People often confuse improv with comedy. It can be funny but voice actors, actors, performers, comics don't go for 'the laugh,' they go for the story, then the laugh will follow, if it's there. A few definitions first: Improvisation is an unscripted and unplanned live performance, often taken from the actor’s experience and imagination. The goal is to tell stories from simple cues or ideas without a script. Improv has been around from at least the time of the ancient Greeks. Modern improv has been molded in part by Del Close, Charna Halpern, and Kim Johnson, who co-authored the famed improv bible ‘Truth in Comedy The Manual of Improvisation.’ Long form, 30 minutes or more is called a ‘Harold.' The idea is that a story is made up on the spot, from an audience member’s suggestion of any random word like ‘banana’ or ‘washing machine’ for example. After the word suggestion is given, a story or scene is played out amongst an improv group of 6-8 performers. Shorter form can be done with 2 actors or even in a monologue. The idea is to go with the prompt and ‘Yes and…’ to any suggestion given to further the scene. If you say no to the suggestion, you have nowhere to go and the scene ends. It’s actually a good rule for life too, say yes and be open to the possibilities.
Improv is a tool…
Actors study improv because it makes them fast on their feet, quick to react, especially if things go wrong in a scene. It also takes the script off the page and allows actors to find the character or story much easier. In VoiceOver, often but not always, the voice actor is performing a monologue alone. Using improv can help make the script sound more like a dialogue. Some actors improvise a ‘lead-in’ or 'moment before,' which is a sentence that’s not in the actual script, but helps the actor find and access the character quickly. This line is often removed during post production, as it was never in the actual script itself. Sometimes a voice actor will add vocalized sounds like 'ahh, ooh, aha, uh-huh, hmmm’ to make the script sound real and leave them in the audition or actual script if appropriate. This works especially with dialogue parts in commercials, video games and animation.
There are lots of warm-up improv exercises actors use to keep them loose and open to reacting. A well-known beginner game is ZIP, ZAP, ZOP. This game has the actors in a circle and making direct contact with a chosen player, passing energy by visually throwing the word ‘Zip, Zap or Zop' sequentially and upping the speed as the game continues, not losing their place and starting again when mistakes are made.
That wasn't in the Script...
I thought it would be fun to recount some famous improvised moments from movies that were never in the script. Here are some examples gleaned from the web.
‘I’m funny, how? I mean funny like I’m a clown? I amuse you?’ This frenetic 'Funny Like A Clown' scene from the 1990 film ‘GoodFellas’ wasn’t actually improvised live on film but in a rehearsal. Ray Liotta recounted the story at the 25th anniversary of Goodfellas held at the TriBeCa Film Festival. Joe Pesci who plays Tommy DeVito and Ray Liotta as Henry Hill were the only actors who knew the scene would be improvised when it was originally tried out in rehearsal. This allowed Martin Scorsese, the director to see the genuine expressions of the other actors. It’s based on a story Pesci told when he was working as a young waiter in Queens. He told a connected guy, he thought the mobster was funny, the mob guy did not think Pesci was very funny. Scorsese then wrote the improvised rehearsal into the script. A documentary about the film recounts that Scorsese decided to shoot in medium takes, avoiding close-ups so he could capture the real reactions of all the actors.
Actor Matthew McConaughey ad-libbed ‘Alright, alright, alright’ as the character David Wooderson in the 1993 movie ‘Dazed and Confused’, his ‘first scene ever on film.’ McConaughey was listening to the Doors and heard Jim Morrison chant ‘all right, all right, all right, all right.’ That got McConaughey thinking about his character’s interests and intentions. He explained to Canadian talk show host George Stroumboulopoulos ‘Man, he’s about four things: He’s about his car, he’s about getting high, he’s about rock n’ roll, and picking up chicks,’ And I go, ‘I’m in my car, I’m high as a kite, I’m listening to rock ‘n’ roll… Action! And there’s the chick — alright, alright, alright. Three out of four.’ He repeated the catchphrase during his 2014 Academy Award for Best Actor in ‘Dallas Buyers Club.’
