Running Voiceover Kids, a specialist voice over company for children gives me a bit of a headache – my customer! That’s because for most producers working with child voice overs (CVOs) will be new. If care isn’t taken it can be a very steep learning curve indeed. Setting up, producing and getting the best results with talents under 16 is entirely different from working with adult voice over talent. So if this is new to you then please read on!

The single most important difference is that for the child it isn’t a voice over “session” and it isn’t their “job”. They see it as a fun after school thing not unlike football or a Saturday drama club. As the customer you must accept that no matter how big the commercial or expensive the studio, the cvo sees your voice over session as something cool and fun with the added benefit of getting paid. No amount of persuasion, pleading or bribery from Mum can persuade a child that the next 30 minutes are more important than the play date they’ve got with Charlie from up the road just as soon as they can get finished here. And whilst they will happily work hard to do a grand job, failing to understand how to set up for the gig or the limits of their motivation and patience can have unpredictably bad consequences especially when they are very young.

Why bother working with children at all?

So why work with children in the first place? There are some very good women voice professionals who specialise in reproducing both girls’ and boys’ voices. They will be able to make those finnicky last minute script changes and comfortably deal with the technical challenges of recording with ISDN or a remote producer. They’re professionals who can adapt to urgent or stressful situations and they’ll go the extra mile when there’s a problem or delay. Plus they just turn up, sit down and get on with it. Well the answer is simple – they never truly sound authentic and that’s because they’re adults. They can’t voice with the innocence, the sheer exuberance or honesty of a child.

Given a script written with care and understanding a child will sound special, pure and miles beyond impersonation. An impersonation of a child will always sound counterfeit, perhaps not least because it will be too slick and professional, a product delivered with an adult’s understanding of the original brief. The end result is your idea of what a child should sound like, not what they do sound like. A CVO’s natural rhythm and timing can never truly be imitated. The emotive quality that arrives as if by magic will more than repay the extra preparation and effort the producer will need to put in. Plus it’s worth remembering that the majority of children’s voice overs are aimed at children. Toys, learning products, going back to school, sports and activities, holidays.. the list is endless. You can’t fool kids. They are miles ahead of the content makers and they can spot a fake voice over a mile off.

It’s all in the preparation

So before you find yourself in the studio with an inexperienced voice that doesn’t work the way you’re used to remember that clever planning can make the experience memorable for all the right reasons. It’s essential that your script is approved by the voice over agent before final terms are agreed. The voice over agent will help you select a CVO that is appropriate to your project. A specialist voice over producer will be guided by the parent’s opinion as to what their child is comfortably able to do and, more importantly, what is outside the child’s competence. Script content and timing are fundamental to working successfully with kids. One mum, a professional voice with two young children explains: “If you are working with an eight year old then the language of the script must be limited to the vocabulary and sentence structure that an eight year old will use at home and in the classroom. You would think it’s common sense but you’d be amazed at how many times the kids have been given difficult 30 second radio scripts that a seasoned pro would have trouble fitting into 30 seconds”. This experience is a common one. What producers sometimes overlook is that whereas a voice over professional can edit scripts in real time and see past their handwritten changes, introducing that kind of unexpected pressure can easily unsettle a CVO. At best after you’ve shortened the script and are finally ready to go again there’s a good chance that your CVO will be losing interest and your end result may suffer.

Kids in the studio

As a producer it’s your job to think about the practicalities of the session and how to make it as easy for the child as possible. There are several ways for a child to record: in a professional studio a short hop from school, or in a home studio directed by the producer perhaps by ISDN or in a home studio where the parent records the child at a time that works best for the individual child before delivering several alternative takes for the producer to choose from. It’s essential to make the right choice. Which of these is the most likely to get the best results? Do you need to work in person with the CVO? It’s not a problem if you do but plan intelligently as more often than not you will have to work to the child’s timetable not your own!

So here are the golden rules. Be very sure your script is age appropriate and will work when you get to the studio. Be strict about ensuring that there are absolutely no surprises, last minute changes or new material that nobody was expecting. It’s infinitely preferable to postpone the session if you can’t avoid this. Be sure to choose the CVO with help from a specialist child voice over specialist who will ensure your voice over talent is up to the job and will enjoy the experience. It’s not fair to expect or hope that a child will work the way you would expect an adult to work. You will only be disappointed. Next be sure to choose the right studio and make sure that the engineer is familiar with the different skillset that is needed to successfully work with children. And finally and most importantly don’t rush things. Give the CVO plenty of time to prepare at home with a parent. Be prepared to work over two or more sessions on different days if you have a longer script such as a computer game or animation material.

