The Wisdom of Nancy Wolfson

Nancy Wolfson.  Image from IMDB

I recently found a YouTube clip of Nancy Wolfson coaching voiceover and thought it was really insightful, so I was delighted to find there were more clips available courtesy of her YouTube channel and

one or two participants of her workshops.

They’ve been inspiring me in terms of my thinking when performing a read.  Here are some of the key points she has made during her “How To” videos along with links to the corresponding YouTube clip.  If you like what you read and hear, check out her website braintracksaudio.com for more words of wisdom.

The Script

Cover up the specs. All the things you need to know and feel lives in the content of what’s going to be coming out of your mouth. Check the specs afterwards to make sure you’re on the right page.  Deconstruct the copy; don’t deconstruct the specs.

Underline the things you want the audience to know.  What do they (the client) need me to bring to the people?

Swap emphasis over to the nouns and verb rather than the pronouns (not emphasizing ‘yours’ and ‘you’ at the expense of content)

Physique

Hit the deck, relax and let the voice fall to the back of you back.  Then create muscle memory for that voice when you stand up to do takes.

Stance – One foot in front of the other, grab the ground, bend the knees

The importance of voice when referencing is to compromise some volume to frame a story

Tonality and Volume

Admissions at a hush – Speak into the microphone as if talking into someone’s ear

Active Hush = using vocal tension to give energy to your read instead of using volume, speed or emotional cheerfulness.

Language Sandtrap – when the language appears to exclaim the words (e.g. “this is HUGE!”), less is more, and less volume can make it more dynamic.

Approach to Style

I don’t need you to make me happy about it – I just need you to explain it to me.

If something’s important in the sentence, turn it from a black note to a whole note (lengthen it)

Pretend that you’ve tried it (the product), ate it, bought it etc, and you enjoyed it.  Have the intention of the admission; admit that it is good, like you’re giving a testimonial.

Reviewing Hamilton (West End)

Rise Up!

Every so often, there comes a musical whose popularity, originality and style sets it apart and it defines a decade as well as transcending its own time. Think the grand epics of Les Mis and Phantom in the 1980s, the gritty, bohemian hit Rent in the 1990s, or the green and yellow dazzle and wit of Wicked in the 00’s.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical was created in a perfect storm.  It was written during a progressive, enlightened time in US politics but soon after Hamiltons rise to fame, this story of America’s founding fathers feels like a rebuke to America’s current political turmoil.  Not only does it seamlessly combines hip hop with more traditional musical styles but it tells a historic drama but with color-blind casting. This is today’s America telling the story of the birth of their nation.  Unlike most of the classics previously mentioned, the staging here is minimal with just a balcony and two rotating circles in the floor.  The drama, then, is left to the characters to tell, and boy, do they tell it!

There was an incredible buzz for my wife and I being in the audience so near the beginning of the West End run and on Alexander Hamilton’s birthday no less (he would have been 263, in case you’re wondering).  Fans either booked a long ways in advance or paid high prices to be able to see this show so tickets were not bought on a whim.  In fact, we had the distinct feeling that the vast majority of the audience knew the songs and the lyrics already.  As the house lights dimmed, the first immense cheer went up from the crowd. Seeing the songs being played out in front of our eyes was a joyous occasion, the soundtrack having prepared and whetted our appetite.  There was an almighty cheer after the line “Immigrants (We get the job done)!” – Well done, London!

The hits came thick and fast.  The energy of My Shot was incredible.  The Schuyler Sisters kept the excitement levels at max.  You’ll Be Back changed the tone to joyous comedy before the heart-wrenching emotion of Satisfied.  The first half was relentless and absorbing as Hamilton fought alongside Washington in the War of Independence, and ended aptly with the song Non-Stop.

The second half continued to tell the life of Alexander Hamilton, but at this stage

his story becomes more personal and political.  The energy is more sporadic but the telling no less engrossing with comedy and tragedy each taking their turns and including some clever character swaps for the actors.  The finale is beautifully poignant and thought provoking, leaving a positive after-taste.

So would I recommend seeing it?  Emphatically yes!!  Book when you can, or if you’re feeling lucky, there is a daily lottery for tickets which would costs the winners £20 each.  Finally, I want to mention some of the players before the Broadway soundtrack colors my memory of the experience:

  • Jamael Westman as Alexander Hamilton is relatively inexperienced in the West End but took his shot with both hands giving a young, scrappy and hungry performance.  Hamilton would be proud!
  • Giles Terera as Aaron Burr had probably the hardest job in the musical keeping all his lines in order as every narrative introduction starts with the exact same music, but he delivered with brilliant consistency.
  • Rachel John as Angelica Hamilton had a superb voice and was mesmerising in Satisfied.
  • Rachelle Ann Go as Eliza Hamilton gave a brilliant, emotional performance.
  • Jason Pennycooke as Maquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson had the charisma to carry off two larger-than-life characters and add his own nuances to the performance.
  • Michael Jibson as King George had the swagger and stage craft to carry this royal, comedic part.
  • Obioma Ugolala as George Washington had a lovely bass tone to his voice and gave an assured performance as the Father of America.

The cast were exceptional throughout and the ensemble had as much to do as the principles and did it brilliantly.

