Working in your jammies, huge pay days and the company of celebrities sounds pretty sweet, right? For kids, doing the voice of their favorite cartoon characters is a dream come true. All of that is possible in the world of voiceover (VO for short).
WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?
Voiceover is the audio (sound) portion of any entertainment project that is recorded at a different time than the visual portion. In other words, it is a disembodied voice. Dialogue or sound effects may be spoken by the person who appears on camera elsewhere in the project, or it may be performed by a specialist voiceover actor. You hear voiceovers all the time: radio commercials, the guy who says, “Tonight on This Is Us…”, or a talking starfish in a cartoon. Start listening and you will hear them everywhere.
Opportunities for kids exist in TV commercials, radio commercials, video games, animated features and TV series, foreign language dubbing, and in ADR. For adults, additional work areas include promos and trailers, audio books, and the category with the most work available, narration.
Voiceover can be done from any city, although the hubs tend to be in NYC, Los Angeles and Chicago. Adults purport to be able to do VO work from literally anywhere, but this doesn’t really float for kids. More on that later.
CHECKLIST OF 9 SKILLS NEEDED FOR KIDS DOING VOICEOVER
Voiceover work is extremely competitive because children must be able to compete with adults for the same jobs (a 30 year woman can sound like a 10 year old boy, ala Bart Simpson). Here is a checklist that may help you decide if your child is right for a voiceover career.
The child must:
- Read very well. It is extremely rare for kids younger than 6 to do voiceover work, but when they do, they must have the ability to memorize quickly.
- Have improvisation skills
- Be articulate and enunciate well. In other words, their language is very clear, with all consonants spoken. They are understandable and speech is crisp.
- Have extreme patience. Voiceover work can be very boring…a sound studio without much to spur creativity, dozens of takes for each line, with just slight variances in the way they are done.
- NOT be primarily interested in fame or glory. There isn’t much of it as a voiceover actor–most jobs are done without applause or even your name in the credits. Even the star of an animated series is often not named because the studios want to preserve the “character” as an entity and not ruin it by pulling back the curtain.
- Have the capability for physical stillness and the ability to sit for long periods of time. Kids with the wiggles are a problem for VO engineers because their clothing makes additional noises that can ruin a recording session.
- Have the ability to create characters and break down a script very quickly. They need to be a good actor with some serious chops. It is common for directors to ask for 3 different interpretations in quick succession (referred to as an ABC read).
- Have an awareness of timing and the ability to speed up and slow down a read. Radio commercials sometimes need to add or subtract even 2 seconds. The actor needs to be able to adjust their voice in small increments.
- Have the ability to understand and interpret directions that are verbal only. Many times a director is in another state, giving direction through a headset on a patched-in feed.
In addition to that, there are some attributes that are not necessary, but can be extremely helpful:
- Have a very unique voice.
- Ability to do multiple dialects very precisely (ie. Cockney vs. just British, Mexican Spanish vs. just Spanish).
- Singing ability.
Hollywood Reporter called it The Mafia of the Acting World and they were right! We’ll go one step further and say that former child actors are part of “the Family” that is cashing in! ADR is short for Automated Dialogue Replacement, or looping. ADR is like a do-over for the sound portion of a film. Almost all film and TV productions use ADR to some extent. Sometimes it happens because the dialogue was unintellible, sometimes they just have to add background noise (aka “walla”) and sometimes the original recorded quality on location wasn’t good enough.
ADR is prime VO work because:
- Union jobs pay the same as a principal performer including residuals,
- It’s fun
- Once you are skilled at it, it can be consistent work.
TV series often have the same group of actors who arrive once week to do ADR on that week’s episode. Film ADR is organized in similar “loop groups”, with just a few companies dominated all of feature film production. Interestingly, several loop groups are organized by former child actors. A list of loop groups is in the resources at the bottom of this article.
Agents usually do not handle ADR, so you just have to network and prove yourself once you get a job. Skills needed include
- Great improv skills,
- Ability to time your statements to 3 little beeps while watching the lips move on camera,
- Ability to “voice match” a recorded voice that already exists (usually the on camera performer).
A related form of work is dubbing. Dubbing is when ADR is used to completely replace the dialogue for a language switch. An example would be Japanese animation that is being broadcast in the U.S. Bilingual actors are most often used for dubbing.
If you think the competition in Hollywood is stiff, wait until you get to voiceovers.
