Most people have one friend from their childhood who blew the bell
curve out of the water. In my circle of high school friends this was
no easy feat; most of my friends were artistic brainiacs all vying for
the role of valedictorian at graduation. (There is no easy explanation
for my inclusion in such a group -- kindness? Diversity? My inability
to take a hint?)
One of these friends, Brian Fairlee, stands out. Not only did he do pretty much everything he did well, but he did it big, too. Most of us were band geeks, but Brian was the drum major. Most of us were creative, but Brian had been writing, filming, casting, voicing and editing his own movies since junior high, learning it by doing it. If something interesting was happening, Brian was probably at the center of it.
It figured that he would have an interesting life after high school. He went to USC and graduated from its prestigious film school. He was a DJ for a campus radio station. And he started a career in the entertainment business.
But Brian's career is not in front of the camera, and not exactly behind it, either: Brian is a voiceover specialist.
You have heard Brian and you didn't even know it – maybe even yesterday. I hear his voice fairly often on television, because Brian's specialty is voicing commercials promoting upcoming movies and DVDs. (Brian voiced a radio public service announcement for me this past spring, which I posted here. I sent him the script and within about half an hour he sent me the audio track – no directing needed; he just nailed it the first time. It's nice to work with a pro.)
I posed a list of questions to Brian, which he was kind enough to answer for me.
FOOLERY: Can you describe, better than I can, what a voiceover artist does?
BRIAN: Luckily for me, it isn't too hard to actually do voiceover once you're lucky enough to get the chance to do it. I always say that anyone who can read aloud, which we've all done since grade school, can essentially be a voiceover artist. You just need about a hundred other things to fall into place.
Basically, for each job, I'm handed
a script, escorted into an isolated recording booth, asked if I want
any water or anything at all, and when they tell me to, I read the
"copy" [meaning script] into
a microphone, and moments later the director or producer of the spot
I've been hired to read repeatedly tells me why I'm reading it wrong.
The engineer records each "take" and I walk out feeling like I've
pulled the wool over everyone. Somehow after I leave, the words are
edited into the spot and magically sent to TVs around the world. I'm
sure I've left out a few steps. Maybe about a hundred.
FOOLERY: How did you get into the voiceover business?
BRIAN: Believe it or not, I was born certified 100% USDA Grade-A Ham.
The youngest of three kids, I was constantly trying to get attention. Soon I was singing, acting, and basically making noise constantly. “Look At Me” was my motto. I was always fond of talking into microphones, as is evident in a recording circa 1972 where I pretended to host "The Price Is Right" from my sickbed, playing Bob Barker, Johnny Olson, the contestants and the audience simultaneously.
After I grew up and graduated college, I ended up working for an advertising agency that specialized in movie ads. There I worked my way up through the ranks until I was cutting trailers and TV spots as an editor. By the time I started editing spots, I had already been "scratching" other people's rough cuts for timing. A "scratch" is the term used for a temporary voiceover (VO). Of course I always read my own rough cuts because I knew exactly how I wanted them read and could re-read them as needed. Once the spots would go to finish (for air or theatrical release) my voice would get replaced with a professional voice from the Screen Actor's Guild (SAG). During that time, several people who heard my reads suggested I try to get an agent. But I was too busy to look into it.
Years later, I finally got the opportunity to join SAG, acquire an agent, start reading for real and actually finish on spots.
FOOLERY: Did you have special voice coaching, or did you learn by trial and error?
BRIAN: I never took classes, though I was always told I should. Rather, I preferred on-the-job training. My "voice coaches" were the big stars of voiceover who would come in and read for our spots. Don La Fontaine, Andy Gellar, Chuck Rielly, Mark Elliot, Philip Clark, John Leader, Ashton Smith, and so many others inadvertently taught me how to read for movie ads because I heard them every day, directed their sessions, and edited their reads into my own spots.
I have always considered myself a mimic, so basically the character I become when I read is an amalgam of all my favorite voiceover artists. Of course it varies based on the genre of the movie being marketed. Believe it or not you can say "In a world" many different ways.
