Archive for February, 2008

“Booth Mentality”

Contrary to what others might think, voiceover people don’t get into this business because they’re lazy.  Well…maybe some of us are actually lazy, but that would be the case no matter what we got into.  Point is, doing what we do well actually does require a lot of work.  It’s just a different kind of hard work.

And yet, regardless of the level of drive or devotion, there can reside even in the best of us a baffling condition I’ve begun calling “Booth Mentality”.  I was reminded of my own affliction as I read a post from a respected talent in the UK.  He had just been hired as an offstage announcer for a live television program, and commented on the welcome shift in his comfort zone it was likely to bring (I hope I’ve paraphrased him correctly).

As I read that, I thought of the many times I’ve performed as part of a live event or broadcast with few, if any, slip-ups.  Why?  I don’t know…except perhaps that part of my tiny brain knew there wasn’t going to be any “oops…sorry…take two” if I messed up.  So I didn’t mess up.  But if you had put me in a recording session doing the same material…could I guarantee the same uninterrupted performance?  Probably not.  We’d fix it in Post.

“Booth Mentality”…just a lazy little bug I can’t seem to exterminate.

As dated and “cornball” as a lot of it sounds today, the announcers and voice actors who worked in radio back when it was Radio (whether in news, comedy, drama, or the “soaps”)  had something a lot of us don’t even think about, simply because we don’t have to.  But I wonder, at least in some cases, if it didn’t make them better performers.

Radio actor Mary Jane Higby wrote a book about her experiences called “Tune In Tomorrow“.  It covered a lot about how network radio worked, but the story I remember most concerned commercial recording sessions toward the end of the era.

This was pre-audiotape.  Anything that wasn’t part of a “live” broadcast had to be, literally, cut onto a record.  That master disc would then be duplicated and sent out to stations.  And there might be a dozen or so different commercials on each record. 

According to Ms. Higby’s account, everyone required for all of the spots assembled in the recording studio at the same time.  Because the master disc could not be edited, every actor, musician, and sound effects man was required to stay the entire length of the session, and the commercials were performed one after the other, pausing only long enough to give the engineer time to create a “dead groove” to differentiate the cuts.  They stayed  because if anything went wrong with any of the commercials being cut — the recording stopped…the disc was scrapped…and the whole thing was started from the top!  Not just the commercial that was ruined…but the whole…blasted…session!!!!!

To add extra drama to her story, Ms. Higby let it be known that in one session, she was the last voice in the last commercial on the record.

Wanna talk about “pressure”?

It’s extra humbling to me as I recall so many instances where I couldn’t put a dozen words together correctly in a simple sentence…saved only by the skills of a gifted and sympathetic editor…usually me.

To that point, it was somewhat comforting that the esteemed UK talent admitted to a similar affliction in his past.  And at least one other participant in the discussion marveled that the same thing had happened in his own career.  Whew!  I’m not the only one.

What wonders might we achieve…and how much more time might we have to achieve them…if we could just get that voicetrack done right without having to rely on take two…and three…and four…or (borrowing from Firesign Theatre) “take…six hundred”?

Flu shots?  No, thanks.  I’ll take my chances.  But if anybody knows of a vaccine for Booth Mentality…save me a place in line!

– over and out –

[Writer’s Notethe piece below was the second attempt at a web log entry I made, September 2007, and the first one to get some attention and comments…largely due to its recommendation by Bob Souer on his Voiceover Boblog.  When I had to switch web hosts early this year, the few posts I had (and all their comments) were wiped out.  I managed to find backup copies of all but…you guessed it…one of the pieces people were still trying to link to.  I even tried various phrase searches on Google, and putting out the word to anyone who might have copied it for posterity.  Nada.  It took the invervention of that same Bob Souer, who finally thought of looking for places it might have been “cached”…and bingo!  Whether it was worth all the effort is not for me to say.  But the whole experience does point up the obvious advantages of having as many friends as you can make in this…or any other endeavor.  Thank you again, Bob.

