Originally posted at pixelsandpins.com/theguide.
Not every director casts the same for every project. In-studio casting is different than remote casting. AAA is different than indie. In an ideal world, you’ll bring in a special casting director. This person has the experience to know what needs to happen when and make sure you get the best actors for the job. Maybe you can’t, though, for whatever reason. Budget or time or access restrictions. You just want to see if you can do it on your own, to add the skill to your repertoire.
If that’s the situation, there are some basic things you can do to make it easier on yourself and the actors auditioning for your project.
Find Some References
I showed you the anatomy of a casting call, so we’ll start with the part of the casting call that provides character and voice descriptions.
As a casting director, it’s up to you to determine ahead of time your expectations for a voice. Unfortunately, that’s not something that’s easily learned from text. It comes from a combination of experience, instinct, and familiarity with the characters. Mostly experience. Even industry veterans can struggle with finding the perfect voice and the way to describe it.
Let’s pick a character. Any character you’re working with. To determine what kind of voice we want for this character, start with some reference points. Is this character modeled after a specific actor or pre-existing character? Do they conform to some archetype or trope? What are their characteristics?
This is my character Greg from my first visual novel Amaranth. He’s the magical version of an IT guy in the setting. Overall, he’s generally pretty level-headed, kind, nerdy, and a bit awkward, but overall pretty personable.
So, what are some characters from media that he’s a bit like?
Part of my list was:
Howard Moon-The Mighty Boosh
Maurice Moss-The IT Crowd
Martin Freeman in just….anything.
That prototypical “guy from the lab” in every crime show in existence. The one who’s an expert in something really specific like ropes or bugs or flightless birds of the upper midwest
You’ll note, I picked out characters from a variety of different genre and media. This is because you approach acting differently depending on what you’re acting in. You want to focus your research on things that flow within most of same style parameters as your own project, but feeding in some diversity will give you a wider range of ideas to play with.
Once we’ve gathered up some reference points, we can usually find some crossover between them. This’ll help us determine what some core aspects of a voice for this character are and distil it into something we can use.
Speak the Language of Voice
You’ll typically see a few fundamental guidelines for describing a character’s voice crop up over and over:
Personality voice descriptors
Physical voice descriptors and vocal quirks
Specific acting and tonality notes
This combined with a general character description and concept art gives an actor a general idea of how to craft a voice.
A character’s age should, in theory, be some pretty basic knowledge. If you’ve got one of those goofy characters that looks a different age than they are, describe the age in the most appropriate way possible.
While you don’t have to give the exact number, a little bit of age specificity is generally going to give you better results than super broad age categories. “Adult” is fine, but a 20 year adult really does sound different than a 45 year old adult. This is especially true for teen and child characters. A 5 year old sounds way different from a 7 year old or a 10 year old. Teens from two different ends of the puberty spectrum have hugely different pitches and timbres. Compare a 13 year old and a 17 year old, and you can hear that difference.
Pitch is how high or low a voice is. It’s the frequency. It’s the note. In general terms, we interpret lower voices as masculine and higher voices as feminine with a smack of androgyny in the middle where those pitch ranges overlap (if we’re ignoring other gender defining vocal markers). How do we use this for character descriptors?
With a light touch.
While providing a pitch can be a useful baseline, it’s typically not nearly as beneficial as other more character-oriented descriptors. It functions best as more of a modifier to those descriptors. We tend to associate certain pitches with certain character traits, but you might need to clarify or distinguish between multiple interpretations of a characteristic. “XYZ but high-pitched.” “Lower than you would expect for XYZ.” “Gratingly high for comedic effect.”
Where pitch does become an essential tool, though, is when you’re trying to break the mold or in cases like monsters and aliens where your reference point could be anywhere. Looking at characters like Mikhail from Drakengard or Usui from Dramatical Murder shows the interesting effect that unexpected pitches can have. In a casting call for this kind of situation, you’d have to draw attention to pitch specifically.
Fortunately, this means you don’t actually have to include pitch in your character voice description if you don’t specifically need to. Don’t have a good ear for pitch? That’s fine. Lean on the personality description and let the actors help you figure it out with their interpretation of the character. This is a lot easier to work with than a dozen female characters that all say “high pitched voice.”
Personality Voice Descriptors
This is both the hardest and most important part of putting together a usable voice description and is pulled directly from the general character description you should, in theory, already be using.
