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My Life As A Voice : The Road to Show Biz Through your Golden Pipes

Margo Kaufman is a contributing editor to the magazine and the author of "1-800-Am-I-Nuts?" Her last piece for the magazine was a humorous look at the beauty industry

If you live in Los Angeles, even if you’ve never had the slightest desire to be in show business, sooner or later, The Industry is going to get you.

“You really should be doing voice-overs,” said Jack Naimo, a sound engineer at KABC Talkradio Inc., where I am a weekly guest on the “Ken and Barkley Show.”

I’ve been told that my voice is quirky--it has been described as a cross between Judy Holliday and Carol Kane--but I wouldn’t in a million years have classified it as an asset. “You could make a fortune,” Naimo insisted.

At first I ignored him. But after hearing the same suggestion from other people who weren’t my mother, I became intrigued. A former network news anchor suggested that I contact Dave Sebastian Williams, a veteran of hundreds of commercials who runs a voice-over workshop in North Hollywood. I was initially leery because his resume included the sentence “Dave is a nationally syndicated Game and Variety Show announcer,” which isn’t what I usually look for in a mentor. But resumes in the voice-over industry run to the strange. In the course of researching this story, I heard actors say, “Hi, I’m Jumpy the Squirrel” or “Stinky the Mushroom” with the same smug inflection with which one might say, “Hi, I’m President of the United States.” (Then again, they probably got paid more.)

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“You have the right instrument,” Williams told me when I drove to his home for a private session. “The question is, can you learn to play it?”

He’d converted a giant walk-in closet in his living room into a soundproof booth. I was wondering how he’d persuaded his wife to make this particular home improvement when he handed me the copy for a 30-second radio commercial for an Acura Integra and told me to study it. “What’s your attitude?” Williams asked, and I looked blank. I have never wanted to be an actress. I wasn’t even in my school play. Williams helpfully handed me a paper with 46 different attitudes to choose from. Let’s see: Should I be “sinister”? “magical”? “motherly”? “overly aristocratic”? “gangsterish”?

I settled on “amused.”

He sent me into the soundproof booth and told me to “slate,” which meant that I had to say, “This is Margo Kaufman” and sound really thrilled about it. Then he said, “Give me a level,” and instructed me to read a portion of the copy and to put a lot of energy into that too.

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“With everything from 170 horsepower v-tec engine to driver and front passenger air bags,” I gushed.

“Try to sound more caring when you get to the part about the air bag,” Williams interrupted. He had me read a few spots a few different ways, making suggestions such as “more tongue in cheek,” “just between us,” and “less cartoony.” It was a challenge to say “great taste, half the fat,” and sound truly sincere, but I’ve got to admit, it was far more fun than sitting alone in front of a computer writing.

But breaking into the industry is a lengthy and costly process. Typically, an aspiring voice takes a few rounds of workshops in either commercial or animation voice-over technique: average price, $350 for a series of six sessions. (There are dozens of workshops in town; unfortunately for me, most are held near the recording studios in North Hollywood or Burbank, between 7 to 10 at night. I live in Venice. God could be teaching and I still wouldn’t get on the freeway at rush hour.) The next step is a 2 1/2-minute demo tape, the calling card of the industry, which consists of a bunch of commercial spots and costs as much as $3,000, not including copies, mailing or labels. Then you try to find an agent and then, hopefully, you find work.

“Like anything else in the acting industry, only 5% make a living,” Williams warned me.

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So far, I haven’t quit my day job. But I took a crash course in the voice-over industry. Lesson One: Doing voice-overs has replaced writing a screenplay as the official Los Angeles get-rich-quick scheme. “I get calls from cousins, people in department stores, insurance salesmen, even the guy who sold me my car,” said Jeff Danis, head of the voice-over department at the International Creative Management agency. He estimates that he gets about 75 tapes a week. “Over the course of the past decade, I think I’ve found 10 people.”

One reason for the rising interest is that the big, booming voices that dominated the airwaves in the past are out of vogue. “Every day people are hearing voices on the radio that sound like them and they say, ‘I can do that,’ ” said Cindy Akers, a director and producer of commercials. “I’m getting a lot of people with no acting experience, and I’m not saying they’re going to make it, but I’m not sure they would have known 10 years ago what voice-over was. Just because they sound like an every-day person doesn’t mean they’re going to do well.”

Still, there are Cinderella stories. Rosslyn Taylor, a waitress at Houston’s in Century City with a voice even less authoritative than mine, was continually being nudged into the business. “I would wait tables and people would say, ‘You have an interesting voice,’ and I’d say, ‘Fine, whatever, what do you want to eat?’ One night, about 40 people were telling me this and I snapped. I said to a customer, ‘I’ll make you my agent. I’ll do voice-overs, and we’ll both get really rich.’ ” The customer turned out to be an agent, and Taylor wound up landing a regular part as Paquito on the cartoon show “Rimba’s Island.”