‘You're gonna need a bigger boat,’ said by Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody character in the 1976 film Jaws. Crew members complained about a much too small barge called the S.S. Garage Sale, which was used to carry craft services, lighting, and film equipment. Co-screenwriter Carl Gottlieb recounted to ‘The Hollywood Reporter’ Richard Zanuck and David Brown were very stingy producers, so everyone kept telling them, ‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat.’ It became a catchphrase for anytime anything went wrong—if lunch was late or the swells were rocking the camera, someone would say, 'You're gonna need a bigger boat.’ Actor Roy Scheider started ad-libbing the line at various points in the film but only when he first faced off the Great White shark did the line make the final cut of the movie. 'It was so appropriate and so real and it came at the right moment, thanks to Verna Fields's editing,' Gottlieb said.
Though it was actually used 4 times in the classic 1942 Casablanca film, the most memorable one is when Humphrey Bogart, as Rick Blaine says farewell to Ingrid Bergman’s IIsa Lund ‘Here's looking at you, kid.” The original line was actually written as ‘Here’s good luck to you, kid,’ which was a popular expression in the 1930s. A theory is that Bogie was teaching Ingrid to play poker during their downtime filming the movie. Here’s looking at you’ is when the face cards King, Queen, and Jack are all ‘looking at you.'
Voice Actors know that sometimes just one improvised vocalized sound or word can define a role or audition. This is the case in the 1991 thriller ‘Silence of the Lambs’ when Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector utters his scripted line about eating a liver ‘with some fava beans and a nice Chianti,’ he then improvises a haunting hissing sound to intimidate Jodie Foster’s FBI Agent Clarice Starling. Turns out Hopkins used to make that sound during rehearsals to spook Foster. Director Jonathan Demme decided it was so good, he would leave it in the movie.
Honorable mention to...
Whoopi Goldberg as Oda Mae Brown's sage warning to Demi Moore’s character Molly Jensen in the 1990 movie ‘Ghost,’ ‘Molly, you in danger girl.’
Jack Nicholson as obsessed writer Jack Torrance in the 1980 film ‘The Shining,’ ‘Here’s Johnny’ which is a take-off on Ed McMahon’s intro of host Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show.
Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in the 1976 cult film ‘Taxi Driver’ in the often quoted ‘You Talkin’ to Me?’ There is debate whether DeNiro got the idea from Bruce Springsteen, who once said to fans screaming his name at a concert ‘Are you talking to me?’ Springsteen thinks it’s an urban myth, Scorsese thought it might be true in a conversation between Springsteen and Marty celebrating ‘Springsteen on Broadway.’ What is known is that the direction from Scorsese was to look into the mirror and have a conversation. No words were in the direction and DeNiro kept repeating the infamous line, which has now become one of the most famed movie lines in history.
Yeah, but I'm not an Actor...
You don’t have to be an actor or comic to gain value from improv. Many professionals like lawyers, salespeople, realtors, teachers, managers, and many more can benefit. The goal isn’t to be funny, but to allow things to happen, be open to new ideas, develop excellent listening skills, and be present in the moment, not on to the next thing.
I’ve taken classes at all three of the places listed below and recommend them. Places to study improv both in-person and online:
United Citizens Brigade in NYC: https://ucbcomedy.com
The Peoples Improv Theater in NYC ‘The Pit’ https://thepit-nyc.com
Magnet Theater: https://magnettheater.com/class/
I haven’t studied at Second City, but it has a highly respected reputation for improv and comedy classes with locations in Chicago, Toronto, Hollywood, and online.
Have any favorite improvised movie lines or scenes?
Please let me know in the comments! Thanks for reading!!
Nancy Kaszerman is a professional voice talent for over 10 years and is located in NYC. Please feel free to comment, ask a question and connect on social media.
