Five harsh truths from the “Dark Side of Voice Acting”.
This one’s been a long time coming. Full disclosure: I was actually set up to do this article with a staff writer backing me up for Cracked, but as evidenced by my previous post, it came at a time when I wasn’t exactly in the best headspace for the funny. So I opted out, and sat on the idea for a while. But as things have taken an upturn in the mental kingdom occupying my brain-case, (and incidentally I’m going into the booth again myself later this week) I decided to bring this article home.
Let me preface this by stating the personal obvious: in the scheme of vocal titans, I am low on any totem pole configuration. I’m not big league. I get called in on occasion to make with the voices, get my check, and then return to the mortal plane of the usual nine to five. But, I’ve been blessed to do what I do, even partially, because I’ve worked with some of the most amazing and dedicated people both in and out of the booth; an army of hardworking professionals that tirelessly sling their acumen with the goal of entertaining you with the best product they can make.
Voice-over is, bar none, one of the most fun and challenging things I’ve ever been paid to do. Stepping into the booth is both the comfort of going home and the ball-shrinking trepidation of a journey into the unknown. Every damn time. I adore this job. It’s tied for first place with writing, no contest, and they both get equal play on the Wheaties box.
That being said, what follows can be a fucking nightmare at times. Let’s jump into the deep end of the pool. It’s lengthy, but trauma begs exploration. You can tell your kids that. I’m not a parent, but that seems like a parent thing. You should probably take my child-rearing advice, and the article that follows, with a wink and a nod.
ONE: Your own body becomes your primary nemesis.
I’m starting light, because this is something that goes without saying, but doesn’t get its proper due. In any industry where your physical ability or quality is the source of your payroll, the maintenance of said attribute becomes freakishly all consuming, and the regimes that lend itself to upkeep can run the rainbow road from benign to one of those stints on National Geographic that explore the mindfuckery of a remote tribe’s ritual self-mutilation. I mean, do I just go with the lemon-water today, or do I jump straight to pouring boiling gelatin and rubber cement down my esophagus to deal with this annoying scratchiness? I’ve got a five hour session coming up. No time to dick around with sanity.
Pictured: Your life crumbling all around you. Brought to you by NyQuil.
A common cold becomes the fulcrum on which your entire career might hinge. Allergies can become as terrifying to you as Muslims are to Trump and the Tea Party set. The simple act of talking too much transforms into an ambulatory sentient irony that delights in the fact that you are being paid to talk too much in the booth and conventions. It delights in your mental balancing sheet that weighs the need to make sounds come out of your head against the wear and tear said sounds are inflicting upon your fleshy throat machinery. Do I answer the attendee’s question, or just give them a heady dose of silent prolonged eye contact until they go away? I have to record tomorrow, but I don’t know if I’ve hit my plan’s limit on the number of syllables I’m allowed to spit out before they cancel my voice. Do I have free nights on this contract? Fuck.
And that’s long before you come across that one exacting director that insists you repeat the same ungodly one hundred and seventy second long scream for the tenth time because the first nine were just a combination of warm-up, mic issues, and him just not feeling the “poignancy of the moment” while you were screeching your vocal chords into goddamn skirt steak. Walk it off, Hoarsey. We’ve got cartoons to make. Suck down that citrus-morphine shake, and cuddle that microphone.
TWO: Everyone knows your job, and is more than willing to tell you that.
Voice-acting is easy, at least according to every single fucking person that has never set foot in the booth. You walk in, you make the sounds the director wants, you get a free cake and a Tumblr page, someone fondles your genitals, and you walk out with enough money to buy a new conscience that absolves you of the guilt you had regarding the obscene amount of money you made previously for a job that takes next to zero effort to do, and then you still have enough cash left over to buy a servant for fondling your genitals while a friend directs your responses so you can re-create the complete experience at home. Sometimes, there’s also cake in this activity. It’s not as good.
From what I gather according to the voice acting layman, this is entirely accurate.
Pictured: Cold Reality in friendly easy-to-consume meme form.
