Hear that? Studios get vocal about remote VO solutions

Nelvana and others share how they're adapting to the limitations of doing voiceover recordings while working from home.

Screen Shot 2020-04-20 at 11.03.47 AMWhile animation has, for the most part, been able to continue in a work-from-home world, many productions have hit a snag: talking characters. Voiceovers usually require a nicely softened and padded room, a special microphone and even when there’s only one person in the booth, there are several people sitting on the other side of the glass running the tech elements. To make matters morse, since many animators work off existing VOs, some shows can’t carry forward, even if they’re fully set up to animate at home.

While it’s true that some of the bigger names in voice acting have access to their own at-home voice recording studios,  most productions have several more voices on the show who don’t have that kind of set up. And even if there were a set up in place for every single actor, files need to be sent over to be edited using the right software, which often lives on a server at a physical studio.

That’s something that Novel Entertainment’s co-founder and creative director Lucinda Whiteley has become all too familiar with recently. The British prodco is in production on a trilogy of one-hour specials for Horrid Henry, and while it hasn’t quite gotten to record voices portion of the process, it is coming up quickly.

Usually the show, now in its fifth season, would have the main cast come record the voiceovers together in studio. Usually eight of the cast members would get together in the studio to record everything and have the voices flow even more seamlessly. Even if they can figure out a way to record remotely, that dynamic will be difficult, if not impossible to replicate, says Whiteley. So far, the actors have been doing rehearsals virtually via video calls (they are also recording additional online content to to upload to YouTube starting on April 25, via Zoom), but recording for the show itself presents new challenges.

“I think we’ll will be fine if they continue to talk over each other just as much as they do in the studio,” says Whiteley. “But they need to be reminded to focus on what they’re doing and to stay on track over Zoom.”

To keep animation on track, Novel is looking at having the voice actors record a guiding track (rather than the final voices), which would just be used by the animators and production team to to guide production. The track would be replaced with higher-quality VOs when people are allowed back in the studios.

But if the lockdowns continue for several months, the big question is whether broadcasters would be prepared to accept something that may be lesser quality, says Whiteley.

Nelvana doesn’t want to lower the quality of any of its productions, but with eight different animated series (a voiceover for its Mysticons series is pictured) on the go right now, doing voicework remotely is becoming a critical issue.

There are a couple work-arounds: Nelvana parent company Corus is considered an essential service (since it provides news coverage), and as such its headquarters are still open. While Nelvana could ask actors to go record in studio, it would mean asking people to leave their homes, head out and interact with potentially many people (depending on how they get to the studio) and  try to social distance from the other staff while in the studio. While there are not many people left at the Corus building, several people would be needed to record voiceovers, which would make social distancing a little bit more difficult.

The other option Nelvana is looking at is whether voice artists can share at-home recording studios while still seeing only a small group of people.

“We do know that some of our people that we work with have their own studios at their own homes,”  says Pam Westman, president of Nelvana. “How comfortable the talent is that they are able to go to individual people’s homes and do the recordings? Can we do any of them remotely? Those are all things that we are in the middle of assessing.”

Just like Novel, Nelvana is also looking at putting together lower-quality guiding tracks so that the animation teams can keep working and don’t fall behind on deadlines.

“We are learning from other people as we go,” says Westman. “The fact that we can do guide tracks and make a storyboard while working on these episodes is a huge relief.”

One company that has a perfectly timed solution for this problem is TransPerfect. The California-based dubbing and voiceover company has been working on a cloud-based solution to speed up and modernize voiceovers for three years now.

“We’re bringing the studio to the actor, and it just so happens that the solution that we’ve been creating for three years also helps cut down on person to person meetings, ” says co-CEO Phil Shawe. “So we find ourselves at an interesting cross sectionnot really because we planned to be here, but because three years ago we planned to do something else.”

Studio.NEXT uses recording-in-the-cloud technology to let actors record voiceovers remotely and create voiceovers that go directly into the cloud. They will still need a USB microphone and to set up their homes with some softening to record the best audio, but with the program TransPerfect has also tested 45 different microphones and provides information on which work best. It is not the only remote recording platform that uses entirely cloud-based storage in a single interface, according to TransPerfect. 

The audio is still then mixed professionally by TransPerfect as part of Studio.NEXT, which was released on March 30.

“Moving forward a lot of companies are really looking at changing the model for how this is done,” says Shawe.

This story originally appeared in Kidscreen