That stroke of fortune notwithstanding, competition is fierce. Voice-casting director Bob Lloyd estimates that there are about 4,000 performers, including celebrities, pursuing voice-over work. “If you want a great stage actor sound, you go to New York; that’s where they beat up voices with a lot of smoking, a lot of projection,” he said. “But here, you have a great diversity of jobs. You have the animation industry, television, the film industry and the music business.” Advertising agencies around the country record commercials here too; in fact, according to Lloyd, “the majority of work performed by the talent base here is done for agencies outside the city.” In addition, voice actors get hired for industrial films, books on tape, CD-ROM, children’s records and videos, interactive games and prerecorded sound tracks for amusement park rides. Three-quarters of the work is for men, but more and more women are getting jobs that previously required a male voice. Lindsay Wagner’s TV commercials for Ford, for example, are credited for the changing attitude toward women’s hawking cars.

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Voices are sold like this: A client in need of a vocal chord for a talking stomach or a bunch of gossiping ants contacts a voice-over agent or casting director, who summons the talent for taped auditions. This tape is sent to the client, who makes the final choice. Voice-casting director Elaine Craig maintains a database where voices are classified by age, texture and categories. I asked her to categorize my voice. “Young, like 20,” Craig said. “Character voice. Cartoon voices. Definitely not authoritative.”

She invited me to watch a casting session for a TV commercial. In the space of 45 minutes, 10 actors showed up to read four lines. Craig gave oblique directions such as, “just a touch of Walter Cronkite,” or “a little more charactery,” and the actors cheerfully complied. She asked if I wanted to try. I felt a frisson of panic as she led me to the booth and told me to “slate, in character,” but I enjoyed myself. Craig said I didn’t sound old enough to play the part, but I wasn’t discouraged.

Voice-overs can be amazingly lucrative. “A top voice-over talent can make well into six figures. A hot voice can even earn seven figures,” said agent Danis, whose clients include Mark Fenske (Apple computers), Greg Burson (Bugs Bunny), Townsend Coleman (the cartoon characters the Tick and Michelangelo of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and Jim Cummings (Tasmanian Devil, Smokey the Bear, Winnie the Pooh). “Many of my clients are not only the voice of a current campaign, they’re also the voices of the networks, the ones who say, ‘Coming up next on the ‘Tonight Show.’ Many of the same voices that you hear on commercials are the same voices that your children hear on Saturday morning.”

Unless you’re a celebrity, the large incomes usually come from volume--hot voices may record several jobs in a day--and residuals rather than hefty fees. “The majority of the voice-over talent work for scale,” Danis said. For a national commercial, an actor gets paid $333.30 the first time it’s aired, $96 the second time, $76.35 for the third through 13th uses, and $34.65 for the 14th and up. After 13 weeks, the pay cycle begins again. “Cereals, cars, soft drinks and laundry detergents tend to be good moneymakers because they run them like crazy.”

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Danny Dark, whose golden pipes actually say “coming up next on the ‘Tonight Show’ ” for NBC, admits that what he likes best about his profession are the residuals. “You can be asleep, and a commercial you did can be on the air and can be making you money,” he said. And Andre Stojka (Pfister faucets, Kelloggs Temptation Cereals) fondly recalled a commercial he did for Chevrolet a few years back. “It was a very short-lived campaign, it couldn’t have lasted more than a month,” he said. “Yet when all the dust had settled, I’d made almost $25,000.” His dream is to “be a car with intense national distribution. No regional distribution please.”

Alas, many of the most coveted commercial spots are taken by celebrities for whom there are no set formulas or rules. “So many celebrities are doing voice-overs, the rates are all over the place,” said agent Arlene Thornton. “Some celebrities will do it for scale, some modest five figures, some six figures, it depends on who wants whom for what.” Actors who have done voice-overs include Richard Dreyfuss (McDonald’s), Tom Selleck (AT&T;), Patrick Stewart (GTE), Kathleen Turner (Dove chocolate bars), Demi Moore (Keds), Donald Sutherland (Volvo), Sally Kellerman (Lee jeans), Rob Morrow (MasterCard) and his “Northern Exposure” cohort John Corbett (Isuzu), Michael Douglas (Infiniti) and John Goodman (Hager slacks).

The appeal for celebs isn’t just mercenary. “It’s the single most sought-after arena for performers,” said Marice Tobias, who has coached movie stars, countless lawyers, even a brain surgeon. “They don’t have to worry about what they look like. And the commitment is very short term. Even if you’re the signature voice for a company, the actual amount of time you spend in the studio is minimal compared to a series or on-camera commercial.”

Not all celebrities are naturals. Casting director Craig recalled a famous actor who came in to read copy for Bank of America. “It said B of A and he kept reading it, ‘Bofa,’ she said. “I didn’t want to say anything, so I said, ‘that’s great. Now, for an alternate read, why don’t you say, ‘B of A’?”

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If you aren’t on a hit series, what does it take? “They’re looking for a non-announcery, more natural, casual sound,” said Joanie Gerber, the godmother of voice-over, who has been performing for 35 years. “They like a unique sound. A little natural curl, a little graininess to it. They want everyone to be a bit like Demi Moore, who has that grainy, husky crackle in her voice.” (Fortunately, Demi’s body isn’t a requirement in this medium.)

