Illustration by Creative Unit.
You know their voices. You hear them almost every day. But chances are if you don’t mix in media circles, you probably would not recognise a Pakistani voiceover artist or ‘voice actor’ (VA) if you met one face-to-face. Actually, there is a lot you don’t know about VAs and their craft. And the little you do know is probably a misconception. So, what is it really like to be a VA in Pakistan? What does it take? What does it pay? Where is the profession heading?
Despite being on the creative side of the advertising business my interaction with VAs is much less than one would expect. I usually meet them at the studio, right before or at the time of the recording for a quick chat and a briefing. We typically work together for an hour or so and after we get the best takes, it’s sayonara until the next session. However, I know them well enough to know that good VAs are like superheroes. There are only a handful of them and they have these extraordinary powers few others possess. They are only called in when there is a job to do and all the action happens behind closed doors in sound-proofed vocal booths. They swoop in, kick ass and disappear, much like Batman himself. But just like the Dark Knight, it takes a lot more than a husky voice to get the job done. You need talent... oodles of talent.
Good voiceover artists are like superheroes. There are only a handful of them and they have these extraordinary powers few others possess. They swoop in, kick ass and disappear, much like Batman himself. But just like the Dark Knight, it takes a lot more than a husky voice to get the job done. You need talent... oodles of talent.
So how does one learn to become a VA? Well, unfortunately in Pakistan, there are not many institutions you can go to for such training. Most of the VAs I know are self-taught and originally had plans to become doctors or filmmakers (they either have or still plan to) but stumbled into this field by accident, usually through friends on the production side. They came in as one-off replacements or by recommendation, lent their voice to a commercial or documentary and collected a nominal fee for their service. Some never returned to the recording booth. Others received encouragement and chose to refine their talent, pursuing voice acting as a full-time career.
The road to becoming a professional VA is not an easy one. People who assume that anyone with a decent voice can be a great VA are wrong; voice acting is a performance art. It takes discipline, control, technique and an exceptional command of language, grammar and phonetics. It also takes a lot of imagination and a solid understanding of different types of audiences. I cannot tell you how much time I have wasted in studios dealing with amateur VAs, not because their voices were not good, but because they lacked the basic understanding of intonation, timing and expression. They had the voice but no idea how to use it. A good VA, on the other hand, absorbs the script, embraces its context and uses his or her voice like an instrument to deliver a performance – addressing their audience in exactly the way they would want to be. It’s not just about delivering the message clearly. It’s about the little nuances, the emotion, expression and distinct characterisation that must come together to create a convincing and compelling VA. The tone of voice is just the tip of the iceberg.
The road to becoming a professional VA is not an easy one. People who assume that anyone with a decent voice can be a great VA are wrong; voice acting is a performance art.
But what is it all worth? Is voice acting a profession that one can make a living from? How much are good voice actors paid? Well, it depends.
A voiceover for a 30-second commercial is very different from dubbing a Turkish drama or a local animated feature film. Surprisingly, you would think the latter two would pay much more but you would be wrong. Often, even the most popular dramas and films are dubbed by fresh talent with limited experience, some of whom are paid as little as Rs 2,000 per session, or worse, nothing at all. In comparison, the average commercial voiceover for even a mid-sized brand can pay anywhere from Rs 8,000 up to Rs 15,000 per session, depending on the level of work involved. And this is where you will normally find the big guns. Whereas the revival of feature films is a very positive initiative for our industry, their contribution to the world of voice acting is fairly insignificant.
Commercial work, on the other hand, offers professional artists a regular source of work and very respectable pay. If a client prefers to work with a particular artist, that is when one can rack up some serious cash. On average, popular VAs can record up to five or six voiceovers a day, which adds up to a pretty sweet amount at the end of the month. Some artists who once struggled in this line of work years ago, today own their own high-end studios and regularly vacation in Thailand, Europe and the US with their families. It just goes to show, if you have got what it takes, you can make a very respectable living in this line of work.
This said, the pool of truly talented VAs remains relatively small, with only a few distinct voices dominating the airwaves. This reinforces my earlier point that voice acting is not as easy as people think it is – and from what I can tell, successful Pakistani VAs would not have it any other way. Once you are in demand, you get to work with whoever you want, whenever you want and for as much or as little as you want. There are no fixed timings, no binding contracts and no limitations. Get in, get out and get paid... on your terms. Sure, it might not warrant the same level of recognition, glitz and glamour enjoyed by actors and models, but you do get to enjoy the perks of being in show business minus many of the hassles.
At the end of the day, voice acting is probably one of the most underrated and misunderstood professions in the industry. Everyone with a decent voice thinks they can do the job because they seldom ever see the amount of time, effort and patience that goes into becoming a professional VA. At the same time, although the demand is high, quality supply remains low, mainly because VAs have big shoes to fill (much bigger than what most people believe). And although they generally remain out of the limelight, their level of talent and contribution to the industry is no less than that of their counterparts who regularly bathe in it. Sure, we all have a voice but few of us can use it to tell stories, lead change, sell dreams and open minds. After all, if voice acting was that easy, wouldn’t we all be making a pretty penny doing it? Like I said, it is not just about the voice. It is about being a professional first and an artist second – one that is always ready to walk the walk and talk the talk.
Taimur Tajik is Creative Director, Manhattan International.