The future of voice over and artificial intelligence
Artificial intelligence, or AI: it's THE topic of the moment. With the advent of ChatGPT, MidJourney and others, it's Fear in the City, Deep Impact, Armageddon, Titanic, Don't Look Up, Giant Meatballs, you get the picture. So, is AI the big bad wolf or a damp squib?
Spoiler alert: no, I don't have a crystal ball. On the other hand, I've been practising the fine art of voice over acting for almost 30 years, and I'm constantly keeping up to date with the various trends, technological advances and other aspects of our profession. I discuss this periodically with my sound engineer mates working in commercial studios, with my agents, and of course with my voice over colleagues, whether they work in commercial studios, from their private studios or a mix of the two.
We're reading a lot about artificial intelligence at the moment: that it's going to take our jobs, that it's really too unfair, that robots are evil. So yes, in the medium term, voice overs for projects that don't require humanity, such as internal e-learning modules, will be done by computer-generated voices - and this has already been going on for a while.
This knee-jerk reaction - and a natural one at that - is very reminiscent of the one that appeared when the internet first came into being (and the appearance of private studios that accompanied it) among some of the old guard of voice over talent: it had to be prevented at all costs, it was going to kill the profession, blah blah blah. What these naysayers refused to see was that the internet had also created a new, gigantic source of work, and had also given access to clients from all over the world. I'm talking about the thorny issue of remote recordings and private studios here.
It's true that the web has opened up the profession to many people who previously had no access to it, and many of these people, lacking the necessary talent and skills, have found nothing else but to sell themselves at rock-bottom prices. What we often forget is that this mainly concerned jobs that didn't exist before the internet: e-learning, motion design, web spots etc. What is also often forgotten is that even before the advent of the web, some actors who did voice overs weren't necessarily very good, but as voice overs were their preserve, producers didn't really have much choice...
Obviously, it's much more convenient to see ourselves as victims and blame AI, the internet, mean clients who don't want to give us work because they're mean and colleagues who get the jobs because they're mean too, rather than questioning our lack of investment in our profession. No training (because everyone's talking, right? I talk about the good, the bad and the ugly voice over trainings here), an amateur website that's 20 years old (when it exists - I talk about the importance of voice over websites here), a non-existent marketing, no effort to be more visible... but no, the amount of work is meagre due to mean people. Oh, and AI of course.
Anything new is frightening, and provokes a Pavlovian reaction of rejection. It's part of the defence mechanisms we mammals are equipped with to protect ourselves from danger. But before we jump off the cliffs shouting in an overdone theatrical voice "we're damned", let's ask ourselves the following question:
Who's interested in computer-generated voices?
Answer: two types of customers.
- The former produce educational content that can do without the humanity of in-house e-learning. If you were a producer, you'd be doing the same thing. Why use a Rolls when a Dacia will do?
- The second: those who were already booking these mediocre price breakers, who cast on price, who don't understand that a poor quality voiceover takes away from engagement rather than adding value. And that's the only good thing about AI: it's cheaper. After all, TTS is nothing new. And even if, at the time, computer-generated voices were created by concatenation and the result was pretty rotten, that didn't stop some people attracted by the cheap prices, brother, from substituting them for voice-over actors.
It's a fact that we voice over professionals have already been replaced for some time by people who don't know how to work, who read aloud while mumbling their lines, content with a pittance as payment. The fear of being replaced by AI replaces the veterans' fear of being replaced by newcomers who are not actors. But in the end, the cream always rises to the top.
Clients who understand the difference between cost and investment are not deaf: they hear that even with the most recent advances, computer-generated voices are soulless, don't connect with the audience, and do a disservice to their project. They know that a professional voice over talent brings real added value, which translates into better sales.
Some people, frightened by the progress made in recent times, suggest that AI will soon be capable of generating voices as 'human' as humans. These people have probably never worked in a directed session on TV commercials that cost hundreds of thousands of euros to produce: they would realise that the extremely specific demands of a good producer require a finely tuned ability to listen, an ability to translate 'creative' directions into intentions that connect with the audience.
Saying 'I love you', for example, can mean 'I love you', 'I hate you', 'Pass me the salt', 'Leave me alone', 'See you tonight', 'Could you lend me money?' and thousands of other things, depending on the context that governs the minute differences in inflection, support, rhythm, projection - in short, the extremely subtle nuances that only a human being speaking (and not reading aloud) can translate into the right emotion for what is desired. Another example, which the voice-over veterans among us will have experienced: "Can you make it a bit more brown, but like a giraffe, with the light at the end of the tunnel?" Go teach that to the AI.
In short, people who 'read aloud', 'setting the tone' and respecting punctuation like good pupils, without realising that oral transmission works differently from written transmission, will have to leave a profession in which they have never had a place: AI already does it better than they do. But voice-over actors who know how to work, who know and speak to their audience, who put humanity into their interpretation, will be much, much harder to replace. I wrote an article on this subject for humanity in interpretation, which you can find here.
Are we beating ourselves into the ground?
We also need to analyse, as individuals, our relationship to communication. Millennials, for example, are often allergic to phone calls, preferring written text messages (with few words and lots of emojis), or voice PMs. It's our attitude that shapes how we communicate - and how we're communicated with. If we are looking for more humanity, the market will move in that direction, using professionals and, for example, specifying 'spot recorded with a human voice' to reinforce the importance the advertiser attributes to humanity.
All voice over talent moan about AI, but many use the rejuvenating, ageing, pirate, 80s college girl/boy etc AI filters that are floating around on social media, or simply use MidJourney or ChatGPT, or other AI solutions. When AI doesn't bother us, we're happy to use it. Oh the irony... In short, where we're going is our collective choice.
AI, a blessing in disguise?
Of course, I could be wrong, and it's possible that one day the human race will be enslaved by an evil supra-elite that will use AI to achieve its greedy and demonic ends. Or not - the problem is never the tool, but who uses it, and how they use it. But if the tool makes it possible to get rid of those who don't work any better than it does, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Time will tell.
Well, on that happy and hopeful note, I wish you lots of lovely contracts that will enable you to make a difference! Don't hesitate to share this article with your colleagues if you're feeling generous, and don't forget to subscribe to my blog to be notified when I publish new articles. And don't hesitate to share your views on the subject here and leave your comments - I'll do my best to respond!