Everyone tells me I have a great voice. Can I make money doing voiceover work, narration or cartoon voices?
Maybe. The odds are against you but it's certainly possible.
The first thing you have to keep in mind though it's that it's a very competitive business and that the people you'll be competing
against are, with few exceptions, pursuing work full-time and often with a powerhouse agent clearing the trail for them. So if you think you're
going to devote an hour or so a week to it and take jobs away from them, you're probably way off-base.
I am not suggesting you quit your day job and put every waking minute into it. Do not under any circumstances put yourself in a
position of financial mercy, whereby you have to begin making a living in voice work in X months or you won't be able to pay rent. As with any
kind of acting, the trick is to maintain some kind of base income as you segue into the new field. Beyond that, you have to remember that even
a lot of people who do get decent voice jobs do not get them consistently and can have large gaps in their income.
So how do I break into the field without starving to death?
Well, the first thing you should do is look around at the small, available jobs. This is especially important if you're living
outside a major marketplace like Los Angeles, New York or Chicago. Your city has radio stations. It has advertising agencies that produce
commercials. It may well have small film companies that make productions that need narration. A top L.A. voiceover agent once remarked,
"When someone comes in who says they just moved here from Kansas, my first question to them is, 'How much voice work were you getting in
Kansas?' Because if you couldn't make it there, you won't be able to make it here. And if you didn't bother to look there, you don't have
the right attitude to make it here."
If you are in a major marketplace, you should still look for the small jobs. There are a lot of them and they give you experience
and a financial base.
Doing small jobs for small companies is not an embarrassment for a beginner. Later on, it can be. But everyone has to start
someplace and an agent or producer is going to be more impressed with a person who has earned money doing voice work — even a little —
than they are with someone who was waiting tables at a comparable period in their lives.
Do I need to study?
Yes. In fact, an enormous tip-off to some casting directors and agents that a person is not serious is that they think they can
get by without lessons. It's like the old maxim about basketball players: Every time you're not practicing, some other guy is — and
someday, you'll be facing that guy on the court. There are people who work steadily in the field of voiceovers but still find it valuable to
take classes once or twice a week. They feel that just working and going to auditions does not sufficiently flex all their muscles and give
them a chance to grow.
Any city that has voice jobs probably has voice teachers. Even acting classes that don't specialize in the voice can be very
valuable, especially those that focus on improv comedy, dialects or cold reading. The main value though is that you have someone challenging
you and giving you feedback. George C. Scott once said that the only way to improve as an actor was to read opposite other actors, and this is
something you can't do alone.
I'm worried about getting ripped-off by acting teachers and agents. Should I be concerned?
Absolutely. A lot of teachers and agents and other services that promise to help you get work are shameless con games, while
others are basically honest but just aren't very good.
Rule of thumb for aspiring actors of all kinds: There are very few legitimate cases where you should pay money to someone to help you
with your career.
You can and should pay for lessons and workshops but like anything else in this world, you have to shop intelligently. Look at
what others are charging and look at what other customers have had to say. Some people teach acting because they don't know enough about it to
actually do it.
You can and should pay modest, reasonable fees for someone to record, edit and duplicate your demo tape. And if you need a good
headshot photo, which some voiceover agents consider a necessity, you need to pay for that, too. A little investigation will show you that
there are huge variations in what some folks will charge you for this.
You can and should pay for things like books on acting and instructional tapes. There are some good tapes out that will coach you
on accents if you're going to do that kind of work.
And that's about it. Do not ever pay someone who claims to be an agent or to be able to help you get an agent. Do not pay
someone who claims they can get you into a showcase where agents or casting directors will see and hear you. Be very wary of someone who wants
to charge you to "evaluate" your demo. Also, be wary of someone who claims to be a manager. A manager is not an agent and while some
perform the same functions, they're not supposed to.
I want to do voices and everyone tells me I really have a flair for it. Can I make a living as an actor/actress living in Los
Angeles and doing voices for animated cartoons?
Almost certainly not — and almost no one ever does. The job you covet is really that of Voice Actor or Voiceover
Performer. It encompasses animation voice work, announcing, film dubbing, radio commercials, voiceovers for TV commercials, etc. Work in
these areas is infinitely more plentiful and often more lucrative so no one limits themselves exclusively to cartoon voice work. This sometimes
comes as a shock to someone who idolizes Mel Blanc or Daws Butler and dreams of following in their footsteps...but only envisions voicing animated
cartoons. The fact is that Mel and Daws did other things and the other things were often more rewarding. (When Mel was voicing the
classic Warner Brothers cartoons, animation work never accounted for more than 10% of his income.) Cartoon voicing can pay very decently if one
lands steady work but no one limits themselves to just that.
I live in Jerkwater, Alabama and I have access to a real good recording studio and digital phone lines. I've heard that there
are people who live outside Los Angeles and New York who manage to have thriving voice careers by phone. So I can do this, can't I?
