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Date: June 26 2015
My last post about imitations as voiceovers may have left the impression (no pun intended) that any voiceover that isn’t completely original is crap. And that’s not true. Every artist, in every discipline (OK, almost every...) can name the people and styles that influence their work. Actually, some may not be able to name them, but a keen eye can trace stylistic elements back to other artists (and usually back to ones before that and...).
So, after completely lambasting impressions and the actors and producers that pursue them, I think it’s in the interest of full disclosure to give a short list of people from whom I’ve derived inspiration, up to and including ripping them off at times. That, and it’s another opportunity to make a list, of which I have become inordinately fond as of late.
Hal and Don LaFontaine were like the Beatles and Stones of movie trailers. Don was power, Hal was magic. Don commanded your attention, Hal invited you to listen to a story. Maybe it’s my lack of thundering pipes like DLF, but I’m a Hal guy. In a world where Don defined a genre, Hal showed that there was more than one path to the top of the mountain.
Bill St James
A huge, thundering promo voice that could also settle in and tell a story. Maybe it was the Sunday mornings running the board for his Flashback show, but when I hear his promo work (NBC, Showtime) I think he’s just paying the bills so he can get back to talking about 70s rock.
Wow. I really don’t have a voice like Ken Nordine’s. Fortunately, neither does anybody else. This hippie reluctantly has done huge corporate work (and turned down even more) but his love is obviously WordJazz and the work that led to it. Some of it plays a tad cheesy, decades later, but is still hypnotizing. Ken Nordine – the man who could talk inside of you. Oh and the whole conversation with yourself with the other voice filtered thing? I totally ripped that off from Ken. He and Joe Frank showed me how out there two channels of audio can get.
Outside of the Simpson family themselves, the voice of a male character on The Simpsons was, more often than not, Harry Shearer. As of this writing, he’s still split from the show and I think they’re going to need quite a small army of talented voice actors to pick up his characters. He was also bassist Derek Smalls in Spinal Tap but my favorite of his creations is Le Show, his pastiche of music, interviews, and comedy bits (usually completely voiced by him) that still airs on some public radio stations and via webcast. Throw in his reputation for irascible behavior in the pursuit of his vision and he’s an influence, if not borderline hero.
Phil Hendrie/Billy West/John DiMaggio/Will Arnett/Kiefer Sutherland/Sam Elliot/Dennis Leary/Nick Offerman
When I’m searching for a particular tone, I think of how one of these guys would have done it, maybe several of them, and try to bring that essence through my voice. I’ve never imitated any of them (or any of their character voices) but I’ve used their examples as places to start my own explorations or techniques to try adding to existing takes. It’s led me to some pretty cool places and landed me some awesome gigs. And if I ever meet Nick Offerman, I’m buying him a Scotch and inviting him to a steak dinner.
Honorable mention: Mike Patton (lead singer - Faith No More, Mr. Bungle & more) whose performances I try to sing along with for warmups. If I can get through “Everything’s Ruined” and hit most of the tonal changes, I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.
The best thing is that I don’t sound like any of these guys. I may be drawing inspiration (and sometimes plain stealing ideas) from them, but the work I turn out is always my own. Even days I desperately want it to be somebody else’s, it’s always me. Maybe I’ll be on somebody’s list of influences someday, and whatever twisted combo of all this plus me will become something else yet again. The circle of art. Or ripping each other off, whichever feels better.
Date: June 24 2015
It’s inevitable. Every day, I’ll see an audition notice with something along the lines of “Client wants it to sound like it’s Ryan Seacrest (or some famous person).”
Look, folks. If you want your ad to sound like it was voiced by Ryan Seacrest, go hire Ryan Seacrest. I can tell you right now that your VO budget will need a few more zeroes on it, but if you want it to sound like Ryan Seacrest, get Ryan Seacrest. That is really the only way you’re going to get the performance you’re looking for (and maybe not even then but that’s another post entirely). All this popped in my head today while I tooled across town. The radio happened to be on as it went to a commercial break, with the first spot being for (of course) a car dealer.