Celebrities love this work because it is very lucrative and can be scheduled around their on-camera jobs. Celebrities aren’t just doing high profile movies like Shrek (Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz) and Toy Story (Tom Hanks, Joan Cusak, Tim Allen). They are doing commercials as well!
Beyond celebrities, kids are at an additional disadvantage in the voiceover world: the sheer number of actors who can do the voice of a child makes the competition stiff. It is not at all unusual for an 8 year old boy to be competing with girls, and a slew of adult women for the same jobs. No one cares what you look like, they just care that you can do the job. Producers don’t care where you are geographically–kids and adults from across the nation can audition for the same job. It’s a wonderful opportunity, but it opens up the competition to thousands of people.
Lastly, the voiceover community is very tight knit and hard to break into. It’s a lot of “who you know”. Loop groups are well kept secrets. Most voiceover jobs are distributed to the top level agencies, not in breakdowns. And animation (usually the type of work kids’ dream of) is reserved for those who are extraordinarily proficient at other types of voice work. Don’t be discouraged, but recognize that a higher skill level is involved, and allow enough time to break in.
UNIONS AND PAY STRUCTURE
Most voiceover work falls under the jurisdiction of SAG-AFTRA, the merger of the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
In general, Nickelodeon doesn’t pay well because it is either under an old AFTRA contract or non-union. Radio spots don’t pay well because they are designed to be short term–they don’t run them enough to pay significant residuals. The highest paying gigs are in feature film animation because the job can take years of intermittent work days to complete and they pay residuals in the same way as on-camera projects do. Sweet!
A caveat about pay and credit in animated projects: there is no rule that says they can only hire one actor for a voiceover role. Don’t be surprised if you find out after the fact that several actors were doing your character over time. Also, it is allowable by union rules to ask an actor to voice up to 3 separate roles in one pay session. For this reason, flexible actors who can produce different voices (a main character, plus Kid #1 and Crying Preschooler, for example) are highly prized — it is just cost efficient for production.
With the exception of ADR (looping) work, an agent is necessary for kids wishing to work in the voiceover world. Managers generally do not work in the voiceover arena. It is especially risky to navigate the voiceover world without an agent since the contracts are complicated and the performer is easily taken advantage of.
This is a very specific specialty among agents and very few kids’ agencies even have a voiceover department. Effective voiceover agents have a booth in their offices and are subscribers to a different set of job breakdowns, usually coming from VoiceBank (as opposed to the on-camera breakdowns that are distributed via Breakdown Services). In Los Angeles, specific agents are assigned to handle voiceover. In NY, commercial agents tend to handle the voiceover opportunities.
Some agents that handle kids’ voiceover are A3 (fka Abrams Artists), Innovative Artists, CESD, Sutton Barth Venari, Danis Panaro Nist, Imperium 7, Osbrink, Coast to Coast, Kazarian Measures Ruskin, Arlene Thornton, Buchwald, and AKA. In addition, celebrity kids are sometimes handled by Special Artists, CAA, and William Morris Endeavor. Voiceover is not automatically an “across the board” representation component. Don’t assume that if you have theatrical or commercial representation at an agency that also handles voiceover that you are represented by the voiceover department.
How do you get an agent? Your best shot is to see if your on-camera agency has a voiceover department or is willing to give you a referral to their own department or a partner agency that does voiceover. If that option isn’t available to you, you will want to consider submitting an inexpensive demo tape to agencies. Demos are like the headshots of a voiceover actor.
The best training for a voiceover kid is a good acting class. Scene study and improvisation are key. Beyond that, perhaps one specific class where kids can learn how to behave in a booth, and voiceover specific terms terms like “ABC read” or “walla”. Class resources for kids are listed at the end of this article.
Note that voiceover training tends to be much more expensive that regular acting classes, upwards of $100 per hour for a group. That is because a good class will take place in a recording booth adding rental fees and the cost of an engineer. In addition, VO classes require more one-on-one attention from the teacher than most other acting classes, which means small class sizes are paramount.
Since resumes are not submitted in voiceover work, the pedigree of the class and how it will look on your resume doesn’t really matter. The connections and knowledge of the teacher DOES matter. This is an area of showbiz where it is all about who-you-know.
Another tip: Make sure the class involves a booth. Then check to see if a recording of your class work will be given to you at the end of class. You may be able to use a portion of this as a defacto demo to submit to agencies.
