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VOICE ACTING
Message To 14-Year Old Jake (And You):
Imitation Is Dead End - Find Your Own Voice

May 6, 2012

By Paul Strikwerda
Voice Actor

His name is Jake Foushee and he's the latest online voice over sensation.

Over one million people have watched his movie trailer man impersonation on YouTube.

If you haven't seen the video, you might wonder: What's the big deal?

Well, even though he sounds like he's in his 50s, Mr. Foushee is actually 14 years old. Check it out ...




It's creepy. Fortunately for Jake, we like creepy. Regular Joes rarely make the headlines, but we all love the bizarre and the eccentric, don't we?

So now, next to the bearded lady we have a 14 year old who sounds a bit like Don LaFontaine. It doesn't get any better than that.

Ellen DeGeneres had him on her show and like a docile puppy, Jake eagerly showed off his tricks.

That's a good boy!

And because good boys deserve a reward, Ellen announced that the renowned Abrams Agency was eager to represent him. I'm sure a little bit of showbiz pressure and the prospect of free publicity didn't hurt.

REMEMBER GOLDEN PIPES?

Remember all the companies that were lining up to jump on the Ted Williams bandwagon? When Ted got back into his old habits, the job offers melted away as fast as snow on a hot summer's day.

We like to be associated with a feel-good story, especially if we can dangle our brand name in front of television cameras. But when a humble hero falls, we leave him on the side of the road, right where he came from.

Mind you, I don't wish to deny Jake his two minutes of fame, but does he really deserve to be under contract with one of the nation's premier talent agencies? Come on!

I can think of a number of colleagues who can do a far better "Don" and for whom access to the hallowed hallways at Abrams has always been a distant dream. Their problem: They're no longer 14 Ö and creepy.

CONSOLATION PRIZE FOR GROWN UPS

There's one consolation. I predict young Jake will be forgotten before he turns 15, because he is making two mistakes many aspiring voice overs make:
  • He's starting too early, thinking that owning an OK instrument makes one a professional musician.
  • His reputation is based on imitation.
FAKING FOR FAME

Now, don't give me that "imitation is the highest form of flattery" nonsense. It's called making money off someone else's unique talent and creativity.

It's a gimmick. A party trick. Not exactly something you can build a career on.

Granted, a few brilliant impersonators are making good money doing one-man shows around the world, but these guys can do many voices to perfection. Not only that, as they "do" the voice, they actually become the character. It's an acting tour de force!

WHERE'S YOUR ORIGINALITY?

Regrettably, some folks who are trying to break into the voice over business are trying to jumpstart a career by copying mannerisms. Sadly, some veterans have never grown out of that habit.

When you listen to their demos, you do not hear a natural, original interpretation.

What you hear is an impression of what the talent believes a voice actor should sound like. Instead of sincerity and individuality, you hear a stereotype.

This goes to the heart of what acting really is.

The art of acting is about creating a unique character. Not about recreating a cliché.

Acting has very little to do with clever imitation, unless it's required by the role. Great actors are phenomenal at pretending not to pretend.

VOICE ACTING: MORE DEMANDING

In a way, voice acting can be even more demanding than on-camera acting.

When narrating a novel, a voice actor has to create many characters and keep them consistent throughout an entire book. Most of the time, a stage or screen actor only has to play one role.

The narrator cannot fall back on body language, costumes or make-up to set a character apart. All of that has to be done with pitch, timbre, tempo, inflection and accent.

In order to be convincing, nothing can come across as contrived. It has to sound spontaneous and real.

On top of that, an audiobook narrator often works without a director, a technical crew, a PA, a publicist, a personal chef, trainer and nanny.

MAKING THE SAME MISTAKE

Of course, most voice over work is far removed from Shakespeare, Spielberg and Harry Potter. Medical narrations, e-learning programs and corporate presentations call for a very different approach.

Yet, I hear many voice actors make the same mistake.

They start imitating a certain sound they believe to be appropriate for the read, very much like a radio announcer. One moment you have a normal conversation with them in the studio, but as soon as they're on the air they flip an internal switch and out comes the announcer voice.

