Gobs on Sticks

Thoughts mostly (but not always) about the voice-over business, from London Voiceover Artist, Mike Cooper

  • About the author

    My name is Mike Cooper. I'm a full time Voiceover Artist living and working in London, and this is my blog. Find out more about me on my main website (there's a link further down this column), or if you'd like to hear some of my work, check out the files below.

Archive for November, 2010

“I am Spartacus!” (or what happens when everyone talks at once…)

Posted by MikeCooper on November 12, 2010

I was puzzled this morning by a growing – no, make that “snowballing” – torrent of posts on Twitter carrying the hashtag “#iamspartacus“. I’m not normally one to be slow on the uptake with this sort of thing, but it really puzzled me for a while until I found a helpful Urban Dictionary definition:

“Refers to a scene in the movie “Spartacus”… After the army of former Roman slaves led by Spartacus is defeated in battle by legions of the Roman army, a Roman general stands before the captured surviving members of the slave army and demands that they turn over Spartacus, or else all of the former slaves will be executed. Upon hearing this and not wanting his friends to be executed, Spartacus stands up and says “I am Spartacus.” However, the loyalty of his friends is so great that each of them stands forward in succession, shouting “I am Spartacus!” until the shouts dissolve into a cacophony of thousands of former slaves each insisting “I am Spartacus!”…Thus the phrase “I am Spartacus!” is often used to humorously start a chorus of responses of “No, I am Spartacus” among a group.”

The uprising on Twitter seems to be as a result of the news, yesterday, that a man who posted a Twitter message threatening to blow up Robin Hood airport is facing a £3,000 bill after losing an appeal against his conviction. The Twitterati have mobilised and are creating a cacaphony of noise by way of a peaceful, but mischevious protest. (In the movie, of course, the Roman general gets the last laugh and has them all crucified just to shut them up, but you get the point.)

The moral of all this from a voiceover point of view (you knew we’d get there eventually, right?) is that if everyone’s shouting at once, no one can hear your message. Or, taken as a more abstract concept: if anyone’s going to notice what you have to say, then you need to do something to make it stand out from the noise.

So, next time you’re selling something and your copy seems great because it sounds just like the stuff you hear on the radio or TV every day, perhaps it might be time to rethink your approach before you sign off and give it to your voice talent. We’re miracle workers by trade – but even we’re not Spartacus.

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Excuse me… do you speak British?

Posted by MikeCooper on November 10, 2010

Voice casting websites are a something of a double-edged sword in the modern voiceover business. (Some might even say a “necessary evil”, or worse…) But among their better features, one of the really good things these sites enable a producer to do is to select the accent they want for their project.

The problem, of course, is that not all accents are the genuine article. Many of my American and Australian counterparts in the voiceover industry will list a “British accent” among their repertoire on such websites – just as a good number of my fellow Brits will list an American or Australian accent among theirs. But, as a producer, one of the things which will always show your production values as being lower than you would like in the media business is a bad accent –  i.e., one which is poorly performed – and the problem is that while a non-native speaker might not be able to tell the difference, anyone who grew up with that accent will immediately spot it as a ringer. Once that happens, your message is dead in the water. No one’s listening to the words in your spot anymore: they’re just marvelling at how it ever got on air in the first place.

Bad accents are nothing new, of course, and they vary in their degrees of cringeworthiness. Dick Van Dyke struck a blow for the cause with his famously bad Mockney in the film version of “Mary Poppins”, and it could be argued that we got our own back, to some degree, with Michael Crawford’s effort in “Helly Dolly” a few years later. (This would have probably been much more noticeable if the audience weren’t agasp at a young Barbra Streisand playing a role clearly thirty years her senior, but I digress). The accents performed by non-native speakers aren’t all that bad, admittedly, but I’m always intrigued when I see a British accent listed on a non-native’s demo list. And, truth be told, I’m almost always disappointed by the results, chucklesome though they often are.

In the interests of transparency, I do list an Australian accent as one of the things I can perform, but then I lived with an Aussie at very close quarters for six years and I feel I can capture the nuance without going over the top and turning into Crocodile Dundee or Rolf Harris. The Australian Tourism Board apparently agreed when they booked me for a series of Canadian TV spots last year, so “fair dos”…

All this notwithstanding, I always try to be honest about my abilities (or lack thereof) and as such I have turned down the invitation to “wow” the audience with my (frankly laughable) “English – North American” on more than one occasion. That said, in the interests of doing my bit for the “Special Relationship”, I’ve just married one, so it’s not out of the question as we go forward.

Anyway, back to the point…

Steven Lowell is the Community Development Manager at Voice123.com, one of the largest voice casting websites in the industry today, and he’s just written about exactly this in his blog. He cites American voice talent who claim “British English” as a native language, when in fact they can only perform a British accent, as one of the reasons that producers often feel insulted at the quality of the auditions they get back.

In his piece, entitled “‘Faking It’ Just Isn’t ‘Making It'”, Lowell says: “As a voice seeker posting a job, remember that details are key to the success of what you receive. Specifically choosing a native speaking language of a country will get you mostly what you want, but it helps to specify, ‘Native speakers only’ in the project description.”

…and he makes a very valid point. So, next time you’re looking for looking for an authentic accent, make sure you check out the credentials of the talent. Always get a sample read by way of a demo (this should always be free of charge), and make sure someone who knows that accent backwards thinks it’s on the money. Otherwise, truth be told, you’re probably wasting yours.

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