Don’t phone it in.

I’m going to talk about voice overs first. Then I’m going to talk about student portfolios. Walk with me.

I just listened to about 190 voice over auditions. That’s not an exaggeration. It’s not the most glamorous part of being a creative. But it is necessary.

Here’s the thing: voice over auditions have grown much sloppier over the years. Here are some major glitches I heard in this last round of 190:

  • Echo in the room.
  • Talent flubs a line and doesn’t bother to re-record.
  • I can tell the talent has a cheap mic.
  • I can tell the talent is recording with their iPhone.
  • Volume is mixed way too low.
  • Volume is mixed way too high.
  • Talent didn’t read the casting specs I wrote (e.g., an energetic 20-year-old guy auditioning for the role of a laid-back 50-year-old.) 
  • I hear the mic stand wiggling in the background.
  • Sounds like talent was on a plane. Maybe it was just someone vacuuming in the background.

There’s one reason why voice over auditions have grown sloppier: technology. Mics are less expensive. Garageband. Apps. It’s easier to set up a home studio. It used to be VO talent would go into a professional studio and record their takes where nothing was left to chance. I’m all for home studios and convenience. But not when it allows you to be lazy.

If the talent’s voice is exceptional, I can overlook poor quality. It’s just an audition, after all. But if there’s even a question (and with 190 voices to choose from, there always is), I go with quality. Because quality shows me that the talent cares. They care about their career, this particular opportunity, their craft, and my script.

Now, here’s how this applies to student portfolios: technology can make you lazy, too.

Art directors can search Getty Images and plug in cheap stock. Copywriters can use a Microsoft Word thesaurus. Creative teams can use nicely designed printouts and Keynote presentations to sell an okay idea without really pushing it as far as it can go conceptually.

Whether you’re a student trying to get your portfolio on a creative director’s desk or a creative director trying to win a pitch, quality and craft can be the difference between a win and a loss. As Sally Hogshead says, “The difference between an A- book and an A+ book is all the difference in the world.”

This is your career we’re talking about. Don’t phone it in.

How to Choose An Actor

When you’re shooting a TV spot, you’ll see about 50 people audition for every role you’ve written. Typically, you’ll watch all of these online, and you, your partner and the director will mark the ones you like best. These actors (maybe a third of the people you originally saw) will come in for callbacks, which you’ll usually attend in person. Actor after actor will come into a small room with a camera and act out the scene for you.
I’m shooting with a director who’s very good with actors and dialogue, and I’ve learned a few things from him in callbacks that are great guidelines for choosing actors:
  1. Watch their eyes. Their eyes will give away whether or not they believe in their character and the scene. That sounds very ethereal, but when you’re watching 50 different actors audition for one role, just watch the eyes and it will become apparent who’s into it.
  2. In dialogue, watch the person who isn’t speaking. It’s easy to look at the person who’s reciting the lines you or your partner wrote. But if you look at the actor who’s supposed to be listening, you can tell if they’re invested in the other character or not.
  3. Good actors support their co-actors, bad actors automatically shift into competition. We were auditioning for the role of a father and a son building something together. The son was supposed to say, “You’re going to need a new crosscut saw.” When they start adlibbing, the best actors would simply smile and respond, “Yep. You’re right.” The bad actors would say, “There’s nothing wrong with that saw!” And then the sons would reply, “Come on, Dad! This thing’s been around since the Jefferson administration!” And then the Dad would say, “Ah, you kids don’t know quality when you see it.” Bad actors are looking to stand out, and pitting themselves against any other actor in the room is the easiest way to do that.
This isn’t the kind of thing you’ll learn in portfolio school. So tuck this away and use it when you start casting actors.


Remember, watch the eyes…

And remember, bad actors avoid competition…