Todd Resnick is a Los Angeles native and his companies, Todd Resnick Interactive Group and The Voice Company, both provide voiceover and language conversion services across the globe in 70+ languages, leveraging the creativity of over 4,000 voice talents. Resnick has been involved in film, television and online production for over 20 years. Here, Scott Abel interviews Todd Resnick about the need for fidelity in voice across cultures in television, movies, video games and other media.
Abel: Todd, thanks for agreeing to help our readers understand the intricacies of working with human voices in modern communication channels such as audio, video, interactive content and games. How did you find your way to the voiceover industry?
Resnick: I’ve been in love with voice since I was a child. I could often be found glued to the radio listening to the colorful commentary of Vin Scully during Los Angeles Dodgers baseball games. I fell in love with the medium. And to this day, it is the most intimate and memorable format of knowledge transfer that I know of.
As I grew older, I found that I loved audio. I loved the mechanisms and the engineering in the intricacies of what goes into recreating something that we take for granted. Sound — and especially voice — is really our first sense. We’re very attuned to it as human beings and when it is done wrong, it’s glaringly obvious. I’ve spent my life driving myself nuts trying to make it sound perfect.
Abel: At its most basic, what is voiceover and why is it needed?
Resnick: Voiceover is the spoken word applied to media. It’s Morgan Freeman narrating a nature show on television. It’s Liam Neeson or Jonah Hill in The Lego Movie. However, it’s also internal training and outside sales initiatives. It’s video games and commercials.
It’s needed because we as humans have not come up with a better way to communicate. When you speak to someone in their native tongue, it is the most familiar way to hold their attention.
Abel: What types of projects require voiceover?
Resnick: Well, movies and TV are obvious projects that require voiceover. Hollywood — perhaps more than some other industry sectors — understands the importance of voice and its effectiveness in communication. But there are many voiceover projects in the commercial arena. Precise spoken-word brand messaging, regardless of the brand, is critical to effective market penetration. In fact, you might be surprised at how many innovative brands recognize the importance of voice in both external (customer facing) and internal (employee and partner facing) projects. So while some people may see voiceover as limited to entertainment, it’s much more than that today. Voice plays a critical role in regulatory compliance, human resources training, eLearning, sales and support, technical support, voicemail phone menus, you name it. If you think about how many times we use or repeat our own voice on a daily basis, you start to understand how effective it is. When it’s done with precision and with professional quality, people absorb it. When it’s done wrong, people repel from it.
Abel: Stories are great ways to help others understand complex topics. Can you share a story of a video voiceover project that is global in nature and would help our audience understand why a brand might want to control the voice of a character across geographic regions?
Resnick: Our engaged voice, the voice we use when we share a story with friends or coworkers, or the voice we use when we reluctantly play dolls with our little girls, is something that we have each developed a character for. We use it to share stories and to engage our audiences. We have to maintain that character’s voice fidelity or the audience isn’t going to buy it.
For example, I broke character while I was playing the voice of a teddy bear in front of a six-year-old child. The look on her face said it all. As soon as I broke out of character, she looked at me with disappointment. It was like the first lie she ever heard. And the lie came from me as a result of me failing to maintain a consistent character and tone of voice.
I reference that because we do work for some major toy brands. One day I was coming out of a strategy meeting and I overheard the client discussing the German voice talent for Barbie, the world famous doll from Mattel. Her voiceover sounded way too old for her character. It just wasn’t believable. Sure, the words were translated and read aloud accurately, but the voice just didn’t sell. Fans of Barbie would detect the older, inappropriate voice. What was needed was a youthful and cheerful German voice. So that’s what we did. Voice is about the customer and whether or not they’ll believe and consume our content.
Abel: How do you cast voiceover talent?
Resnick: It is a complex process for a seemingly simple problem. The reason being is that once content creators are put in front of real quality sound and talent, they become as obsessed with it as we are. The steps are simple.
We engage talent agencies and announce the positions we have open across social media. Depending on the length, audience, media, character count, number of languages and delivery formats, we might need anywhere from six to 600 voices. We go through a detailed process and pare down the candidates to a select few, debate, moan and groan, make a decision, present for approval and repeat.
Being in Los Angeles, we have an enviable talent pool. We’re spoiled with people who take their careers with voice seriously, and it shows. We look and listen for so many things: tone, diction, speed, accuracy, experience, microphone time, personality, depth, warmth. In the end, they have to sell the character and engage the audience. You know it when you hear it. The great thing is that we can offer the same talents we use for film and TV and turn around and use them for a human resources training video for a Fortune 500 company. When it works, and it’s done well, everything falls into place.
