Voice-Over Performer  What They Do

Just the Facts

Insider Info

dotVoice-over performers are the "invisible" actors. They use their voices to act for the purpose of entertaining, informing or persuading.

dotVoice-over performers read scripts, assuming the roles of characters other than themselves. This may mean playing anything from a talking rabbit for a cartoon to a believer in a particular product for a television commercial.

dotVoice-over performers turn up in the most surprising places, although audiences usually don't realize there's a performer behind the voice they're hearing. Commercials, animated cartoons, narrated movies and documentaries, message systems, dubbed foreign films, public service messages and audio multimedia entertainment all depend on voice-over performers.

dotBasically, voice-over work can be broken down into three categories:

Prelay involves creating new voices for animated characters -- it is one of the fastest-growing segments of voice-over. Prelay is needed for animated television, movies, commercials and CD-ROMs. With prelay, voice-over performers follow the storyboard -- the sequence of events in the story -- and create the sounds and voice to fit.

Creativity is especially important in this category. "If you're creating a character voice, you have to have a few in mind before going into the studio in case the director doesn't like your first voice," says voice-over performer Cathy Weseluck. "Also, you've got to be creative to go with the story. For example, if your character trips over a log, what kind of noise would he make?"

Audio digital reproduction (ADR) is used if there's a problem with the audio track (the voices) in a movie, or for the purpose of dubbing foreign films. With ADR, a voice-over performer copies the voice and follows the lip-synch of a movie star, reading over the parts of the script that have been damaged.

Dubbing involves many of the same skills, except the performers don't have to copy the voices of other actors and they read the whole movie script for their part.

"It's really complicated, because you don't just act the part of the character you're playing," says voice-over performer Jim Winterson. "You have to act the part of the actor playing the character."

Narration is the most general category for voice-over work. Basically, voice-over narration is any situation where a voice is heard but no person is visible. You might hear voice-over narration while watching commercials or documentaries, while listening to public service announcements or voice messaging systems, or by dialing the wrong number on your telephone ("We are sorry, your call cannot be completed as dialed").

dotMost voice-over performers find work in a combination of these categories. The skills needed for any one of these areas are similar: a good speaking voice, a talent for acting and, most importantly, an ability to interpret the script the way the writer and director want.

"Voice isn't everything in this business," says voice-over performer Brian Arnold. "You have to be able to pull the words off the page and make them come to life. It's all a matter of interpreting and even improving on what the writer intended."

dotMost voice-over performers work alone in a sound studio. Finding voice-over work, however, demands strong networking skills.

"The competition is really stiff, so you have to get out there and promote yourself to different producers and advertising companies," says Winterson.

dotVoice-over performers can work odd hours. If they're working on movie or recording commercials, some of that work might be done at night or on the weekends. This career demands flexibility.

Because these performers use their voices as their primary work tool, it's the most important physical requirement. People with physical ailments or disabilities are able to work in the field, provided their voice is up to the task.

dotLike most areas of the entertainment industry, voice-over acting is an up-and-down profession. People in this industry work from contract to contract, and even the best performers say their work schedules are unpredictable.

"In this field, when it rains it pours, and when there's a drought it gets bone dry," says Weseluck.

"All in all, I see it as a very closed community," says David Hirt, a voice-over performer in Georgia. "It's hard to break into and tough to stay in once you're here.

"Hours are very unpredictable," Hirt adds. "You can work 20 hours one day, then not get anything for a few weeks. Sometimes equipment breaks down and that puts everything on hold."

dotYou'll have to invest some time and money in your pursuit. Susan Berkley is the president of a voice-over company based in New Jersey. "It requires an investment on your part in terms of having to make a demo tape, get training, duplicate the tape and be organized," she says.

At a Glance

Use your voice to act for the purpose of entertaining, informing or persuading

  • Most performers work in a variety of media
  • You'll need good networking skills to land jobs
  • You'll likely need some radio and theater experience and a repertoire of voices