The VO sounded.... weird. Not ear-catchingly quirky or cast against type, it just wasn’t sounding like a cohesive performance. It took close to 30 seconds before I realized, holy cow – this guy is trying to imitate Morgan Freeman. And he’s hitting a few of Freeman’s signature style cues but the rest of it was wallowing in the land of no character definition. It was like a sickly Morgan Freeman came in, recorded a few 2-3 word phrases, and then the trying-oh-so-hard white guy attempted to fill the gaps. It was bad. So bad, they didn’t even bother with the “celebrity voice impersonated” disclaimer.
And so it goes, usually. Vocal imitations are rarely well done voiceovers, even if the imitation is very accurate. The reason for this is simple: the actor is concentrating on the imitation, the script becomes the vehicle instead of being the story. Viewers or listeners come away impressed by the imitation (assuming it’s done well) instead of being moved by the story.
What if the imitation isn’t good, like the one I heard? All I remember from that commercial is a bad Morgan Freeman impersonation talking about cars. That’s it. Great commercial, whatever car place you are.
This is all very different, by the way, from direction that says, “In the style of Sam Elliot” (or whomever) since that’s actually helpful. The style of Sam Elliot tells me you want a slow tempo’ed storyteller voice, weathered and wise, plainspoken yet profound. It might seem like hair-splitting, but there’s a huge difference between a producer looking for Sam Elliot tonality and a producer looking for a Sam Elliot soundalike. The first I can do. The second, I wouldn’t even try.
But if I would like to take a serious career turn and start ripping off other artists’ names and work instead of doing what I do, here are the imitations I would need, in ascending order of frequency:
(5) Ryan Seacrest
I don’t get this one, personally, as I don’t think there’s anything super compelling about his voice. His appearance and stage presence are something, but his voice? Still, people want things to sound like him if for no other reason than the massive familiarity he’s earned from American Idol. Plus he made the young announcer voice cool again, which is good, at least from where I’m sitting.
(4) Jon Hamm
Yes, he was (and is) super-cool on Mad Men. The tall, dark-haired enigma with an unflappable vocal style, awash in the upscale trappings of the 60s. I love his “I’m not getting excited about this – I don’t get excited about anything – but you should be peeing your pants right now if you have any brains or sense of style” delivery.
(3) Don LaFontaine
OK, this one I can understand why you would legitimately want a soundalike. Don has taken up the great vocal booth in the sky, so even with an infinite budget, he’s not going to cut your script. But frankly, when you are asking for Don LaFontaine, you’re asking for a trailer voice read. He defined the genre. Anybody voicing trailers these days is ripping off DLF, but that’s OK because if you’re voicing trailers, you have to. He set the standard, everybody else is just trying to come close. Producers: please simply ask for a trailer read – trying to sound like Don is enough to make some voice talent cower and whimper in the corner. Or so I’ve heard.
(2) Mike Rowe
On one hand, I love Mike Rowe. He’s gone from a feature reporter on the local news to one of the most recognized TV & voice talents in the U.S. and leveraged that position to do good things like mikeroweWORKS Foundation, which has stepped in to address some uncomfortable truths that neither the magic of government or free market economics wanted to help with. He’s affable and talented, yet humble and grounded. How could you not love him? Well, I hate him because he’s taken all the good jobs (well, not ALL of them) and everybody wants their truck commercial to sound like Mike Rowe telling you to buy a pickup from Joe’s Motor Shack. I guess the latter isn’t his fault, but still... it’s like he’s blowing the curve for the rest of us.
(1) Morgan Freeman
Yeah. You probably saw that coming.
I’m not gifted at impersonations. There’s one or two I thought I could do pretty well and then discovered, after listening back, that hmmm... they’re really not that great after all. But with enough dedication and practice, I could probably nail down a few on the above list.
Or I could spend the time honing my own skills and developing my own style. I could spend the time taking vocal lessons, improving my studio space, marketing to new clients. I could spend the time in a kayak. I could take a series of naps. All of which would get me farther along than trying to ape somebody else’s signature style. Plus I wouldn’t have to deal with producers that want a car that performs like a Ferarri at the sticker price of a Kia. Which leads into my own discovery of “The smaller the budget, the bigger the demands” but that’s another post.
Iowa City, Iowa
Over 25 years experience in voiceovers and live announcing. Specializing in narrations, commercials, & characters and live announcing award shows, benefits, corporate functions, and all sorts of sports events.