Thursday, May 28, 2009

Etes-Vous Prets?

One of those weird, stuck phrases from my youth.
No, I did not attend French School. I rowed.

If you ever spent hours on a long, narrow rowing shell, moving back and forth on a sliding seat, getting to know the back of person in front of you way too well, you know exactly what I'm talking about. You may have even felt that shudder as a precursor to the pain your reptilian brain remembers.

If you didn't, or haven't, or are wondering just what the hell I'm talking about... It's the call that is made before the start of a rowing race. (Or at least it was - it seems like the elite races I've caught at the Olympics or via some late night feed start with a buzzer now. If so, 'tis a shame...)

The complete phrase was "Etes-vous prets?" followed by a pause and then "Partez!". Or at least I think the word was "Partez!" because quite frankly all hell immediately broke loose - coxswains (the smaller person at the back steering and yelling commands) started screaming on the "P-", drowning out whatever followed that, while all of us in the engine room were grunting and stomping and pulling with everything we had in a succession of ritually-drilled movements to get a 65 foot boat moving at top speed in the shortest number of strokes.

(Just to continue this diversion completely, ours was "3/4-1/2-1/2-3/4-full" before moving into 5 screamingly fast full and clean strokes, followed by another 5 with more power, then another 10 lengthening out at a high cadence. Crikey, I can still viscerally remember countless "Minute Pieces" that started from a dead stop and continued until 60 seconds were up. We were always known for our fast starts...)

Which, you may have noticed, has very little to do with voiceover, unless you count the efforts of the aforementioned coxswain.

What it gets at - and this is a thread I've been turning over in my mind for a while now - is the idea of The Start.

It's occurred to me before, this idea of starting. Or, more specifically, the idea of "self-starting."

It goes kind of like this:
Most of my pursuits can be described as having "passive" starts. Again, this may require another step or two from the voice acting genre to explain completely. I wasn't in the drama club in high school - instead I was more sports-oriented (well, on the newspaper too, but let's not introduce too many variables). So, I tend to use a fair number of sports-ish examples to help myself act or follow directions. These tend to be physical examples or the creation a physical memory which then helps me execute a technique.

For example, if I'm working on a narration or more technical read, but don't feel it's quite "expert" enough, I'll rock forward on my feet so that my weight is more forward. There's something about that subtle shift of position which will affect my read and give it the slight bit of force that needs. This is really just a continuing refinement of the first lesson I learned at Voicetrax, which was to physicalize things.

What I started realizing was that even with the physicalizations, and all the other basics in place like correct intentions of place, character, etc., there were times when the reads would get lost. This always came down to the way things started.

In my first narration class, Bob Symons made it clear that the first sentance was the most important. The more classes I've taken, this helpful signpost has been weathered and worn, forged to the diamond-edged truth that I now know - it is really the first syllable of the first word that has the effect.

What I didn't think about, though, was how to approach to that first syllable.
And that brings us back to the title of this post, "Etes-vous prets?"

If you look at a diver, a gymnast, a high jumper, a solo musician, there's always that moment before the act. There's a signal to the judges or orchestra, certainly, but following that there's a pause of some measure and then something clicks, or ticks, or rests just for the right amount before the movement begins. That instant has begun to fascinate me a bit.

Because, I realize now, it's a bit foreign to me.

My "go" moments were induced from outside. The little league pitcher wound up to throw, the football got snapped, the race marshall yelled "Etes-Vous Prets?" or the gun or whistle went off to start the bike race. So, up until voice acting, my training had been reflex and reaction, go at the gun sort of stuff. It took a while until I didn't stomp right out of the gate as soon as the engineer said, "You're Rolling..."

Now that I've been doing more engineering in classes, I can see the same thing in some of the the newer students - they are straining in the blocks and chaffing at the bit. As soon as I begin to say "Stand By" they are off and charging. Good thing we don't charge them with a false start.

I've started to really pay attention to the time between rolling and going, trying to find that small hiccup in the fabric of time when It feels right, that little tick of some internal tumbler falling into place when I'm ready. That moment when everything comes to rest and you can see exactly where you want to go and know how to get there.

When things are about to go well, it feels like there's all the time in the world.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

My Luxurious Studio

...and Other Humorous Topics

One parallel project to the great script-for-demo wrangling of May 2009 is the revamping of my recording capabilities. I'd been using the Snowball USB mic on my desktop for practice and playback through a set of pretty basic computer speakers. Everything had been set up in my office and for purposes of class prep and basic playback, it was working acceptably.

Then for a recent class, we were sent scripts to record at home and submit for critique at the class session. Well, with a little more critical listening, it was pretty obvious that the office was not quiet enough. So, I ventured down a hallway which seemed to lend itself well to the task, spacewise. However, with its relatively thin door and wooden floor, it was like recording in a bass drum with cymbals covering the drum heads - tinny and resonant. Declaring it a "live" space would be generous.

As the class deadline had snuck up a bit quickly, I got busy with some deadening blankets taped up and mats on the floor, managing to kill the worst of the echoey bits. However, to reduce the resonance, I'd ended up turning everything 90 degrees from plan, and had to flip the Snowball over to position "3" to reduce background noise. This still seems a little weird to me, as the "3" setting is supposed to be the omnidirectional setting. But, between the new setup, the issues of damping the space and the impending deadline for the class, I didn't have time to run it down before I had to show up at work for the day.

