Home Blog Toon Zone Top 5 Things I Learned in Bob Bergen’s Voice-Over Class

Toon Zone Top 5 Things I Learned in Bob Bergen’s Voice-Over Class

Me in the recording booth under Bob Bergen’s watchful eye.

One of the most common fantasies of animation fans is to become a voice actor. “How do I become a voice actor?” is probably the most common question asked at voice actor panels at conventions or signings. After interviewing a few different voice actors and voice directors and spending an unhealthy amount of time watching cartoons, I thought it would be fun and illuminating to sit in on Bob Bergen’s voice acting class when he brought it to New York City at the start of December. However, when I found out there was an opening in the class that I thought I wouldn’t be taking away from a working actor, I sent in a check and went on to live the dream for a weekend, learning How to Be a Voice Actor the Bob Bergen Way along with 14 other students. Think of this article as the equivalent of when Matt Lauer goes street luging.

Bergen’s easygoing style, sharp teaching ability, and undeniable skills as an actor would make his class worthwhile for anybody seeking to build or hone skills in voice-over, but what makes his class distinctive is that it is as focused on the business aspects of being a voice actor as it is on the creative aspects. He noted early on that an actor with decent ability but great business acumen and the ability to market him- or herself effectively will almost inevitably get more work than an actor with tremendous talent but little to no business acumen. Bergen spent as much time talking about the expectations of the business as he did talking about acting techniques, often citing both flubs and successes from his own career.

About 2/3rds of the first day was spent talking about voice acting as a craft and as a business, with the remainder of the weekend taken up with learning by doing. Each of us got 2 sample audition scripts (usually an image of a character and anywhere from 3 to 10 disjointed lines), which we would perform in a recording booth under Bergen’s direction. One clean read-through would be followed by direction from Bergen and re-reads of specific lines before one final read. The first and last read-through were played back for the class afterwards.

It was quite an illuminating experience, and after doing it, I have even more respect for the actors who bring our favorite cartoon characters to life. Below are the top 5 observations I came away with after spending time with Bergen and my fellow students in class and behind the microphone:

1. The Rules of Acting are Like the Pirate Code
“They’re really more guidelines than actual rules.”

Carol Smith
Carol Smith, producer and Second City improv actor, who is about to move from Toronto to Los Angeles to make a go of being a voice actor.

Bergen warned us fairly early that he’d be contradicting himself multiple times throughout the class, but this is not a failing in his teaching methodology. Methods and techniques in acting are as individual as fingerprints, so advice for one person just may not work for someone else. He recommends studying as many different methods and techniques of acting as possible, absorbing and combining the elements that work for you as an actor. No two actors ever seem to approach the craft of acting in exactly the same way, and there really aren’t too many rules that are carved in stone when it comes to in voice acting.

Similarly, there is no single, uniform way to navigate the business world of being a voice-over actor. No two successful voice actors seem to have gotten into the business exactly the same way, and asking any one voice actor how they broke into the business may give you little to no insight on how to break in yourself. Lots of different people might recommend a producer, an agent, a recording engineer, or an acting school to you, but if you find that it’s just not working for you, then it doesn’t really matter how highly recommended they were. There are also plenty of people in the business who are more interested in their bottom line than in your acting ability or your career, so it’s worth looking at any advice you get with a slightly jaundiced eye.

Some advice about being an actor, and a voice-over actor specifically, is universal. Some of it is common sense. However, a lot of the advice people will give, even from the successful voice actors with the best of intentions, are guidelines more than actual rules. As long as you can really listen to the advice of others and understand why it’s being given, you should be ready to reject that advice if it doesn’t feel right for you. There are many ways to the top of the mountain. Nobody’s going to give you a career just because you’re you, but if you manage to break into the business, it’s almost a guarantee that the way you did it is going to be different from everyone else’s.

Oddly enough, voice acting is also a lot like the pirate code in that peglegs, sabers, eye patches, and gold dubloons seem to figure prominently in many voice acting careers. Bergen couldn’t really explain why.

2. Voice Acting is Not Easy

Dan Taylor
Actor Dan Taylor, demonstrating how to get physical with a role. The pursed lips may look strange, but they’re more important to the performance than you think.

The popular perception among the public, and probably with some on-camera actors, is that voice acting must be easy — you just need to talk in a funny voice into the microphone. You don’t even need to memorize lines, since your script is right in front of you. How much easier can it get?