– original post follows –

As mentioned earlier, I’m in the confusing state of working in my (voice muffled here) decade of radio and related fields…yet still learning what seem to be the ever-evolving tricks of the trade.

One of the hardest things to wrap my tiny brain around lately is the concept of narrowing the focus of what you present to potential clients.  In putting my latest voiceover demos together, there was the constant urge to cram as much variety into the commercial demo as I possibly could.  After all, I should show someone my true range, right?  Why run the risk of not being considered for a certain style just because my demo focused mostly on another, right?

Evidently, not many experts think so.  And at first, my “experienced” self rebelled against that notion. 

In the end, the only way I could make myself understand the concept (even if I’m still grappling with it), was when I remembered a story about a jazz musician told to me by my much-missed friend and mentor, Paul Montgomery.

Paul was known to thousands for over 20 years in Raleigh, NC as “Uncle Paul”, a kiddie show host persona he inherited as a staff announcer/performer on local tv in the 50s.  But Paul was also a brilliant jazz player, and brought a lot of that sense of fun to the keyboards of a hammond organ or grand piano as part of his show.  By the time I joined the cast the program was in its last few seasons and bounced around the schedule as news and talk shows came to dominate the morning.  But he and I hit it off immediately.  And it was invaluable training in how to ad-lib…in character…since we never had the luxury of (or budget for) things like scripts or rehearsal time for our daily half-hour shows.  While I am not a musician, Paul said working with me and my puppets was like a good jazz gig.  He said we could “read” each other like jazz players do…that if he threw out a line, he would never know what he’d get back but it would be something he could verbally play off of. 

For many years…though not nearly enough…Paul taught me a lot about classical music and mainstream jazz.  Our lunches and record buying trips were full of his stories about radio, early tv, studio hijinks, and especially jazz musicians.  He could tell you the name of almost any player in a recording just by the sound of a solo.  Some of his stories he got during phone calls from musician friends such as George Shearing.  Others he picked up in conversations with performers as they stopped by during a tour, such as Clark Terry, George Duvivier, Marian McPartland, and Lionel Hampton.

I could write a short book about the years I was blessed to know Paul Montgomery, but I suppose I ought to save that for later and get back to the tie-in with my current learning curve in the voiceover biz.  It became a little easier to understand when I remembered a story he told about a “young buck” who had just been hired by one of the great swing bands.  During a performance, the new guy stood up for his solo and, though very skillful, was all over the place in his range and phrasing.  When he finally sat down, a veteran player who’d been with the band for years leaned over and quietly said, “Hey, man…you don’t have to blow everything you know in one solo.”

Another story involved someone describing the great Count Basie, and his economy at the keyboard.  “It ain’t that he don’t play a lot of notes,” the observer offered, “it’s just that the Count knows which notes not to play!”

And that’s the closest I’ve gotten so far to “getting it”. 

Perhaps that helps you “get it” too.  Maybe it doesn’t make any sense…and that’s okay, too.  As a reward for slogging through the preceeding, I’ll leave you with one more story courtesy of “Uncle Paul”.

It seems many musicians like to step out for a little “refreshment” in the breaks between sets.  In this story, one particular fellow returned to the bandstand so “refreshed” he could barely walk straight.  The performance resumed with a tune in which he had a featured solo.  The man got up, put his trumpet to his lips…but he had the horn turned around backward and was frantically trying to make music blowing into the bell instead of the mouthpiece.  Oblivious to what was going on, he finally gave up, sat down and nudged the player beside him saying, “Take it, man…my lip’s gone!”  

– Over and Out –

This evening, while enjoying some in-studio conversation with the lovely and versatile Leanne Heintz (a wonderful voice talent just now starting to extend her VO reach via the internet), I was bragging again about the Voiceover Bulletinboard, or www.vo-bb.com

Leanne had come over to record an audition at my place and had some questions about computers and home recording and microphones that I could answer…and many more I couldn’t.  Naturally, I pointed her to my best information resource:  my friends at vo-bb.com. 

