Answerman FAQ - How Do I Become A Voice Actor? (Revisited)

by Justin Sevakis,

Today I thought I'd revisit a question that I get asked more than just about any other (aside from "when will a random decade-old show I am obsessed with get another season?"). I wasn't super happy with the last answer I gave to this question, and that was a few years ago, so I think it's time to revisit it. It also helps that the person asking is easier to take seriously than most of the emails I get with this question.

Even if you don't want to be a voice actor, most of this advice applies to working in the industry in any capacity.

Michael asks:

I love anime. I've always wanted to be a voice actor and I know I could be really good at it too. I have zero experience but I do have a dynamic voice and I've watched lots of anime in my time(dubbed and subbed). I was wondering if you had any tips for me on how to get started, because I truly want to pursue a career in dubbing anime.

If you go to any voice actor panel at any convention, 90% of the questions will be some variation of, "how can I get this job?" It's the only job in the anime business that literally everyone thinks they can do. Which isn't true, of course -- there's a reason dub directors keep returning to the same small well of people for show after show. The actors, grateful for the recognition, are always happy to show off their work and pump up youthful dreams. But I honestly don't understand why so many people think this is such a great career path. It looks fun, and it can be, but it can also be very repetitive, thankless, and frustrating.

Anime voice actors get paid very little -- it's really not something you can live off of. Every voice actor I know does SOMETHING else: video games, audio books, commericals, motion capture. Some do script adaptation, some direct. Many have unrelated day-jobs. But there are definitely a handful of people who can and do make a living at voice work in general. It's not easy -- it can be very straining, and the money is by no means steady. It's a hard life, and most people burn out after a few years of trying, just like acting in general.

BUT if your mind is made up, and you REALLY want to spend a significant amount of your fleeting youth pursuing this job, here is what you do.

Step 1: Take acting lessons

You are wanting to become a voice ACTOR. It is important that you be able to act. Being able to "do voices" is not an actual skill. Acting is hard. Voice acting and regular stage/camera acting is not the same thing, but it's still acting, so you really do need to learn it. If you're in school, get involved in drama club, the improv group, broadcasting club, or public speaking/forensics club. If you're no longer in school, join an improv troupe, take acting and diction classes, get involved in local community theater. If you live in an area with a voice acting workshop, one of those might not be a bad idea either. In addition to learning how to actually act, you will make like-minded friends, who will want to make stuff with you -- stuff like podcasts, audio dramas, fan-dubs and even live action sketches. You can make things together, and practice, end eventually you will get good. You can share that stuff online if you like, but don't expect it to go viral or anything.

Step 2: Move to a city where dubbing happens

This is not optional. While it is possible to record remotely these days, that option is only open to established actors, whom directors know and trust to be able to direct themselves without constant supervision. Newbies simply must be able to commute to a dubbing studio, period. These days, that's really just Los Angeles, Houston and Dallas (and very occasionally New York City or Vancouver).

You would not believe how many people seriously think they can become any kind of actor (or indeed, work for an anime company) without taking the step of moving to where the action is. It's hard, it's expensive, it's scary. But it's the only way anything happens. Even people who make a name for themselves on YouTube end up moving to LA. It's simply where the work is.

Step 3: Make a website with a "reel"

Every actor needs a reel, and a website. Websites are easy these days -- use a site like Wix.com or Squarespace.com to build a nice little resumé site for yourself. Have friends help you. Have them take flattering professional-quality photos of yourself, or get them to handle the technical stuff if that's not something you can do on your own.

You remember that stuff you made in Step 1? Chop that down to single audio clip just a minute or two long, to showcase your range as an actor. Include brief clips of you playing very different roles, moods and tones. Put that on your page. Samples of narration, audio book reading, and other kinds of voice work are also good to include, but should be separate clips. If someone important is looking at your page, they're likely in a hurry, so you want to make finding what they're looking for as fast and painless as possible.

Step 4: Make friends, don't be a douche

Jobs are scarce, there's lots of competition, and a huge percentage of the people that think they should be in showbiz (actors especially) are bat-shit crazy. Any director who's looking to cast something on a budget is going to ask their friends for suggestions. After all, they're going to be trapped working with these people -- they want the ones who are accountable, who show up on time, who work hard. Open casting calls tend to attract the desperate, the bipolar, and the just-plain-awful. And so, people in entertainment tend to hire friends and friends-of-friends. That's just how things are. That means you need friends. "It's not what you know, it's who you know," as the saying goes.