Abel: Nearly everyone has the ability to record audio, why do companies need professional voiceover recording services?
Resnick: When Jack Nicholson was asked why he was so good and why he was always getting awards for his performances, his answer, delivered with his magnanimous tone, was that anybody could do what he does, but doing it well was the hard part. I find that to be the case with almost everything. You get what you pay for. It’s so obvious when it is done right and it’s even more obvious when it is done wrong.
Additionally, when thinking about voiceover, you have to develop a character and enforce consistency across every touchpoint. Once you realize how much needs to be voiced, you want the same fidelity across all of it. You can’t get that quality sound with a USB mic, a laptop and a closet. Bedroom vendors are not capable of delivering the quality many brands require. Successful voiceover providers run their businesses with well-oiled processes, they have decades of recording expertise, and they have the infrastructure and expertise to get the job done right.
Abel: It’s no secret. Video games are a hot commodity. By this time next year, PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates the global gaming entertainment market will generate just over two trillion dollars in sales. Trillions! That’s big money. But it’s also a global market, and global products require localization. Can you talk to us about the specific localization needs that video games might require that are different than other types of content?
Resnick: Video games are some of the most fun and arguably the most difficult products to localize. When you see the visual environments and understand the characters and storylines that the publishers are coming up with, it’s just phenomenal. Matching those completely artificial elements, created from nothing but code, with the right sound and human voice is extremely challenging. Game developers are getting close to photorealism in the games they develop today, but we, as humans, can still easily find fault with the visual representations. When you attach the amazing sound design and the appropriate voice to the characters and their environment, it seals the deal. But, when the voiceover isn’t of the same quality as the visuals or when it just doesn’t sound right, our ears override our vision. Success in localizing video games involves being able to provide superior graphics, sound and voice. Without all three, you fail.
The actors who offer game localization voiceover are a different breed. They come out of the booth and they are exhausted. The intensity of most games is extremely high; it’s designed to keep the player intimately involved and engaged. The efforts required of the actors go beyond voice. They have to work themselves into whichever frenzy is on the screen. They have to become the characters and feel the intensity.
Since games are moving closer to reality, game developers also have to be cognizant of the market territory they are releasing the game into. The vernacular, the accents, the wording, the translation and the performance have to be surgically precise. We work very closely with the developers to ensure that the experience fidelity is kept intact.
Video games are fictional beasts, completely made up, invented and wrought into reality by code jockeys. Games must be appropriately localized from beginning to end for every target culture and locale. Developers have to think about this fact from the get-go. They have to design their products to be localized. Their efforts can oftentimes serve as a blueprint for how every company should be strategically thinking about any product they plan to sell around the globe.
Abel: Deepak Chopra once said, “You have to think of your brand as a kind of myth. A myth is a compelling story that is archetypal, if you know the teachings of Carl Jung. It has to have emotional content and all the themes of a great story: mystery, magic, adventure, intrigue, conflicts, contradiction, paradox.” Although all of these characteristics aren’t inherent in every video game, most successful video games have these characteristics. But video game developers don’t often start with a story, instead, they start with visuals. How does this fact impact voiceover work?
Resnick: Wow, we are getting deep! I think we all come at art differently. Some of us are visual. Some of us are tactile. We are all auditory. You know how I feel about voice. It is the one thing we cannot fool. We have to sell the story with voice. If the visuals are as compelling as the story or if the story is as engaging without the finished, rendered elements, then we have what we need. We have to have one or the other. Amazing things are created from paint, a brush and a medium. If you take the paint out of that scenario, you are just cleaning something.
Abel: So there are clearly differences in voiceover localization from medium to medium. Are there differences between similar mediums? If so, what are they?
Resnick: There are definitely differences in the similarities. The problems that come with production are voluminous. Deadlines, contracts, morality and what is “reasonable” across cultures to name a few. Sometimes, we are downstream from other vendors and we can’t do our part until they finish theirs. The sooner they get to us, the better. However, once it gets to us, we shake everything out and get to work on whatever the problem is. Most if not all of the actual casting and recording fundamentals we use are valuable across the product spectrum. But, I believe our expertise in entertainment products plays a large role in our ability to drive value into other types of nonentertainment products.
Abel: Some companies looking for video localization might seek out translation companies for voiceover services. But most translation firms don’t offer this service. Why do you think this is?