Short on cash? Try having your child practice scripts at home, recording each one 3 different ways into your phone. Then have them listen to them and identify the important words, pauses and places they could improve. Doing this activity helps them to develop and “ear”. You can find a bank of free scripts at Edge Studio.
DEMOS (aka REELS)
The biggest marketing tool for the voiceover actor is their demo. The term “reel” by the way, is a bit outdated, but means the same thing as “demo”.
A demo is a short audio sampling (45 seconds to 90 seconds) of the actor’s work, usually in an MP3 format. They can be reproduced in a compact disc form by a duplication house for distribution to agents and CDs. Artwork is done for the disc and cover.
You can store a demo on your own website, on Breakdown Services via their Performance Audio service or on any number of other services such as Hightail or Dropbox.
Commonly, two separate demos are used: one for commercial work (radio spots and TV commercials, usually done in the child’s real voice) and one for animation (sometimes including character voices and over-the-top reads). Demos are expensive to produce (upwards of $1200), especially if you have no professional work and must create your demo from scratch.
Kids have special considerations in terms of demos. First, with a good agent, it is possible to work for years without investing in a demo at all. Second, kids’ voices change very rapidly, making their demos out of date before they can be useful. This is especially the case for boys, who all have a “Peter Brady” metamorphosis with their speaking voice. For this reason, we don’t advise investing in an expensive demo. For the purposes of getting an agent, you can make one at home or in a beginning voiceover class that should suffice. When you acquire professional work, just make sure to ask for copies when you work so that you can use the clips to edit together a demo at a later date.
For samples of kids’ demos, we suggest that you check out Voices.com (Voices.com purchased Voicebank in late 2017). Voices.com is the service used by agents to submit talent. Even if you are not planning a demo, this is a great learning tool to see how kids’ voiceovers sound and the quality of work that is being submitted by the major agencies. Go to Voices.com, click on the Search for Talent icon (not typing in the box), then use the sidebar on the left to choose “child” as the category. That should give you a list of actors who do children’s voices. Another spot to hear different types of demos (although not kid-exclusive) is here.
Established VO agents have a sound booth in their office, and may call you in to audition there. Then the agent will edit the audition and email it to the ad agency, casting director or producers. Occasionally auditions take place in a casting facility, bu most actors have the ability to audition remotely from home (more about that later).
In Los Angeles, there are now services that can record your audition and email it to you– for a fee. It may allow you flexibility if you can’t get to your agent’s office. Examples of this in Los Angeles are Garden of Sound or the V.O.’ N Go service at Voicecaster, $10 for 10 minutes in the booth).
Another option is to master the use of your iPod. Auditions can be recorded quickly on an iPod and emailed to your agent’s office.
When auditioning at an agent’s office or other facility you may get the sides (a portion of the script to read) in advance, but often you pick it up when you get to the audition location. Attached to the sides is a casting note which includes the description of the voice they are looking for. Since they don’t care what you look like at all, the description will include species (remember you could be portraying a bear, an alien, a snake or ??), age (teen, preschooler, etc), voice texture (gravelly, smooth, lisp, dialect) , and emotion (energetic, sneaky, bratty, upbeat). It is up to the actor to find a way to create a voice that fits the criteria.
90% of the time, kids are hired for their real speaking voice. Producers want a “real kid” voice, as opposed to an adult who sounds like a kid. Don’t spend tons of time learning to do impressions of other characters or famous people–if producers want that, they will hire an adult who is a professional impressionist.
It is rare for callbacks to occur on voiceover projects, with the exception of long term animation jobs. Kids are usually hired off tape from their audition.
ONLINE WORK SITES and SELF-SUBMITTING
There are sites out there that serve as online casting sources for voiceover actors, encouraging actors to “work from home”. They post breakdowns and actors respond with auditions they create in their own home studio. There are no agents involved, but the site charges a significant fee to be listed there. Unfortunately, our professional friends tell us that these services just aren’t that useful. They might be OK for non-union work, but several pros told us it is a little like Explore Talent, or Craigslist. You might find a gem, but it certainly isn’t the industry standard. These sites seem to be even less useful for kids than they do for adults, since it is rare for a child to have a professional home studio set up that is needed to make it all work in a timely manner.
When you finally get to work, a young performer might find himself surprised at the environment. Most voiceover work is done in a tiny sound studio, almost a soundproof box. Often, the characters are voiced separately, so you don’t even see the other actors. Even the director may not be there! It is not uncommon for the director to be in another state, with instructions given through the actor’s headset.