Moreover, we had just finished talking about “blogs”, and I had mentioned how much help I had gotten just by asking my friends on the (…all together now, say it with me…) vo-bb.com.

Since joining a conversation about the exchange of blog page links, I doubled my exposure just today to other voice talents and those who read their pages.  The only reason I even had a blog page to trade links ON was because of several friends I met on the board.  And out of this huge support group, I have only met one of them face-to-face since corresponding on the vo-bb (and yes, Bob survived the experience)!

There are other online gatherings of voice talent, although everyone pretends ignorance of such things when we’re on that internet gift of Deirdre “D.B.” Cooper.  Some are very comforting and helpful in their own way…like the one Julie Williams established over at www.voice-overs.com.  Some groups are more like squabbling one-upmanship contests with just enough helpful information and good natured members to keep you coming back.  But the vo-bb.com?  To quote Robin Williams quoting Quasimodo:  “Sanc-tu-aryyyyyy!”

I told my friend Leanne she should be using the board not only for information, but for companionship while she’s feeling stuck at home doing a masterful job taking care of her young kids (one of them, a great little guy named A.J., is a Downs’ Syndrome baby).  I told Leanne about all the ego and rancor that isn’t allowed by the divine Ms. D on the vo-bb.  I told her it was a lifeline for those days when we listen back to an audition we’ve just cut and think, “Who am I kidding, really?” 

I do have hopes of traveling sometime in the future, and meeting some of these “names” at voiceover workshops.  I’m preparing an 8×10 glossy from some of the sample headshots Kara Edwards recently posted, so I can get her autograph in person someday (and not just because my young son, Ricky, loves Dragonball Z).

Meanwhile, I continue to tell anyone I can about this terrific, helpful, silly, serious, baffling, and bountiful group of people who are mostly names and avatars on my computer screen.  Good friends, nay, great friends I’ll probably only know through the portion of their personas they freely share online.

Oh…and I also told Leanne I was trying to make myself write shorter posts.   Looks like I blew that one.

– over and out –

The image is from a real billboard for a real college.

And every time I look at it I get angry.

Perhaps I should be magnanimous…and careful. After all, the school did hire me for a TV voiceover last year. But look at this darned thing! What, exactly, is the message?

Option A: “Get it out of your system now, kid. Then settle down and get a real job! We can help!”

Option B: “Caution. If you waste your life on the performing arts, you’ll wish you’d chosen a safe, boring career someday! We can help!”

Option C: “Wanna be an actor? You’d better be good, or you’ll end up as a bean-counter somewhere! We can help!”

Or, Option D (unlikely): “Former actors make better accountants! We can help!”

Maybe I shouldn’t be angry. Maybe this is just a call for realistic expectations.

Of course, it doesn’t help that I can tell from the call letters on the microphones (WOV) this is a still from a production of “1940s Radio Hour”, a show I did myself some years ago (I played the sound effects guy).

And, of course, it doesn’t help that when it comes to crunching numbers, I literally don’t “have the chops”…even with a calculator!

Still… The concept seems to insult both professions: squelching the hopes of budding young performers…teasing future accountants with the thrill of enteraining audiences they’ll never know.

Nope. I’m still angry.

Do you see something different?

– over and out –

oh “me” of little faith…

There’s one theory of human nature that says most people tend to remember the good things that happen to them and blot out the bad.

And then there are Actors.

Except for the stereotypical raving egomaniac of the breed (and if you are one, I’ve little worry about offending you, since you probably only read your own blog), most of us creative types are prone to fixate on all the things that are/have been/or/will be/ going wrong in our performing career, whether it’s on stage, on camera, or behind the microphone.

I say to you, sweet brothers and sisters, it is an unnecessary burden! But, like Alice in Wonderland, I also give myself very good advice but rarely ever follow it.

