japanese or European ads; he’s voicing spots for Budweiser. In the last two decades it has become far more acceptable for A-list celebrities to do commercial voiceover work. Several years ago I was being considered for the voice of Midas. At my second callback the producers told me it was between me and “this other guy.” I didn’t get called back and soon learned that the “other guy,” Martin Sheen, got the job.
There are so many options for voice actors: commercials, video games, animated TV shows and movies, promos and movie trailers, industrial/corporate videos, audiobooks, even telephone “on-hold” messages. There are differences. Video games and animation involve the development and maintenance of the character. Commercial work involves finding the character but also balancing him, her, or it with whatever amount of “sell” the client might want. A lot of commercial scripts I audition for have direction like “conversational,” “not announcer-y” or “regular guy on the street.” In reality if you truly sound like a regular guy on the street having a conversation, you’re probably not going to sell many products. So the challenge is finding the line between “too sell-y” and “too conversational”—a line that jumps around from script to script.
In the first year or two of my voiceover career, one industry veteran advised me to copy other people’s styles until I found my own voice. And, eat apples. I had to inquire further about the apples. Sometimes when you’re talking, tissue inside your mouth sticks together and makes an annoying clicking noise. The pectin in apples and apple juice will get rid of it immediately.
In addition to having an apple on hand, I would also advise you to realize how much commitment voice acting takes. After signing with my agent, I auditioned for almost a year without booking a thing. I walked out of every audition cursing myself, agonizing over what I could have done better. When I finally decided to stop worrying and just accept that I was doing my best, I started booking gigs. I’d finally become confident, and you could hear it in my reads. It takes time and repetition to get confident in a recording booth, especially when you begin booking sessions with a crowd of clients watching you through that double-paned glass.
Voice acting is a crazy, competitive, erratic, fun and rewarding pursuit. Good luck, and be sure to listen to the audio track above for additional tips, reels and examples.
Before you decide to put a demo reel together, take a VO class or book a session with a voice coach—even if you’re already a stage or screen actor. Acting Studio Chicago is great for voiceover classes, all of which are taught by industry pros.
Look up talent agencies nationwide and listen to the demos of all their talent from this website. Listen to as many as you can and find voices similar to yours … If you decide to pursue it further, they will be your competition.
Unless you’re handy with audio software, own a decent mic, have a stack of scripts and know a bit about commercial production, it may not be the best idea to make your own demo. Many facilities and industry folks in Chicago—including other voice actors—offer demo reel production.
Greg Sunmark is a commercial film and video editor and a voice actor.