But, foregoing how giggling-while-pants-shittingly insane that scenario is—my bank account alone would laugh, if its soul wasn’t depleted from just keeping the damn lights on—there’s more that those on the outside looking in are willing to convey to you. Why? Because the chief word in your job title seems to be forgotten in the same moment it’s acknowledged: “acting”. As in: you have to be able to fucking act to BE a voice actor on any level whatsoever.
But don’t let that stop you from chiming in, because other actors certainly don’t let details smother their aspirations to make you feel less. Oh no! You can fully expect your fellow non-booth thespians to ride your self-esteem like a subservient pony, all while repeatedly asking you when you intend to get a real acting gig. What fun! You can look forward to defending your profession for the rest of your time in it, or until the voices finally win you over to the whole “cleanse the unclean stage” idea they keep pitching. Go ahead, voice-monkey. They won’t respect you until you deliver fire unto their House. Purge, and be loved. Yes.
And, as always, there are the hopefuls with a cache of imitations, who are pleased as punch to unload the cornucopia of mimicry upon you to demonstrate not only their prowess, but how much more they deserve to be in the gig than you. Listen, I do a fair Morgan Freeman, Skeletor, and even Ayame for the Fruits Basket fans. I could count the number of times I’ve been asked to use them in the booth on one hand, and still have all the fingers left to sob into while the other hand cracks open the Jack Daniels so I can self-narcotize after a day of imitators insisting that this is their key into the profession.
No wait, that’s bad for the voice. Sobbing sans liquor it is, then.
THREE: The fans hate you, the fans love you, the fans love to hate you.
Fans are passionate. We love ’em. Hell, we ARE them, even when we’re not as studious as they might hope. Before another fan asks, no, I’ve not watched Magical Girl Team Universe Happiness Douche-Lazer Shine Doki-Doki Flying Fuck Squad or whatever. Yes, you can miss some titles and still be a fan. Deal with it.
Pictured: Technically, “breathing” is grounds for some fan hate, but we can work on that.
But if you’re about to embark upon the magical mystery tour that is voice-over and the convention scene, you can expect to be subjected to the full spectrum of psychoses that coincide with certain personalities within the fandom. But fans are not comprised solely of whackos. It’s like traffic: Not all the drivers are lunatics, but it’s the ones that wrap their Hondas around a light pole after cutting across four lanes while texting and getting a lukewarm handie that you end up remembering.
I’ve both seen and heard incidents of erstwhile fans waiting in long autograph lines just for the privilege of letting a voice actor know how worse said actor is compared to Hitler, right before they punctuate their esteem with a healthy glob of spit. I’ve seen fans resolutely declare to the faces of voice actors that those actors are the reason that a show—nay, the industry—was ruined. Those fans might run off and continue the abusive merriment with fake Twitter or Facebook accounts so they can pose as the object of their scorn. Imagine the idol from that clever children’s cartoon spouting off with “I’m glad you liked my role in that show! Also: I like felching, pedophilia, and Jew-carving!” The fun never ends.
You, as a newling or veteran voice actor, can fully expect them to disrupt panels, sneer, catcall, and in all ways turn the spotlight onto their cavalcade of sriracha-and-ramune-coated snark so they can let you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you and you alone are the lidless Pandora’s Box from which springs everything that’s wrong with the American voice-over and dub industry. Why? Because politeness and decorum are for humans, not a captive lemur like you that’s been trained to make with the voices. You absolute asshole.
By the way, they might ask post-diatribe, what time’s the “how to become a voice actor” panel?
Conversely, they love too much on occasion. What better way to show your devotion and admiration for your favorite voice actor than to take their autograph and get it fucking tattooed on your chest? Hooray! You’ve declared your love AND your desire to be considered property! Not enough? How about a more traditional approach? Stalking is a time honored and spirit-breaking pastime for both perpetrator and victim. This season, you can give the gift of paranoia, night terrors, and a new set of anxiety triggers to that special voice-actor who has ceased to be another human being in your eyes and instead has become the conversation-starter for the shrine you are erecting out of hair and skin samples you gleaned from their con appearances. It’ll be like Martha Stewart meets Jessica Jones! What a delightful caprice!
