As a character voice actress, I’m often surprised by how many different “voice-onalities” I’m able to create week after week. First, let me say I use the expression “voice-onality” not only because it’s cute and catchy, but also because it expresses how character voice actors don’t just create voices. In fact, we create a voice along with a personality. As my buddy Jess Harnell likes to say, “voice Acting: little v, big A.” Basically we ask ourselves who we are, why we do what we do, and how we feel about ourselves, our situation, and the people we are with. What is our attitude? We also imagine our history, our physical being, and quirks we might have.
Here are five tips I use regularly to discover new character “voice-onalites” that you may find helpful as well.
1) Read everything first.
There could a little or a lot of information in the character description provided, but you don’t want to miss any informational nuggets that will help propel and stimulate your imagination. Look for all the adjectives and adverbs. Read the description of the show and any information about where and when the action takes place. Then, take a moment to imagine yourself in such a place, situation, or time and how you would relate to it as that character. For example, if you are a child in an enchanted forest and you are shy, you may interpret your experience differently than if you were inquisitive and outgoing.
2) Study the accompanying visuals.
I really appreciate when drawings of the character are included with the copy. The artists and producers probably went through many hours of fine-tuning what the characters will look like. Every nuance you can notice will be helpful. What does your character look like? Do your character’s eyes sparkle? Is the character big or small? Do they talk out of one side of their mouth? These are physical characteristics that you can mimic with your own face and body to help create the voice. The description and the visuals will also give you an idea about the pace and pitch of the character’s speech. Sometimes, character voice actors can even play with the opposite of what appears to be an obvious approach to the character to add an element of humor and/or surprise.
3) Play with sounds, not just the words.
All audition sides include dialogue. The question is, How can we make our audition stand out from the rest? One of the ways I try to liven up my reads is to consider what signature sound the character might make. Is the character you are auditioning for an animal? What sort of characteristics does the animal have that might inform their particular “voice-onality?” For example, I created the voice of a hummingbird that is very hyperactive and excited. When he enters, exits, or is really excited, I add a few amusing trills amidst the dialogue, gasps and surprise sounds to make him more fun and entertaining.
Another way to enrich your read is to make sure you add efforts; breathing, mouth noises, and body movements to make the delivery more believable. If you are lucky enough to have stage directions, you must include them in your vocal performance. These extraneous sounds are sometimes included in what are referred to as “efforts.” If the script says that your character sighs, then sigh. Sometimes, it’s even more effective when we add the efforts on the lines instead of just in between them. If the character is big and heavy, his or her breath might be labored. Maybe the character has a cold or is just someone who sneezes. Allow your imagination to play with all the possibilities, and have fun fleshing out all the nuances you can!
4) Use your body.
Contrary to what some may think, voice acting can be just as physical as stage or on-screen acting. Sometimes even more so. In voice acting, your instrument is your entire body. Feel your body take on the characteristics you see in the drawing. Our challenge as voice actors is to follow the rules of the “studio” road, so to speak, while bringing the action to life. What I mean by that, is while we can’t make any extraneous noises with body parts other than our mouths (i.e. We can’t stomp, clap, snap. That’s done by a foley artist or the engineer), it’s still required that the listener hears the physicality leading up to the line and incorporates it into any actions. For instance, if our character is supposed to kick something, then we must kick, or at least move our bodies as if we are kicking with as much effort as is required in the scene. If the script says he throws a rock, let’s hear you do it. And, please, really go all out to match the action, with the same intensity you would use in real life. Put your whole self into your reads, including any body movements. If you are a chicken, act like a chicken. Flap your wings and strut. Of course, you must do this while staying on mic! If you are giving a speech in front of thousands, hold yourself as if you were actually doing just that. Mimic the action that you are portraying.
5) Connect to your feelings and senses.
The final thing to bring real life and truth to any character is to connect not just to the character’s description, but also to the character’s heart. See and feel yourself as the character. We need to be clear about how we feel about ourselves, our environment, and the other characters in the script and what is happening. We need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable to our feelings in order for the truth of the scene to be revealed and come to life. We connect with our heart. This is the point where we really bring a bit of ourselves into each and every character we create. Whether the characters we play are bigger than life or true to life, they all still have an inner life, an emotional life, and reasons for doing the things they do and for thinking the things they think. Always ask why. When we know why we are thinking and feeling the things we do, then we know how to deliver the lines intuitively. That kind of understanding is the key to character development. Some call it intention.
Remember to use all the information you can gather to give depth to your characters: the script, the character description and artwork, the stage directions, physicality, and your own experience and emotional truth to help inform and create your own collection of “voice-onalities.”
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About the Author
Since 1981, the talented Katie Leigh has been a part of the Los Angeles voice over community, staring in such Emmy-award-winning and fan favorites hits as “Muppet Babies,” (Baby Rowlf) “Darkwing Duck,”(Honker Muddlefoot) “Richie Rich,”(Richie) “Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears,”(Sunni Gummi) “Totally Spies,”(Alex) and many more. In 1987, she took on the role of Connie Kendall in the world-wide radio show “Adventures in Odyssey,” a role she has lovingly continued ever since. More recently, she supplied her voice over talents to such high profile projects as “LEGO Star Wars: The Padawan Menace,”(Han Solo) “The Extraordinary Adventures of Poppycat”(Zuzu) “Zou,”(Zac, Zinnia) and “Get Blake”(Skye, Isabelle, Sunshine). In 2015, Katie took on her first voice directing job with the award winning radio play “Rex Tanner and the Sword of Damocles.” She has an extensive background in ADR, which includes supplying the voice for the Maharaja in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” Katie is best known for her fantastic children, teen and character voices (but she can sound like a grown-up, too!)