BE WHO YOU ARE

Here's the crux of the matter:

When you're imitating, the focus is always on someone or something else - on the sound you're trying to recreate. It's disingenuous by definition.

Great painters, architects, scientists and writers are not great because they're trying to emulate someone else. They are great because they are who they are and there's no one like them.

Painters and poets who try to rip off someone else's work engage in plagiarism.

BE ORIGINAL

So, I'm happy for you if you can do an amazing Morgan Freeman impersonation or you can sound just like Christopher Walken, but we all know that's not you.

It might get you a job here and there, but most agents and producers aren't looking for something we already have. It took me years to find out that most clients hire me for who I am and not for who I can pretend to be.

Of course there's a difference between the Paul in the studio and the Paul enjoying a cappuccino in his favorite coffee shop. The Paul in the studio is more polished, articulate and prepared.

STILL BE VERSATILE

Every now and then I still do character voices, but that's just part of being a versatile voice actor.

After decades of searching, I can honestly say that I'm OK being me, and I'm happy with the way I sound.

And you know what?

As soon as I started accepting myself for who I am, I was overcome by a relaxed kind of confidence. I could feel it in my bones and it came out through my mouth.

That's when it happened. I found my sound. It is the inimitable sum of all my life experiences, the languages I speak, the people I have met and the countries I have lived and worked in.

It is that Northern-European sound most of my clients select and pay me for.

FOUND YOUR VOICE YET?

And what about 14-year-old Jake?

Well, if he plays his cards right and starts working with some talented coaches, one day we might actually hear the real Jake Foushee, instead of Movie Trailer Man.

That's when he will find out if he really has a future in this business.

Now, let's forget about Jake and talk about you.

Have you found your voice yet?

ABOUT PAUL ...

Paul Strikwerda is a 25-year veteran of the voice over industry whose Nethervoice service features German and Dutch voice overs, translation and evaluation services. Born in Holland, he has worked for Dutch national and international radio, the BBC and American Public Radio. Although 90% of his work is in English, Strikwerda also records in Dutch, German and French. Clients include Novartis, Johnson & Johnson, and the Discovery Channel. He also publishes an informative and entertaining blog, Double Dutch.

Web: www.nethervoice.com
Double Dutch Blog: www.nethervoice.com/nethervoice

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Comments (11)
Paul Strikwerda
5/8/2012 at 7:33 AM
On LinkedIn, an agent from Abrams gave his version of what happened:

"We (Abrams) contacted Jakeís parents, and Jake long before the YouTube video grew so large in popularity. Ellen DeGeneris contacted us when they booked him on the show, and set up a false scenario during his interview Ė he acts surprised when she informs him heís got a contract with Abrams Ė -we had no part in that interview, or its publicity ramifications at all.

"In general, talent agencies donít seek or desire publicity. We work under the radar on purpose, and realize we are in a service business. All we can do with Jake is invite him and his parents to visit NYC this summer and learn about the business, get some coaching, and go back home a happy teenager."
Barry Trussell
5/8/2012 at 1:25 AM
If nothing else, this whole little thing was entertainment, which is the basis of the story. Good, bad or indifferent....entertaining; news............not so much.

I wish young Mr. Foushee the best in all his endeavors, whatever they may turn out to be.
Philip Banks
5/7/2012 at 5:55 PM
If you watch the TV piece closely you will notice that whilst she is being polite, Ellen was largely underwhelmed. Respect to her for putting on a good show for him.

Anyone who listened to Jake will have noticed that his stories about his voice were slightly re-worked Don La Fontaine anecdotes. Nice lad but like most boys his age very unsure of himself so it's easier to be someone else. In time he'll be fine.
Jeffrey Kafer
5/7/2012 at 5:47 PM
I'm split on this. The kid is a poor imitation of the movie trailer guys. He's actually not very good. And that's OK, he's only 14.

However, the other side of me says that with some training, he may have a future at this. Why, since he's merely imitating the movie trailer guys? Because Hollywood only wants the guys who sound like movie trailer guys! Hollywood doesn't want diversity of voices. Hollywood doesn't want someone to find their own voice. Hollywood wants exactly what this kid delivers: Carbon copies of the handful of other guys who already do this.
Paul Payton
5/7/2012 at 10:42 AM
Jake is a fascinating sideshow for now; the disconnect of his age, look and voice will amuse for his "15 minutes of fame." My guess is, however, it could well be his FIRST "15 minutes," and that, being young and obviously intelligent - and smart enough to get attention beyond his "accidental" moment in the spotlight - he will indeed develop his own voice and career.