We hear the word ‘storytelling’ or ‘storyteller’ a lot these days. What exactly does it mean? Are we talking about the bedtime stories that we heard as children? Or perhaps theater, movies, or books? Of course, it is and can be, but in the commercial world, the way we take in information has changed. In media and marketing production, storytelling becomes a substitute for advertising. No one wants to be sold anything these days, but since before the days of Scheherazade and her ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ we have been fascinated by stories. Greek myths, folk tales, fairy tales, fables, oral traditions have all been a way to entertain and communicate the values, lessons, and morality of a culture. Storytelling in advertising means using an engaging narrative to tell a company story or brand rather than a sales pitch. It’s used everywhere nowadays, in commercials, video production, training, e-learning, video games, art, photography, and more.
Does that mean a VoiceOver artist is always a Storyteller?
Certainly, but there are exceptions. A voiceover artist or narrator’s job is to communicate the story of a brand or product. A lot depends on the script which is the roadmap of the story. If the words are written in a high sell way, for example, you are telling less of a story and delivering more of a pitch. It still might be effective depending on the product or brand but you should know the difference between storytelling and selling. While they both in the end want to attract customers and sales, one appeals more to community, values, and ideas, the other to direct selling—just give me the facts - $9.99 for a pack of toilet paper.
Is Storytelling or Advertising a Generational thing?
While we’ve been listening and telling stories since the Neanderthal cave paintings 64,000 years ago, styles and what resonates change. People are more likely to remember a brand or product if there is a story attached to it rather than just facts. Humans want to feel something, and no one wants to be talked at..which was a very common way of marketing in the recent past. TV was used as the primary form of advertising for Baby Boomers, ads were fast and to the point. In VoiceOver terms, it was often a white male announcer with a deep, broadcaster voice who told you what you needed, whether you did or not.
Gen X, also known as the MTV generation, was highly influenced by the quick pace of music videos. ‘I Want my MTV’ was a campaign created by iconic advertising guru George Lois. The idea was to get cable companies to air MTV which was a fledgling station in the early ’80s. Advertisers borrowed from MTV with quick rhymes that would get stuck in the buyer's head like earworm. Voiceover in advertising was still mainly white male, very polished, slick, and commercial sounding.
Millennials - Gen Y don’t like being sold to, (actually nobody does), but marketers changed their approach, where they advertise, as they followed and tried to attract Millennials ,who grew up with reality television, the internet and social media. In VoiceOver this means the style changed from sleek and polished to more natural, real authentic, and the keyword conversational! Most voice-over specs nowadays say ‘conversational’ even if the copy is anything but… Voiceover is open to more women than in previous generations. Sharing information, rather than pushing products is preferred.
Gen Z generation are attracted to real people and transparency. Influencers are the new celebrities. YouTube has replaced MTV. They are not interested in people acting a part. They want the real deal. For VoiceOver this means diversity is key. Authentic and genuine people are wanted. Someone imitating a trans BIPOC for example is unacceptable. It also means advertisers are open to more stories from formally unrepresented communities and new opportunities to reach and engage with consumers. In VoiceOver this can mean an almost flat, real, just tell the story read without adding a lot. Although, a professional voice talent will use a nuanced approach by changing tonalities, pacing, intentions as the story unfolds. So while it may appear there is nothing on the script in a flat read, there should be many transitions and changes throughout the performance, but they do not appear ‘big’ or ‘performed’ as in previous years.
