Coping With COVID-19 Crisis: A3 Artists Agency’s James Murray On Voice Actors Adapting To The Unprecedented

Editors’ Note: With full acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that already has claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon. If you have a story, email [email protected]

With film and TV production shut down across the world in the era of coronavirus, James Murray is one of the lucky few in Hollywood who still finds himself “very busy.” An agent and partner in voice-over at A3 Artists Agency (formerly Abrams Artists Agency), Murray works with a roster of clients in the areas of commercials and animation – and in recent weeks, he has been heartened to see his clients engaged in consistent work.

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While voice-over is a trade that can be plied remotely, the coronavirus pandemic still poses challenges both for Murray and his clients. Saddened by his inability to interact with clients face-to-face, Murray’s main challenge in recent weeks has been one of communication. And with recording booths shut down across town, most of the voice talent on his roster has had to adapt rapidly, investing in and setting up their own home recording studios to provide the high-quality tapes some casting directors request.

The silver lining of the situation, for Murray, is what the pandemic has reaffirmed – the resilience, determination and innovative spirit of his collaborators and clients, who will find a way to adapt to a changing world.

DEADLINE: What was the atmosphere like at A3 Artists Agency, in the weeks leading up the closure of your office?

JAMES MURRAY: Leading up to the last day at the office and the weeks that have ensued, everything was pretty much business as usual. How we operate is very collaborative, from a voice-over perspective. We operate in a lot of different areas, whether it’s commercially or television animation, video games, feature animation, promo, narration, audiobooks – and the center of our business is from a lot of in-house auditioning. So, in addition to us, as agents in our department, working collaboratively with ourselves and with the other departments, we also have talent, day in and day out, coming into our office. We have two professional booths and a full-time audio engineer, and we have talent that can come in and audition every day — and obviously, with the global pandemic that we’re experiencing, that’s come to a complete halt.

We stopped the in-house auditioning a day or two before the office officially closed, out of an abundance of caution, and then, everything changed drastically. The first week out of the office, I think for the country as a whole, certainly the industry as a whole, and definitely voice-over, everybody was trying to figure out, “What does this mean? When can we go back to work? Where are we with production? What needs to be done in the immediate future?” And it was very much a scramble.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the Deadline article that came out last week about animation [production still in motion]. We have seen that in the voice-over space as a whole. I think everybody realized that we are in a unique position to pivot more easily into this new business climate. My colleagues and I sort of agree that we are seeing business return to normal — the new normal, for lack of a better term.

DEADLINE: Are your clients primarily working on projects that were in production prior to the shutdowns? Or is there a lot of new work coming to them?

MURRAY: Yeah, lots of different things. I’ve had projects come up, commercially, that were dead in the water, maybe that hadn’t been aired for a long time, that nobody considered using. All of a sudden, I’m getting emails like, “Hey, we want to use this again. We need to negotiate rights for that.” I’m also getting new briefs and breakdowns for projects that haven’t even been animated yet, where they’re looking to capture the voice. It’s sort of all over the gamut.

DEADLINE: What were the first steps taken by your department, in figuring out how to navigate the current health crisis?

MURRAY: The first thing that we needed to do was evaluate the talent on our roster who would feel comfortable with working from home, and there’s a whole range of studio setups. We have some talent who have very basic mic-and-computer setups, to other talent who have full-blown, in-home, professional studios. So, we needed to first identify the people with those capabilities, and then also offer up our services and expertise to our talent who wanted to quickly pivot and develop those skills, and get that technology installed in their homes. So, the first week or so was myself and our New York counterparts figuring out and putting together a one-sheet of information that we can deliver to our talent who are not engineers by trade, and all of a sudden are finding themselves in a position where that’s a skill set they need to learn.

So, we’ve been offering our services to that. But one of the pitfalls that will come with that, as any actor can tell you — whether it’s an on-camera self-tape, or a voice-over self-tape — is that it can be very hard to direct yourself, particularly if you’re at home and you’re not getting that feedback from a casting director, or somebody on the other side of the glass. We very quickly realized that there was a need for us to make ourselves available to our talent in real time, so like any other company, we’ve started utilizing the Zoom platform to create a “virtual booth,” which allows our talent, while they’re safe at home, to connect with any of the agents, or any of our audio engineers and directors, and get that sort of live, real-time feedback.

We implemented [that] in Los Angeles starting this past Monday, and our New York office started it yesterday, and I have gotten tremendous feedback from it, which just goes to show that people in any area are looking for not only the direction that you would get, technically and artistically, but also a little bit of human connection, to help re-create the normalcy that we had and so quickly lost a month ago.

DEADLINE: What percentage of your roster already had high-quality home studios, prior to the pandemic?

MURRAY: I would say probably 15% to 20%, and now that’s gone up 35%, 40%. Each individual is different because on an animation front, I think it’s less of an immediate necessity, because the turnover time in order to create a production…there’s a longer lead time. I have people who are going to record scratch, which is voice work that the animators can use to draw the character and the mouth movement, but that audio recording doesn’t necessarily have to be broadcast quality. [In a] couple months, once the animators have done what they needed to do, hopefully things will die down, and people can start getting out and going into professional recording studios [to] record what you’ll hear on broadcast television.