Here’s one mum’s take on how things can go wrong and then just spiral out of control: “when my son was six, he was lucky enough to be chosen for a high profile job at an expensive Soho studio. It was my son’s first job away from home, working with people he’d never met and I had no idea if he would find it exciting or nerve racking. I assumed the client, agent and studio would be very aware of my son’s age and comparative lack of experience. It swiftly became apparent that none of them were. We were sent to the wrong studio and when we finally arrived we were half an hour late. This meant that things were fraught from the start and made worse by being given five extra pages of script. If you gave a professional voice five extra pages they wouldn’t worry (it might add an extra 10-15 minutes to the job) but for a six year old child that extra script was a mountain. Unprepared and unexpected it put him under too much pressure. As the session progressed I found I was having to insist we stop every 20 minutes or so, in order that my son could get away from the mic and be a child for 10 minutes – run around, bounce on the sofa, draw a picture or just have a drink. You ignore the signs that a child needs a break at your peril – the mic technique goes out of the window, followed by fidgeting and finally by the child deciding they don’t want to do it anymore. He battled on through and everyone present learnt some very hard lessons. Perhaps with this experience not long under his belt it’s not surprising that when an American client at another session said “before we start, I need to tell you that I am SO excited to be doing this with you today!” my son hardly missed a beat before replying “Good, shall we get on with it then?”

Licensing

The voice over industry’s need for teens and kids is growing almost as fast as kids do! So at www.voiceoverkids.co.uk we know that it’s more important than ever that you understand the rules and regulations surrounding their employment. The very immediate problem is securing a license for the child to work. A license is required before any voiceover session takes place. The good news is that most voiceover assignments with minors rarely last for more than one hour and so can be done after school which makes obtaining a license simpler. Also worth noting is that the regulations only apply to children who are 16 or under and attending school full-time.

The license is obtained from the Child Employment Team at the Council where the child resides. Each council has different rules and response times which can be frustrating. Overall the Council is primarily concerned that the child’s health and education will not be adversely affected and that a child isn’t being commercially exploited. The Council has to issue a license within 21 days from the date you apply but in most cases licenses are given in 10 days or earlier. Some councils are more relaxed than others especially once they understand the nature of the work involved and are used to dealing with the child’s agent, parent or chaperone.

To obtain a license the parent will need to supply a photocopy of the child’s birth certificate or passport; two identical photographs of the child dated no longer than six months before the date of application. Some councils may also require a certificate of medical fitness and a declaration by the employer that the employment offered can only be fulfilled by a child.

The production company is the license holder and must sign the application and understand the responsibilities and conditions. Examples of what records should be kept in respect of a license for a short voice over session would include the date of performance, times of arrival and departure, time worked and details of any rest intervals and the fees paid to the child or their employer. Most importantly the license holder is responsible for ensuring that the child is supervised by a licensed chaperone or the child’s mother or father (no other relative is acceptable). That person’s sole responsibility is to ensure the safety and well-being of the child at all times and they must not take any part in producing or directing the child (however, I have previously been allowed to have the parent or chaperone sit in the booth with the performer to encourage and instill confidence). Please note that whilst a license is in force for a specific performance the Council Child Welfare officers may inspect the voiceover studio to satisfy themselves that the conditions of the license are being met so it’s mandatory to have printouts of the license available at the voice over session.

You are encouraged to ask your council for more information and a copy of their Child Employment Guidance Notes. See also The Law on Performances by Children 1968 and amendments. Your council may also offer a free of charge one day chaperone course which includes a basic DSB check and child protection training. The child protection advice line 0800 1111 can also give guidelines on how to create a safe and aware workplace suitable for children.

At the studio and after the session

In the studio it’s important to remember that kids need inspiration and confidence building. Even if that first take is terrible it’s a good idea to tell them it was a great start and perhaps we might try it another way. Don’t fall into the trap of talking to the child like they are an experienced voice and don’t talk to them like they are an adult. Be decisive and be fun. Kids respond well to humour and personality. They want you to be happy with what they are doing in front of the mic and your job is to create that environment of constructive progress with the finish line in sight.

After the session remember that if your company is involved with children’s products then there is a good chance you may work with that same child again so help them to help you and be sure to send them the finished piece of work for their demo. They will show it to their friends and it will be as important to them, if not more important, than getting paid. It also helps other voice over producers by keeping the child’s voice over reel up to date and fresh.

If you’ve got any questions, comments or good stories of your own please get in touch at james@voiceoverkids.co.uk.