By the Sound of Her Voice: Earning a Living as a Voice Artist

[7 January 2004]

By Karen Zarker

PopMatters Managing Editor

“. . . That lovely hollow in your throat, the graceful curve in your neck, revealing just enough . . .” — Sample from Jean Gilpin’s demo CD

She’ll tell you all about it with a smile in her voice. She’ll persuade you to buy: a better brand of vitamins, a soothing brand of tea, how about some awesome new software? Another time you hear her she’ll be business-like but friendly, speaking in a tone that makes you want to listen to why you really need: this insurance plan, that brokerage firm, and why you’ll want to trust the doctors at whatever particular health care network she may be telling you about. She can make you feel good about most anything you chose: the airlines you fly, the brand of paint that will make every room in your home beautiful, the jeweler you patronize for that “very special” someone. She’ll tell you all about it in a British, American, or French accent. She’ll even speak to you sweetly in French. And, if you want, she’ll scream like hell at you, too.

“No amount of voice training can prepare you for a whole day of screaming,” says Jean Gilpin, “Good planners try to schedule the worst of the screaming at the end of the day.” Gilpin earns her living as a voice artist. I’m using the terms “voice artist” and “voice work” to cover a broad range of work in this field; animation, narration, dubbing, voiceovers, and looping.

You hear what they do every day, from the daily barrage of voiceover commercials to a perfectly annunciated, highbrow, narrated documentary. You can tell the schmo at the used car dealership that is too cheap to hire an actor to do his commercial, from the advertiser that had the sense to leave it to a professional. As listeners, we prefer the latter. Voice over jobs, such as commercials usually spoken by professional actors, can appear deceptively simple, and each type of voice work requires slightly different skills.

Looping, which requires even better acting skills than voice overs, consists of improvised background dialogue and does not involve lip synching, says Gilpin. Fitting words into mouths is mainly applicable to the more on-screen, close up characters (excluding principals who generally loop themselves). Sometimes the dialogue is scripted. More often, something which fits has to be worked out by the ADR (Automatic Dialogue Replacement) actors. Where major on-screen actors will not, cannot or do not loop themselves, as in TV and airline versions or if they are deceased, actors who are skilled in voice-matching or whose voices naturally fit, are used instead. But of course as a voice over artist, one is heard, not seen. Also, looping often requires research into a particular historical period or person, a city or setting, such as a newsroom, a police station, hospital, airport, law office, fire station, stock market, etc. It seems to require some degree of athleticism, as well, as much like being the goalie in a soccer game, you wait quietly, but must intently watch the game, as it were, for long periods of time before you have your chance to jump in and do your bit — then you’d better not screw it up. Indeed, it can be tense.

Dubbing actors will speak to you through moving lips that are slightly off kilter because those lips on screen are speaking an entirely different language than those lips that form the words you hear. Foreign language dubbing — trying to fit the words into the mouth of a screen actor and create a believable voice for the character — is often the hardest and least well paid work. Another type of film actor who’s face you’ll never see on the screen is the animation voice actor, such as Ellen DeGeneres speaking for that cute but bumbling Dory inFinding Nemo.

DeGeneres, Mel Gibson, other audibly recognizable stars may earn as much as $1 million or more for just one voice work project, such as an animation. Most lesser known artists earn between $50-80,000 annually. Voice overs at most local radio and TV spots pay about $300 to $600 each for :30 sec. and :60 sec. copy. Corporate or Industrial narrations pay $500 and up. Regional and national spots pay from $2,000 to $10,000 and up. Sounds lucrative, yes, but the competition is fierce, and one must always, always, network, keep up with voice training workshops, and have an agent who is pushing for you, sending out your demo tapes and resumes and singing your praises.

Gilpin’s income varies from year to year. She’s paid Union scale on most jobs, but she’s grateful for the residual system on looping, which is unique to the US. The current SAG (Screen Actors Guild) minimum pay rate is $678 per day, and most of Gilpin’s jobs are one-day jobs. So being good at budgeting is a useful skill, too.

Narration work would includes documentaries, corporate presentations, or audio books, such as Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman, which required Gilpin to speak in character for each of the characters in the story. That must be exhausting. Yet it must be rather satisfying, too, to be able to attract and move people just by the sound of your voice.

Gilpin, based in L.A., covers the gamut in her occupation as a voice artist, having been in the field for more than 20 years, now. Among others, she’s the voice coming from that hot Egyptian warrior “Amanra” in the computer game, Age of Mythology and you’ll hear her on CDroms such as James Bond 007 Night Fire. She’s done animation for movies such as Shrek and Pocahontas, voice overs for Queen Mary radio and Playboy Europe television. Indeed, the volume and variety of Gilpin’s work conveys the need for skill and flexibility in voice work.

