Voice Over Education Blog

October 2016

How backstories make artificial beings more human


In this Halloween season, let’s talk about something scary: Artificial Intelligence (“AI”). Did you realize you have much in common with people who build robots?

“AI” is similar in ways to “AC,” a term we just coined for “Artificial Character” ... in other words, any character that you’ve made up. Both can be intimidating to the people who create them and creepy to people who encounter them. But they shouldn’t be. Ultimately, AI and AC both are characters, and both become more real, more interesting – and less scary – if you take care to “humanize” them. One of the best ways to do that is to give them a backstory.

Backstories aren't news to experienced actors, including voice actors. They’re especially common in animation (and sometimes gaming) where a characterization might be especially rich. What would your favorite superhero be without their backstory? Suppose you’re called upon to ad-lib in character – do you laugh readily, or reluctantly ... and what of any other emotion?

As we noted in our article on “Newton’s Third Law of Physics as applied to Voice Acting,” an actor with no lines nevertheless reacts (and on screen or stage might even upstage the speaking actor), with “extraordinary things to say, just choosing not to say them.” Okay, in voiceover, your audience can’t see you react. But when it comes time for you to speak, where is your tone of voice coming from? Perhaps its shaded by something logical and relevant, but which only you will know. Because your character has a backstory.

To bring convoluted copy to life, merge its voice with yours.


Most people talk in short sentences or sentence fragments. Much of today's writing, whether informal advertising or a scholarly tome, is also composed of relatively short sentences, compared to the way people wrote and delivered speeches 150 years ago. Today’s structure --short, step-by-step progressive thoughts -- is much easier to follow, and people from copywriters to politicians have come to realize that. (To be fair, so did Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address.)

But what if you’re handed a script that for some reason does NOT have short sentences? In fact, it may ramble on for several lines, and even include asides and other distractions. In print, a reader can go back and forth to make sense of it all. But in an audio format – which is linear and ephemeral – that is not an option (or should not be relied on). A professional narrator can probably make it sound “intelligent,” but that’s not enough. How should you – how can you – make sense of a rhetorical maze, for true communication?

Let’s get to work on this passage, which is “only” three sentences long:

VO freelancer, do you know about Freelancers Union?


SAG-AFTRA, Equity, and other unions are important to many actors. As a voice actor, you should at least be aware of them. And as a freelancer, you should also be aware of Freelancers Union (freelancersunion.org). A non-profit organization founded in 1995 as “Working Today,” it now has reportedly more than 300,000 members nationwide. And it states its goal as to benefit the almost 54 million independent workers in America, by making “freelancing better now and in the future through joint benefits, live member events, expert guides, and online networking opportunities.”

Working Today morphed into Freelancers Union in 2001 (by the way, there’s no apostrophe in the name), to provide group healthcare insurance to people who didn’t have access to employer-based insurance. With the advent of the Affordable Care Act, Freelancers Union no longer has group plans but does have a private exchange that offers some individual healthcare coverages through major suppliers in most states.

The organization continues to offer various other coverages, including Dental, Term Life, Liability, and Disability. They also have a Retirement Plan. (We don’t necessarily endorse these or any specific Freelance Union program or proposal. You might find better or more economical plans elsewhere. But they are worth considering.)

Membership in Freelancers Union is free. The only fee connected with enrollment is optional if you enroll in an insurance program.

There are other benefits to joining, including a Member Directory, discounts on products and services used by freelancers, member-to-member discounts, connections to services, a newsletter/blog, social networking online and through meetups, guides and templates, and legal advocacy.

Keep your voice healthy today. But how about tomorrow?


To keep your voice in shape, you stay well hydrated, avoid shouting in noisy locations, practice good oral hygiene (including refraining from smoking, etc.), and avoid environments and conditions that promote respiratory illnesses. But is that enough? No, because it’s not enough just to be concerned about your vocal health today. To enjoy a long – and healthy – VO career, it will be important to maintain your vocal health into your later years. Just as we’d all like to have as strong a body as possible as we get older, we want a strong voice. But, as with the rest of our body, that becomes more difficult as we age.

Note:

If you find yourself losing your voice, or experience rapid or undesirable changes, or loss of vocal control, see a voice expert – either a reputable voice coach or a medical practitioner specializing in voice (laryngologist). One may refer you to the other --perhaps for vocal exercises to tone laryngeal muscles and to use more effective vocal techniques, or because some vocal symptoms or changes have potentially serious medical causes.

The symptoms of vocal aging

It’s not surprising. The voice tends to suffer the same age-related effects as the rest of the body. As we get older, we lose muscle and strength. Fat accumulates and is harder to lose. And tissues simply deteriorate, being not so quick to regenerate and repair. In speech, the effects are manifested in a variety of ways:

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