Case in point.

Recently, I was chosen (without audition, I have to keep reminding myself) for a comic bit in an internal video for IBM. It was part of a fake “biography” segment on a fictional super-sales type, filled with the people who “knew him when”.

My character was a former Camping Club member, still in scout-like uniform, relating his childhood buddy’s qualities for the camera while on the backyard patio trying to light his charcoal grill. The script called for me to be constantly lighting matches, one after another, all the time I was telling my story. The humour in the piece was that I never looked down…the matches would always go out without lighting the charcoal. I would instictively know it didn’t work and immediately strike another…never looking down, always knowing the outcome, and co-incidentally, never burning my fingers.  At the end of the scene, the camera would tilt down from the cold grill to show a huge pile of spent matches on the ground.

The director, one Peter Orton, was an actor’s dream. He insisted on the lines being memorized, so that we could work on the timing of the bit. But he knew exactly what he wanted, and was very patient in guiding me until he got it. The patience came in handy when, in the first few takes, I would involuntarily look down at the match, throw it away and light another, notice it go out, calmly draw out another and repeat the action under my dialogue. I don’t know why I had so much trouble doing the scene as written. Maybe I just imagined my hero, Buster Keaton, doing it and instictively mimicked what he might have done. I don’t know.

Actually, after a few takes, I finally did give several complete reads without looking down at all. My director pronounced he was happy…had gotten what he wanted and some extra takes for safety besides. He gave me the standard line about sending me a copy of the finished DVD, and everyone left…satisfied with a morning’s work well done.

At least that’s what I thought until I got the DVD.

Let me first add to my director’s praises. If you’re a performer, you know how difficult it is to get a copy of finished work for your demo reel. Even producers with the best intentions can get immediately caught up in their next project and let it slip. Sometimes the client will not allow material out of house. There are any number of reasons why the phrase “I’ll get you a copy” is usually afforded the same level of import as “I had a great time, I’ll call you,” after a first date.

But praise be to Mr. Orton, he made good on his word. And he made me wonder if I’d really made good on mine when I said I had understood the comedy moment he was after.

There I was…in full video glory…talking calmly about my camping buddy…looking appropriately ridiculous in my slightly-snug scout-style uniform. I saw myself light the first match and hold it to the charcoal where the flame immediately went out. To my horror, I also saw myself look down vacantly at it, casually toss it over my shoulder with a shrug and continue talking without missing a beat. In all, I looked down at the matches several times…all with that same understated “hmm…imagine that” look, but never breaking from the dialogue.

What had happened? Had I gotten drunk off the sulphur from striking too many matches over the course of the morning? Or…and here the mental gremlins pounced…had I really been unable to take direction, forcing Mr. Orton to settle for what I could manage instead of what he had wanted?

For several days I worried about it. Finally, figuring I owed the man a “thank you” for actually delivering the promised DVD, I sent an email…and also ever-so-casually commented on my onscreen persona’s distinct lack of staring straight ahead during the striking of matches.

He wrote back within minutes, “I loved your performance — looking at the matches —
they made me laugh.  And they did with other
audiences as well.  You were wonderful!”

So, kiddies, the moral of the story – yes, by all means do whatever you can to give the director what he/or/she is asking for. Yes, do everything possible to trust the material and the overall vision of the piece. Absolutely do not just assume you know your own talents better than those who are watching and/or listening.

But…don’t completely discount the notion that ALSO…maybe…MAYBE you are actually good at what you do, and you should trust your instincts more when the situation allows.

[Aha! I just heard a raving egomaniac who sneaked a look at this whole story shouting, “Big Deal, I already knew that!!!” What’re you doing down here? Go read your own blog.]

Epilogue:  By the way, as part of Peter Orton’s email signature is this quote, which seems a great way to wrap this up.  

“Listen with your full attention, look for the good in others, have a sense of humor, and say thank you for a job well done.”   -Smuckers Code of Conduct

 

— over and out —