This is a load of crap.

Voice acting is still acting, and acting is hard. Fundamentally, acting is about characters, and voice acting is no exception. A funny voice on its own is of little value if there isn’t a character at the end of it that you care about. Voice acting has surprises of its own as well, with the biggest one for newcomers to the business probably being how physical voice acting can be. One of Bergen’s mantras throughout the weekend was that if you act the character physically, the vocal performance for the character will follow. Sometimes, this is because the physical action affects the voice — hunching over, pushing your lips away from your face, or gesturing as you speak will change tones and intonation. The physical performance can also be a trigger to muscle memory, assisting actors to get back into character, especially when you’re being called back for a role and don’t quite remember what you did in the audition. It takes a bit of practice to be able to gesticulate wildly in a recording booth while keeping your eyes on the script, though the students in class seemed to pick up this skill pretty quickly. It was also pretty common to see few students exerting themselves enough in the booth to break into a sweat.

On the other hand, you can’t get carried away with getting physical in your performance. Bergen related a story of an on-camera actor who couldn’t stay on mike and kept running across the recording booth because “my character is running in this scene.” He didn’t have a very good answer for what he’d do when his character started flying later in the episode.

Crystal Koskinen
Toronto-based actor Crystal Koskinen, another Second City alum, turning herself into a put-upon maid from Transylvania.

Voice acting is also not an easy way to make a living. It’s hard to record a good demo, which is only the first step to landing a decent agent, which is only the first step to getting work and ultimately paying your bills purely through voice-over. Bergen stated that for every one actor auditioning for an on-camera job, there are five actors auditioning for the comparable voice-over job. Those seeking to make a living purely through cartoons should prepare themselves for disappointment as well — despite his high profile as the voice of Porky Pig, Bergen estimates that cartoon voices make up no more than 10% of the work he gets, and the same is true of other cartoon voice actor favorites. This is not as bad as it might sound, though, since he added that 40% or more of the promotional or commercial work he does wants a character of some kind (think of the Snuggle fabric softener bear, who paid the bills for Speed Racer‘s Corinne Orr for years). Voice acting may not present the same challenges as on-camera work, but given the amount of work required just to be able to do it part-time, I don’t think anybody could ever call it “easy.”

3. Commitment is What Separates the Voice Actors from the Wanna-Bes

Michael Lockwood Crouch
Actor Michael Lockwood Crouch in full-on flamboyant mode. The seriously freaky vampire would come later.

The class I was in had a little more than a dozen extremely talented individuals (and me). No matter how naturally talented any one student was, there was still always a noticeable difference between the first read and the last one, and to my ear, the element that made the difference was commitment. The best voice actors don’t create voices. They create characters, and the key to creating a character is true commitment to being that character. It’s not hard to tell the difference between a voice actor who’s just reading lines and one who’s really committed to a role. As Bergen said to us, the microphone in the recording booth can hear your skin cells growing, and we found out in practice that it’s also sensitive enough to pick up hesitation or self-consciousness or fear. You can hear the moments when an actor is slipping back into himself to change gears between lines, and you can hear those moments disappear as the actor dives in head-first into the deep end of the pool, getting lost in their character.

I got an unusually up-close and personal look at this, since I was often in the recording booth taking pictures of students during their reads. None of the students could remember how many photos I took or even noticing my flash go off, despite the fact that I was little more than a foot away. All that mattered as they were recording was the character. This vantage point was also perfect for the electrifying experience of watching my classmates dig further and further into their roles. One of the quietest students in the room was a hilariously flamboyant musician in his first role, and then whipsawed all the way over to a genuinely unnerving and very hungry vampire in the second. Grown adult women turned into adorable, innocent moppets and then into frightening hags or harridans. A student could read a line 3 or 4 times, but it was only after they committed to the role that the line would get a laugh. Finally, none of us are likely to forget the one student who managed to bring almost all of us to the brink of tears by reading, “Come in, Baron,” from a Flash Gordon cartoon. You can’t get the audience to laugh or cry if you’re not committed to the character.

Laura Lawton
Actor Laura Lawton, about to bring us all close to tears during her second reading.

