Can Voiceover Survive Beyond the 2020’s?

Like many industries, voice over, an offshoot of acting and broadcasting, has seen great disruption in the past decade. Fueled by the twin engines of a voracious demand for content and lower technological barriers of entry, actors, broadcasters, and second or third career seekers have set up studios in their houses and began recording virtually to meet this demand. It has been almost a decade since the world first met Siri, and yet as artificial intelligence (AI) applications move firmly into the world of voice recognition and reproduction, alarm bells have been sounding in this sector of the entertainment world. Will AI replace the tens of thousands of actors who make or supplement their livings with voice work? Can voiceover survive the 2020’s?

A Brief History of Voice Over to its Current Swelled State

The first recorded voice was captured over 150 years ago, and subsequent use of voice over in film, then video footage gained widespread use in the mid-twentieth century. Other than in documentaries, some Disney films, and very limited use in TV, (i.e. The Twilight Zone, The Waltons, The Wonder Years) voice over for the most part, fell out of favor in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. Its biggest arenas were in commercials, the growing corporate business video world, and in animation.

The ‘90’s ushered in new major long form narration genres of eLearning and audiobooks and character-driven gaming voice work. Another major influence in voiceover narration that decade was reality TV. Often a series narrator was necessary to make sense of the bits and pieces of clips and interviews woven together. This led to narration in scripted television series like Desperate Housewives and Arrested Development, as well as Gossip Girl and Jane the Virgin where the omniscient narrator turns out to be a character in the show itself.

Add to those developments, the massive spread and amplification of the internet, You Tube and the voracious demand for video on the internet and suddenly demand for voiceover swelled, seemed to be needed everywhere. Enter AI.

Siri, Alexa and the Development of Voice Technologies in AI

Artificial intelligence, a concept first referenced in myth, named in Dartmouth College in ’56 and developed in the 21st century, AI voice technologies became widespread with Apple’s introduction of Siri in 2011. Developed in conjunction with SRI International Artificial Intelligence Center and recorded by Nuance Technologies, Apple’s virtual personal assistant, Siri uses advanced machine learning technology. Other voice services like Alexa and Google Home do as well. As the algorithms, data and opportunity for machine learning continue to grow, those AI voices are sounding more and more human.

The irony is that voice actors themselves are often the ones creating the templates for AI voice applications. Offer a hungry voice actor a year’s salary for a month to two months of work and many will and have jumped at the chance. Creators of AI voice applications ask actors to repeat various sentences in several different emotional contexts in an attempt to record and capture rich prosody. Prosody is the distinct rhythm, tones, pitch, patterns and variety of speech sounds that we create naturally. Often once recorded, the voice actor loses control of how these recordings may be licensed. In the face of exponential improvements in the quality of artificial intelligence voice programs, where does that leave voice over actors?

The key to their survival may lie in our increasing appetite for authenticity. It may be a chase and catch up, and chase again situation but there will be a difference between the recordings of human voice over artists and actors and those of machines, because the human artists will create new ways to communicate and differentiate themselves from those created by algorithms.

The Key to Survival for Voice Over Actors

As a lifetime voice over actor and performance coach and director, one of those key differentiators that I teach is an actor’s connection with the script and with the listener and how to perfect it. This is something that cannot be fed into a machine. To survive the chase of voice related AI will force actors to up their game. Become better storytellers. Make stronger, more interested and more interesting connections between the writer, the message and the end user.

The commercial voice over world has seen disruption in performance. It began in LA and New York and has become ubiquitous. Gone are the rhythmic sing-song voices that used to sell you bathroom tissue and cars. Today’s voiceover commercial artists speak in simple matter-of-fact tones, lean into the inspirational. If there is rhythm in the read, it’s more likely to be aligned with the kind found in poetry slams, or mashups of bedtime story tone with rap. Podcasts have disrupted eLearning, such that the robotic rhythmic narrator reads of yore don’t cut it and superior eLearning narrators sound like they are having a dialogue with the listener rather than spouting off a lecture.

Certain genres that still rely on rhythms will change too. Like the news, with its dark foreboding tone and staccato delivery. i.e. “A 5 alarm fire broke out downtown at 3 a.m..” News readers will survive machines if they change this rhythm now to something more realistic. Something more unpredictable and unprogrammable. Explainer videos are another rhythmic voiceover genre that may need to change to survive the onslaught of AI. Explainers are those 90 second animations that present a problem then, explain a solution to a problem i.e. “Meet Tom. Tom has a problem. If only Tom could fix ABC, life would be peachy.”

The Value of Voice AI vs The Value of Voice Actors

Voice AI will thrive in markets where connection with the listener, persuasion or behavior change are of lower priority. When audio is seen as a lower priority it is most often a financial decision based on lack of understanding of its importance or use. If, however, content producers understand that because we are predominantly visual creatures and are much less forgiving of poor quality audio (“Poor sound can ruin an otherwise spectacular production.” LA Film School), they may rethink that strategy.

All eLearning, for example, has one of two goals: the transfer of knowledge (generally academic), or the change of behavior (generally corporate). If a content creator does not see the value in the audio component of their program, and narration is an after-thought, they will opt for a less expensive AI narration. However, if that creator understands that a strong emotional connection with content makes for better learning (transfer of knowledge) and conversion (behavior change) the value of human voice actors will be realized. Ensemble scenes and character-driven interactions will be another arena more amenable to the survival of human voice actors.

Another point of consideration moving forward may be our desire for more authentic interactions. Already so many of us are talking into the great void that is the internet and we are constantly searching for ways to be heard among the herd. AI voices will add to the noise. Authenticity, great storytelling and acting may be more necessary in the future than ever to rise above the din.

Kim Handysides is an award-winning voice over actor whose work has been heard over national networks, in the Whitehouse, in iMax, on Netflix and everywhere in between.

 

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