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A Morning in Rob Paulsen's Voice-Over Seminar

Class is in Session with Rob Paulsen

On October 14th voice actor Rob Paulsen offered his voice acting seminar at the Lau Lapides Company, offering students a half-day’s worth of interactive discussion and time in a recording booth to be directed by Rob. For many people, it would be enough just to get the chance to work with the man who gave voice to the Pinky half of Pinky and the Brain, Yakko Warner of Animaniacs, and now two different Ninja Turtles (Rapahel in the original 1980′s series, and Donatello in the current one), but this isn’t just a meet-and-greet with a voice-over celebrity. Students all get a chance to do real work in a recording booth and get some invaluable coaching from an industry veteran.

The first half of the class was a simple Q&A session between Rob and the students, as he’d discuss aspects of his career and how to break into and succeed in the business. It is very clearly an unstructured session, since Paulsen’s first discussions with our class were about an exchange on Twitter that had really upset him over his use of “the n-word” when he was playing a racist redneck character on The Boondocks. It led to some discussion about the sensitivity required for a good actor, how to take on difficult roles or play a character diametrically opposed to your own views, and how to deal with difficult fans. One thing that was abundantly clear was how much he enjoys his career and the effect he’s had on fans over the years (several of whom were in the room and reacted visibly when he’d break into the Yakko Warner or Pinky voice). While the role on The Boondocks made him uncomfortable for a week afterwards, Paulsen also made a point of saying that pushing outside your own comfort zones is critical to keeping sharp as an actor.

For newcomers to the business, Paulsen was happy to provide a plug for fellow actor Dee Bradley Baker’s website iwanttobeavoiceactor.com, which provides a wealth of valuable information on how to break into the business while debunking myths and presenting hard but honest truths that must be absorbed and accepted before embarking on a voice-over career. Paulsen himself reiterated some of Baker’s points during the discussion, like the reality that a voice-over career is a long-term game and isn’t something you should be doing for the fame or the fortune (especially since there often isn’t much of either in the work). He also tried to emphasize the depth of the competition in the voice-acting field, but wanted to avoid presenting it as conflict or as something adversarial when he never got that sense about the people doing the work. However, the truth is that your competition for this work is going to be the likes of Maurice LaMarche, Tara Strong, Grey Delisle, or Jim Cummings. He also shared a lot of his own early experiences as a struggling actor in Hollywood, trading handyman services for rent in his apartment complex and fixing cars (including his own Honda). Paulsen also emphasized the need for copious amounts of passion and commitment to succeed in the business, but judging by the way he talks about his career, the rewards for success can’t be measured in worldly terms.

The skill level for the classwork in the seminar falls somewhere between Bob Bergen’s beginner class and his advanced class. The other students in the class had a variety of skill levels and specific voice-over interests, but everyone already had some experience in a recording booth (as opposed to Bob Bergen’s beginner class, which requires no experience). Each student was told to bring up to two pieces of copy to work on with Paulsen, running 15-30 seconds in length each. Lau Lapides would provide copy to students who asked for it (often from actors who donated audition copy or scripts from finished gigs), as well as one-on-one coaching sessions for those who felt they needed a bit more guidance before the class. Working actors can (and often do) bring in copy they were about to audition for or that they were working on professionally. Since I’m not a working voice actor, I culled a narration-oriented piece from one of my Computer Science textbooks and one animation piece that Lau Lapides provided, since it seemed like fun for the four very different voices in it. The narration piece involved two exceptionally long Arabic names (Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarismi, and his math textbook ‘Kitab al-jabr wa’l-muqabala), so I was pretty jazzed just that I was able to spit them both out without tripping during both my reads. During the animation read, I re-discovered a common instruction in cartoon voice work: that it’s better to go with a higher-energy read and get dialed back than to start low and have to be ramped up. Of the four reads, Paulsen told me to push the first two further and commit more to them; my brave knight had to get braver and the craven squire had to get even more timid and fearful. “Energy” doesn’t just mean “louder,” since the two reads that Paulsen liked my first takes on were a big, imposing villain sitting as low in my vocal range as I could get, and the other was a mysterious Oracle speaking in a hissed rasp. In terms of volume I doubt either read spiked the levels on the sound board, but Paulsen reacted positively to both.

Other students ran entire scenes from cartoons as familiar as The Lion King and G.I. Joe (with the latter prompting Rob to note that he played the arctic trooper Snow Job in the original 1980′s cartoon); some brought in advertising and promotional copy; and two students opted for lengthier audiobook-like readings. Rob’s direction was always specific and focused, even if he’d couch his points humorously or gave the dreaded voice-over direction, “Do something different with that one, I’ll know it when I hear it.” There was always audible improvement between a student’s first read and their last one, which is probably the best thing that can be said for any teacher or coach.

After the class was over, Rob graciously offered to sign autographs and pose for pictures with students (including ye old reporter, remembering to be a fan in addition to a student and a Toonzone News guy for once):

Keep an eye on Rob Paulsen’s website to see when and where he’ll be offering his seminar, and visit the Lau Lapides Company for excellent one-on-one coaching services and group activities for the voice-acting communities in New York City and Boston.

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