Allison Moody, based in Chicago, is relatively new to voice work. She’s laying the groundwork for future voiceover jobs, doing her demos. Here’s how it works. A client asks for multiple demos by various voice artists for a commercial spot. Sometimes the client only provides general direction and waits to hear the samples sent by the producer. Sometimes the client is on-site (in the recording studio of a radio or TV station) and specific about their wants. Voice artists are paid a fee for their “spot” work, but the better money comes in if the client takes their voice, their version of how the commercial should sound.

Recently, Moody did a radio demo for a brand of flatbread. This was one of those occasions when the client wasn’t on-site, and not very specific about what they wanted. Soon after, she heard that very commercial on the radio — spoken by someone else who snared the bucks. “She was using a higher, squeakier, peppier voice than I used,” said Moody. Flatbread = squeaky? I’d have never guessed, either.

So that job is out, and it’s time to move on to another. Such are the vagaries of the actor’s/voice artist’s life. Indeed, maintaining morale during periods of unemployment is as important to any actor as doing a good job, Gilpin advises of a field that provides no vacation time and, unless you meet a certain income criteria (a criteria which varies from union to union), no health care coverage. There is, at least, over-time paid on the rare occasions you run over the scheduled hours. But the greatest “benefit” to Gilpin is the lack of routine. “Part of me loves never knowing what will happen next,” says Gilpin. One day it could be a bubble bath smile, the next, an all out ninja scream. And: “You don’t have to dress up, watch your weight, or worry about that zit on your chin, and you get paid a great chunk of change,” says Moody. But you do have to worry about things such as laryngitis, bronchitis, the common cold . . .

Gilpin, in her “middle years”, was born in London and earned her BA in Drama and English from Bristol University. She worked at the Nottingham Playhouse, got her Equity card, and moved on to the Drama Center in London. By chance, Gilpin fell into voice acting work soon after arriving in LA over 20 years ago. Someone needed a British Equity member to re-voice a principal in a film, and there she was. So go those vagaries of the actor’s life . . . From that job she was recommended to an ADR editor who needed someone with European language skills for looping on Nighthawks. (See her upcoming website,, for her impressive resumes and to hear her demos.)

Among other things Moody, in her “middle 20s”, earned her BFA in Theatre Performance from Drake University, Iowa.. She’s also lived in LA and London, and traveled on two national theatre tours before settling in Chicago. As trained theatrical entertainers, both women sing, too.

“A theatrical background is particularly helpful for looping, which requires the same kind of vocal projection and willingness to jump in and potentially make a fool of yourself,” says Gilpin. A theatrical background is not necessary for all types of voice work, but if you scan the websites of voice actors, most have considerable acting experience. A voice over artist has to have an overall professional attitude (punctuality, concentration, alertness, discipline), but to also help keep the work coming, it’s useful to have an aptitude with dialects, languages, character voices, improvisation, singing, mimicry, voice training and breath control. Hence, the ongoing workshops, as part of the cost of doing business.

I thought of voice over artists while standing at a “do it yourself”, automated checkout stand at a major home improvement store, recently. The computerized voice politely instructed me in each step of the process, and waited patiently as I put each scanned item in the bag, as instructed. I wondered if voice artists have any fears that computer-generated voices, such as the friendly voice on the American Airlines automated telephone function,— that virtual customer service representative that “doesn’t mind interruptions” — might some day replace the real actors. Some of those automated audio responses are recordings of “real people” voices; some evolve from the keyboard of a technician. Gilpin doesn’t worry about possibly one day being rendered obsolete. She’s busy and enjoying the heck out of her work. Moody isn’t worried, either. “I like to think that no matter how computerized our society might become, we will still want to see and hear real people and real voices,” says Moody. You know, she’s right. Go on, keep talking to me.

Some fun websites to hear demos:
Commercial voiceovers: Destiny Productions
Video game voiceover links: Game Zone
Some animation samples by David Kay
And a corporate site designed for “globalizing your project”, wherein you may chose from “foreign”, non-union or union, male and female voiceovers from all over the world: The Lyceum

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“What’s Working” profiles individuals and issues in the world of work: what people do for a living, and how they make do to live. For those who are gainfully or otherwise employed, “What’s Working” looks at work that’s truly valued, simply tolerated, and utterly reviled.

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