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Behind the Scenes

Voice acting is a flexible job that allows actors to exercise their talent in many ways.

You don't need extravagant sets, a video camera or big budgets to act. Just ask Grant Gustin, who turns 17 Sunday. He's a junior at Granby High School and an acting student at the Governor's School for the Arts, both in Norfolk.

Since age 11, Grant has been professionally voice acting with a company called Studio Center, which recently moved from Norfolk to a locationin Virginia Beach near Lynnhaven Mall.

"Voice acting is fun because it's just a nice change to pretend you're someone else for a little while," Grant says.

Take a recent commercial he and a female voice actor did for a coffee/energy drink.

On the outside looking in, the pair recorded the piece in what looks like a small closet, but it's really a high-tech recording booth wherethe actors in their roles can come to life.

Grant, who played a college student, got to be on a caffeine high during the spot and enjoyed going all out and acting a bit crazy.

His entry into the business was far less manic.

When he was visiting his father, who worked for an FM radio station at the time, someone needed a kid to record a spot, so Grant did it for free, he says.

"The guy said I was really good, so he made me a demo tape of the commercial, and I got an audition at Studio Center."

Studio Center has 18 locations across the U.S., including Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Memphis, according to owner William Prettyman, who bought Studio Center in 2004 when its owner and founder, Warren Miller,retired after 38 years.

The company has a talent roster of about 550 voice actors. Out of that number, 30 to 40 are teens, eight to ten of whom live in Hampton Roads and can be viewed at www.studiocenter.com.

While voice acting may seem easy, every voice you hear takes time and practice before it sounds just right.

"It comes naturally now that I'm used to it, but that's probably because of the Governor's School" acting program, Grant says.

Dave Davis, a Studio Center production supervisor who records and monitors the actors' voices, says actors should be able to talk quickly and naturally.

When you hear those lines before and after a song in radio ads, they're perfected through one of several conventional processes, he says.

One is called cherry-picking, where an actor repeats a phrase a number of times in different ways and the company being advertised then picks the one it likes best.

A production supervisor, such as Davis, will then create one solid read without any imperfections.

When reading, a voice actor must pay attention to things like diction. Also, the more voices you can express the better. Grant's voice range extends from 8- to 21-year-old males, from acting like a kid who whines to his parents to playing a college student.

One of the great things about voice acting is that it's not what you look like that matters, Prettyman stresses, but what you sound like. Boys can talk for girls and girls can talk for boys as long as they sound the part. And in animation, you could play the part of absolutely anything from a revenge-seeking ant to a green love-struck ogre.

You might get to do something out of the ordinary like "scream and laugh like a crazy person," says Grant, something he had to do once for a Halloween spot.

Though you do not have to be the best physical actor to do voice acting, animation directors will usually film you while you read and then take your expressions and portray them in your character, or "match faces with voices," Davis says.

Studio Center has worked with well-known products and businesses such as Coca-Cola, M&M's, McDonald's and Subway. The company has also worked with well-known actors such as Morgan Freeman ("Bruce Almighty"), Isaac Hayes ("South Park"), and Pat Morita ("The Karate Kid"). The company offers free auditions for those interested in the field. Potential voice actors are allowed to listen to sample reads and auditions at the Company's web site.

But, Prettyman warns, it's not easy to break into the biz, and some acting experience is a must.

Don't give up, though, he says, if you don't get something the first time, because you may have to audition several times before landing apart.

The job can be a good one for students because the hours are flexible, Prettyman says. As one of Studio Center's regular teen talents, Grant may be called in one day for a job without even auditioning.

The pay can be good. It "varies based on how long the spot runs, who the company is, if it is radio or TV and if it's single, district,state, regional or national," says Grant.

Some of Studio Center's top talented voice actors make up to a half million dollars a year just from reading aloud, says Prettyman.

As for Grant, he says he's lucky to have training at the Governor's School and work at Studio Center as stepping stones to help reach his career goals, one of which is to move to New York City.

It's there he "will be able to continue going to school for musical theater and begin auditioning for everything from voice work to Broadway shows."

By Teen Correspondent Justin Taylor
The Virginian-Pilot
January 12, 2007

Justin Taylor is a junior at Calvary Christian School in Norfolk.

Justin Taylor
The Virginian-Pilot