Ever wonder what goes into a casting decision? I do, especially when it comes to voice over. As talent, we record our auditions and send them into oblivion, never to be heard from again. Where do they go and what determines whether or not we book the job?
The Backstage Advice
To get the lowdown on these voice acting casting decisions, I talked with a senior copywriter at a global agency that works many worldwide brands. It’s a big deal agency with big deal work. He requested anonymity because, “They are sensitive about these things.” My goal? To get a view of the casting process from the talent buyer’s side, traditionally a mystery to voice talent. We only hear if we booked the job. If we didn’t, we never hear anything. So here’s to shedding a little light on the situation.
After you read this, you might want to check out my 10 commandments of repeat booking, another article to help you become a repeat booking machine. Or, pick up a copy of Acting In Chicago if you’re looking to establish or grow an acting career in the Midwest.
For now, enjoy this, and let me know what you think in the comments.
CA: Casting is just one part of your job. How do you feel about the responsibility?
SCW: I love it. Even after 15 years. It’s the first step in making my work become reality, so I take it seriously. Moreover, I owe it to my clients, and the talent, to take it seriously and not waste anyone’s time and money.
CA: Take me through a recent project you had to cast.
SCW: We had radio spots for a national retail brand that was partnering up with another brand in an innovative way, and the concept called for a female VO. I worked on the scripts, and the client had highly specific specs for the VO that went out to the agents. We got back 80 reads and I listened to every one of them.
The Audition Specs
CA: Tell me about those audition specs. From the talent’s perspective, those can be all over the map. Some are so broad they really don’t tell us anything, others are paragraphs long, sometimes longer than the copy.
SCW: Mine tend to be the detailed ones. The greatest disservice I could do is to write and pitch scripts that go through rounds of approvals only then to be as vague in the casting specs as WOMAN, MAN, YOUNGER, OLDER when it comes time to produce the work. I try to be as specific as possible when I’m describing what we’re looking for because we typically have narrow lanes to stay in. I want agents to send us the most appropriate people because, again, I don’t want to waste anyone’s time that’s obviously not right for the job. At the risk of sounding too modest, I’m empathetic throughout the casting process. I consider what talent has to do to carve out time to audition, to shift their schedules to make it happen.
CA: Take me through your casting criteria. Is there anything that automatically removes a talent from contention?
SCW: There are a couple ear hurdles you (the talent) have to clear, so to speak. The first is that we know who our intended audience is, and we need our VO to sound like they fit into that demographic. In this case the client felt the spots should appeal to busy moms in their 30s-40s with elementary school-aged kids. So right away if you sound too young, I don’t believe you could be a mom with kids that age. You might be a new mom, but there’s a difference between having a new baby, and knowing what it’s like to have to race from one end of town to the other because one kid’s got soccer practice and the other has a chess tournament. If the talent sounds older than the moms we’re targeting, that won’t work either. So first off, the voice has to be in our sweet spot in terms of age.
Instant Cuts in Voice Acting
CA: How long does it take you to decide if someone sounds too old or too young?
SCW: Like five seconds. It’s a very visceral moment. The warmth of the voice, the quality. It hits me quickly. I make a point of always using headphones and sequestering myself so I can concentrate, even close my eyes. Sounds odd, but over the years I’ve seen agency folks listen off of laptop speakers and I want to shake them. But, that’s a different conversation.
CA: That’s not much time.
SCW: Yeah, it’s a quick reaction from me. I feel bad because there might have been some great technical reads in there, but I can tell right away that you’re not in our age range. I have to move on to the next one, because no matter how good your read is, I know the client’s not going to go for you. And if I send them someone who’s wildly off or not appropriate, that just makes me look like I either don’t know what I’m doing or I don’t care enough. I owe it to everyone to find the best match.
CA: Sounds like you’re auditioning for your job, too, in a way.
SCW: Everyone is auditioning for everyone else. This whole thing is a giant audition. Talent are reading for us, but I want to do a good job for my team. And all of us want to do the best work we can for the client, so yeah, everyone is auditioning, not just the talent.
CA: Ok so talent have to be the right age, what’s the next hurdle?
SCW: Your recording just has to sound good. I move on quickly from bad quality files. In those 80 demos, a dozen were just bad. Talent were either way too quiet or off-mic, or there were technical issues and I couldn’t hear their tone. They sounded amateur and bad recordings just make me think it’s going to take hours of working with you in the session to get the read right. Your read might be magical, but if I can’t hear it clear as a bell, it tells me you submitted it without listening to yourself. Sometimes I’ll request a new file if I can hear some good bits, but often, I just move on. It’s cold but it’s true. Know your gear and take pride in your auditions. I want to work with you!
Making the Short List of Voice Actors
CA: So if the talent’s in the right age range and the audition sounds good, what’s the next thing you look for? I guess I’m wondering how you choose your selects.
SCW: I have to hear that you get it—the story, the overall feel of it. I love hearing reads that come within 90% of what I was going for in the writing, even before I give direction in a session. That tells me we’ll get great, usable takes from talent right away, leaving time to get wild takes and experiment to see where you can take the work. The audience can smell insincerity a mile away. If there’s humor in the spot, you need to pick up on that. And I’ve been doing this long enough that I can pretty much tell when someone will be able to handle it if I were to give them adjustments. Being directable is a biggie for me. Also, being patient. Sometimes I have to tweak lines of copy or take something out that just isn’t working. If I ask you to do a set of three and make them all different, I do it because I need something I’m not getting and if you can’t make changes in the booth, I’ll spend the rest of the session worrying that the work will suffer. We’re all human, we all have bad days, but if you give me the impression that you’re going to complicate a session from start to finish, I’ll ask my producers to pursue the next choice on my shortlist for future work. It’s rare, but I’ve had to.
CA: How can you tell just by an audition that a talent’s going to be directable?
SCW: You can’t. Not completely, anyhow. But range and enthusiasm go a long way with me. It’s rare that I write scripts that don’t have peaks and valleys in the copy to pull those qualities out. Maybe it’s the clients I’ve written for, but most of the work I’ve needed voice talent for provides opportunities for me to hear that you’re someone I want to work with. It’s a mutual effort. We also have to leave a little bit to chance and magic, too. Wait. I think I just described speed-dating. Sorry. I will also say, we creatives have to do our part beyond just providing the material. I’ve worked with several writers, and a handful have been the root of a VO session’s problem. I do not drink beers with these people.
CA: Out of those 80 auditions you heard, how many names did you write down?
SCW: There were seven that were lovely. I indicated my top choice and sent all seven to the rest of the team, about five or six people, who will all listen and may or may not agree with my top choice. Sometimes there’s an easy choice and everyone agrees, but there are times when there’s no clear choice and everyone votes for different people. The group eventually comes to a consensus. There’s rarely one person with singular casting power.
CA: Did your top choice book the job?
SCW: Sure did. And, fortunately, there was a bit of magic that made the session a joy.