Two Ears, One Mouth
Voice Over Acting
July 6, 2021
July 6, 2021
We rarely listen to commercials these days. But when we do we often hear a voice that we recognize. It’s not a friend or family member, but you know that voice from somewhere.
That’s Julie Bowen convincing us to come on down to Olive Garden for a never-ending pasta bowl. And Julianna Margulies' voice in those Chase commercials. And surprisingly, that’s Ving Rhames claiming "we've got the meat" in those Arby's ads.
The voice on those Arby’s ads is often confused with James Earl Jones. Jones is often referred to as having the most recognizable voice in film and television. He’s known for voicing everything from Darth Vader in Star Wars to the soundbite “This is CNN." Jones’ “trusty basso profundo has nearly become synonymous with the network itself.”
All these celebrities are conducting voice over which is in simple terms, a production technique where a voice is recorded for off-screen use. This piece of narration is not accompanied by an image of the speaker. The person behind the scenes providing the voice is usually referred to as a voice over actor, artist, announcer, or narrator.
The voice over industry has been around since the very early 1900s. In 1900, Reginald Fessenden was working for the United States Weather Bureau and recorded the first voice over by reporting the weather. In 1906, he was the first voice on the radio. During the Christmas season in Boston, he recorded a program of music, Bible texts, and Christmas messages that were broadcasted to ships out at sea.
Today, voice over talent can be heard across a wide range of work. It’s not just commercials and animated films, but has expanded to video games, audiobooks, awards shows, phone messages, and more. We take a look at this world of voice over and explore the idea of being listened to, but not seen.
Many on-screen actors that make the switch to voice overs are challenged by the change. They are used to being able to show their facial expressions and body language on the screen to convey their feelings and emotions. With that gone, they must channel all those sentiments into their voice.
To be believable, the voice over actor must be able to interpret a scene and then deliver a voice with the right tone and inflection. The voice must express all sorts of ideas so the listener can fully grasp what is being conveyed. And it goes beyond just words, the actor should also be able to sigh, groan, scream, gasp, or breathe heavily in many different variations.
Listening is s key skill of a voice over actor. Listening helps the actor build up a collection of authentic sounding voices that they can refer to. It’s a matter of observing how other people sound in certain situations and noticing the pauses and silences that are a natural part of their day-to-day conversations.
Perhaps animated films are where we are most familiar with listening to voice over actors. In 1928, Walt Disney had the first cartoon voiceover as Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie. In 2019, the computer animated film The Lion King became the highest grossing movie of all time worldwide. Pixar's Soul won the Oscar this year for Best Animated Feature.
If a voice over actor is doing their job well, then they will provide a strong emotional link between the vocal delivery and the overarching message being communicated in the animated film. Some animated characters practically come across the screen to us and seem so real based on their voice over actors’ abilities. We want to listen to them and hear what they have to say.
There’s Stewie Griffin on Family Guy. His British accent gives him an arrogant and eloquent vibe. The baby is voiced by Seth MacFarlane who was inspired by Rex Harrison’s performance in My Fair Lady. DJ Casey Kasem used to voice Scooby-Doo and perfectly interpreted Shaggy’s excited and scared feelings. Only Kasem could say in a high-pitched voice “g-g-g-ghost.”
There was a broad cultural shift in voice over and animation during the early months of 2020. Voice actors who played major characters on animated shows decided to relinquish their roles. This was based on their belief that characters of color should not be voiced by white actors. It included Jenny Slate of Big Mouth, Kristen Bell of Central Park, and Mike Henry of Family Guy and The Cleveland Show.
Hank Azaria made headlines when he stepped away from voicing the character Apu on The Simpsons. Azaria, who is white, had been the voice of the Indian character since 1990. Azaris shared, “Once I realized that that was the way this character was thought of, I just didn’t want to participate in it anymore. It just didn’t feel right.” The producers of The Simpsons then vowed to stop casting white actors in nonwhite roles.
Much of this transformation in voice over was due to listening. People were listening and hearing the need for change so that the voice would reflect the character. Alisa Persons, co-author of the book The Magic Behind the Voices, which traces the history of cartoons through voice actors, said, “From the advent of animation, I don’t believe race and representation were a particular consideration in voice acting any more than they were a concern in the culture as a whole. I think what’s happening in the field of animation now is a mirror of what is happening in society as a whole.”
Voice over artists are a great resource for advice on how to make your own voice sound better so people will listen to what you have to say. The best advice they share is to listen to yourself by recording a voice memo on your phone. You can hear how your words come across and figure out ways for better delivery.
The problem with this exercise is that many people hate listening to the sound of their own voice. They often think their voice sounds different internally than it does to others. However, “98% to 99% of all voices are in the normal range,” says Donna Mac, a communications coach and radio broadcaster.
So take a moment right now to listen to your own voice. And don’t listen to that little voice inside your head and criticize the sound. Cause maybe one day you’ll be the next James Earl Jones.
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