People want Stories
It actually doesn’t matter what generation you fall into, in today’s times, what matters is that stories have an emotional impact of some sort. It could be funny or moving but must be engaging. You might choose an older or younger sounding voice depending on the project, but the point is the public wants to be invested in the brand or project. A popular way to do this in marketing is through video branding. Often, shorter videos are used..short because consumers don’t have a long attention span, as they are used to scrolling through social media quickly. Stopping the scroll is key. Most people will respond to an engaging story even if they weren’t planning on it. Brands connect with the public by telling their story, how they do what they do, why they do what they do and why we the public should care. This is accomplished by using a variety of techniques - starting with a meaningful story, creating a storyboard where the images correspond to the voiceover and adding music. Or in e-learning instead of just giving facts (although true confession, I’m a fact lover) find a narrative story as an example for the information you want to disseminate. While video games may be packed with action, they currently revolve more around a narrative story using realistic, natural voices as opposed to big cartoony caricatures or animated voices
You're as Good as the Story you Tell
credit: Nancy Kaszerman
People sometimes say ’I could listen to Morgan Freeman recite the phone book’… even assuming you know what a phone book is, I can assure you as wonderful as Morgan Freeman is, listening to the reading of a phone book would get pretty dull quickly. No matter how great the editing, video, music, or voiceover, you must have a story to tell. Knowing your product or brand, getting a good scriptwriter to develop the architecture of your story, understanding the values, community, and audience will help people experience your company and become more invested as opposed to sales pitches which are a major turnoff these days. Storytelling is sharing information, educating, and human connection. It’s chatty, often informative, and relatable. The audience must see themselves in the story.
Choosing a Storyteller to Represent your Company or Project
The more you can specify, have a clear vision and infuse storytelling, the more likely the listener will connect with your brand or message. Let’s say, for example, you're producing a healthcare project, the more you can elicit trust and confidence the more likely your audience will relate. This can be done with a grounded, proud, voice whether it’s female or male. Having an idea and targeting who the message is primarily for will help determine the vocal quality of the narration. If possible, it’s always best to ask for an audition with a portion of your script unless you are already familiar with your voice talent of choice. Professional talents are usually happy to provide a short sample so you can hear if the voice is a good match for your story. But remember that no matter how nice a voice sounds, they need to be able to deliver the message using current approaches. Finding a talent who can genuinely convey emotions through their own authenticity will bring the storytelling to life.
Nancy Kaszerman is a professional voice talent for over 10 years and is located in NYC. Please feel free to comment, ask a question and connect on social media
That is the question...or do I really need a professional voiceover narration with my video?
Well, that depends. Today’s media is all about storytelling and engagement with your audience. Many find both narration services and video production companies work hand in hand. After all, we have been consuming ‘talking movies’ since 1927! A business web video or commercial can feel incomplete without a narrator. An explainer video for example can feel like it’s missing something, if it’s images only, even if it has a music soundtrack. Humans are used to a human connection which is why the voice is so powerful…that said…
Voiceover is Not for Everyone...
Are you doing a social media post where you are ‘the product’ or ‘the star’ like business or personal coaching? In that case, you probably don’t need a professional VoiceOver. Just turn on your video platform and do your thing…or maybe you just want to show visual media. There are times when visual imagery is so strong, words can take away. Traditionally people use professional talent when they represent a brand, provide a service or tell a story. They want to inject trust, confidence, reliability as well as relatability. Often a pretty image or video with no storytelling just doesn’t grab our attention for very long. There is no right or wrong answer, but you do need to ask yourself and your team a few questions to make sure you are utilizing the right tools to effectively engage your audience.
What Story am I Telling?
The first question you need to ask is: What’s Your Story? What are you trying to communicate and to whom? Is the story served by using a visual component only, or will narration enhance the storytelling and engagement? Voiceover is used to convey a level of expertise and professionalism. People respond more to a narrator speaking about a subject or product rather than a person talking about themselves, even if it’s their own business. It adds a level of credibility and trust, that talking about yourself just doesn’t manage, unless of course, you are a big personality where you are the brand…but even if that’s the case, it can be helpful to intersperse a video with a VoiceOver narration discussing and explaining the proficiency of the subject or product with an interview format or personal spokesperson.
Can I just do it myself?
Sure, if you want to and have the proper sound quality to match. But keep in mind most professional VoiceOver artists have spent years of training. It’s more than just plugging in a mic and pressing the record button. Today’s VoiceOver artists are actors, communicators, and storytellers. Aside from a multitude of VO classes like commercial, narration, animation, video games, audiobooks, training can include acting classes, improv, sound engineering design, and more! Proper equipment and a clean recording environment are needed for broadcast-quality work which often the average person doesn’t own and has no reason to invest in.