I believe that being an editor taught me how to read properly as well. I've heard many times from other editors how my reads always seem to flow just right. They tell me when they are asked to replace me with another VO, it often screws up the pace of the spot. When it comes to movie copy, I guess I've told these "stories" so many times through narration and editing, that the "language" is second nature. Like my website slogan says, "Same Old Words. Brand New Voice."
FOOLERY: What are some of the memorable voicing jobs you've done?
BRIAN: I had to read for Disney-On-Ice several times and each time, the client wanted me to read the copy with more energy. By the end of the takes I was screaming the words. They STILL wanted more energy. I finally said, "If I read this with any more energy, I will turn inside out."
I was the voice on commercials for
"Disney's Little Einsteins" DVDs for some time and went into a session
where there were some little kids hanging out with their parents. When
they heard me reading, their eyes lit up in recognition. "It's the
Little Einsteins guy," one of them said as I left. That was my rock
Another time, I was hired to read based on my sample reel. After the first take, I heard the director sigh heavily. This wasn't a good sign. Later, she told my agent she didn't want to pay for the session because I didn't sound like me. To this day, I'm not sure how that's even possible.
The most fun I recall having was reading for "MADtv" a couple of seasons ago. I called myself the poor man's Don Pardo [a career Announcer Guy best known as the announcer for “Saturday Night Live”]. I read the cast names at the beginning and various bumpers for each commercial break. Sometimes they would have me read VO for a sketch. The best one was a "Dreamgirls" spoof.
I've also read on the road during vacations, which can be quite memorable. I've read in Washington D.C., Orlando, and Mammoth. These days, if you carry just a little bit of gear, you can read from virtually anywhere and email an audio file to your client.
FOOLERY: Cranky customers cause headaches for retail clerks; hurricanes cause migraines for phone repair guys. What stuff brings out the Excedrin in your line of work?
BRIAN: Making me read over and over and over when the first couple of takes work fine is highly annoying, but because the pay is good, I'll read as long as it takes and feel pretty lucky to have the opportunity to do so.
FOOLERY: Your job, working in the film and television business, probably sounds glamorous to most people. What are the perks?
BRIAN: Lots of free water. Sometimes they pay for parking. But seriously, some people are overly effusive about the "work,” which feels odd to me. I still maintain that it's just reading. Everyone who's been to school can do it.
Recently, I have established a relationship with a film director who sent me swag (promotional goodies from his movie) and invited me to the premiere. That is highly out of the ordinary and lots of fun for me.
FOOLERY: Are you taking your career in new directions?
BRIAN: I'd love to be in control of my own destiny, but frankly, I take what opportunities come my way. Right now, I am being utilized by Nickelodeon for movies that they are producing with Dreamworks like "Kung Fu Panda," "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa," and "Hotel For Dogs." My mother-in-law thinks there's a lot to be made in the on-hold telephone sector. As goofy as I thought this was, I was actually tapped to do such a thing. It happened to be for a production company and I was basically narrating TV show promos, but if you call (818) 728-7600 you can ask to be put on hold and hear the work I did for that.
But I am most happy reading movie
commercials. The pay scale is the best and the work is the least
taxing. As they say, "It's nice work if you can get it."
Unfortunately most of the time that's a big IF. That's why I still
edit. (Kept my day job.)
FOOLERY: By the way, next time you ask me to be in one of your homegrown movies, would you please tell me ahead of time if YOU will be dubbing your voice in over mine? I wouldn't dress so butch next time. I swear I came off like John Lithgow.
BRIAN: Ah yes, you did appear in the 1982 cult classic "Blood of E. Ville," didn't you? And yes, I performed about 18 voices in that post production attempt at a soundtrack. My friend Sam Shult and I had no sound recording capability while shooting, so we recreated everything "live" and recorded it to audio cassette while watching the edited movie. It was a similar process to foley and ADR for feature films [Automated Dialogue Replacement, a form of dubbing], only pathetically executed and the results were staggeringly bad. For some reason, I remember it wasn't possible to assemble the entire cast (scheduling, space, patience), so we did the next best thing which was to read all the parts ourselves while playing records and throwing things around the room to make sound effects. Those were the days.
If you want to hear some of Brian's
voiceover samples – there are plenty you'll recognize – visit his web
site, brianfairlee.com. Many thanks to my friend for taking the time to share his world with us.