You’re looking for words that can apply to both a voice and a personality so that we can provide a nice little comprehensive blurb that covers all our bases in one go. A character may be kind, but how does that kindness manifest in their voice? Are they the teacher that always stays after school to help? Are they a parental figure that gives you some tough love? Are they the neighbor that always lets you use their lawnmower? The librarian that always finds the right book for you? That guy that helped you get your car out of the snow? These are all different versions of “kindness” that may or may not come through in vocal qualities for a character. Stronger words for this purpose might be things like motherly, friendly, cordial, affectionate, warm, or gentle.
Now, “kind” is still a perfectly fine word to use. It has the ability to conjure up specific notions that can be applied to a voice and works just fine in conjunction with the rest of your character description. Putting literally just the word “kind,” won’t really help you, though. It’s also worth the little extra effort to scan a thesaurus or a list of personality traits in search of the most fitting adjective. As long as the voice-adjective-acting association is strong enough for you to “hear” the character in your head, your auditioning actors are going to be able to fill in the gaps.
Physical Voice Descriptors
You might not need this. Your character might not have anything worthy of note happening in the physical lay of their voice.
There’s a lot that can go on with a voice, though, that gives it an extra bit of character. A grizzled detective might have a raspy voice from years of smoking. A particularly cute little girl might have the slightest of lisps. Characters can have accents, vocal fry, or speech impediments. Chucky Finster wouldn’t be the same character without the perpetual congestion.
If at any point you’re unsure if this vocal quirk will work, you can always request in the audition for takes with and without it. Most actors in most scenarios can work around this as long as you’re upfront.
Specific Acting Notes
Again, this is the sort of thing that you might not even use for the character you’re trying to cast. Sometimes, though, you have the need to specify that a character uses a lot of upspeak or that they get quiet when they get mad as opposed to yelling.
Unless you have the experience to know for sure what you want in that regard, you’re likely better off letting an actor make those kinds of choices. You might be surprised at what comes out of it.
Bringing it All Together
So we have our character, we have references and examples to pull from for our character, and the qualities we want to focus on. Let’s look at a way to bring this all together.
Age and gender are easy enough, and we’ll come back to pitch. We start, then, with those tricky personality descriptors.
Of your references, pick a handful (3-7 depending on how much time they appear in your given media). Find clips. Listen to them. Really listen to them. Close your eyes if you have to. Without over-thinking, start writing down adjectives that come to mind. If you’re stuck, here are some things you can specifically listen for:
- Masculine versus feminine (regardless of gender)
- Loud versus quiet
- Soft versus abrasive
- Awkward vs charming/suave
- Mature vs childish
- Smart vs dumb
- Bookish vs ditzy
- Apathetic vs enthusiastic
- Cutesy AND creepy
Once you’ve got a dozen or so adjectives down, do the same with your other references. What you’ll soon come to find is that there will be a handful of adjectives that show up again and again. These will most likely be your core characteristics to refer to when describing the voice you want.
These were mine that I pulled together for the character Greg that I talked about before:
- high technical knowledge
- laid back
Looking at this list, I chose to lean into the laid-back, bookish, and friendly parts of his personality. I veered away from explicitly describing him as nerdy or geeky because I wanted to avoid the stereotypical “geeky voice” that sometimes we trap ourselves into. I chose to keep the “high technical knowledge” aspect of his character, but used the audition lines themselves to get that part of the character across (I talk a little bit about that in our “Anatomy of a Casting Call.”)
Greg didn’t have any other special vocal things about him, so this is what I ended up with.
Here you’ll see I gave about a 5-7 year range for his age to make it clear that he was creeping up into “real adult” territory. I included his overall energy level (mostly chill, but more intense when it’s about his job). I didn’t include, out-right, that he was laid-back or passive, but I attempted to imply it in the character description by talking about his relationship with his family’s prestige. These all taken together with the audition lines themselves, allowed the actor, Callum Janes, to draw up his interpretation of the character and eventually get cast.
This is what this character ended up sounding like.
I was very happy with this casting decision, and he did a great job.
For some more examples from the same game, this was the character description for the character Cora with her actor, Elissa Park.
Elissa nailed it, and I’ve since worked with her again on The D (Stands for Demon).
This is the character Amy and her actor Libby Moffet.
Libby is actually a little higher and slightly more feminine than I heard for Amy in my head, but the rest of her performance was so close to what I was thinking, I was okay with those slight changes. Sometimes that happens, and you have to roll with it.
Every time you cast, it gets a little easier. Once you get the hang of what words you can use to describe voice, you won’t need to go through a whole complicated list process. It’ll just come naturally to you. Maybe you’re already there, and it’s just a matter of filling in the rest of the cracks. You’ll also learn which adjectives work, which ones don’t, and how you can make them all work together. This technique may not even totally work for you, and you find another one along the way.
Experience is your key component.
In the next article, we’ll go into more details about how I typically handle the rest of the casting process.