The good news is that anime industry people are generally INCREDIBLY nice, open and warm to fans. This can actually be a problem: prominent industry people get a lot of weirdos cozying up to them at conventions and won't take a hint that they're being annoying. (We refer to them as "con cling-ons.") Teaching social skills is beyond the scope of this column, but keep in mind that voice actors and industry pros are adults, human beings, and if they're at a convention, are probably exhausted and would really love to talk about something other than nerd opinions on anime and voice acting for a while. Confidence is important, humility is just as important. Be kind. Ask questions. Learn from them. And leave them alone if they seem annoyed. Just like you would anybody else. The same goes for email and twitter conversation.

Don't just make friends with names you already know. Find other aspiring young people who are just starting out. They can introduce you to people, and you can compare notes and cheer each other on. An actor's life is filled with constant rejection and failure, so it's important to have a friend network to help you stay encouraged.

Step 5: Keep your ear to the ground, look for opportunities

The anime industry is actually very small and close-knit for the most part. There are really only a handful of places to submit your reel for consideration -- the dub studios you already know. Most of them have a submission process for new talent, which can usually be found on their websites. Every once in a while, check in, follow up, and stay in contact. As one voice director once said, "be politely relentless." If you do get called for something, show up and be on time. Being available when you do get called back is hugely important.

Once you have your foot in the door, be active and positive, and work your ass off. Ask what you can do to improve. If you have a good attitude and can do the job well, you'll get asked back. If not, getting constructive feedback is key to improving. If you get offered, or hear of an opportunity that sounds like something you can do (but isn't anime) -- by all means, take it! Anything can lead to work, and if it makes your resumé look better, it can help you along the path.

Step 6: Be flexible

While your goal may have been to work in anime, there is more to life. An actor can have a very decent career while juggling anime and myriad other types of work, both voice-related and other things. Developing a versatile skill set will come in handy, both when it comes to making money and giving a good performance. To quote Ghost in the Shell, "overspecialize and you breed in weakness."

Life experience in general tends to help acting performance. A side-gig working in hospice care will probably enable you to speak medical jargon without stumbling, and tune you in to how family visiting elderly relatives act. Being a barista will give you an idea of how it feels to freak out if the shop gets too busy, or an order gets screwed up -- and if you get an audition for a role involving a similar emotion, you can use that experience.

You might not end up in anime, but you could end up in video games, or a very lucrative commercial. You could end up bored with the hours stuck in a stuffy recording booth, and decide you actually want to do something entirely different.

But I still say you're in for a rough time. Actors in general have a very hard time establishing a self-sustaining career, and while voice careers definitely exist, the vast majority of the time voice roles serve as a temporary freelance gig rather than anything long-term. If you're passionate, by all means, give it a try. But as one acting coach I studied under in film school once told us, "if you can do ANYTHING else, you probably shouldn't be an actor."


Do YOU have a question for the Answerman?

We want your questions! Send in as many or as often as you like. We can only pick three questions a week (and unfortunately I don't have ALL the answers) so if you haven't been chosen, don't be discouraged, and keep on sending.

However, READ THIS FIRST:

  • CHECK THE ARCHIVES FIRST. I've answered a lot of questions already!
  • If you want to be a voice actor, READ THIS.

  • I can't tell you if or when a show will get another season. New productions are closely guarded secrets until they're publicly announced, so there's nothing I can tell you that Google can't.
  • I cannot help you get in touch with any producers, artists, creators, actors or licensors. If you're trying to pitch an idea, you should read this.
  • I usually won't bother with questions asking if something is a trend. Maybe? It's impossible to know until it becomes obvious.
  • I take questions by email only. (Tweeted questions get ignored!)
  • I will not do your homework/research/report for you.
  • Keep it short -- like, a paragraph at most, and use proper grammar or punctuation.

Got all that? Great! The e-mail address is answerman (at animenewsnetwork.com). And thanks!!

Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.


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