Don't be afraid of the voice in the dark

Scott Rummell has a nice speaking voice. It's warm, friendly, clear; pleasant though not particularly striking. But it's Rummell's other voice, rather, his paid, professional voice, the one he turns on when he's positioned inches from a microphone, that has earned him work on "Angels & Demons," "Terminator Salvation," "American Idol" and "Oprah" and the reputation as one of the country's top voice-over artists.

"The guys that do the movie trailers, the perception is there's one guy or two or three, but there's probably 15 of us that work every day," said Rummell, 48.

The late Don LaFontaine was probably the best-known voice in movie trailers. Stentorian and authoritative, his "voice of God" was used to promote more than 5,000 movies over a 40-year career until his death last September. It was LaFontaine's voice moviegoers had come to expect when the lights went down and the "Coming Attractions" rolled.

But it wasn't always LaFontaine that the audiences were hearing. Often it was Ashton Smith or Ben Patrick Johnson or Rummell -- lesser-known but versatile talents who can mimic the so-called "trailer sound" LaFontaine pioneered -- skilled voice-over artists who know how to hold audience attention without overshadowing the power of the words that they are speaking.

"The nature of a voice-over is you should not be conscious of it," said Patrick Starr, vice president of creative advertising for Fox Searchlight. "You don't want to be aware of it, but it's the same person who's telling you the story. It's very difficult to command a presence but be in the background. Voice-over is really hard to do."

A day with Rummell proves Starr's point. He records dozens of promos daily, often just moments after he's received the scripts for them on a fax machine that's constantly whirring with copy. In a single hour on a recent Tuesday at his paper-cluttered home studio, he recorded spots for the TV shows "Lie to Me," "American Idol," "Prison Break" and "Dollhouse," as well as for the upcoming movies "Rango" and "Orphan."

"Tell me about 'Orphan,' " Rummell asked the producer for the trailer, who was on the other end of the digital phone line that connected Rummel's in-home studio to the movie trailer production house.

"It's kind of how it sounds," said the disembodied voice. "A family adopts this girl and weird stuff starts to happen. Like she starts killing people."

"So it's a comedy," Rummell joked, demonstrating an amiable personality that is part of the reason for his success. Another reason: his ability to intuit directions and deliver the exact sound his clients want.

"Give it a little bit of darkness, but not too much," said the producer.

"OK," Rummell said in his regular speaking voice, before clearing his throat and mutating it into its professional incarnation as he read lines of copy that would become increasingly sinister.

"The Coleman family has a new daughter," Rummell read in a dramatic and throaty whisper that seems in keeping with his cherubic face and portly frame. "But there is something wrong with Esther."

"Good," came the producer's reply. "Now make it brighter at the top and twist it on the last line."

A few more takes, and Rummell was finished -- for a few minutes. He signed off the phone and walked over to his computer, where his online calendar was being filled with minutes-long assignments arranged by the three agencies that represent him. In just a couple more minutes Rummell would record a promo for an ABC special with Michael J. Fox.

"We start our days with nothing," said Rummell, who, like most voice-over artists these days, works from home, which is why he's able to dress in board shorts and Hawaiian shirts on the job. Until six years ago, he used to drive from his house in Yorba Linda to Hollywood every day, traveling between Paramount, Disney and the other studios that hired him to record seconds of copy.

Thanks to digital phone lines that allow broadcast-quality audio to travel in real time between recording studios, Rummell's commute has been reduced to about 15 seconds. That's how long it takes him to get from his kitchen, where he starts his day with a hot cup of coffee to warm up his vocal cords, to a home studio that is so impervious to outside noise that when his next-door neighbor spent a week jackhammering her pool, it didn't affect Rummell's work.

Rummell's home also has a pool. He says it was designed by the same Imagineer that dreamed up the Splash Mountain ride at Southern California's most famous theme park. His immaculate and spacious two-story home features other totems from Disneyland, where, as a child, the Orange County native was first attracted to the spoken word through the announcers who talked visitors through the rides. Later, Rummell himself became the voice for the theme park, announcing its many shows and daily attractions.

It has taken Rummell years to rise to the top in a tough business. There are roughly 8,000 working voice-over artists in the U.S. today, lending their talents to all kinds of promotions, animated TV shows, DVD releases and grocery store radio ads. Movie work is one of the most competitive fields -- and the most lucrative -- because so many different spots are recorded for so many different types of media.

"The bulk of the money is on TV spots for feature films. It's not just what you hear in theaters," said Paul Wintner, owner of the voice talent agency Wintner Artist Management. "There might be a spot on Lifetime geared toward women, an action spot for the NBA Finals, a dramatic spot during 'Lost.' There are different ones for different shows. You could easily do 30 different spots for a movie."

Paid by the spot with scale rates determined by the Screen Actors Guild, voice-over artists earn hundreds of dollars per second, which, for the handful of top artists in the field, can translate into an annual seven-figure income. There's a high demand for the best in the business, and Wintner said voice-over work continues to hum despite the downturn in the economy.

"It hasn't really affected it," said Wintner. "Studios are trying to save a little bit of money on marketing, but . . . people go to the movies in a recession."

Voice-over work is, in large part, acting. It isn't just the timbre of an artist's voice, but his or her ability to use it like a well-developed muscle -- to shape it for each particular script, employing different tones, pacing and inflection, and finding the right combination in just a couple of takes.

What causes one artist to be picked over another "isn't anything all that scientific," said Michelle Jackino, a creative director with Ant Farm, an L.A.-based production company that made the trailers for the upcoming films "Bruno," "Where the Wild Things Are" and "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen." "It's not like two parts science and one part inspiration. It's more about in your gut who feels right for a project."

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susan.carpenter@latimes.com

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