Every successful voice-over actor gets asked the same question over and over from fans and even their local plumber. If you want to know how to get into voice acting, based on my experience as a voice actor for 40 years, here’s my answer.
I don’t have a clue anymore.
But seriously…I want to give you the real truth
When I got started in voiceover 100 years ago, the voice acting business was competitive but strategically located. Although you could get some commercial or industrial work in most major cities, the main markets were Los Angeles and New York.
The bulk of my work has been in anime dubbing but I’ve done a little of everything over the years. There was a small group of about 30 dubbers in Los Angeles during the 80s and 90s and every time a project came into town, we would be called to work on it.
The voices for original animation, which is recorded before the animation is drawn, was and still is performed by a very small cadre of talented voice actors. It’s difficult to break in unless you are extremely talented or lucky. The best animation actors are masters of improvisation. Those who are off the wall and have a flexible voice range do most of the work.
Anime dubbing requires a special skill. You must be an actor but also have the ability to sync the dialog with a flapping mouth that has already been filmed in another language. The best dubbers have a sense of musicality or “rhythm.” The technical aspect of dubbing is much easier for actors than it was when I first started out because of Pro Tools. Now a clip can be stretched to fit the lip flaps so an actor doesn’t have to hit it spot on as we did long ago. But, it still takes skill.
How can I make big bucks in voice acting?
Original animation has always been more lucrative than anime dubbing because most television projects are done under a union contract. That means you must be a member of SAG-AFTRA. You get paid residuals after a certain number of runs on air. However, the biggest bucks are in commercials. One national commercial or jingle can send your kid to college or help pay off your mortgage if it runs for a period of time. Regional commercials are buy-outs, but a national commercial is the crème de la crème.
A few chosen voice actors make a killing doing movie trailer promos or announcer gigs but that’s a hard nut to crack even for highly experienced voice talent.
Video games also pay well, but they can ruin your voice because there’s usually a lot of screaming involved. Gamers love action and violence. You may not think that’s not a problem when you’re young but it can really mess you up when you get older.
For a while, I did ADR on films. (Automatic Dialogue Replacement) We sweetened up the voices of extras in scenes and sometimes replaced the voices of other actors. I worked on ANTZ, The Santa Clause, Beverly Hills Cop III, Dr. Doolittle, and many other films. ADR is highly lucrative for people who have an unrecognizable “normal” voice but mine is unique-sounding so it limits my opportunities. It’s extremely difficult to break into but the residuals are incredible.
How do I become “successful” in voice-overs?
Right now the industry is INSANELY competitive so I don’t recommend spending a ton of money to become a voice actor unless it’s a primary passion for you. Most voiceover work nowadays is done online by voice actors who have home studios. You can live in a tiny town in Kansas, and be successful if you work hard enough. It has really increased the talent pool.
To land a paying job, you have to be talented, persistent and dedicated
Some voice actors have packed up their bags, quit their real jobs, and moved to Los Angeles only to find themselves struggling to survive. Do you have any idea how EXPENSIVE it is to live in LA? Your entire income will get sucked up into your rent so you must have other sources of income or a full/part-time job.
Many struggling actors work as Uber drivers, deliver food, do temp work, or work flexible jobs online like sitting on a mock jury.
The truth is, you can be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond. Are you sure you want to pack up, move to LA, and swim with the swarm?
Cattle call anyone?
I always had better outcomes when I walked into a casting office and did an audition. When I recorded auditions at my agent’s office and they were sent to casting directors, I wasn’t nearly as successful. Can you imagine what it’s like now with thousands of actors emailing their clips from home? You have to record hundreds of auditions to book one gig. In-house auditions are almost non-existent. Getting cast is almost like winning the lottery!
I’ve also noticed voice actors responding to Twitter threads asking them to send links to their reels. In my opinion, cattle calls like those are a waste of time usually resulting in little to no pay. Some of these “casting directors” may even be data mining so be careful.
I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer but . . .
Realize there are people out there who are ready and willing to separate you from your money even if they don’t think you have a chance in hell of becoming successful as a voice actor.
Only get into voice acting if you are TRULY passionate about the work, can deal with rejection well, are mentally stable, and have sufficient talent as an actor. If you only want to do it because you are a fan, good luck, but I don’t recommend it!
Do you really need a voice over coach?
To be completely honest, I never worked with a voice acting coach other than a one-hour session at the SAG Conservatory and a few singing lessons. Instead, I was fortunate to learn on the job.