Do I really need a Voice actor just to read my script?
Well, it’s more than just reading…A VoiceOver artist is paid to provide script analysis, intention, and meaning to the script before they utter a single word. ‘Just reading it’— isn’t communication and never sounds like a real person talking which is the goal of engagement. A script must be broken up into moments and it is the job of the voice talent to find those moments, bring personality, meaning, and life to the copy. Even if the script is technical and dry, a professional VoiceOver can enhance the delivery by using phrasing, inflection, emphasis, timing, spacing, tone that an untrained reader just can’t. A non-professional runs the risk of getting into vocal patterns that make the copy sound sing-song or too much like an announcer which is a mostly old style of VoiceOver. Although some roles do call for an announce sound, you need to know the difference. It’s important to make a decision considering who the project is for and what you are trying to communicate. Would a VoiceOver narration benefit the project? Am I really trained to perform the script or will it sound like I’m reading?
Pro Tip: No one wants to listen to someone who sounds like they're reading these days - it's all about conversational storytelling.
I Need Your Opinion
Scripts must have a point of view. Having no opinion isn’t going to cut it for most scripts. The voice actor is continually making choices, who they are in the script, perhaps a doctor, teacher, a mom, aunt, or neighbor, and who they are talking to, perhaps a daughter, a son, or a peer. The narration will sound different depending on who you are and who you are speaking to. Talking to one person is key. Communication has more impact when it’s personal. If you are talking to everyone it can sound vague and impersonal. Picking one person gives a script more intimacy and personalization. No one wants to be ‘talked at’ — we want to be enlightened, learn something, and have an authentic experience. That’s why opinion matters in VoiceOver performance. It’s a journey. Using commercial copy as an example, often there is a problem and a solution. They can not sound the same. You are taking the listener through a journey, transitions, and moments. The experience is not the same by the end of the commercial as when the audience first started listening. One effective way to do that is to have an opinion about the script. A professional talent knows how to convey an upsetting ‘problem’ and make the transition to the solution by the end of the copy. Depending on the script, a professional voice talent may use empathy, relating to the audience rather than ‘selling’ which turns off most listeners nowadays.
Get Out of the Way
Voiceover is often a support service. Voice actors need to know when to turn it up and turn it down. Unless it’s a video game or animation, voice talent are not the ‘star’ of the project. Too much voice-acting or an over-the-top performance, especially by a novice or an untrained voice actor, can make the story sound cheesy, fake, and inauthentic. Not enough of a connection can sound boring and disengaged. A trained narrator supports the story, knows how to work with the storyboard without taking over and making it all about them. Voiceover and video services work together to support and tell the story, but don’t take over the storytelling. The meaning or message of the story is always paramount.
Yeah, but Voiceover costs Money…
Yes, it does. So does any professional service. If you don’t have a budget, that’s okay. Do what you can and go for it. Maybe you don’t even need professional services depending on your goals and needs. But if you do need talent, know that in most cases, you are paying for years of experience, equipment, and continuous training to maintain professional quality production. You definitely want to vet talent, make sure they have samples on their website that you can listen to. Many professional talent will offer a free sample audition with a portion of the script after an agreed-upon budget.
The Choice is Yours
Hopefully, the above blog has given you a better idea of why and when you should use a professional VoiceOver artist for video as opposed to doing it yourself.
The main things to consider are… What’s my story? Will a professional voice talent enhance the storytelling? Whom do I want to engage with my story?
If it’s just for regular social media posts and you are the brand you probably don’t need to invest in professional talent.
Ask yourself, am I communicating in an engaging manner?
Death to communication is sounding like you’re reading, so you want to avoid that at all costs. Being informed about these VoiceOver considerations can make the difference between a mediocre production and a great one!
Nancy Kaszerman is a professional voice talent for more than 10 years and is located in NYC.
Please feel free to comment, ask a question and connect on social media.
Nancy Kaszerman is a VoiceOver artist and lives in New York City.