Resnick: It’s tough enough to find competent translation resources. Trying to find people who can read, write and speak in the target language is difficult. Finding talents who can speak well, with or without an accent, or perform in full character is even more challenging.
Translation firms seldom have the expertise and back-of-the-house talent to record and process voice, nor do they normally have the appropriate facilities. That’s why professional voiceover services companies usually partner with translation firms. It’s a two-way relationship. We pass translation and localization jobs to them, and they pass voiceover work to us. It’s a symbiotic relationship. At the end of the day, businesses need specialists. The down side of not using a specialist is failure.
Abel: I’ve heard you say that you always try to film the work you do for clients. What is the intent behind this effort?
Resnick: We’re big fans of data. The more you have, the more you can process and use to make future business decisions. We use video recordings of our work for product fidelity, performance archive, and anthology. It is something that is frequently ordered for our theatrical “behind the scenes” work. It doesn’t cost anything anymore with digital, so we use it for production post-mortem with our team. We can always improve our work and documenting it and reviewing it later helps us spot things we can improve upon in the future. Also, sometimes it’s nice to give our clients some additional footage of their projects being created. Other times, we use video recordings of our projects for a sales effort or to demonstrate our processes. Proof of concept isn’t really a challenge any longer, but we do find new ways to do what we do so videotaping helps to transmit that message through engaging videos.
Abel: You’ve got some amazing clients and have been able to work on some pretty cool projects. Can you talk to us a bit about your work with the Agatha Christie franchise?
Resnick: I remember very little about the stories on this project because I was mystified by David Suchet. He famously plays Detective Poirot from her novels, and what a masterful character he is. I don’t believe I told David to do or say anything differently. He had been working on Agatha titles for 30 years before I met him, so how do you voice direct a guy like this? “Umm, Mr. Suchet. That was perfect. Can you do one more for safety?” He was a gentleman and taught me a lot about tempo with voice work. He also would not travel out of the UK because his son was in the armed services and if he came home without notice, David wanted to be there. I believe we have some cool videos on our site of his interviews at the studio we used in London.
Abel: You recently picked up a project from the folks at Amazon.com. It’s one of my favorite internet television shows, Transparent. It won a Golden Globe for “Best TV Series, Musical or Comedy.” What did Amazon ask you to do and why?
Resnick: We were asked to cast, direct, adapt and perform their incredible first season for distribution into Germany. We were chosen for our experience, but also our cast was amazing. We pulled out all the stops. We had the woman who does Meryl Streep’s voice for Germany cast. We had Emmy winners, both domestic and international. Our team had a lot of personal interest in seeing this transcreated properly, as there were many regional and religiously regional colloquialisms to work on. It was more or less the most challenging project I have ever worked on. Great, great show.
Abel: This project must have taught you an awful lot about transcreation (the process of translating and localizing content so it preserves the creative and emotional intent of creative content when it’s presented in other languages and cultures). What did you learn about transcreation while working on Transparent?
Resnick: Transparent was a very Los Angeles based show, but it was so close to the edge that it crossed more current and relevant sexual boundaries than any other show we had worked on. We had to be aware of the familial humor that they were using and find a way to make it relevant without it destroying the creative approach. We had to adapt Southern Californian watered down Yiddish to make sense in Germany. There was playful familial banter and even Hebrew songs that were very challenging. We had to be aware of so many edges and maintain the fidelity of this groundbreaking product. It was a lot of fun.
Abel: From your experience, what are the biggest mistakes made by companies when they first attempt to localize voice?
Resnick: They try to do it themselves. They don’t take into account all the critical marks that are required to achieve success. We didn’t choose the voice life, the voice life chose us. It takes a special kind of person with a special kind of mindset. Engage a company that does it for a living and sleep soundly. Another problem is when voice isn’t thought of at the beginning of the project. It’s far more time-consuming and expensive at the end of a project.
Abel: For those companies that have content that would benefit from voiceover, but have yet to develop a strategy for it, what is the right first step? How does one get started without making the common mistakes?
Resnick: Voiceover is rapidly becoming the most important medium for getting products remembered and noticed. The saturation of devices, channels and product differentiation is becoming more and more omnipresent and no matter what others may say, as I’ve stated, voice is the most effective. They need to build their content strategy with voice at the beginning, middle and end. This is especially true for the global markets. It can no longer be an afterthought or an “oh yeah…what about going into France?” We need global content strategy from the start.