Directing the Actor

As an author, you’re probably used to working with editors, proofreaders, and cover designers. But when you put on your audiobook publisher hat for ACX, you’ll meet a new type of creative person: the actor. To ensure you cast the right actor and can effectively direct them on your audiobook’s needs, you need to know how to communicate. Read on for our expert advice on the subject and helpful forms you can use to guide your actor to a great performance.

Casting the Actor

Casting the right actor is the important first step towards getting the best performance. ACX features a wide range of talented actors,  and you’ll want to narrow that list down to those with the specific vocal attributes you’re looking for in your audiobook. During the title profile creation process, you’ll come to an area with the following options:

Describe

 

This is where you’ll set the overall tone of the narration. If the book is set in England, or the main character has a heavy Spanish accent, now’s your chance to note such details. You should also begin thinking about the more specific aspects of who your characters are, and how that plays into their personalities. You can include some of this information in the “Additional Comments” field of your title profile.

Directing the Actor

Any actor worth their salt wants to produce the best audiobook they can, providing their best performance while honoring the material and the vision of its creator. As a rights holder, you can help him or her achieve this goal by providing detailed notes on the characters.

How can you help your narrator get the characters and tone right? Start by thinking back to when you were writing the book. Dig deep into your characters’ origins, histories, and motivations. Try to answer some of the following questions to get a sense of who your characters are:

  • Where do they come from?
  • How were they raised?
  • How do they act when happy/sad?
  • How do they react to adversity?
  • Are they book smart or street smart? Perhaps neither?
  • Are they generally upbeat or pessimistic?
  • What motivates them to take make the decisions they make throughout the book?

Thinking about these things and communicating them to your actor will not only help ensure you get a great read, but will help you better understand your own writing and characters! Also, make sure to think about any tricky pronunciations, either place names, names of people, or made up words or names from a conlang (we’re looking at you, Sci-Fi/Fantasy authors).

A Good Example

Check out these character descriptions from a recent Audible Studios production:

The romantic leads: 



  • Jessica: She has a slight southern accent – nothing over the top. If we don’t have a soft southern lilt, then a soft, clean, alto voice. She’s a teenager and should sound like one.
  • Kayne: Slight Scottish brogue. Sexy. He’s the lead male in this book.
  • Sonyaza, The Mephilum King (aka The Bad Guy): Strong, deep, dark, old voice; he’s been around for a while (20,000+ years).

Supporting characters: 



  • James: British. steady. He’s one of the crew’s moral compasses, so a moral-sounding voice.
  • Norris: His voice is a superpower, so it needs to be very resonant; the kind of voice that can command people. Preferably a deep voice.
  • Mary-Beth: Neutral young woman, maybe with slight ‘valley girl’ undertones. She’s a fun person.
  • Eden: Smug, sensual, earthy.

Use this handy Audio Information Form to provide your actor with the information they’ll need to succeed.

The 15 Minute Checkpoint

The 15 Minute Checkpoint sets the baseline for the recording and performance quality you need. We’ve covered reviewing your audio for technical issues previously, so now we’ll delve into tweaking an actor’s performance.

When it comes to guiding or correcting your actor’s performance, remember two key points about your collaborator: he or she is an adult, and he or she is a professional. And like any adult professional, he or she should be able to handle constructive criticism when given respectfully and directly. Keep the following tips in mind when communicating your needs to your actor:

  • Be clear and confident in your vision. You’re going for respectfully direct, not wishy-washy.
  • Use a well known actor to guide your examples. “This character should be charming and romantic, like James Marsden.”
  • If your character is based on a friend or colleague, describe that person.
  • If you can’t describe what you want, try describing what you don’t want.

The Final Audio

If you’ve followed the advice above, you should reach the final audio review stage with very few, if any, notes on character voices and scene tone. Make sure to plan time to review your final audio, and if you have notes, communicate them expeditiously to your producer. It will only become more difficult for them to re-immerse themselves in the world you’ve created as time marches on and they move on to other projects.

Be sure to make reasonable and specific notes. Requesting a complete change to a character voice you approved in the 15 Minute Checkpoint is probably not a reasonable expectation at the final audio stage, but it’s OK to ask for tweaks to a key scene or a few lines of dialogue over the course of a book. You can make things easier for yourself and your actors by making use of the Audible Studios audio review form, found here.

Remember, an audiobook production is a collaboration between two creative parties. Setting up your partner for success will help ensure that you have a productive creative relationship that results in a great sounding audiobook.

