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This week let’s talk a little bit about script preparation.
OK, I get that voice over is not exactly “The Ten Commandments” or “Gladiator”, but even a quick 15 second spot requires a script, and that script is going to require some kind of preparation before you deliver your lines. So, how exactly do you prepare a script, didn’t the writers already do that? Get ready for your close up with Mr. Demille!
Unlike a quick 15 second script for voice over artists, for on-screen and theater actors, script preparation is a long form exercise. One of the first things an actor does when preparing a role is to figure out who their character is. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Samuel L Jackson says in his Master Class, your character is a 3-dimensional human being who had a full life before he shows up in the scene. Just like real humans, everything this character does is flavored by everything that’s happened to him in the past. When he enters the scene, he is coming from somewhere, and when he exits the scene he is going somewhere. The actor’s job is to make the audience believe that.
How do they do that?
I’m glad you asked! One of the best way to figure out who your character is would be to read source material. If a play, TV Show or movie is based on a book, the fastest way to learn who your character is would be to read the book. An author has the luxury of however many pages he needs to give the reader all the intricate details that develop characters in his or her book. Reading the source material let’s you know a LOT more detail than the script ever would, and helps you understand why the character is acting a particular way or saying the things he says. It ALSO helps you know HOW the character might act in a given situation and how he would say the things he is saying.
What about the other characters in the scene?
If there are other characters in the scene, it is important to know how your character feels about them. Does he like them? Love them? Despise them? Do they frustrate him? All of these things (and more!) coupled with the character’s history will inform how a actor portrays a character.
What if there is no source material?
Well, obviously if there is no source material, you can’t go to that to figure it out. The only real option is to make it up! That’s right, MAKE IT UP! Sit down and write a page or two detailing the characters history, physical attributes (does he limp? Stutter or stammer?). This is possibly the most fun part of character development because you have full artistic control (well, at least till the director gets ahold of it) over the character. You are fleshing out the details of your character so you can bring him to life!
As an actor, you have to make choices. The choices you make about your character drive who that person is, and how he acts. As previously mentioned you can draw information from source material if it’s available, or make it up, but either way you are going to have to choose certain experiences and details that you’ll highlight in your performance. Every actor, whether theater, screen or voice over, needs to make choices about their character and stick with it!
How in the world does this relate to voice over?
The short answer is, that voice over artists ARE actors and need to develop their character just like theater and screen actors. Your scripts are shorter, and you have far less time to record and submit an audition, but the process is very similar.
Preparing a VO Script…
With very few exceptions, a script you are going to record is a real person, speaking to one or more other real people. You may be a manager speaking to an employee, a husband speaking to your wife or a salesman speaking to customers. No matter what, you are portraying someone, speaking to someone else.
For voice over, it is important to make choices about your character the same way a theater or screen actor would. This is actually obvious if you are doing voice over for animated cartoons, or even video games. Also pretty obvious if you are narrating an audio book. Maybe not as obvious for that 30 or 60 second radio or TV spot.
The truth is, even on a short advertisement it is important for a voice artist to know at east three things about his character (and you ARE playing a character whether you realize it or not):
- Who is he?
- Where is he?
- Who is he speaking to?
These are the three main things you must know about EVERY character you play. You can get more nuanced than this to be sure, but at a minimum you must know these things.
Who is he?
How do you figure out who this character is? The text in the script may give you a clue, and if not, possibly the direction notes. Sometimes you may be a sales representative for a company, or perhaps the manager at one of their stores. You MAY be one of their customers, or even perhaps a keynote speaker at a conference. Maybe you are an instructor teaching an employee how a company runs, or even walking a homeowner through a simple home repair. In any case, it is imperative that you either know instinctively or make something up to inform your read.
Where is he?
Where the character is at, physically, is going to color how he says the things he is saying in the script. Is he in the boardroom with the CEO and members of the board? Maybe he is in his boss’s office? In a store. Or standing on a stage? If you consider this, you’ll realize that you carry yourself and speak differently when you are home than when you are at work. Differently still if you are standing in your boss’s office. Where you are is going to color your read.
Who is he speaking to?
Just liek a stage or screen actor needs to know how he feels about the people he is speaking to so that he speaks to them in a way that fulfills his character, so too does a VO actor need to determine who he is speaking to in order to inform and color his reading of the text. If he is speaking to a colleague for example, he is likely to use different inflections and language than if he was speaking to his boss, or a customer. Who the character is speaking to will also inform and color how he says the words in the script.
Where is the character from? Is he from Boston? Texas? Chicago? NYC? Each of these locations are going to bring a different accent and slang as well as emphasis on certain words. Pahhk you-ah caah in the yaahd. What is the goal of the script? What is your character trying to accomplish? You get the idea, try to make the character a 3-dimensional person.
And then what?
Once you figure out these three things (at a minimum) it is time to decide how that character would say the things he is saying in the script. Let’s say you have determined that your character is the manager of a store, he is in his office in the store and speaking to a customer who is upset about something. He has no regional accent or dialect and his goal is to calm the customer down and make sure they are satisfied.
Now, imagine yourself sitting in the manager’s office in a local store. Picture a disgruntled customer standing in the door frame, and he is telling you all about what one of your employees did to upset them. Keep in mind that your goal is to settle them down and make them a satisfied customer. Now from sitting at the manager’s desk listening to the customer complain, how would you respond? Not what would you say, the writers have given you that, but HOW would you say it? Then say it like that.
MARK UP THE SCRIPT!
Once you know who you are portraying and how you are portraying him, it’s time to mark up the script. Start by reading through it once or twice, then quietly read it out loud to yourself. Doing this will give you ideas of pacing and where dramatic pauses are required. Remember to read it out loud as though you are saying it (like it is just occurring to you in your head like in a real conversation), not as though you are reading it – which means you do NOT need to honor all of the writers punctuation. We do not read and speak the same way. After you’ve done this, and have a good idea of how you want to do it, read through it one more time and physically mark the script to cue yourself where to pause and which words to emphasize. Make up your own shorthand for this, only YOU need to understand it. If you need more than one read, just do this step as many times as the number of reads you have.
But they want three different reads!
Yep, this happens all the time. How do you deal with that? Simple really…change something about the character. Maybe you add that this customer is a regular complainer, you’d respond somewhat differently even if your goal is to satisfy them, right? Maybe you decide your character just found out he won the lottery and is so happy he’d do anything just to get through the rest of the day and get out of there to collect his winnings. You don’t need to completely change the character, just one or two attributes. What if the customer ran you down in the parking lot as you were getting ready to leave for the day? Or maybe you just got off the phone with your spouse and your child is getting sent home from school, so you are in a hurry. The possibilities are endless, just make sure you are also being true to the copy.
Because you are a voice actor, and not a screen or stage actor (well, maybe you are both, but we are talking about voice over here), you don’t have the luxury of showing the audience through facial expression or body language how you are feeling and what you are thinking. You have only your voice to do the work.
But here’s the thing…body language and facial expressions DO affect the way we speak. Even though your audience can’t see you, if you’ll just affect the attitude and expression you are trying to portray, the audience will “hear” that in your voice. Smile when it is called for, frown, squint, scrunch up your face and gesture with your hands (just try not to make any stray noises when you do it). ALL of these things will come through in your audio.
At the end of the day…
At the end of the day what is important is that you know your character and then become him for the read! Good luck! Break a lip!
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