Work sessions are short, unlike on camera work. Studio time is expensive, so there isn’t much waiting in the voiceover world. A radio commercial can be done in half an hour. An entire episode of a TV series can be done in about that time as well. Feature animation can be done in short sessions, but it often takes 3 years to complete an animated feature film, with multiple short sessions every few months. Check out this video showing a work session for Disney’s Planes: Fire and Rescue. Or this behind-the-scenes footage of child actors working on The Peanuts Movie.
ADR sessions are usually done in a group, with the members of the group interacting with each other to create realistic replacement voices, crowd scenes and sound effect reactions. It’s fun, but also has longer days than other voiceover work.
The most exhausting work is probably video games because they strain the voice (lots of yelling and extreme character voices) and actors are expected to voice multiple roles.
All in all, the work is fun and high energy. Enjoy!
The trend in today’s market is solidly in home studios. When COVID hit the industry, almost all auditions became self-tapes and now it is standard. While a full studio is certainly not necessary, it can be a great time saver for families who are running all over town for auditions and are trying to juggle school and other activities. Several of the larger agencies now send audition notices to their talent with the option to “set an audition appointment” or “audition remotely”.
A big caution flag: every agent we talked to discouraged kids from recording from home until they were well established voiceover actors. The reasoning is that the agents are often privvy to style information that the CD has requested, so the agent can serve as a coach in addition to recording. Remote auditioning might work for the one line “Hey, Mom! Can I go to the movies?” type of auditions.
For those who want to ride the wave of this trend, we’re told that you “build” a home studio on the cheap. You need 4 things: a USB microphone, a computer, a quiet place to record (a closet) with some soundproofing and software to record and edit. Software can be acquired for free under programs like Garage Band (included on Apple computers) and Audacity (free download). In a pinch, it is also possible to simply record a voice memo on your iPhone.
The other extreme in the home booth market is a full sound proof booth, mixing boards, ISDN lines and the whole enchilada. THESE belong to voiceover artists who can truly work in their pajamas!
Here are step by step instructions from the pros for setting up your home studio:
THE DON LAFONTAINE VOICEOVER LAB and THE ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY FOUNDATION VO LAB
Don LaFontaine was a famous voiceover actor known for his work on over 5,000 movie trailers. Imagine hearing “In a world where…”. That’s Mr. LaFontaine! He was well loved in the entertainment community and was known for extreme generosity and for mentoring younger voiceover artists.
The lab that bears his name is in Los Angeles near the SAG-AFTRA offices. It includes a fully equipped sound studio and classroom that will provide classes, expert lectures and for voiceover artists to have studio space, classes and other resources. The studio is owned by the Screen Actors Guild Foundation, who offers FREE and low cost services to union actors. You can find out more about the lab and the resources available here..
Books, Articles and Blogs
Explaining Hollywood: How to Get a Job as a Voice Actor by Jon Healy for Los Angeles Times 2021
Call Sheet by Backstage (fka Ross Reports) Voiceover Issue, usually published in Nov/Dec.
Book: Secrets of Voice-Over Success (2nd Edition, 2009) Top Voiceover Actors Reveal How They Did It. by Joan Baker
Book: The Art of Voice Acting (4th Edition, 2010) by James Alburger
Blog: Voice Actors In the News
Best Practices for Talent/Producers/Coaches
World-voices.com Best Practices. This is a non-profit organization dedicated to VO actors! Membership is $99/yr and their resources are especially good for those seeking to make a living in markets outside LA/NY.
http://www.voiceoverxtra.com/ (This site has everything!)
Especially check out the links, including the blogs of dozens of hilarious voiceover talent, and the Newcomers section
Classes and Coaches Adults
Marc Cashman http://www.cashmancommercials.com/classes.html
Terri Apple http://www.terriapple.com/index.html
Hugh Liggett www.voicecaster.com
The VO Pros (workshops with CDs as well) thevopros.com
New York and Online
All other markets
Videos to Watch
Terri Douglas Loop Troop
Johnny Gidcomb — Loop De Loop
Loop Group West
Barbara Harris — The Loop Group
Wendy Hoffman — R.A.W. Voice Casting
Sally Brooks — Hollywood Babble On
Scotch Ellis Loring — Scotch & Walla