“I like to have the voice person who is also an actor, that always seems to give them an edge,” said Rita Vennari, of Sutton Barth & Vennari, who represents top talents such as Ed Grover (Visa), Nancy Cartwright (Bart Simpson) and Lorenzo Music (Garfield). “Those big, beautiful voices you like right away, but sometimes those people can’t do it. They sound too disk jockey or radio-ish. Balls in the voice aren’t everything. Interpretation is.”

No matter how much emotional realism you can convey, you need specific skills. “You must have a head clock and I do,” said Gary Owens (the voice of Powdered Toastman, Captain Squash and a “Laugh-In” veteran). “Many of these spots must take exactly 30 seconds or they’ll ask you to shave off five seconds. You have to make every word so clear that you get the message across and you have to be a good reader.”

It also helps to be a good driver. “You get up and you go to the voice-caster in Burbank for an audition at 9:30,” said Tress MacNeille (Babs Bunny, the kid from Shelbyville who’s always picking on Bart Simpson). “Then you go across town to your agent’s office in West L.A. and read some copy there. Then maybe you have a 1 o’clock in the heart of Hollywood, and then you go to Toluca Lake for an animation session.” She does at least seven sessions a week and has been everything from “an opera-singing chicken to beef stew.”

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Animation may be the only arena where being off-the-wall really pays. Scale is $457 (plus 10% of the fee for the agency) for a cartoon under 10 minutes and $504 (plus 10%) for a longer one. A director can get two voices out of a performer for the price of one, and a third voice for only 10% more, so the successful players have more personalities than Sybil.

“You have to know how to make something stupid sound not stupid, how to bring reality to non-reality,” said Charlie Adler (Buster Bunny, Mr. and Mrs. Bighead). “I actually had a birth scene where I had to grunt and groan in 200-foot-tall gorilla delivery noises. And then I had a job where I was playing a hamburger. The client said, ‘That sounds more like a hot dog,’ and somewhere you have to get in your head what that means to that person.” Adler, who teaches an animation course, resents people with cute voices who think they can step into his hamburger bun. “If I was on a bus and someone cut themselves and I put a Band-Aid on them, I don’t think anyone would ask, ‘Have you ever thought of being a doctor?’ ”

One day I watched a recording session for the cartoon “The Tick,” directed by Susan Blu (she’s the voice of the Pillsbury Dough Girl and Princess Paw Paw), who directed all the episodes of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Eleven actors and one actress were lined up like members of a symphony orchestra. With the speed of an automatic weapon, Blu shouted directions--"A little more of a light bulb,” and “Now, you get smashed” and the actors responded with otherworldly sounds.

The voices are recorded before the animation is drawn. “You don’t have months to process the part,” Blu said. “You go to the studio and they hand you the script. You get an hour and a half of rehearsal and then we tape.”

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What really blew me away was a music session for “Steven Spielberg Presents Animaniacs,” starring Rob Paulsen, Jess Harnell and Tress MacNeille as the zany Warner siblings Yakko, Wakko and Dot. Musical director Richard Stone had the trio sing charming ballads, which stayed in my head for days. Not only did they sound like the Vienna Smurf Choir, they had the kind of high-spirited fun that I last enjoyed in my seventh-grade cafeteria. One was making up dirty lyrics, another was imitating Rush Limbaugh--I half expected a food fight. “I get paid to do what used to get me in in trouble in school,” said Paulsen, who is also the voice of Ninja Turtle Raphael. “When I was a kid, I came up with wacky voices and imitated my teachers and talked back. Who knew it was a career?”

“There’s an energy that’s involved that’s as much as anything, the childlike ability to dive in and play without asking a lot of questions,” said voice-over director Andrea Romano, who once asked the actors to record with their mouths full of peanut butter and burp a scale. “If you say to an actor, ‘I need you to yell really loud because you’re jumping off a roof,’ and they say, ‘Now, who am I, what’s my motivation?,’ they’re not right for animation.”

She’s telling me? One night I audited an animation workshop run by Dolores Diehl, who teaches beginning voice-over classes in conjunction with casting director Elaine Craig. “Let’s say you want to be an inchworm,” she said “You have to give him a name and figure out his psychological makeup. What are his relationships? Did a bird fly away with his mother?”

Alas, I’m far too left-brained to contemplate such things. Next, Diehl ordered the group to “stand up and get in a circle,” words that have chilled my blood ever since kindergarten. She began demonstrating the various placements in the body that a cartoon voice can come from--the top of the head, the nose, the back of the throat. “How do you do?” she muttered out of the side of her mouth, and a fellow echoed back, “How do you do?” Pretty soon, they were all jabbering in the animation version of tongues. I felt like I’d crashed a coven. “Let’s practice our evil laugh,” Diehl said, and the group cackled demonically. When they began growling like dogs, I fled.

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On my way to the elevator, I noticed a janitor listening intently. “Que es? " he asked.

“Voice-overs,” I said.

Es muy loco ,” he said.

I couldn’t disagree.

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