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Voice Acting: Apply Your Palette
Of Vocal Colors To Brush Words
By Marc Cashman
Voice Actor & Coach
©2009 Marc Cashman
It’s hard to remember exactly when we got our first coloring book, but we do remember it was fun.
At first, we sprayed crayon colors all over the page, without a care as to whether we stayed inside the lines or not.
As we became toddlers, our coloring got more refined. We learned boundaries, we assigned certain colors to certain objects, and were more discerning in our choice of colors.
A few years later found us drawing with colored pencils or markers.
Later still, we marveled at the results of paint-by-numbers, and then on to watercolors and pastels.
The coloring books were random, assorted pictures, themed pictures or page-by-page pictures that laid out a story. And each one of these pages had the same format: a black outline on a white page that showed a picture.
At a glance, we could see a cabin on a lake ...
... with smoke rising from its chimney; a boat tethered to a pier, fishing poles jutting out at its end; a winding road leading up toward the cabin, and a big, broad apple tree on its front lawn, with majestic mountains towering behind the cabin, backed by a sky full of puffy clouds and a bright sun.
As children, we looked at this black and white tableau and made some decisions:
  • the sky would be blue, we’d leave the clouds white;
  • the cabin would be brown and the lawn would be green;
  • we’d apply the same colors to the apple tree, but add some red for the apples;
  • the road might be charcoal;
  • the lake would be blue, the mountains might be gray, and the sun would be yellow.
We colored in the outline of a story.
As adolescents, we got better at drawing:
  • our sky might be bluish-purplish;
  • the clouds might have shades of gray and green;
  • the water on the lake would be a mixture of many colors, possibly reflecting the boat that floated on it;
  • the road might be a mixture of brown, dusty tan or beige to signify dirt, with black rocks and pebbles strewn about;
  • the cabin would have a different colored roof, and, like the apple tree, cast shadows from the light of the sun.
We’d use different coloring tools in our teens: pastels, colored pencils, watercolors and markers.
And we’d start adding depth and shading, because we could discern perspective and light better. And we’d spend much more time at our task; we were more exacting and meticulous.
Printed words are groupings of black symbols on white paper. Strung together intelligently and creatively, they tell a story, just like the outline of a picture in a coloring book.
It’s our job as voice actors to color words, to give them depth, shading and perspective.
Our tools: our voice, vocal techniques and acting abilities.
And it’s our acting that has to come to the fore through our voice - pouring with conversationality and emotion in order for us to sound believable.
The reason most great stage and screen actors are believable is because we can see their characters. We see their body language, their movements, their gesticulations, and their eyes.
We see them embody characters through their actions.
But people can’t see voice actors - they can only hear us. So all the color and emotions we bring to a script has to come out of just one place - our mouth.
The nuances of the human voice are extraordinary.
Millions of years of human evolution have made the sound of the human voice a wonder to behold and something no machine will ever duplicate.
Oh, they’ve tried. At first, people thought that developing speech recognition would be a simple matter of replicating phonemes, and they’ve had some success in transplanting those basic sounds into myriad applications.
But like astronomers exploring the universe, the more they peer into the vastness of space, the more they realize how complex it is.
In their quest to simulate real speech with a machine, scientists have found that the more they try to perfect speech recognition, they realize they can’t.
The human voice is incredibly unique. Our vocal cords hold a powerful gift: the power to paint pictures, with an infinite variety of colored shades, textures, depth, patterns and mixtures.
We have the innate ability, through our voice, to convey meaning without even uttering a word! No machine could do that.
Many of us refer to ourselves as voice artists as well as voice actors. If we’re artists, then we have to take out our palette of vocal colors and brush those words, wash, tint and dab them.
We have to channel impressionism, cubism, pointillism, abstract art, op art and realism into our phrasing. We have to apply the endless color combinations of emotions and infuse them into words.
When we’re presented with text that cries out for coloring, take out your 120-count box of vocal Crayolas® with all their wonderful hues and shades and create a masterpiece!
We’re blessed with the ability to lift words off the page effortlessly and to articulate them clearly.
But if we don’t inject emotional depth and real meaning into them, if we don’t artistically color in the outlines of those pictures, we’ll never do justice to beautifully crafted text or copy or capture a listener’s attention.
And we’ll waste a great opportunity.
Marc Cashman creates and produces copy and music advertising for radio and television. Winner of over 150 advertising awards, he also instructs voice acting of all levels through his classes, The Cashman Cache of Voice-Acting Techniques in Los Angeles, offers One-on-One VO coaching via email or telephone, and is a sought-after public speaker in the advertising production and voice acting communities.
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