The Agony and Ecstasy of Directing Yourself for Audiobooks
Directing yourself for audiobooks is a unique challenge. But then narrating audiobooks well is a unique voice acting challenge. It’s hard enough to narrate well. But direct yourself at the same time? Well, it turns out that directing yourself is possible because of an essential characteristic that all top voice actors possess.
How ‘easy’ are you to direct?
One of the measures of a voice actor’s reputation is how easy or difficult you are to work with. In fact this is true for all performing artists. You can probably all think of at least one Hollywood star who is famously difficult. There are also well-known stories of actors who are consistently popular on set because they are a breeze to be around. Beyond super-size trailer demands and personal hair stylists though, what actually causes others to label an actor easy or difficult? One measure is how easy they are to direct.
If the concept of being directed is at all mysterious to you, allow me to briefly elaborate. The director of, say, a film or a play is the person responsible for co-ordinating the creative talent on the project and ensuring they are all working together to realise the artistic objectives of the piece. This is an enormously intense undertaking, especially on a large production and the aforementioned creative talent can very easily help or hinder the process. Assuming the director is competent and amenable an actor can help them by being easy to direct.
Work smart and listen!
Speaking from my own experience, being easy to direct involves simple things like learning your lines and turning up on time. It also involves subtle things like listening and understanding what the director is trying to achieve and making helpful contributions based on your own talent and experience. You can also make everyone’s life easier by being professional i.e. not complaining when you have to jump into the water tank at Pinewood Studios for the 47th time that morning because they haven’t got enough satisfactory shots of you acting as though you’re drowning in a drug induced fantasy.
In short, being easy to work with means working hard, working smart and not being a pain in the butt. It doesn’t always come naturally to everyone but that’s part of what three years at drama school is for. You learn that your relationship with your director is something vital and sacred. It is in fact a key component of working successfully and regularly as an actor. This fact is true for stage actors, film actors and voice over artists.
What happens when you are both the voice actor AND the director?
It’s one thing to work well with a director but what if there isn’t one? As a remote recording narrator directing yourself for audiobooks is a far from simple process but usually required. That’s right, a home-studio audiobook production will almost always require the narrator to also act as director!
So, while you’re attempting to narrate a 400-page book with energy and wit and precision you must also be simultaneously paying attention to:
- The focus and quality of your reading. Will the audience believe you?
- The consistency of your character voices. Do they seem like actual people talking? Are any of the voices so similar they might confuse the audience?
- The pace of your read. Audiobooks can’t be too fast or too slow. But the pace should reflect and reinforce the emotions present in the chapter.
- Are you making any extraneous noise that will require a punch-and-roll edit? E.g. shirt sleeves rustling, sticky mouth, squeaky chair.
- Is the outside world making any extraneous noises that will require an edit or a pause in proceedings? E.g. a passing helicopter, next door’s lawnmower, your children having a spontaneous game of wall-ball against the side of your studio.
- Has trying to be mindful of all the above caused you to tense up, hold your breath and feel light-headed?
All of this must be attempted with no additional support at the point of recording. That means no feedback at least until your precious and dearly appreciated proofer gets hold of your work!
It’s a tough gig but worth it when it works
There’s no doubting that directing yourself for audiobooks is very hard to do well. On a day when you can’t get your head right, trying to avoid a monotonous and unengaging performance is agony. It can be so frustrating and draining as you search elusively for that flow of energy that will allow you to speak truthfully and powerfully to your audience.
Then again, on some days it works. Some days, you become Neo seeing The Matrix for the first time. Everything makes sense. The stars align and carrying out a conversation between six characters by yourself is not only easy it’s fun! There’s no work quite like directing yourself to paint a huge story onto the canvas of someone’s mind as they listen. It’s the purest form of storytelling.
Yes, it’s hard to do by yourself. But if you pay attention to what you’re trying to say, get your head right into the present moment and, most important of all, remember to breathe. Then when you’re directing yourself for audiobooks you can make magic for your audience, whoever they are. Finding that flow is ecstasy!