Or maybe he'll become a great imitator/impersonator; there is a market for those. (I'm not in that market - all I can offer is "a wide range of me.")

Or maybe he'll do something else.

However it goes, this "fame pop" will always be "an arrow in his quiver." How he chooses to use it (or IF he does) will be up to him.

Thanks for the thoughtful piece as always, Paul.
Bobbin Beam
5/7/2012 at 9:27 AM
Paul,
Thank you for articulating my own thoughts about this subject. And for having the honesty and the guts to call out the reality of this latest "phenom" to go viral on YouTube. Hooray for the contrarian voice, and for a fair and clear vision of what it takes to have a sustaining career as a voice actor.
All The Best,
Bobbin Beam
Paul Strikwerda
5/7/2012 at 7:51 AM
It was good to read your responses this morning.

Great voice talents make what they do sound so natural and easy, no wonder why so many people believe anyone could pull that off. In reality, voice-over artists are no different from other performers or athletes.

When people hear a great pianist play or watch a well-known sports star at the top of her game, they usually donít think of all the years these pros had to put in, in order to get where they are now. As they say: it usually takes many years to become an overnight success!

Thinking that having a good voice is all it takes to be a voice-over pro, is like saying that owning a Steinway makes you a great pianist. Having a good set of vocal cords definitely helps, but itís a small piece of a big puzzle. Knowing how to use that voice is a different matter!

That's what Jake will have to learn in the years to come and I wish him every bit of success.
Rick
5/7/2012 at 2:28 AM
I think you hit the nail on the head, Paul, and I couldn't agree more.

I recently recorded two spots and a promo for a friend at one of the network studios in LA. At first, I thought all three were fairly good. When I received his reply, my friend said the best spot was the promo that I had written and recorded while the other two (that were influenced by the original artists) sounded forced. I was trying to sound like someone else without realizing it and it didn't dawn on me until I listened to the spots again.

His advice? Stick with the original sound and that will be your best bet for reads. That's when I "found" it. Imitation is great at parties. Don't be your version of someone else. Versatility is noteworthy, but originality is priceless.
BP Smyth
5/7/2012 at 2:18 AM
Right on Paul Strikwerda!! Thank you for coming forth with the truth of this "ridiculous" matter.

I am personally sick and tired of all the hype given to those that imitate VO icons, and I don't care how old they are. The "American Idol" syndrome is getting out of hand in our culture, I believe, where every nit-wit out there is trying to make it big sounding like some other celebrity that has made it big. Oh please, excuse me while I vomit. I'm not a bit jealous, I'm just completely over it.

Can't people just be themselves, and then take credit for their success being themselves? Apparently not. The so-called renowned Abrams Agency is also a joke. I wouldn't sign with them if they were the last talent agency on earth, because of this incident with Ellen, et.al.

My respect goes to those that act/sound like "themselves". And, the best of luck to ya. :)

-BP Smyth
JAY LLOYD
5/7/2012 at 1:12 AM
Paul, that is a very thoughtful message. Hopefully it will be helpful to young Jake. He is blessed with good pipes, no doubt. But, he WILL have to learn a lot. Ted Williams is also blessed with great pipes, but in the end he turned out to be just a "radio announcer" ... one who revived his career by doing imaging stuff.

I've always said, "acting is easy ... just take the words in thru your eyes and spit them out your mouth, and make the listener believe you just made it up on the spot!" In case I'm not clear, that's facetious. I applaud your comment; there is so much to delivering lines believably. If it were easy, all those people who come up with the lines, would just record it themselves ... right? I hope your words will inspire young Jake to get some training ... his pipes may work, but can he deliver words effectively. Time will tell.
Linda Naylor
5/7/2012 at 12:32 AM
Thank you. I imitate no one. I have never even listened to an audio book recording. I just BE myself, and I am surviving with my own identity. I thank you for calling "the bluff".
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