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.

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