Commitment matters on the business side of being a voice actor as well. A career in voice acting will not be given to you or dropped in your lap. Learning how to be an actor isn’t enough — you have to record your demo. Recording your demo isn’t enough — you have to get an agent. Getting an agent isn’t enough — you have to market yourself and get the roles and the work. Getting work isn’t enough — you have to keep at it, constantly earning your right to be behind the microphone and keeping yourself from becoming stale. A few months before he passed away, no less than Don LaFontaine re-recorded his demo reel. If someone with his stature in the business had to keep working at his career, you can bet that you will, too.

The moral of this story is that all other things being equal, success comes to those more committed to their characters and their careers. The odds are stacked pretty high against you succeeding in the voice acting business, and if you’re going to take a shot at it, you’re going meet lots of people who are way better at being voice actors than you. No matter what, though, you should also know up front that the successful voice over actors are the ones committed enough to the business and the craft to be the actors who beat the odds.

4. Voice Actors are Awesome

Jason Simonds
Maine-based Jason Simonds as a fish mafia enforcer. His dream is to ultimately replace the sound-effects guy on “Prairie Home Companion.”

Despite the much higher competition for voice-over jobs, Bergen stated that voice actors made up a very close-knit, supportive community that does not seem to suffer from the same kind of petty, jealous behavior that seems more common among on-camera actors. This certainly seemed to be true of the students in the class I was in. There was a palpable positive, supportive energy in the class, which ultimately pushed all of us to do better work. This was a great help in getting to that commitment in the recording booth — fear that we were going to be judged or critiqued harshly fell away quickly, and the applause all the students got walking out of the booth was genuine and heartfelt. That kind of support also gave us the courage to play and experiment, which is the perfect environment for learning how to be an actor.

From the conversations I’ve had with other working voice actors, it really does seem that this positive attitude is the norm and not the exception. I’m sure there’s some reason why voice acting seems to attract such generally cool people. Maybe the more vain and self-absorbed actors aren’t interested in the kind of roles where nobody will get to see their faces. Perhaps it takes a certain kind of personality to be drawn to the idea of doing funny voices for cartoons in the first place. Whatever the reason, don’t spread around how cool voice actors are. I don’t want to be the guy who ruined a good thing by telling too many people about it.

5. Voice Acting Is Not as Much Fun as I Thought It Would Be
It was way more fun than I could have possibly imagined.

The two links below lead to MP3 sound files of my time behind the mike at the class to give a sense of what happens in it: one longer session as the Cowlorado Kid with Bergen’s direction, and one that’s my last reading of the evil King Renwick (mwah-hah-hah-hah).

Cowlorado Kid
King Renwick

Special thanks to: Bob Bergen for being such a wonderful and entertaining teacher for the weekend; Marian Massaro for coordinating the class and ensuring things ran smoothly; Zane our recording engineer, who worked hard to make sure we sounded as good as we could; Jason Simonds for taking the photos of me recording in the booth; and all my fellow students in the class. You all surprised, delighted, and encouraged me for the whole weekend and changed the experience from just a class to a Memory. I look forward to hearing all of you in the business in the future!

Visit Bob Bergen’s web site to see when he will be offering his voice acting class or his one-man show, and make sure you also check out our “A Life in Voice Acting” interview with Bob Bergen, and the Top 5 More Lessons from Bob Bergen’s Advanced Voice Acting Class.

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Last pup of a dying planet, a young German Shepherd is rocketed to Earth, where he is bombarded by cosmic gamma rays emitted by a radioactive spider. Crash-landing in the forgotten land of Hubba Hubba, he is discovered by the Who-You-Callin'-Ancient One and his lovely wife Pookie. Instilled with their traditional American values, he spends his young adulthood roaming the globe, learning all the secrets of Comic-Fu. Donning battle armor fashioned from spilled chemicals splashed by lightning, he becomes the Sensational Shield of Sequential Art ACE THE BATHOUND! Look, it sounds a lot better than the truth. Born in Brooklyn, moved to Queens at 3 and then New Jersey at 10. Throughout high school, college, grad school, and gainful employment, two things have remained constant: 1) I am a colossal nerd, and 2) I have spent far too much time reading comics, and then reading and writing about them. Currently working as a financial programmer in New York City, while continuing to discover all the wonderful little surprises (and expenses) of owning your a home in the suburbs. Shares the above with a beautiful, wonderful, and incredibly understanding wife named Frances (who, thankfully, participates in most of my silly hobbies) and a large furry dog named Brownie (who, sadly, does not). Comics, toys, Apple Macintosh computers, video games, and eBay