I’m not saying hiring a voice coach is wrong or bad. The problem is, many “coaches” are overpriced, unqualified, and their main goal is to get you to make a professional demo reel, which costs a fortune. An actor’s income is unpredictable, so be careful what you invest in.
I trained as an actor in theatre starting in high school, all through college, and on stage in Los Angeles where I won awards for outstanding performances. But, what got me work as a voice actor was MY VOICE. I naturally sound like a kid, even in my 60s. An ad posted in a trade magazine was looking for adults with kid voices. I answered it, auditioned, and began my career as a working voice actor doing anime.
Don’t feel you need to create a wide range of character voices. You will get cast in the type of voice that most resembles your real speaking voice about 99 percent of the time. Almost all my “voices” are variations of my real voice. Trying to do a character that is outside of your range will damage your vocal cords over time and there will always be actors who are more suited for the role.
Are agents still necessary?
I was signed with a top voice-over agency for 25 years and they set up my commercial auditions. I booked several including some nationals. However, I got the bulk of my work on my own, through friends I knew in the business. Then, life happened, my agent retired, and I got booted out because their main focus was more on movie promos and not animation. It’s sad to say but the industry is not necessarily loyal, especially as you age. There will always be someone newer and cuter.
An agent is most helpful if you are in the union and live in a large market like Los Angeles or New York. They get 10% of what you make in commission but that 10% does not come out of your pay. It is on top of whatever they negotiate for you with the production company. A manager, on the other hand, can take more than 10% and it comes right out of your pocket.
Most actors do not need a manager unless they are in the top of their field.
Why you should join SAG-AFTRA when you qualify
I’ve been a member of SAG-AFTRA since 1981. Union membership protects actors from shady producers who want to take advantage of them financially. When I hear about actors doing voiceovers for 5 bucks on Fiverr, I seriously want to barf. The union is not easy to get into and it’s expensive but I’m proud to be a member. Working non-union undercuts actors’ rates and you get nothing in return for the future.
Young actors tend to not think about the future but honey, you will get old someday.
What else do I need to make it in voiceovers?
If you want to get into voice acting you first need to realize it’s a business. As artsy as you think you are, you have to market yourself. Successful voice actors know how to sell themselves. They get the people who are hiring to hear their auditions and demos. Other voice actors or fans are not the ones you should be targeting. Instead, get to know casting directors, producers, and collaborate with brands. Connect with them in person, online, and on social media.
Here are some of the things you need to make it in voice acting.
- Talent – As I mentioned before, it’s essential to be an actor if you want to be truly successful in voice acting. Don’t delude yourself if you’re not.
- Take acting classes, do theatre, sign up for legit voiceover coaching classes and be very discerning about who will be teaching you. Bob Bergen, Kalmanson and Kalmanson, (Cathy used to be one of my agents) Steve Blum, & Marc Graue, are a few “qualified” coaches who come to mind.
- Persistence – You need to get your name out there. Meet people, stay in touch with them, call them up if needed, and network. I honestly have to say I SUCK at that.
- Build a professional website – This is important. It wasn’t a thing at all when I started. In the old days, we mailed out reels, headshots, and resumes, which usually ended up in the trash. The reason your website is your most important online real estate is because you own it. Social media platforms come and go. You may have a zillion followers on TikTok, but what would happen to them if TikTok went away? I created this website by myself because even though I’m a Baby Boomer, I’m tech-savvy. I recommend WordPress because it has the most functionality and is fairly easy to use. Your website needs to be responsive and mobile-friendly. If you can see your entire site when you look on your phone, it’s as OLD as ME. Here is how to set up a WordPress website without paying someone zillions of bucks.
- Build up your following on Social Media – Your website is your online real estate, but you must also have a Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube presence. Some people have created their own celebrity by uploading home-produced videos on YouTube, TikTok, Reels, or whatever the latest platform is. Use your social media profiles to make connections and don’t rant. (Okay, I got booted off one of my Twitter accounts for ranting – my bad!)
- F&^k- P2P – I hate using profanity but I abhor the proliferation of “pay to play” sites. When I was coming up as an actor, the Screen Actor’s Guild always warned us, “If anyone asks you to pay to audition, run away as fast as you can.” Charging for auditions is WRONG and most of the work is non-union and underpaid. Those companies are only out to make a buck . . . from YOU. Still, if you are a beginner, they may be good to practice with.
