Choosing talent for a voice-over can be a lot more difficult than it might at first seem. After all, if your concept requires a voice-over, rather than words spoken by onscreen talent, this disembodied person will be required to carry the bulk of your spot’s message, which is a lot to ask of any individual.
Boys or Girls?
Typically, the first decision made is to pick the talent’s gender. Depending on the audience you’re trying to reach, a male or female voice may seem best, but this can actually be counterintuitive. Though you might think a female audience would respond better to a female voice and a male audience to a male voice, this is not always the case.
If you’re promoting health care, for instance, your audience will be typically female, aged 25 to 54. But since you’re selling trust and safety, an older, stronger male voice can be highly effective because it can evoke subconscious feelings of paternal security.
Conversely, after much study, the U.S. Air Force chose a female voice for the cockpit warning in its F-16 fighter jets because they found that male pilots listened to a female voice more attentively than that of a male. (My wife would dispute this finding.)
In my experience, while you can rationalize either gender for just about any purpose, the focus should be solely on talent and ability to convey the material in a way that is compelling. That being said, there may be internal political reasons to choose one or the other, and that’s fine — just make sure you get the best person for the job regardless of which bathroom they use at a restaurant.
Spend Whatever You Can Afford
As I alluded to earlier, if your concept requires a voice-over, it will likely be the most important component in your production, ahead of picture and score. Because of this, it is not a place where you should cut costs. It would be far better for the production company to employ one fewer grip than to end up going with subpar voice talent simply to save a buck or two.
This is because good voice talent costs good money. That’s because professional actors who work in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago or Atlanta are the cream of the thespian crop. Acting is a brutal meritocracy. Only the best make a living in these hubs of stage and screen. Even those derided as B- or C-list actors will typically do a better job than even the best local community theater player or radio announcer.
The bottom line is, acting is incredibly hard, and very few people do it well. This is the reason why those who do make a lot of money doing it.
But Don’t Overspend for Celebrity
It can be tempting to hire a celebrity actor simply because it feels good to say, “So I was working with Jon Hamm the other day …” But you shouldn’t necessarily hire a celebrity simply because he or she is famous. Remember, this will likely be what’s known as an “unsigned” spot, meaning that the actor in question isn’t lending his or her name as an endorsement. So, unless the actor’s voice is unmistakable and unique (think Morgan Freeman), you won’t be getting any additional cachet from using him or her.
There are thousands of largely unknown union stage and screen actors out there who are incredibly talented and willing to work. Be aware, however, that while you may save money by hiring a journeyman union actor over a celebrity, you will still have to pay at least union scale plus health and pension fees, and these can add up fast. This is on top of any union paymaster and/or broker fees you’ll be liable for if you’re not a SAG-AFTRA signatory and have to go through a third party. But 99 times out of 100 it will be worth it. In my experience, union talent almost always elevates a spot from a local to a national feel.
Announcers Aren’t the Same as Actors
You may ask, “Why don’t we just use a local DJ to voice the spots?” Many local radio personalities do indeed moonlight as voice-over artists. And this can be fine if you’re doing a simple car dealership or furniture store “We’re practically giving ’em away!” spot. But if you’re trying to convey any emotion or subtlety, you’ll want an actor rather than an announcer — and you’ll hear the difference the moment you start listening to auditions.
Finding the Right Voice Takes Time
Just as finding the perfect stock photo or library music takes time, so too does finding the perfect voice. This should be built into your budget from the start. It’s not unusual for a voice search to take 10 to 20 hours or more. That’s because it can involve searching for and listening to hundreds of demo reels.
Once you narrow them down, you send them on to client services for consideration. Everyone has his or her own opinion, and choosing voice talent can be very subjective. It’s not uncommon for a person involved in the approval process to dismiss a potential voice-over candidate simply because they “just don’t like him.” So then you move on to round two and round three and so on. This back-and-forth can add billable hours very quickly.
I’m very lucky that I became acquainted with an experienced talent broker in Los Angeles many years ago. Whenever I’ve needed union actors, I’ve worked with him and his associate in New York to help me find the people I need at a reasonable price. These brokers serve as union paymasters and arrange all of the contracts and liaise with the agents. They’re also really good at recommending talent I’ve never heard of. I highly recommend forming a relationship with such a broker.
In the end, you’ll do your spot a disservice if you give your voice talent requirements short shrift. The trouble is, it can be very tempting to do so because it will look like a very large figure in a budget spreadsheet and will consequently stand out like a sore thumb. It’s human nature to go after the largest line item first when trying to reduce a production budget, but as a producer, it’s your job to fight for your voice talent with the various rationales I’ve given above because it is your job to deliver the highest quality spot the budget allows.
I promise you, when you’re sitting in the recording studio with the client, and you hear your talent run through the first few lines of the script, you’ll both know that it was money well spent.
In this :30 TV spot for Nebraska Family Helpline, VO artist Sanaa Lathan provides a warm, emotive delivery that elevates the script.