Commercially, because there is such a need for brands both big and small, both domestically and globally, to immediately pivot their messaging to address what’s happening now, I’ve seen a huge push, where we need people that have professional-quality home studios only, and that’s where I’m seeing the biggest opportunity for people that are not necessarily in these major markets: Los Angeles, New York, Chicago. There’s always been talent that have been in more remote areas, or smaller markets, with these home studio setups. But it’s just sort of shifted the talent pool a little bit. Where you might [typically] be competing against a lot of very skilled actors in these larger markets, now, you’ve had a shift, and there’s a lot of people who are not in these markets, who all of a sudden are finding themselves in a unique opportunity to get auditions and opportunities for larger, more lucrative brands and campaigns.

DEADLINE: It seems like the leveling of the playing field you’re describing has come at a cost, given that many voice actors now have to invest in expensive recording equipment, at a time that is already financially difficult for many.

MURRAY: Absolutely. And really, I’m finding that those requirements are dependent upon the need for the brand. I had a breakdown come through for a company who wanted something that was as authentic as possible. They basically were asking me to have my talent have a conversation with a family member over the phone, and record and submit that, with the idea that more likely than not, they might just use the audition that was recorded on their iPhone. But then there are other opportunities that I’m getting for health care brands or car companies where they need talent with a professional-sounding home studio, with a certain caliber microphone, and an audio interface, and the ability to connect remotely with producers.

DEADLINE: A3 obviously represents a lot of high-profile actors, who work in a number of different spheres. For clients that work in live-action who are waiting for production to resume, it must be a great relief, to be able to pivot to work in voice-over.

MURRAY: Absolutely. I think one of the things we’re known for — certainly, something that I try to practice on a daily basis — is that sort of collaborative, outside-the-box thinking. But now, it’s become an even larger, more front-and-center opportunity for our clients that are maybe not traditional voice actors.

One of the things that we’re constantly doing is talking to each other about the talent that we represent, and the opportunities that are arising, and how we can best position our clients to take advantage of those opportunities, whether it’s audiobooks or new animation projects, where a talent might not normally be interested or available for that. All of a sudden, they’re finding themselves needing not only to take advantage of these opportunities, but trying to fulfill that creative need that not having the ability to practice their craft has created — and now, they can fill that need with these animation auditions.

The beautiful part about an animation audition is, because you’re not beholden to the necessary look or physical characteristics, it really allows people to stretch their range, and bring these characters to life. Quite frankly, that’s one of the reasons why I love doing what I do, is because I get to see that on a day-to-day basis. Now, I think people who are not traditionally interested in that are seeing the medium for what it is, and that’s a real, wonderful way to stretch that craft.

DEADLINE: With so many voice actors now forced to invest in home studios, do you think we might see a paradigm shift in voice-over down the line, with more artists in this field working remotely?

MURRAY: I do think, both in the micro and the macro, we’re going to see a shift. I think for us as an agency, the virtual booth that we’ve created is something that we’re going to continue forward. It allows us to connect with our clients that are not based in Los Angeles or New York, which I’m finding has been a real opportunity for them, too. I have a client based in Portland that I’ve worked with for years, who had never met our audio engineer. They got together on Zoom and had a wonderful conversation, and the quality of her audition, you could tell there was something a little different about it. So, I think on the micro, we’ll see that.

On the macro, I think commercially, there’s definitely an opportunity for that. The turnaround time for commercials is very quick, and more often than not, there’s not a situation where you need to have more than one talent in the booth at a time. So, I think for certain productions, that might become advantageous, to cut some costs, but also to hurry the turnaround time.

With that said, I’m not sure that that will necessarily, 100% be such a good thing, because you then have talent who are potentially having to become their own audio engineers, and having to carry a heavier burden for the same price point. Then, also, it’s the same as if you cut out a middleman. There are studios here in Los Angeles that provide a wonderful service, not only in just being there to have the talent record, but also in terms of the direction and the feedback. No matter how big or small, everybody does have a little creative input, and I think you would be missing out on that, and that sort of human interaction, which now, we’re all craving more than ever.

In terms of animation, I don’t really see that happening. One of the beautiful things about animation is you do get a lot of ensemble recordings, where the talent are playing off one another, and if you have people isolated in the booth at their homes, that’s just not going to work the same. I would be surprised if we saw that in animation or video games.

DEADLINE: Do you think there’s enough opportunity in voice-over now for artists to continue working until the pandemic is contained, even if that doesn’t happen for a few more months?

MURRAY: Yeah, I think so. Before this, we were already seeing a boom in a need for animation, particularly adult animation, whether it was for Amazon or Netflix, and I think that’s only going to continue to press forward, for a couple of reasons. One, there’s not a terribly large need for people to be in the same room together. So, if you have a writers’ room, you can do that virtually. If you’re an animator, you will be able to download and then upload your materials. Obviously, you are beholden to the broadband Internet speed, so things are going to slow down a little bit, but there’s also a long lead time. So, I think there’s probably enough material in the pipeline to keep everybody busy for at least the next couple of months.

And from what I’m hearing, another business that is booming is, people are buying scripts. I had a conversation with somebody who told me the other day that they are using this time to actively source new material that might be outside the realm of what they traditionally buy. So, I think it is creating new, unique and interesting opportunities, and we’re very fortunate, by the nature of our business, that we can pivot so quickly.

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