Producers: What kind of direction do you find the most helpful? Tell us in the comments!

 

14 responses to “Directing the Actor

  1. There are a number of different websites that give variations on pronunciations for words and/or phrases.
    I have had some instances where I have used one site for such matters, and the author prefers another with a slightly different infection, accent, etc..
    I certainly have no objection to this. It is the author’s prerogative. But, I suggest that authors include – in advance of production – a list of preferred sites for such matters (if they have any in in mind in particular). The alternative is to let the producer (actor) know that they are at liberty to choose.
    As to “special” author created names – places, etc. – particularly in fiction, and more specifically in science fiction and fantasy – I suggest that authors provide a glossary or even a phonetic/syllabic breakdown where necessary within the manuscript. It would save a lot of time when things grind to a halt in the production.
    Hope all this helps and is not redundant…

  2. Close. Once the first 15 is done the author should not be giving ANY direction. The author is an author, not a director. I doubt the author would appreciate “notes” from the narrator offering places where the author should “make tweaks to a key scene or a few lines of dialogue.”

    • Respectfully – unless perhaps the author has been a professional film producer and director, BFA and masters in film, worked in L.A. for 6 years, SAG/AFTRA actor? Yes I will provide direction, but I know how to do it. Been working successfully with talent for 30 years. ALL professional talent takes direction fro someone qualified to do so. 🙂

  3. I believe a more helpful suggestion for authors is to make sure that the 15 minute sample they choose includes dialogue between key characters. If the nuance or accent that the author has asked for – PRIOR to this sample – is not to his liking, he should move on to another narrator. “Tweaking an actor’s performance” should be limited to correcting errors. Demanding changes in line readings is a slippery slope, just as a writer would not welcome a narrator’s changes to his text. This should be a collaborative process in which mutual respect is maintained.

  4. James O. Theall

    Good post! I’ve tried to do this, and while maybe my methods were not as intricate as described in this post, I think I have accomplished most of the points. I have critiqued (only at the actor’s request) auditions that I have rejected, and basically I think I have a good raport with the actors! I’ve had some good productions ( http://www.jamesorytheall.com ) and I am anxious to market the one currently in production by Dermot Daly of the U.K. Such great fun!

    James Ory Theall, author

    (303 651 7836

    Email: jot2321@centurylink.net

    http://www.jamesorytheall.com

  5. Perfectly outlined and explained

  6. Here are some comments from real ACX producers regarding this blog post:
    “the author is not a director. I’m disturbed by the tone of this piece.”
    “Writers directing Producers?!? What is this, Bizzaro Hollywood?”
    ” if they let the author direct every time one of their titles are made into a movie, then they ought to be able to direct the audiobook production, too, right? ”
    “Probably not the best idea for a blog post. Some good points in there, but I can totally see some RH’s getting carried away with being a “director”.
    These comments are cut/paste from the ACX Narrators and Producers Facebook page. Join here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/140624362803564/252681484931184/?notif_t=group_activity

  7. Greetings! The article offers good advice with regard to casting the narrator and summarizing character descriptions.

    I would appreciate having audition scripts that supplied those kinds of descriptions along with a scene featuring the 2-4 main characters. The rights holder should be able to determine from the audition whether the narrator is the right person for the book.

    Having made the casting decision, the rights holder should listen carefully to the 15-minute sample to be sure that the narrator understands the plot and subtext necessary to achieve the author’s vision for the book. Once that 15-minute sample is approved, the rights holder should step back from the process and allow the narrator to do his or her job.

    To an actor, the word DIRECT implies that a person who is trained and experienced in the presentation aspects of the art form will guide the actor in determining how to play scenes, choosing character voices, and even saying lines a certain way.

    I agree with all of the comments above from Anne Hancock and Jeffrey Kafer and add:

    *** If a rights holder wants to DIRECT my performance, s/he better be prepared to pay a lot more money up front for the production. ***

    Audiobook narration is inherently a performance art where the actor INTERPRETS the words of the author. No matter how perfectly cast the narrator is for the material, the author will always detect differences in interpretation. My choice may be and often is different than the author’s based on my interpretation.

    The author/rights holder should accept differences in creative choices rather than asking the narrator to make adjustments that align with the way the author “heard it in their head”. In fact, many authors are astounded and delighted to hear meaning and sub-text in their audiobooks that they never realized were in the text. The narration truly adds complexity and meaning to the work.

    I actually work with a director, but many narrators don’t have that luxury. Still, an experienced narrator is also experienced in self-direction. An author/rights holder will never know how many times narrator re-worked a character or scene by the time the narrator finishes the production.