Not that long ago, the answer to this would have been, "Absolutely not." Today, due to technological advances, the answer is more
along the lines of: "It's remotely possible, though you're certainly putting yourself at an enormous competitive disadvantage." There are some
experienced actors who, having proven their worth and established themselves as the voices of certain characters or ad campaigns, have managed to
relocate outside of L.A. or N.Y. and continued working, though not as often.
There are also occasional newcomer exceptions and in the future, working with out-of-town voice talent will become more feasible but at
the moment, such cases are the exception. Remember, you have to convince them not only that you're better than the 3,000+ actors in the L.A.
area who are actively seeking voice work, but that you're so much better that it's worth the inconvenience of working with someone who can't come in
at a moment's notice.
I'm about to prepare my voice demo. How long should it be?
Shorter than you'll probably make it. A top voice agent recently told me, "It's getting so that if I don't hear something
fabulous in the first 20 seconds, I turn it off and throw it in the reject pile." That is probably not uncommon, given how many thousands of
tapes get submitted to agents and casting directors. You need to be absolutely ruthless in omitting all but your absolute best work. Lead
with those one or two unique voices you may have and then keep the whole thing down to three minutes. Two is better...and if that seems
impossible, remember that they'll probably make up their minds about you in the first minute.
Agents and casting directors are sick of hearing men imitating Ernie Anderson, Paul Frees and Don LaFontaine. Women seeking
character work all seem to copy imitate June Foray's witch voice, Gail Matthius's valley girl voice and Nancy Cartwright's Bart Simpson voice.
Replicating those does not prove you're as good as those actresses. It demonstrates that you have nothing to offer that many others can't
do...including June, Gail and Nancy, all of whom are still around and available to be hired.
But I do so many different voices! All my friends tell me I can sound like a hundred different movie stars...and I have three
hundred of my own character voices. Shouldn't I put them all on my demo tape so the agents and casting directors can hear everything that I can
First off, your friends are holding to you a different standard than is employed by professional agents and casting directors...who, by
the way, are never going to listen to a tape with 100 voices on it.
The truth is that few voice actors are as versatile as they think they are, and a casting director doesn't need someone who can do 300
voices. He or she needs someone who can do the one or two specific voices they need to cast...so show them only your best work. (Also,
there's this: To emphasize quantity over quality is generally a sign of amateurism. Most agents, when they hear someone say, "I can do 300
voices" automatically assume they're in the presence of a pushy neophyte.)
One other point: Beginners often tout their talents by saying things like, "I can do a great Homer Simpson and a terrific SpongeBob
SquarePants." What they don't get is that there's a very limited market for those who can imitate classic voices and virtually none when the
original voice actor is still around. The guys who do Homer and SpongeBob are alive and well and there is no need for anyone to imitate
them. When a voice actor dies or becomes otherwise unavailable, there are often jobs for "sound-alikes" but most of these go to folks who are
already at the top of the profession. In any case, casting agents are always much more impressed by a good original voice than by your ability
to mimic someone else's creation.
I want to break into voice work but I know that there's an "inner circle" of people who hire their friends and keep outsiders
out. Is there any way I can break into that clique?
Not with that attitude. First off, those who get work are hired because the folks doing the hiring believe that these are the
people who can give them what they want. Yes, they often hire the same people over and over. That's how it is in every business. If
you employ someone and find they're good at what they do, you hire them again, or at least give them preference over utter strangers. That's
not favoritism; that's experience. One of the skills that casting directors and voice directors are supposed to bring to the job is to know
good people and to be able to cast quickly and without doing hundreds of auditions. The notion that there's any sort of clique or inner circle
is just "sore loser" talk by folks whose work, rightly or wrongly, failed to click with those who do the hiring.
Do I have to belong to the union to get work doing voice work? Once I join, will the union get me work? Do I have to
have an agent?
You don't have to belong to the Screen Actors Guild to get your first job. You will have to join when you qualify for membership,
which usually occurs with your second. But I've never heard of a casting person saying, "I won't hire that person because he isn't in the
union." (Of course, those who cast non-union projects like it if you're not in the union. Having seen a number of performers get
exploited and cheated on non-union films, I am of the opinion that it is foolish to venture near them. It can also make you look a lot less
desirable for the decent-paying union gigs.)
The union does not get you work. They have nothing to do with that end of the process except to stop its more abusive
The problem with not having an agent is that it's difficult to let the casting folks know you exist if you don't have an agent.
They get so many submissions from accredited, known agents that they can barely deal with them, let alone the unagented actors. As a result,
they tend to view voiceover agencies as a kind of pre-screening process, assuming that if someone doesn't have an agent, they probably aren't worth
considering. That is not necessarily an unfair assumption. Most of the submissions that come from non-agented performers are pretty awful
and, even if yours is an exception, it's likely to get lost among the chaff.
