Directing Voice Over: Best Practices

For those who are new to directing voice actors, or who have been directing but would like to know what actors love or hate when being directed, this post is for you.

Always leave projected/screaming/efforts for the end of the session. “Projected” is anything louder than having a conversation in a meeting room. You know how your voice is hoarse the day after you spent all night talking over loud music in a club? Or how you’re hoarse after spending all day talking a bit louder than usual while standing on a convention floor? This is why projected speech is considered strenuous for voice actors. If you know you’ll have multiple recording sessions with an actor, try to pepper in those projected lines across sessions so they don’t have to all be done in one painful haul.

Don’t ask for too many takes of screamed lines (i.e. dying, on fire). What’s “too many takes?” Probably more than four. You’ll waste your actor’s finite resource very quickly and you won’t get any other kinds of emotes you need for that session. If you’ve hired an experienced voice actor, they’ll know how to scream right the first time. Check their credits on IMDB, for example, to look for evidence of prior jobs where they performed all the typical strenuous emotes.

Context is everything. If whoever’s running the session doesn’t know what the character’s talking about then neither can the actor, we can only both guess and the results will reflect that confusion. Part of the actor’s job is internally making decisions regarding what the story’s about, in case clients don’t exactly know either. It’s in both the actor’s and director’s best interest to understand the story and action.

What I refer to as the “Kevin McMullan Special” is rather than directing via emotions, i.e. “Sadder, happier, etc.” it’s far more useful to offer situational context. For example, Kevin gave me the direction “this is more like a business transaction,” which instantly informed how I should conduct myself, what my tone should be, what my relationship to the character I’m speaking to is, etc.

Have the entire script available. It’s a world of difference if the actor knows who they’re talking to and why, and what was last said by the other character(s) in the scene. It’s nice to be emailed scripts in advance, just to know what’s coming even if the actor can’t extrapolate the whole story without the client’s help.

Direct the actor with useful information. We can’t make it sound like our character’s favorite color is blue, but if you tell us blue is significant because it’s the color of our first car or the color of the dress our beloved grandmother was buried in, we’ll contextualize that information and it will naturally come out in the read.

The next best thing to ensemble recording is being fed the already recorded line of the voice actor your character is speaking to via playback during the session. When that’s not possible, having the director read with an actor for conversational dialog really is helpful. It makes the conversation that much more real. There’s no need to be read in for call out lines such as information during combat (“Reloading!”) or taunts (“Come at me!”). For any instance where the actor is talking to someone else, be their scene partner. It’s worth the effort.

Pronunciation guides! Every time the session has to stop to call someone or talk to the client to check pronunciation, everyone loses time and money. If there’s no time to inform the actor in advance of how every uncommon word is pronounced, whether the words are made up or real, have at least a written and/or prerecorded pronunciation guide handy.

Don’t interrupt an actor in the middle of a read. Some people will do this repeatedly and it creates a hair trigger response where the actor has to fight being wary of performing for fear of interruption. If you have notes or corrections, save them, wait for the takes to be over and then give your feedback.

Line reads are a tricky business. A line read is when someone not in the booth literally reads the actor’s line aloud to the actor. This poisons the actor’s mind, the non-actor’s line read becomes the exact melody the actor will perform to. Line reads should be used as a last resort, when all other attempts have been exhausted and there’s just no other way to direct the actor to say this particular line exactly how the client needs it performed. In short: Line reads are the devil, try not to do it, the actor might secretly hate you for it even if our lying smiling pleasant faces say otherwise as we struggle with our brains to undo the not great non-actor read you did.

Lastly and most importantly, make sure your actor has plenty of room temperature drinking water available in the booth. And tell your actor to go pee at the top of every hour. A voice actor will mindlessly chug water throughout the session to keep their throat clear and not realize they’ve been doing the peepee dance until it’s too late. A good director tells their actors to go pee. Our bladders thank you.