While traversing the boulevards of San Francisco, Los Angeles, or New York, you might brush by someone whose face you have never seen before, but whose voice you would most certainly recognize–though you might not be able to place right away.
These voices live among us, voices whose tones and timbres elevate the spoken word to a singular art form. With a finely honed artistry all of their own, talking talents ceaselessly wend their way into our aural world—to tell, to sell, to entertain, edify, guide and compel. They speak to us by way of radio and television commercials, audio books, video games, self-guided museum tours, film narration, animated entertainment, telephone prompts, talking toys and more. Much more.
However ubiquitous these actors’ voices are, these days, it’s no longer solely about the voice itself. Unlike earlier eras, when deep, resonant voices or dulcet perfection won the gigs, today’s most successful (and talented) voice actors rivet our attention with a quality that Samantha Paris, Founder of Voicetrax San Francisco, reverently refers to as “the ability to be six years old all over again.”
Being six, she explains, renders you completely authentic and believable, unafraid of making a mistake or not being perfect—and she coos, “that is so freeing, so joyful—it’s like a drug, it feels so damn good!” What’s more, she adds, “When the true self shines through, everyone is “perfect” in his or her imperfections, and besides,where is the artistry in perfection?!”
As a gifted teacher and accomplished voice actor in her own right, Ms. Paris reminds us that a child of six does not pretend to be a pirate or princess…he or she becomes wholly engrossed in being one. As such, these young zealots are completely believable and in turn, believe everything without the negative filters that the adult world and real life impose. Over the past 25 years, she and her cadre of teachers at her world-class voiceover academy in Sausalito inspire the same unabashed surrender from the thousands of working and aspiring voice actors who have come to learn about voice acting and in the process, end up discovering a life-changing lot about themselves. This transformative journey of “finding your voice,” reveals Ms. Paris, is how the magic within can be unleashed and artistic journeys can take flight.
Ms. Paris is known for her uncanny ability to nurture her students with a “tough love” teaching approach. One way or another, she vows, she’ll “pull it out of you.” She is aided by an accomplice, the studio microphone, which is a total “truth meter” that strips you down and picks up e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g.
Longtime student and now Voicetrax teacher Al Bedrosian spent over 25 years in law enforcement before later reinventing himself as a voice actor. He reluctantly admits, “I was sometimes more intimidated taking direction from Samantha in the recording booth than I was making forced entries into houses containing armed suspects.” Al goes on to attribute his experience as an undercover agent as later serving him very well in voice acting—especially that of “being constantly aware and always in the moment”. In addition, Al credits Samantha’s “tough love” style with getting him through those nagging periods of self-doubt and into a career as a successful voice actor.
Some are born with it, but Ms. Paris firmly advocates that voiceover talent can be taught. She asserts that many an average-sounding voice can develop extraordinary careers in voiceover by mastering all the colors, placements, textures, moods and styles that can be expressed through the voice.
And even the most unusual-sounding voices can find their niche.
Pixar animator Bret Parker found out that her rather unique voice served her well in winning a prized role of the babysitter in the animated film, The Incredibles. Through her studies at Voicetrax, she came to understand that voice actors have to do the work of all actors, since they cannot rely on facial expressions, hand gestures and body movements to convey meaning. They have to act on the words themselves. This is easier said than done. It takes great imagination, feeling and self-knowing.
Her close work with Paris helped Ms. Parker embrace her own individuality as an artist. “Samantha has given me the gift of realizing that just being myself is what it’s all about, that my one-of-a-kind qualities can be used as my greatest strengths.”
To ignite a voice artist’s innate abilities, there’s one body of work that is widely considered to be the field’s single most influential toolset:
The Colors of Your Voice, developed by Thom Pinto — one of Voicetrax’s highly revered teachers and a superlative voice actor himself.
Invaluable as a visual way to access and ultimately express moods and feeling, Pinto’s Colors assigns certain descriptive words to corresponding colors, based upon keen observations of television advertising and life in general.
Pinto’s system helps the voice artist readily visualize, imagine and activate the essential things, incorporating universal ideas that “resonate as truth, both commercially and sociologically.” For example, Mr. Pinto shares, “green in the voice can be fresh, reflective, honest, peaceful and natural. Violet can be sensual, luxurious, smooth or rich. Silver can be any elegant, classy or magical influence layered on top of your primary voice, with a shimmering quality that adds a light texture to any voice print you utilize.” These ideas represent time-honored truths in design and make perfect artistic sense when applied to vocal expression.
He explains that “everyone’s spectrum is different.” Within each person’s range, there are nuances and shades, and each person plays out their notes of color differently. Colors can be combined, like a blue voice that’s calm and centered, edged in yellow, which is sunny, gentle and clean. Not only does the voice artist have a whole palette of colors from which to choose, there’s also the creative matter of the “brush strokes” and what kind of “brush” you are using. Is it, figuratively speaking, a 5” brush? A paint roller? To Thom Pinto’s ears, there are endless subtleties and possibilities.
To the casual observer, it should come as no surprise that San Francisco teems with voiceover talent and opportunity, “considering all of the commerce, tech and advertising going on here,” explains talent agent Nate Tico, Vice President of the Stars Agency (SF). Among the list of reasons, he relates, is the “wild popularity of video games, and the obsessive loyalty of their users, which assures work for versatile voice actors in the area” who can showcase their character acting prowess.
Forecasted business and entertainment trends indicate that the voiceover industry will continue to experience explosive growth and hence, spring forth fresh challenges for trained voice actors. Mr. Tico reaffirms that in today’s highly competitive marketplace, voice actors who exhibit artistry in their performance beyond technical mastery will go the farthest.
Voiceover is clearly big business that can deliver lucrative rewards. Ask anyone who does it, it’s work that feels like play. But for the voice artist, the greatest gift comes from the ever-evolving process of finding and expressing your true voice. And there’s certainly an art to that inside job.
All photographs by Lisa Keating, more on Lisa’s work here: www.lisakeatingphotography.com