Thanks for reading, and if you are a new subscriber; Welcome and thanks for joining us!
It’s all different now…
Spoiler alert! If you want to keep watching TV and listening to the radio the way you always have, this may not be the post for you. Below I am likely going to reveal some things that make these pretty common events just a little different. I know they are different for me now!
It’s not like the magic is GONE really…
It’s just a different KIND of magic. There’s no easy way to say it, so I’ll just say it: Since starting a career in voice over and acting, TV and Radio are not the same. Oh, sure, they ae the exact same shows and commercials that have always been there, with improvements in technology as time has gone on, but I’VE changed and see them differently now.
It’s not QUITE as bad for radio, but I definitely hear it differently now. Not the music, thankfully I can still listen to my favorite bands and just enjoy rocking out (Yeah, classic rock is my thing). It’s the commercials, mostly, and to some extent the DJ’s.
The first thing I noticed since becoming a voice over artist is I actually LISTEN to those commercials and DJ’s now. I almost look forward to them, when previously I just ignored them (which is probably not good news to advertisers). Here’s what I do differently: I critique them. Do they sound conversational? Announcery? Flat? Now, instead of just “hearing” them, I imagine them sitting in their booth, isolated from the world, sounding as though they are talking directly to me…as though I was there in the booth with them and having a conversation.
When you hear a commercial on the radio, or the DJ talking between songs, what do you see in your mind’s eye? Once upon a time I would picture them in whatever situation the spot called for. Maybe they are in an appliance store, or car dealership speaking to a salesman. Maybe I see them sitting in their kitchen with a husband, wife and kids having a conversation. But they’re NOT. As a matter of fact, the narrator is either sitting in their booth at home or are in a professional studio somewhere talking to a person that is not there, and who they likely have never seen. The person they’re talking to? ALSO somewhere isolated doing the same thing!
The DJ on your favorite radio station?
And the DJ? Do you see them sitting in a radio station surrounded by equipment, with a glass wall looking out on a producer? That’s what I’ve always seen. But here is the truth (especially now with COVID): They’re likely sitting in their home studio broadcasting remotely. Or MORE likely they are recording their show and are not anywhere NEAR a microphone when you are listening to it! Unless you are hearing a drive time call-in show, then the content is likely pre-recorded. Now you know how your favorite DJ can have a 3 hour show with NO MISTAKES. They made them, but then fixed them. And all the music is pre-selected and programmed. They record it, send it in with the song list and when the show starts an engineer just starts it and monitors the equipment to make sure it keeps working. Easy.
Have I ruined radio for you now?
Sorry – it has just changed the way I listen to radio now that I know how it works. Next time you’re listening, I suspect it will be a somewhat different experience. I can’t shake the mental images that are now completely different than they were before this career change. Sorry (not sorry) if I messed it up for you now too.
And even WORSE…
More so than radio, now that I’ve spent some time on set working in the film industry watching TV is COMPLETELY different. If you don’t want to change the way you watch TV and movies, you should probably stop reading now.
My first experience with being on set was as a background actor on a limited series for TV. I can’t yet reveal the show, or talk about the principal actors, but I can tell you that it is a no-kidding “Hollywood style” professional production put on by Disney. No, it’s not a Disney movie like you would typically see, it’s grittier and more real life, but they are the main production company. Which means there is a budget, a NICE budget. Which means there are no-kidding sets built that honestly look real when you are in them.
What IS background?
In short, background is random people wandering around in a scene behind the principal actors. Background actors don’t have “lines” to speak like the principal actors do, although they pretend to be talking (without making any sound – the sound equipment would pick up any noise they make). I NEVER really noticed the background actors before, but I sure do now! Next time you’re watching a TV show or movie, don’t focus on the main scene, focus on what’s going on BEHIND the actors. You’ll see what I mean…and now I’ve ruined TV and the movies for you! You’re welcome!
It doesn’t work!
Here is the thing…the scene just doesn’t work without background actors. Imagine, if you will, a scene set in a NYC deli or diner. The actors are at a table having a conversation and they are surrounded by people at other tables. There are waiters and waitresses, there is a hostess, there are people coming in and going out of the store. There are people outside the window walking up and down the street. There are people driving by in their cars, and on buses and bicycles and scooters. THAT’S background.
It JUST wouldn’t be right!
No scene in a public place will ever look right unless the mass of humanity in whatever location it’s set in are moving around behind the scenes. It JUST doesn’t work at all without background actors. Background actors are the lowest part of the industry’s totem pole, which is strange because they are so important to each scene. Next tie you are watching something, notice the background. It’s meant for you NOT to notice, but imagine it happening without them. It wouldn’t be realistic. There, now, like me, you’ll constantly have to rewind to watch what’s really going on in the show because you’ll first be looking at the background.