Extreme, perhaps, but honest. I had one fan decide to take it upon themselves to follow me without my knowledge—like Solid Snake meets Otaku—all the way up to my hotel room. Needless to say, their knock on my door scared the hell out of my wife and I. I’m not ashamed to admit that, upon their dismissal, I went full on Night of the Living Dead-style barricade on our room, just in case.
Aim for the head? No. Just don’t open the fucking door. Ever.
FOUR: You are the company. Get used to it.
I’m not talking about company representation, though that certainly follows. You probably should avoid scandal if your name’s attached to a studio’s project. Or, in general, really. I don’t know what you do with your free time, sicko. I’m talking about the perception that will fall squarely on your shoulders once it’s known that you’ve been in the booth for one of the big players in the industry.
Remember that “army of hardworking professionals” I mentioned? Apparently they don’t exist. Ever. Recall, if you will, how I pointed out how some might blame you, and you alone, for everything they consider wrong? How easy the job is? Oh no? OH YES.
Pictured: The moment before he screamed “You ruined Naruto, and YOU are what’s wrong with America!” before he beat you unconscious while singing the lyrics to “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World”.
Welcome to being the company as a whole. You’re like the Judge Dredd of entertainment collectives. Given how some people react, you may as well march into any room filled with fans, droop your lower lip like Stallone after a stroke, and declare “I AM THE DUB!” You’re going to be held to account whether you do or not, so you might as well own it.
Translators? Nope. You’re responsible for the colloquial changes. Writers? Nada. You’re the one that hand their hand on the script, obviously. Directors? Sound engineers? Packaging? Board? Not only are you the final word in acting choices and audio quality, but it is clear that you are responsible for how the show looks, how it’s presented, and how much it costs. Fuck me, you are a GOD. Gozer asked, and you said YES while high-fiving a fellow Olympian playing a blistering guitar solo.
But don’t get too drunk on your supposed power, yet. Like any deity, you can expect to be burned in effigy when the congregation turns sour. You’re the face, the frontlines, the all-singing all-dancing personification of that company, and there are folks who won’t hear otherwise. That, or the initial assumption’s so much more appealing than the more complicated HR department truth that they’re unwilling to pass the chance to lay any and all issues at your feet. And they will.
Don’t start drinking yet. Again, bad for the money-maker.
This also means, apparently, that YOU THE LORD DUB GOD are the gatekeeper for industry information. You have the deetz on every single project that is on the docket for the rest of time, and folks will needle you until you give up the goods. They know you’re holding out. They know you know that they know that you know.
Let me step outside the silly to be frank here: No. We don’t. Ever. A good many shows that we’re cast in come as complete surprises. We may audition for one title only to find ourselves cast in another. We may not audition at all, and find ourselves called in. But, when we do know—in those rare moments when the cabal opens their flaking iron doors of the “sanctus sanctum managerium” to invite the initiate in to taste of their dark arcana—we’re usually in the know under the loving aegis of something called an NDA.
Some of you know that this stands for “non-disclosure agreement”. You would be incorrect. It’s from the fel and ancient tongue of “Lawese”, and it is pronounced “We own your tasty ass Barbara-Ann, so if you open your stupid whore mouth, you better brace yourself, because we’re coming in hard, fast, and flesh-rippingly bone dry, and we’re bringing the rest of our litigation friends to run a train on your quivering orifices until your innards are pudding. Also, your name is now Barbara-Ann, and you’ll fucking like it.”
It’s a poetic language, Lawese. Very fluid.
Similarly, those who wish to become great Gods themselves will look to you to elevate them up unto your plane of high existence. Such is the dichotomy of the pantheon. You are both Worthy and Meal-ticket.
Little do the mortals know that you barely have enough company pull to use the goddamn coffee machine.
FIVE: You will answer the exact same questions until you die, and you will likely die unknown.