When the files were played in class over the studio monitors, there was a noticeable dip in quality when mine played. But, it supplied an excellent reference for correction. I also got copies of the other files which I could then use for playback comparison over my basic speakers.

Then we went shopping. For some reason, my wife didn't really care for the look of drafting tape and heavy blankets, so we spent some time in the studio setup over at Bananas At Large in San Rafael. Had a good talk with a pretty knowledgeable guy and discussed the use of foam, proximity of the mic, other USB microphone alternatives and a pair of nice sounding USB speakers for playback.

Then we visited Home Depot and played around with various methods of setting up a retracting sound curtains, installing foam surfaces and means of deadening the space. Which means I've got a pile of building materials to install and see what happens. Hopefully, when everything is set up and locked down, we'll have an effective, but unobtrusive recording space.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Scripts, Scripts, Scripts

Scripts, scripts everywhere, and more and more we seek.
Scripts, scripts everywhere and so many seem to creak...

(with fervent apologies to Samuel Taylor Coleridge.)

Coming into the pre-flight period for my demo session. Alternately scared out of my wits and firmly confident that it's about time, which is probably the right combination of fear and ignorance that I need. (Yeah, yeah.... "fear and arrogance." I just like to see you get all worked up.)

Sat down a while back and made a list. Over the months I've crossed stuff off, resorted it a few times, gathered similar livestock in nearby pens and in general tried to make some sense of what I bring to the voiceover table. The recent "Bag O' Tricks" class was pretty helpful in refocusing and refining things again. A follow up private session clicked something into place even more clearly by identifying some areas of tone and delivery that come pretty naturally, but also seem to be a more unique signature of my approach.

Rereading that last paragraph, it makes sense to me, but probably not to anyone else. Don't really mean to be mysterious, but in the larger picture, the specific "what" doesn't really matter to anyone but me. And that too will simply continue to change and develop the longer I continue on this path. Feeling tentative and tenuous ideas become actual voiceover techniques which can be relied upon has been an amazing process.

That's really the only point I was imprecisely trying to make.

And now it's trying to find the scripts which will bring that out. Steady steps which have been pretty practical and highly recursive. I've been working through all the scripts I've had filed, trying to regroup them as demonstrating different strengths to be shown on the voiceover demo. Then going through each different and further sorting the scripts from best to weakest. Trying to pull out those that I want to do but which really aren't showcasing the skills quite well enough.

Each loop through tends to refine my opinions again, which leads to another visit to the files o' scripts, which in itself tends to add one or two, which in turn demands another reshuffling within the group.

And I'm enjoying that process thoroughly. As I've said before, I really like scripts. In a few cases, it's helped me to recognize a different approach could be employed or see that there were some aspects of the writing which I didn't quite appreciate in the short time of initially working on them.

In other cases, much like that old album...cough, cough... I mean CD.... urk... I mean MP3 that you pull out after having not heard it for a while, you just wonder whatever impressed you about it in the first place.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Catalog Daze

This is one of the most fun and aggravating times of the year - new catalog from Voicetrax time. Aggravating because time and funding have finite limits. I mean, you want to dive right in and sign up for everything with a line of dots on it. But, after making swooning wookie noises when you add that little pile of numbers up, you have to prioritize a bit.

You pull this class back because it's probably not going to help you now. That session gets dropped down the list because it's an awful lot like one you just finished, and it's going to start next month (or at least pretty dang soon) anyway. And another gets culled because in a glimmer of confidence, you think you're pretty solid on that area right now. And you want to leave a little "air" in the schedule for a private or two...

But, then you drift into the catalog itself, and you think about working with Sam Pond again, or getting a chance to have a class with Charlie Adler, and you find yourself seriously geeking out over voice acting daydreams (or technically, as I should really be in bed, "night dreams").

Then you turn back a page or two and read the mentions of people you know who are getting work. They're good people who just knock it out of the park when you've heard them. They're people you've had classes with. And you think, "man, I want to be in that section of the catalog - the place where they list the jobs and callbacks and successes..."

And you dream a little more. Realize you've stayed up a bit later than planned. Remember that the other night, you actually had a dream that you were in the booth.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Invitational Direct Thyself - 5/09

Normally after any good class, I'm pretty tired. After an all day "weekend" session, I'm even more wrung out. There's something about a full day of active listening, trying to "pre-guess" the teacher's analysis, recalibrating your impression versus the teacher's, analyzing your own script beforehand, the tiny little step of executing the performance you plan while, then trying to recognize the things that didn't go well while acknowledging that which did...

Last Saturday after this class, I pretty much just crawled on the couch and lay there for an hour and a half. I was seriously worked.

And don't get me wrong - this was probably one of the most beneficial classes I've had. But, it was a pummeler.

Ralph gave a great description in his post, so I won't duplicate that here. I will only add that performing "Undah Da Lights!" with no playback is a seriously good excercise, so I would expect to see Sam adding it here and there.

I'd also like to say,
"Hi, I'm Jim, and I'm addicted to playback."

Listening versus Hearing. Knowing versus Thinking. About a half dozen little corrections to end bad habits and set things up better. This was a high-value class.