    Corrections, therefore, should be limited to technical corrections such as glaring mispronunciations, problems with the audio file, etc.

    If the rights holder does have some of those kinds of corrections, the Audible QC form is a useful tool due to its specificity. Any requested corrections need to be identified by the chapter, time, and sentence in order to reduce the time required to re-record, re-edit, and re-upload the audio.

    Thanks for the article and the opportunity to offer a contrasting viewpoint.

    Cordially,
    Karen Commins
    My ACX profile: https://www.acx.com/narrator?p=AIU2I7DKF1YUP

  8. I very respect the writer and the worlds they create, but I hope Rights Holders understand that even a fabulous writer who lacks sufficient directing experience does not equal an effective booth director. While having a strong booth director can be an asset, especially on a marathon narration production, having an author who is inexperienced at directing a pro narrator/producer can be a recipe for disaster for the project – and no one wants that. Directing is a highly specialized skill that needs a lot of experience and training to pull off successfully – just as do the writing and acting crafts.

    Rights Holders can inadvertently create a lot of confusion for their narrator/producer by misusing acting/directing terminology, or trying to give line readings when they themselves are not actors (a lot of authors don’t realize that even directors don’t typically do that to actors).

    I think author input is vital, but that’s not the same thing as “directing” the actor. I believe in collaborating with an author during the audiobook process by asking a lot of questions about the characters and story before we begin in order to eradicate any question marks that simply reading the story wouldn’t answer. Oftentimes, I give the Rights Holder some interesting narration options from which to choose – options they didn’t even know or visualize themselves that they end up loving.

    To put it plainly, I’m a SAG-AFTRA member with a masters degree in acting, am a trained director, plus I have experience producing feature films as well as audiobooks. I’ve directed talent in booth, on stage, and in film (including Dakota Fanning), I am member of the story analyst guild in Hollywood, and I’m a published author myself, so I understand how to analyze and breakdown a story and characters in order to put them back together again during performance. If an author has my resume plus my 5 star narration reviews, then I’d happily take acting direction from them on top of all the other collaborative processes.

    All that said, I’m always happy to work cooperatively with the Rights Holder because I believe we’re a team, each with our specific jobs to do on the project.

    Best,
    Marie Rose
    Narrator/Producer
    http://www.chamberlainroseproductions.com
    ACX profile: https://www.acx.com/narrator?p=A2II80831ROU9Y#elementId=aboutTabItem&tabDivId=aboutTabContent

  9. Some well thought out arguments here. If you are working directly with authors (and I usually LOVE doing this because they pay a lot of attention to what you put into it), please remember that this is their baby. If a voice actor gave me dialogue or an accent that was not what I (as an author) had envisioned, I would suggest that it be more like….(fill in the blank). I don’t have any problem with that. Authors hear these characters in their heads. Of course, sometimes a voice actor can bring something new and fresh to the table that perhaps the author had not heard before. I have actually argued my point (nicely, tactfully) with an author about why I chose to make a certain character sound the way I did and cite examples in the script to back me up. The author agreed and we left the character the way she was.

    That said, if an author could please, please offer pronunciations up front and a brief description of at least main characters, this is most helpful. Sometimes the first 15 minutes is a prologue and is all narrative and exposition with little dialogue, so again, I want an author to tell me if her characters in Chapter 1 or Chapter 2 need some “tweaking.” After that, if I don’t have a character description, it’s up to me as to how to portray each person.

    One more thought: I hate to do it, but I now need to ask my authors to provide me with a typo-free manuscript. I recently narrated a book that had hundreds of typos, some poor grammar choices and other corrections that I had to take a LOT of time fixing. Aren’t these books in print? Who is editing them? I don’t narrate self-published books exactly for that reason, but I’m finding even books from publishers are often filled with mistakes. I would charge extra for this, but it’s not always possible if you’re doing royalty share. I’d like to know what others do when they encounter lots of mistakes in the text. I’ll just end by saying–“Best job ever!”

    • Robin, don’t tar all self-publishers with the same brush. Many of our books are better-produced than trad pub books. I challenge you to find a typo in one of mine.

      • Hi Lexi,
        And of course, I’m not saying all self-published books are mistake-riddled; it’s simply more likely that they may not be paying a copy editor. My last audio book was self-published and I may have seen 2 tiny typos in a 300-some page manuscript. So my comment really was how narrators should deal with manuscripts that have many mistakes, no matter who they are from.

    • Fantastic, thank you Robin!

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