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Voice-over acting: how screen characters come to life

Disney movies have been enchanting both children and adults alike for almost a century now – and they did it again with their latest hit Encanto. But have you ever wondered how animated characters come to life? We took a peek behind the scenes with voice-over actress Akuvi, who gave her voice to Encanto character Dolores in the Norwegian language version of the film.

Akuvi, you are the Norwegian voice-over actress for the character of Dolores in the latest Disney movie “Encanto”. Can you tell us a bit more about your background and your journey of becoming a voice talent?

To be honest, I am still a bit shocked about the fact that I’ve become a part of this voice-over world. It all happened quite coincidentally. I am a Ghanaian/Norwegian artist and a singer-songwriter who has been in the music industry for about 5 years, 2 of which in Norway. I am also an experienced vocalist with many years of stage performance and studio work up my sleeve. Whilst I am self-taught in music and dance, my senior sister is a professional singer and actress. She has been doing voice-over (VO) for over 10 years now. I’ve always admired her and thought it seemed super fun to use your voice to make animation characters come to life. She had mentioned me and my artistry to the company at some point. And one day, they were looking for someone a bit younger than my sister who could fit the voice and energy of an edgy character in a new animated children’s series. Knowing about my singing career , they called me in for a casting.

The process of getting a part is that you come in to the studio and do a “voice test”. The studio then collects all their tests and sends them to the client, who then decides who is most suitable for the part and fits the original the best. I was thrilled to even be asked to do a voice test and didn’t have high expectations at all. Doing the voice test was fun but also quite challenging. Fast forward a couple of months, and it turns out I got the part of Dolores! I have since been booked for other VO work. Mostly characters who sing.

For our readers who are not familiar with the process of voice-over acting: could you run us through what actually happens in the studio or even before that?

The process of VO is very intuitive and intense. In my experience so far, I didn’t get a script in advance but rather had to jump in on different lines, interpret the script and transmit the right feeling on the spot. The original voice is played in my earphones and then my line is recorded separately. For the moving image and sound to sync, you need to have perfect timing, so that the sound matches the visuals and lip-movements of the character.

I used to try and come in at the exact time code of the original voice but was recently taught by one of the best sound technicians to rather start 1-2 seconds after the original, so that I intentionally can match their flow. The sound technician can then subsequently edit and move the track/line back. This little trick was life-changing and has improved my VO skills a lot.  

I record every single line alone in the studio booth together with the sound engineer or a coach. This was particularly weird for me in the beginning when my lines were originally part of a dialogue. I would be having a conversation filled with passion and emotions, but the responses in the dialogue are pre-recorded. At times, the character I am in conversation with has still not recorded their part and I would have to do the Norwegian VO with the responses still coming back in the original language which in this case was English.

We have to work efficiently, especially on the series I am currently working on, sometimes recording several hundred lines in a few hours. There are many episodes to get through and the deadlines are tight. For the characters in the series I do VO in, this has become natural to me because I feel like I know them and their personalities. It also took some time for me to stop being a perfectionist.

Doing voice-overs for movies in a new language might seem like you’re just reading a script. It obviously requires much more than that. What are some of the details you have to pay attention to as a voice actress?

The biggest challenge when it comes to the translation is that the tone in which you would say something in your language, in my case Norwegian, is very often extremely different from the original, which in my case was a “cool and edgy” American accent with sass. We always try to do little tweaks in the pronunciation so that the translation does the original script justice. This includes trying out different ways of saying something, and sometimes making slight changes to the translation if needed.

Do you know how many lines you roughly had in the movie and how long it took to record everything?

Dolores does not have that many lines, probably about 5-10 plus a song, so it didn’t take that long to record, in comparison to the series that I now work on. Nevertheless, the role was a big deal for me as it was my first VO work and it was a Disney film! I mean, how cool is it to be part of a Disney film when you grew up watching Disney films yourself?

Now that we have a better picture of what it takes to be a voice-over talent, what would be some pieces of advice you would give someone wanting to step foot in this field of work? What are some important skills to have and what do you recommend in terms of networking and reaching out to agencies?

If you are thinking about VO as something you could have a talent for, I’m sure there is a reason for it. In my case, I have been told many times throughout my life that I have a “soothing” voice,  that I am good at impersonating others and that I would be good at doing commercials or audio books. Although I didn’t take it seriously back then, it remained a little dream of mine in the back of my mind. And I believe that if you are drawn to something, it is highly likely that there is something there!

If you want to get into VO work, reach out to VO studios and express your interest in doing a voice test. If you know someone in the industry, don’t be shy to mention that you would be keen. You never know when an opportunity might pop up! If you would like to use your voice in this field of work, I also strongly advise to get some experience speaking or singing into a microphone, even if it’s just via the record function on your cell phone. I strongly believe that the reason I’ve been able to land these parts, even without prior VO experience, is that I don’t fear the microphone. Many of us dislike to hear our own voice because it sounds different when we listen to a recording of it. We may become nervous and uncomfortable in front of a mic or camera. This means that you can have all the talent in the world, but if you get too nervous and uncomfortable to deliver once you’re put on the spot, they don’t get to see and hear your full potential. Even small things such as the voice notes you send to friends can be a way to practise and play around with your own voice. Start somewhere small and you might acquire skills that will come in handy later on.

What are some of your next projects? Would you like to do more voice-over acting in the future?

I recently released a live music series called “Mirage Sessions” on YouTube and I am currently working on my next single release whilst also recording VO for two series. I also work full time as a student councillor at Oslo New University College. My days are filled with office work during the day, VO in the evenings and concerts and studio sessions  at weekends. Balancing several career paths at the same time is very time-demanding and hard. I am currently trying to limit the number of projects I take part in. Unfortunately, this meant that I had to turn down some VO work, which has been a very hard decision to make. Looking back, it has been the right decision though. Being the lead character in two series is not only a blessing and a fun side gig, but also a responsibility that I take very seriously. What I love most about my VO work is that as a person of colour, I am playing a part in changing the outlook on the representation of people of colour in the media. The characters I give my voice to remind me a lot of myself. Dolores has a raspy, deep voice, unlike most of the pretty Disney princesses I grew up watching on TV, singing in high pitch with their glossy hair blowing in the wind. Singing her song and playing out her truth came very naturally to me. It felt like home. One of the characters I currently play is a singer and songwriter just like myself. She has big dreams and a big heart. She also happens to have beautiful African braids, just like I do at this very moment, and she conveys a beautiful and complex personality that is both vulnerable and strong. The other character I currently give my voice to is a young rapper who has a big afro, just like I often have when my hair is not braided. She too has an important voice – which she uses to be creative whilst she tries to understand the world around her. These kiddies’ series have turned out to be deeper than I could’ve imagined, and I feel privileged to learn from and through these characters. These series shift the media and create a broader palette of representation. Representation that the child I once was would’ve needed.

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