- Have a home studio – I ADORED having an engineer set up my mic and worry about the sound quality so all I had to focus on was my performance. Now YOU have to be an engineer and all those cool engineers are out of work. Many struggling actors do not have a suitable space to work in so you may have to be creative. You need decent equipment and the right software. My home studio is in my closet because I rent a room in a house. Clothing is awesome for sucking up sound and so are furniture pads. If you can’t afford a fancy booth, set up a space between your sweatpants and your winter coat. Then, hope your dog won’t bark or the gardener doesn’t show up when you are recording. In my case, it’s my roommate who watches TV all day in the next room. Luckily, she now drives for Uber a few hours a day.
- Equipment – Smartphones are getting better all the time but they aren’t a replacement for a professional microphone. I use an Audio Technica 2020 condenser mic, a pop filter, a small Beringer mixer, Sennheiser headset, and record with Audacity, which is free. There are much more expensive setups out there but remember all your business expenses will add up. You will also need Source Connect and it’s supposed to be hard-wired to your Internet. I have Wifi, so I haven’t gone there yet, but I do have Zoom. LOL
- Demo reels – Well, they are no longer reels, they are MP3s or WAV files. I’m the first to admit that I need new ones. My demos are ancient. But here’s the deal. You can spend a huge amount of money on demos, then get an agent, and 99% of the time, they will want you to make new ones to their specifications. If you are at the start of your career, be careful, and don’t make a demo until you are ready.
- Conventions – A popular anime voice actor once told me the bulk of his income comes from being a guest at anime conventions. Some actors even have convention agents. You get paid to attend as a guest, free airfare, hotel, and per diem. As a guest, you can sell your autographs and other merchandise. I don’t love that idea but some conventions have small budgets and doing that makes it worthwhile financially. The convention will require you to do some panels and sometimes hold a class but often you have time for yourself to explore the city. I have been a guest at several anime conventions but am still working on the marketing end of it. What I love is the free travel and engaging with my fans. It’s also an additional source of income.
- Get a knowledgeable tax advisor so you can write off your business expenses properly.
- Find out if voice acting is for you. Start a podcast. It’s fun and you can even make money doing it. You’ll get practice using equipment, work on marketing, and see if you like the sound of your own voice. I had a podcast for a while and made awesome connections. Give it a try.
- Be prepared to fly by the seat of your pants – Acting work is cyclical and unpredictable. You may be flying high one year and live on food stamps the next. This can take a toll on you mentally and could affect your family and kids. There are many imensely talented actors out there who never got a break and end up on the street. You have to be strong enough to work through the ups and downs.
Think about your future because I didn’t
Young actors don’t always think ahead because they see themselves as “artists.” I didn’t anyway. But one day you will get old, trust me. I now live on Social Security and a small SAG-AFTRA pension in addition to any gigs I get and my blogging business.
Life can happen that can seriously impact your career. I lost a husband to cancer when my two kids were 11 and 13. He worked in the business and only left me a small life insurance payment. In Los Angeles, that lasted about a year. I then lived with another guy who worked in the business. He also died of cancer and his pension went to his wife, who he hadn’t lived with for 30 years. (don’t judge me.)
You have to have a fallback plan and invest in your retirement because if you only work sporadically, as most voice actors do, you will be screwed. You have to contribute to your Social Security account by either working W2 income (in the union) or taking it out through your corporation. JUST DO IT!
I became a blogger and affiliate marketer to supplement my income. It gives me flexibility and it’s fun. I will keep doing that until I drop along with voice overs. Still, I wish I had thought about my future when I was MUCH younger.
Books on voice acting that are worth checking out:
- Voice-Over Voice Actor: The Extended Edition by Yuri Lowenthal and Tara Platt
- Voice-Over 101: How to Succeed as a Voice Actor by Debi Derryberry
- Sound Advice: Voiceover from an Audio Engineer’s Perspective by Dan Friedman
Technologies change in a heartbeat. You can learn just about anything on YouTube but check the date to make sure the videos you are watching are current.
Voice Over Tips Online
You need to have a life
There is life aside from acting. I have two kids who are now adults, I love to travel, have hobbies, am a blogger, and enjoy dogs (although I am dogless at the moment) Do whatever it is that sparks an interest in you in addition to acting. It’s not the end-all, be-all of life. Become a whole and interesting person and not just a workaholic. The truth is, working as an actor or voice actor can be brutal to your ego and you can age out even in voice-acting. Enjoy life and have fun!
Not sure about becoming a voice actor? Start a podcast and see how you like it.
If you have questions about voice acting follow me on Twitter @rebeccaforstadt or email me at email@example.com