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A Review of "Book It!" with Mary Lynn Wissner

The popular view of voice acting is doing voices for cartoons, especially among the would-be voice over actors frequenting a site like Toonzone. However, the truth is that most voice actors’ bread-and-butter work is in promotions and advertising, even for the bigger, recognizable cartoon voice over names. We may know Corey Burton as the voice of Brainiac, but he’s much more widely heard as the voice of Old Navy. Corinne Orr may be Speed Racer‘s Trixie for old-school animation fans, but she paid the rent for years as the voice of the Snuggle fabric softener bear. To learn the skills and techniques to compete in the promotional market, you would do well to seek out the one-day “Book It!” workshop by veteran voice-over casting director Mary Lynn Wissner, which I attended this past weekend.

Wissner is a 20+ year veteran of the voice acting business, and her workshop is oriented around the audition process for promotional or advertising work. The explicit goal of the class is to teach students tips, tricks, and techniques to get more bookings. It is definitely not an introductory class for a beginner seeking to break into the industry, although someone (like me) with experience from other introductory classes can follow along easily enough. The class materials are oriented around a handful of simple rules that are easy to understand and apply to one’s career and vocal performances, but which are also surprisingly easy to forget, even among experienced voice actors. They’re simple tricks that help personalize a read, which makes it more noticeable. The more you do to get your audition noticed by the casting directors, the more likely you’re going to be booked. The guidelines she gave us are simple and intuitive, but also not things that many of us thought to do, even after Wissner explained them to us.

Wissner provided a list of what she called the five most popular directions given for voice-over, along with a list of nine vocal placements as a set of tools for our vocal toolboxes (e.g., bright, nasal, throaty, or diaphragm), which Wissner credited to voice director Sue Blu. Participants in the workshop quickly learn how mixing and matching a direction with the vocal placements can open up many more avenues for a vocal performance, and this is probably the greatest strength of Wissner’s class. Most of the session was practice in the booth with real audition copy and a direction for the read. Each student is directed through a simulated audition, with Wissner suggesting improvements and helping to shape and focus the performance. Wissner has an incredible talent for finding and teasing out an actor’s best in the booth. Students were often surprised at what was coming out in their own reads, finding sweet spots in their vocal range that they didn’t even know they had. If nothing else, a few sessions in the booth with Wissner’s direction is a fantastic way to broaden and hone the vocal tools in an actor’s toolbox, making one’s reads more distinctive and versatile, and consequently increasing your likelihood of a booking.

Getting to work with other actors is also a wonderful learning experience over and above the actual class material. One of Wissner’s guidelines is “Follow Directions,” and that applies to all the hardcopy materials you get, all the verbal instructions at a read, and directions given to other actors. I think one of the most educational elements of any acting class is watching other actors work in a controlled environment. It’s always helpful to think about how you would have read someone else’s copy or how you would alter your own performance in response to the directions given. Wissner also makes sure to set aside time for dialogue auditions, where multiple actors will audition simultaneously for a conversational ad. The environment often resulted in actors sparking off each other, generating palpable and audible energy and enthusiasm.

Some time is also spent on aspects of the business, such as setting up your own home studio, promoting yourself and your abilities, and the blessing/curse that is the Internet for a voice actor. The Internet and modern computing technology makes it much easier for a voice actor to record and send auditions from home, but that same ease has also made the pool of available talent much larger and more competitive. The amount of time spent on this segment seems tailored to student interest; our session spent far more time in the booth, but the class handouts go into a good amount of detail on those subjects as well.

There are obviously differences between voice-acting for promotional work and voice-acting for animation. Wissner told us never to fake an accent that we couldn’t do natively; in Bob Bergen’s animation-centric seminars, accents were actively encouraged if it fit the character. A lot of advertising or promo copy is going to be very different from an animation script and will require a different approach to the material. However, there does seem to be plenty of room to use skills acquired in commercial work as an animation voice-over actor. For example, the skills required for a public service announcement or one of those medical disclaimer voice-overs (“side effects may include…”) aren’t going to get used too often in an animation script, but the authoritative voice required for them would certainly be an asset for an animated character. Both Bergen and Wissner advised us that it’s better to start off over-the-top in voice over and be told to dial it back, and both of them would ask actors, “Who are you talking to?” as a tactic to sharpen a performance. The skills needed to communicate character quickly for promos, where you have one chance and 30-60 seconds to bring across a character, would also seem to be of definite use in animation work.

I’m not much more than a curious dilettante in the world of voice-over acting, but much of what Wissner taught certainly gels with what I’ve learned elsewhere and spoken with voice actors about. You also can’t really argue with results: many of Wissner’s students will rave about her classes, and after the one-day “Book It!” session I can understand why. If you’re a working voice actor who wants more bookings (and, really, who doesn’t?), Wissner’s class comes highly recommended.

The following sound files are provided as examples of the class work in “Book It!” All files are in MP3 format.

Solo: Kia Rio (1.8 MB)

This is one of my solo reads, showing how Wissner shapes a performance through vocal placement and how many different ways I can mis-pronounce “Kia Rio” in one read. I laughed when Wissner suggested the “evil” kind of voice because I did King Renwick in that same booth in Bob Bergen’s class, and had a flash of “evil wizard doing car ad” for a second.

Dialogue: St. Croix (1.9 MB)

A fun dialogue spot I did for St. Croix with the amazing Tracy Bidleman. She did all the work (and nailed it). I, on the other hand, had only two lines and still managed to bobble one of them in the first read.

Dialogue: Washington Metro (1.2 MB)

A three-man dialogue spot with Michael Amaral, Michael Lockwood Crouch, and I. They’re both very talented guys that I worked with in Bob Bergen’s advanced class.

Special thanks to Mary Lynn Wissner, all my classmates at “Book It!”, and sound engineer extraordinaire Zane Birdwell at John Marshall Sound. Check Wissner’s website for future offerings of “Book It!” or her other voice-over seminars. For more reading at Toonzone on voice-acting, check out the following:

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