Maybe it’s just me, but this is the most amazing part of this to me. That courtroom, or board room, or doctor’s office or living room you see in the show? Yeah, it is a set built specifically for those scenes, and it probably is sitting among a dozen other sets inside a huge warehouse somewhere. It takes WEEKS just to build the set and there is an ARMY of builders, electricians and lighting experts doing it. The outside of the set is just plain wood, but INSIDE the set it looks like the real deal. These folks are painstaking in building, painting, and decorating these sets so they look realistic. There must be a warehouse somewhere FULL of period specific items that get included just to make it look real. In one set I was recently on (I got to wander around looking at different sets in between takes) there was actually an aquarium, with fish in it, set up and running full time (to keep the fish alive I am sure – no fish were harmed in the making of this film!) in what looked (from the inside) like a home. From the outside? A wooden box.
For a long time I wondered how you can have a scene where two people are talking and the camera switches between one person’s face and another…and over the shoulder shot…but somehow they have disguised the cameras so you can’t see them in the shot. I always just assumed the camera was just out of frame or was disguised as a plant or something. Nope. That’s just not how it works.
So how DO they do that?
It’s really quite simple, believe it or not. They shoot the scene and obscene number of times, moving the camera each time, then cut it all together in post-production. I suppose if you really sat down to think about it, you’d figure that out…but who does that? Well, the people who figured out how to do it, for one.
It takes FOREVER…
Truth is, it takes about 2 hours to film a 2 minute scene. And the actors have to repeat the scene 6-8 times in order to get it done. They shoot the scene, stop, reset, move the cameras and if need be change the lighting and then shoot it again. Lather, rinse, repeat…till they have all the angles and shots they need. It’s fun, but it can also be a bit of a drudge. Go ahead, sit down with your family and have the EXACT same conversation six or eight times, before moving on to a new topic. Blech.
Nope…it’s not real. Here’s how it REALLY goes: Position one, or if it is a second or subsequent take, reset. This tells everyone to go to wherever on set they are supposed to be to start the scene. Next you hear “Quiet everyone” and “Scrubbers off” (Scrubbers are air handlers that ventilate the set, and they are LOUD). What’s cool is as soon as you hear that an eerie quiet descends and lights outside the set start flashing red to let everyone know they are getting ready to film. The next thing the director say is “Roll sound”…this is where they start the audio recording equipment. Then, “Background”…now all the background actors start moving and having their silent, pretend conversations – it’s all pretty well orchestrated. And FINALLY “Action”. This tells the principal actors it’s time to start doing their thing. So it’s not “Lights, Camera, ACTION”…it’s: “Quiet Position one (or reset), Quiet everyone, Scrubbers off, Roll sound, Background and ACTION”. Whew!
There, now the magic is ruined…
Not really. I still really enjoy watching TV and movies but having had the chance to be on a set a couple times now, I notice things that most people wouldn’t. It’s been an amazing experience to be part of several productions, to be in a real studio recording voice over and see how it is all done. Depending on where you are, if you’ve ever wanted to “be in the movies”, production companies are almost always looking for background actors…with a little research I bet you can find some and get on a show yourself. If you’d like to know how to find them, give me a shout and I’ll see if I can help.
If you enjoyed this, please leave a comment below to let me know. AND if you DIDN’T enjoy it, well, I’d like to hear from you too!
If you haven’t already, please feel free to subscribe so you don’t miss anything!
Jon Gardner says
This is a fun post Gary! Years ago when my daughter was in her early teens, she and I went to a movie together. Waiting for the movie to start, she leaned over and whispered to me “Listen. do you hear that?” I said “What?”. With a mischievous look on her face she said “The ‘scrunch, scrunch’ sound. People eating popcorn”. Boom! What I had never really noticed before became the only thing I could hear. To this day I can’t go to a movie theatre without that sound in my head any and every time the movie is quiet enough to hear it. Curse the girl! (She knew what she was doing)
I also used to be a radio program director as well as on-air talent. My job never ended. I had to be aware at all times what my announcers were doing and analyze every word. After I left radio, it was several years before I listened to radio again. Knowing “too much” ruined it for me.
You are right about voice-over. I analyze every commercial and announcement, listening for anything I can learn or would want to emulate. The other day I was watching a scene in the Netflix show Bloodline and became fixated on the voice-over announcements in the background at the bus station. I still have no idea what the scene was about.
Gary Mason says
It’s kind of amazing how tough it is to “unsee”, or in your case “unhear” something, isn’t it?
Craig Williams says
Great post Gary. I am always critiquing any voice over these days. My family think I’m crazy!