The season of terror is upon us, and by that, of course, I mean…a new election cycle. So, when better to discuss screaming then here and now.
Screaming. We do it at the television, during horror movies, and especially during football games. And I have to say, from my years of residing in LA traffic, it’s gotten a little easier to access a good old fashioned rage-scream.
But in voice-over, screaming is a technique that is deployed often in movies, animation, and interactive titles (video games). I say technique because even some well-known celebrities outsource their screaming and effort sounds to professional voice actors in post-production (or ADR).
Since it is almost Halloween, what a perfect time to discuss safe screaming technique.
It sounds like such a strange thing to need to learn how to do, but whereas crying on command is often a skill many actors take years to realistically perfect, the scream is such a common technique there’s even a musical genre of rock that utilizes it.
But how and why do we care if we scream safely?
Say you’re voicing a cartoon mouse that is being catapulted off a mousetrap and onto the soft, cheesy, craters of the moon. When applying the vocal effect, you may be pinching to affect the character and thus adding extra muscle tension. Now imagine having to do this 3-5 times a session, not to mention maintaining the tone for the non-screaming lines.
If you aren’t careful, you could find yourself leaving a session early, getting replaced or even worse, permanently damaging your voice. Yes it’s October, but this isn’t meant to scare you!
Here’s how I would recommend tackling this—
I think that there is always the risk of sustaining a vocal injury and damage: after all, our vocal folds are muscles, and even under the greatest of care will still experience fatigue or be susceptible to wear and tear over prolonged use.
However, a proper warm-up can help make sure your vocal mechanism is working properly and your body itself is relaxed and able to make a large amount of sound with as little tension as possible.
A few techniques that work very well for very physical VO maneuvers like screaming include some full body warm-ups:
Start with shoulder-raises: slowly lift your shoulders to your earlobes, hold for 3-5 seconds release out your breath. Not only will this loosen tension in the neck and upper-shoulders, it should also allow your breath to get a lower center of gravity.
Next, a gentle roll down/roll up: slowly roll over your knees like a rag-doll and even slower, roll back up – stacking one vertebra at a time. Again, when we are preparing to scream, alignment and relaxation of the vocal mechanism are key.
Finally, get the whole body loose with a gentle shake-out and an alternating stretch-out by lifting your arms and raising your legs, as if you were climbing an imaginary ladder.
Here’s a good breathing exercise: panting like a dog on a hot summer’s day, making sure to activate the diaphragm, helping stir your breath.
Next, 5-5-5: breathe in for five seconds, hold for five, then out for five.
Finally, before we begin to scream, release your air (that’s right, all of it!) and allow your natural breath to return.
Safety While Screaming
Support is crucial, so if you aren’t sure if you are breathing properly, check your breathing habits BEFORE you exert yourself. Place your hand on your chest and your stomach. Take a deep breath in through your nose, and imagine a water pitcher being filled from the bottom upwards.
Your chest should remain still and your stomach should inflate.
Then to exhale, engage your belly as if you are about to brace for a punch or impact (and if you are screaming for a video game, that might be exactly what is happening).
Yawning: by forming a yawn – and a wide-open shape in the back of the throat – you are allowing the natural projection of your voice to do the work rather than straining your muscles.
Wind-up: When screaming, start at a low volume and gradually raise it, like a siren. Another way to reduce strain is to add an (h) sound to the vocalization, to soften the air-flow a bit and reduce the chance of strain.
Properly cool down: This one is a no-brainer; after you’ve screamed, make sure to do some gentle lip trills, drink some warm, soothing beverages, and REST your pipes!
Be sure to listen to your body; only you know what is too much. If you are asked to scream in a session and you feel pain or discomfort, communicate that to your director and give yourself adequate break time. No one knows what is going on in your body better than you, so speak up and be your own advocate!
Here’s hoping these tips will be a “scream-come-true” and add to your enjoyment of the Halloween season. Feel free to utilize some of these tips in the haunted house and your next booking!