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

June 18, 1995|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.)

"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.

"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.

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."

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