My first big voice job in Paris was for a national TV commercial about lawnmowers. I showed up to a very ritzy recording studio, with a panel of people ready to scrutinize my work. It wasn’t just a case of the engineer and the director, the casting director was there too, as well as the Client, with a capital “C” and her assistant.
I was to dub the Lady of the Manor, in the commercial, speaking French with a posh English accent. Doing my best to look like the professional I hoped I would some day become, I headed for the soundproof booth and nonchalantly tried to put the headphones on the right way round.
We were soon underway, recording several takes. The lip-syncing thing was a little tricky, but I got stuck in. After several passes, the director called me out of the booth with a serious look on his face. The client was extremely unhappy – so unhappy she wouldn’t address me personally, but kept complaining to the casting director, in thoroughly disgusted tones: “Ah non, ce n’est pas ca – ca ne va pas du tout! – elle est beaucoup trop jeune.” She had a point. I was in my early 20s and the character on the screen was pushing 50 – my voice wasn’t an obvious match.
I was about to learn an important voice over lesson. It’s a business that demands a multitasking mentality. You might have to use a foreign accent, while focusing on time codes, hitting the words the client wants underlined, while maintaining an authoritative, yet soft sell tone…
It was sink or swim. I realized that my takes were missing an element. Yes, I was speaking French. Yes my accent was English. And yes, I was doing a fair job of lip-syncing, but the CHARACTER was missing. I thought about it for a moment and realized that if I were to dub that actress in English I would place my voice up in an operatic register and mimic a tedious schoolteacher I once had. I demonstrated my point to the team, speaking in English, and there were murmurs of approval. So, I jumped back into the recording booth and the project was completed to everyone’s satisfaction and my relief.