Engage and Sound Credible

Useful tips from Voices.com

So what type of voice is needed to earn money from voice over?  I decided to look at a source that should know; Voices.com links many, many clients with voice talent through their online platform.  As part of this service, they have provided online resources that can prove useful to beginners and experienced actors alike.  I’ve combined this with some YouTube  examples for good measure.

Video Game Characters: The Video Game Developer’s Guide to Voice Actors suggest a good voice actor needs to speak clearly, take direction, listen with objectivity and create characters simply by reading a script.  They can find themselves voicing multiple roles and has the opportunity to be directly involved in how the story is told.

Here’s an example of famed voice actor Matthew Mercer.

Character / Celebrity Voice Over Impersonators The Animation Voice Overs article says the telecommunications industry is heavily making use of this talent in order to help sell a product or service.  Not only does the talent have to sound how the client wishes, but being easy to direct and being able to perform multiple roles is seen as desirable. For examples, listen and watch this excellent presentation by voice actor James Arnold Taylor.

Documentary Narrators Stephanie of Voices.com makes the point that a documentary without narration is incredibly difficult to digest.  A narrator can provide balance, structure and an anchor for the viewers in terms of perspective and how to interpret what they are seeing.  She describes the narrator as being a steady voice able to spur on new thoughts, convey emotion and be the voice of intelligence and compassion.Here’s an example by Tony Schwartz on how to sell a single sentence to the audience.

For Bill DeWees, giving a good read for narration is sound engaged and to sound credible.  He suggestions for achieving this sound are to speak from the lower part of the diaphragm, sounding relaxed and combine that with a speaking at a slower pace and with a downward inflection at the end of sentences.  This helps to sound knowledgeable and sound credible.

Audiobook Narrators The article ‘10 skills to look for in an audiobook narrator’ argues that it is the narrator who can enable listeners to lose themselves in the story, just as they can be the cause for listeners to become distracted.  Unlike most character voice overs, audiobooks is a marathon that requires both artistic and technical endurance.  Not only does the talent have to be right for the audience demographic, this really seems to be an area where experience is expected.  The article lists what Voices.com clients believe a good narrator should be able to do.  This comes down to engaging with the listener consistently whilst bringing the story to life with appropriate inflection, character voices, timing and correct interpretation of the author’s intent. According to voice actor Kevin Clay, you have to want to tell the story. Celeste Lawson of the Library of Congress says the goal of narration is to translate the written word in a way that is consistent as possible with the intent of the author.  The narrator should skillfully convey the sense of the text to the listener.  Both Kevin and Celeste agree that it takes a lot of practice!  Celeste goes on to say that knowledge of how to effectively generate, modulate and manipulate the voice are as important as the vocal quality itself.  But she emphasizes the single most important requirement is a great ear to discern the subtleties of the mother tongue or reproduce foreign accents and languages.

That’s enough to be going on with.  There are many subtleties involved, especially in engaging with the character and directly with the audience.  What does ring true throughout is the need to practice and to perform with conviction. The results will need to convince the director and the audience after all.

Back to Basics

So, after a year of creating vocals online for songs, characters and presentations, I thought it was time to take a look at the many ways I could do things better.  I had recently paid up to a 1 year premium package with Voices.com, a site that acts as an online job market for clients and voiceover talent.  If I’m to sound attractive to a worldwide market and get noticed in auditions, what do I need to take into consideration?

In this first research assignment, I decided to start with Dee Bradley Baker’s website dedicated to imparting knowledge to others, iwanttobeavoiceactor.com.  Who is Dee Bradley Baker?  Well, you probably know him in one form or another.  He is something of a legend in the voiceover industry!

If I’m going back to basics (not far too go), then I may as well start with his Newbie Mistakes article.

Dee lists the following six mistakes:

  1. Overlapping (taking over someone else’s read) is a no-no. It also means leaving a space in between takes for editors and recording engineers to adjust their equipment.
  2. Not acting.  If you are asked to give multiple takes, switch up your read (more voice acting) each time.  Dee generally recommends three takes as a sort of little menu for the creator to choose from.
  3. Distracting Wardrobe sounds.  I didn’t even think of this, but yes, clanging jewellery is not a good idea!  He also recommends losing the watch, bracelets or bangles.
  4. Not being silent during recording.  Walking around, rummaging through a bag while others are recording is definitely not done.  I’ve noticed at home just how much outside noise is picked up on the microphone!
  5. Running takes with your mobile phone or electronics.  The rule is to silence your mobile (cellphone) completely.  It can also be a distraction for you if not careful.
  6. Ruining a take with page turning during silence.  Dee recommends that if you must page turn during a take, do so silently and in between sentences – the space can then be edited out.  Currently I use my Kindle device, which is great in terms of noise and allows me to have it in front of me when recording.

Dee also had a Runners Up list that mentions not moving on when the director is happy,  ignoring direction, not watching shows from an established series, turning your head during a take, giving the booth too many choices which can confuse and slow down the recording/editing process and only notating your script changes in a multi-character scene.

For me, #2 – the not acting and getting the number of takes right was definitely something to work on.  I’ll try and stick with the rule of threes in future and give a little more expression each time.  I’ll think Dee should get the final word on this blog post however.  Here’s what he wrote in response to a reader:

“My first year in L.A. I didn’t book any voice over gigs. This was after a number of years’ experience in smaller markets. As an actor, you get lots of no’s always. I still do!”