No matter where you go, what you do, or how high your star may rise or fall, you can expect to answer the same questions, ad infinum, for the remainder of your days upon this rock once you are found out to be a voice actor. They are, in no particular hammer-against-the-temples order:
“What have you been in?”
“Can you do [insert character voice you’ve done before here]?”
And, most importantly,
“How do I become a voice actor?”
There are a few others, mostly concerning pay rates, fun, and putting in a good word for them, but let’s stick with the classics and leave the other addiction-causing queries for another time. These three are the triumvirate. The holy trinity. The “please let me be able to answer this yet again with a tone in my voice that can at least pass for mildly enthusiastic” Triforce.
Why? It’s not that we hate sharing knowledge, but the invention of the printing press and laterally the internet have made these questions superfluous. What have I been in? IMDB. Though, admittedly, the answer to this question can provoke a lot of polite nodding. Can I do that voice I did for that show? Yes. That show is a thing. There are clips of me doing that voice on YouTube. I think some ended up in some asshole’s Source Filmmaker 3D My Little Pony/ Steven Universe Crossover Porno. Joy!
How do you become a voice actor? Well, aside from the untold number of articles, books, videos and general casting calls one can find online, the first and foremost answer you hear from us will be a variation on the phrase “Step one, learn to act. Step two, live where the work is.”
Honestly, I’m considering getting “Live where the work is” chiseled on my tombstone. It’s truth, and it’s humor that works on many levels for future confused visitors. But we do get it. The personal connection; the one to one sharing of info. It’s healthy. It is good. The problem comes when it’s just a subversive ploy.
There’s a fantasy that must play out in some minds, wherein the question is asked, we give the answer, look around nervously with furtive glances to make sure the coast is clear, and then pull the person who asked in close to us. We whisper, we sidle, and we reveal to them how things REALLY work, because they and they alone are the Chosen One. No, THIS is how you really get in. Be at this wi-fi spot at noon on Saturday. Email this person, codenamed “Gatekeeper”. The password is “ADR Session”, and the countersign is “Monologue”.
Naturally, when this doesn’t happen, there is disappointment. Bright happy faces crumple into masks of bitter resentment when it’s revealed that there is no secret “one weird trick” that voice-actors just don’t want you to know. Because of this, you, as a voice actor, can expect your murder, or at least your online harassment, to be forthcoming. Yet these questions will continue to be asked, and those that ask it of you will forget you and try asking another.
Pictured: “While we appreciate the realism, we must reject your design for inclusion to our Happy Hearts line. Sincerely, Hallmark Greeting Cards.”
Get that? You will be forgotten. That tombstone? I’m totally kidding. I won’t have visitors. I already told you: I’m a nobody in the grand scheme of things, let alone making voices for cartoon characters. And chances are pretty damn likely that you will be one, too.
Don’t get me wrong: you’ve got a shot at being known. But if you’re after this gig for any kind of fame, you are setting yourself up to be well and thoroughly disabused of your delusions of grandeur. For every Troy Baker or Tara Strong there are hundreds, if not thousands, of brandless yet talented individuals who will see notoriety on the small scale, if at all.
They will be niche when they are known, and that will be the extent of any stardom. You may feel the love and energy in the convention center, but those three magical days will close up shop and leave you at the Starbucks where they can’t even spell your name right, let alone recognize you.
There’s no sex in the champagne room, and there’s no red carpet save for the one in your living room because you went and killed the booze in order to cope with your impending insignificant mortality and vomited up an entire Carrie scene’s worth of blood right into the shag.
Again. Dude. Not good for your voice.
But, once you can deal with all of that; once you can accept those terrible shadows of the future and reconcile the idea that this job will most likely not be landing you your dream home all on it’s own, (complete with aforementioned genitalia masseur that lives in serfdom to you) and you can safely say that it sounds like your cup of tea, then drink up.
Because for those with the right kind of insanity, this job is boss.
For everyone else, you might want to stay a hobbyist for the sake of your, well, everything.