ProComm Blog

The Voice of Your Production or You Don’t Get What You Don’t Pay For

the following is an article reprinted with permission by Terry Hartzell/JPL Productions

Who wants a movie line?

There’s a line in the movie Jurassic Park that only audio dweebs like me think is funny, or probably even notice. It happens before the wheels fall off the prehistoric cart and the dinosaurs run around eating lawyers. The main characters are about to embark on an automated car tour of the park. Prior to this scene, park creator John Hammond has impressed his guests with top-of-the-line amenities proclaiming, “We spared no expense.” Now, as they climb into the vehicles for the tour, we hear a pre-recorded narrative of the sights they’ll see. Hammond comments, “That’s Richard Kiley. We spared no expense”.

For those who don’t recognize the name, Richard Kiley was the voice of practically every serious documentary produced at the time the movie was released. The message, understood by discerning audio specialists like me (i.e. geeks who knew it was Kiley as soon as he spoke), is that if you’re going to spend a ton of money on the rest of a production, don’t skimp on the voiceover.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

We’ve come a long way since the early days of filmmaking. With the impact of computers and daily software upgrades, the face of film and video has changed, and continues to change, at warp speed. But what about the soundtrack?

Sure, we’ve replaced monaural music scores with 5.1 Surround, but there’s another key soundtrack ingredient that hasn’t changed: the human voice. What the voiceover quality adds to the overall impact of a piece, whether it’s a documentary, a 30-second television commercial or 20-minute training video, is as important as any of the other components.

So why is the voiceover so often undervalued, even neglected, in the production process? Sure beats the heck out of me. I have a few theories, though.

The budget-saving theory

The budget got eaten up during the production phase. (Those on-location“tweaks” to the approved script requiring two additional days of shooting may have had something to do with it.) Now it’s time to get someone in the studio and read the copy (after some additional “tweaks”). Hey, here’s a great idea! Let’s get part of that budget money back by hiring someone really cheap. I know a guy who works at a college radio station who’ll do it practically free.

Terry’s Retort: To quote a good friend in the advertising biz, “You don’t get what you don’t pay for.” Ironically, the money saved by using unproven talent may end up costing you more in recording and editing time, and the end result will be less than show-stopping. Talent + experience = value.

The “I get a lot of compliments about my voice” theory

This one usually goes something like this: “People tell me I have a great voice. I get compliments all the time about the message on my answering machine. I should do the voiceover on my project, right?” (If you believe this is true, please move on to the next section as I don’t wish to offend you).

Terry’s Two Cents: Having a good set of pipes doesn’t make you a good voiceover candidate any more than having a set of paints makes you Renoir. Continuing with that metaphor, a voiceover artist paints pictures with his or her voice. Good voiceover artists combine articulation, interpretative ability, acting, proper breathing, patience, and the ability to detect minute differences in inflection, rhythm and tone. Plus they have to be able to take direction. If you can’t do all that, hire a professional who can.

The “I think voiceover talent charges too much” theory

This may be related to the budget theory. Or it may be a case of resentment for someone who earns a living just for talking, for crying out loud. Another good friend, someone who’s made a career out of voiceover work, shared this next anecdote with me. Following a “grueling” recording session of about ten minutes during which my friend nailed the copy in a couple of takes, the client remarked to the engineer, “He makes good money for ten minutes of work”. “No,” the engineer replied. “It took him over twenty years to do that. You just saw the last ten minutes”.

Terry’s Response: I don’t think I can add anything to that.

Bottom-line time

If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. That should apply to the “voice” of your production, the narrator. Here are a few pointers to help you select the right talent for the job:

  • * If you’re the writer, imagine the type of voice that best suits your script and then convey that information to the casting director. If you’re producing someone else’s script, ask the writer. If that’s not possible, determine beforehand the tone you want from the piece.
  • * Make casting choices based on potential, not just example. You may not hear exactly what you want from a demo. If you have room in your budget, go the audition route. If not, at least get input from seasoned production people.
  • * Even if you have a clear idea of the tone you want before the session begins, be open to suggestions from others during the session, including the voice talent. Believe it or not, he or she may give you an interpretation you hadn’t considered, but it’s worth a listen. After all, professional voice talent people do this reading out loud stuff all the time.

Remember, if you’re willing to shell out the bucks for the other components of top quality production, it just makes sense to follow the Jurassic Park model and spare no expense for the soundtrack. Or at least be willing to make room in the budget for a good voiceover artist. You’ll hear the difference. And, more importantly, so will your audience.