So: No, having an agent is not an absolute necessity. But it sure makes the odds against you a little more tolerable.
Is it possible these days to have a career as an on-camera actor and as a voiceover performer? I see all these celebrities
doing cartoon voices lately...
Yeah...and those particular people would probably not be considered for those jobs if not for their on-camera credits. With some
exceptions, they're being hired for their celebrity by a production that feels, for either marketing or personal reasons, they want to work with
Most of the current voiceover performers who are working steadily are ones who have made a conscious decision to subordinate on-camera
work to voice work. There is, in fact, an agent who says to potential new clients, "If you had a chance tomorrow to audition for a regular part
on a sitcom that might be the next Seinfeld or a regular part on a cartoon series, and you couldn't go to both, which would you choose?" The
actor who'd pick the sitcom is, to the agent, much less appealing for representation.
I hear about this thing called "Financial Core" and it sounds to me like a great deal. It enables me to not be a member of the
union, to pay reduced dues and to accept non-union work? Why shouldn't I take advantage of this?
There are a number of reasons. "Financial Core" (sometimes called "Fiscal Core") is a special category that enables one to opt
out of a union but still work in its area of jurisdiction. The person must pay the portion of union dues that go to actual enforcement of the
union's contract but is under no legal obligation to obey certain of its rules, including the usual prohibition of working for non-union shops.
You might not want to do this for moral reasons. Many people think it's sleazy to take advantage of what the union has done to
raise the standards of pay and working conditions in an area while simultaneously undermining the union's efforts. They see it as a way to get
the benefits without the sacrifice.
Others decide against Core status for fear of what it may lead to in a legal sense. Unions have, for obvious reasons, fought it
and pursued various legislative and judicial avenues to abolish or alter it. No one can say for certain that, in the future, the nature and
"rules" of Core status may not change and make it less appealing. At the same time, most unions have adopted a rule that once a member opts for
Core status, they cannot rejoin the union on a full member basis. That has been and will be contested but, again, no one can guarantee that
those who elect Core status may not, in the future, find its terms and conditions not to their liking...and no way back from it.
Mainly though, Core status is probably a bad idea just as a career move. It's tantamount to announcing to the industry that
you're desperate...and the only folks who want to hire desperate actors are those who are looking for talent that will work cheap and not complain if
the check bounces.
There have been some voiceover actors who have chosen Core status and all the ones I know of have regretted it. In particular,
I'm thinking of one moderately-successful v.o. actress of a few years back. Like most performers, she wasn't working as often as she
wanted. Her boy friend convinced her that she'd work more if she went Core so she did...but, instead of adding a lot of non-union work to her
workload of union jobs, she found herself replacing the union jobs with poor-paying non-union work. She was suddenly working so infrequently
— and on such low-money jobs — that her agent dropped her. In general, it made her look less professional.
So right there, it's a bad idea.
Okay, I've read your article...I've read all the questions and answers. I want to do cartoon voices. Can you just give
me a straight answer as to what I have to do to get that job? And please be honest with me.
Okay, here it is: On each project, the decision as to who does the voice(s) is done by a small group of people — usually a
casting director and a voice director (often, those are the same person) and a boss or two. On a commercial, the boss may be the client —
i.e., the maker of the product — or it may be the advertising agency. On a cartoon show, it may be a producer and maybe a studio
head or two. Once in a while, writers and directors can effectively recommend someone. So what you have to do is to get those people to
decide you're the right person for a given role.
If you already have a personal relationship with one of these people, they might consider you. That doesn't mean they'll hire you
but they might give you a real consideration. (It is rare that one person can make a casting decision. So even if your uncle is the
casting director and he decides you're the best-possible choice for a certain part, he still has to convince his co-workers. On a cartoon show,
a network may also have approval rights and there may also be merchandising people and folks who have ownership rights in the property who have to
sign off on major casting decisions.)
If you don't have a personal relationship with one of these people and you approach them directly, you will almost surely do yourself
more harm than good, and could really anger them. They get bombarded by a lot of amateurs and expect the agent system to protect them from
that, and to weed out the new people with talent.
Getting an agent is as described in the article I mentioned above. You work up a demo tape of your work and you submit it to the
various agencies. If they all turn you down, your only real option is to keep submitting samples of your talent to them. There really is
no other route.
I'm sorry I can't give you any magic shortcut and I'm sorry that this may not sound fair to you, or that 98% of all those who want to
do voice work will never get the opportunity. But that's the way it works.
For reasons you can probably guess, it has become necessary to institute the following policy: Please do not send me voice demos
or requests to hear your samples or to hire you or to refer you to an agent. I get way too much of this and have had to vow never to hire
or refer anyone who approaches me this way. If you saw my e-mailbox, you'd understand.