Day in the Life: Dialect Coaching for Film & Television

I realize that many of you might not know what a dialect or dialogue coach working in film & TV does, so I thought I would outline a (fairly) typical day from pickup to drop off.

8:00 Pickup: This sounds like a pretty cushy pick up time, and it is. Pickup times can often be 6AM or earlier. I’m picked up with the 3rd AD who lives nearby, and we feign small talk. We then promptly attempt to go back to sleep, as it’s a bit of a drive to the studio.

9:00-11:00 Read Thru: The entire production is currently prepping for February, which involves a reading with the actors, director, writers, and other key people involved in production. I sit there furiously taking notes, just trying to keep up. I use readings as a chance to re-familiarize myself with the scripts, and to build a plan of action for the month of February.

11:00-12:30 Prep Time: Read thrus always give me a lot to think about, so I make a beeline to the trailer to process my notes and to start researching.

I first review the February schedule so that I know which scenes will be filmed first. I also look through the scripts and research any words or names that I’m unsure about. I then create some prep work for the actors to prepare for February. I personally enjoy putting together all of the hardest words and sounds from the read thru into a few sentences that they can practice. This is because I’m evil.

Finally, I contact the 2nd AD about scheduling in longer prep sessions with individual actors so that we can prep every scene before filming.

12:30-13:30 Private sessions: I check in with the actors I’m working with, and we re-run the scenes that are going to be filmed today. We also may run future scenes, or discuss any questions or concerns they have ranging from their vocal health to the script.

13:30-14:30 Lunch Break: Obviously the highlight of the day.

14:30-20:00 On Set work: Normally I get on set around 8AM, but because of the read thru I don’t have to come on set until after lunch. I am handed headphones from the sound department, and I make my way towards a monitor to be able to listen, watch, and take notes.

I tend to go in after each take to tell the actor what is going well and which sounds they should change. It requires a good ear and fast thinking, as I only have a few moments between takes to work with the actor. On set I also work closely with the writers, the director, and the script supervisor so that the accent, the voice, and the words are all perfected.

20:00 Leave set: I am again shuttled home with the 3rd AD, but this time we talk for real about the day, about our separate jobs, and about the pluses and minuses of the business. Just like any other job.

21:00 Arrive home

The Tricky Bits: American Accent 2.0

I'm back, folks! I've been on the set of Berlin Station for the past few weeks, whipping some actors into accent perfection. Which got me thinking: what are the tricks that trip up even seasoned American-accent pros?

Before reading, you might be interested in my original post on Hints to Mastering Any Accent, or my post on The General American Accent ... Taught by a Real, Live, General American. But now let's get to the trickiest of American sounds ...

  1. R: The Slippery Bastard: The American "R" is a notoriously difficult sound, particularly because it appears just so f***ing much. But besides the fact that you have to pronounce the R literally each time it appears, managing the strength and length of that R sound can be difficult for UK actors. The key to sounding fully American is finding the correct "R" balance, which is usually less harsh than UK actors want to make it. 
  2. Nasality: Friend or Foe?: For some endearing-slash-annoying reason, Brits tend to automatically place the American accent in the nose, giving an overtly caricature American sound. While we do tend to have more twang than the average Brit, keep the GenAm accent in the back of the mouth to balance the levels of nasality. 
  3. Getting the "PRICE" Right: [// sound:] Most literature will say that in theory, the vowel found in the word "price" is the same in both the RP and GenAm accent. In theory, that is correct. However, when we start to look at the placement of the American accent (see my old posts linked above) it is clear that the PRICE sound is slightly different.  Start the American sound in a round, open, back of the mouth, versus the RP PRICE, which starts slightly higher, in the middle of the mouth. This tiny difference can mean dramatic changes in an accent, particularly in a character who uses the word "I" a lot ....
  4. Vowel Lengths: The Long & Short of it: Fairly straight forward, but short vowel sounds tend to be held slightly longer in a GenAm accent. This is an easy fix, but can quickly be forgotten when the accent is transitioned into acting. The main short vowels that are held are the vowel sounds found in the words LOT, STRUT, and FOOT.
    "The puppy did not understand the cook book."

    Just to make life extra confusing, we Americans also tend to shorten vowels that are long in RP, particularly the vowel sounds found in FLEECE, CLOTH, and THOUGHT. 
    Keep the fraught bee out the cream!
  5. Trick words are not your friends: Lastly, be VERY careful of words that seem straight forward, but are anything but. Even one pronunciation slip up can send you quickly back over to the other side of the Atlantic. Would you know how to pronounce these words with a General American accent? Splinter, Risotto, Herb, Lieutenant, Depot, Aluminum, Privacy, Yoghurt, Pasta, Zebra ...

Accent Coach? Dialect Coach? What's the Difference?

I’m glad you asked! (Or probably didn’t ask, but I’m going to answer the question anyway!) I spent quite a few years in the USA referring to my job as a dialect coach, or someone who works with actors to acquire a specific dialect for a role. After some time in the UK, I now find myself telling people that I am an accent coach … so basically someone who works with actors to acquire a specific accent for a role. But isn’t that the same thing? Why the change in name? Is it even that different?! Why is this even a blog topic?!

According to British linguist David Crystal, the difference between an accent and a dialect is subtle, but certainly definable:

“Accent refers only to features of pronunciation, whereas dialect includes distinctive grammar and vocabulary. Some dialects (notably, standard English) are spoken with many accents.”David Crystal

Sticking with the hardline definition, that would mean that on U.S. soil my job entailed going through a process of teaching an accent, but also teaching new words and even grammar to an actor. And it would mean that on this side of the pond I only work with actors on the differences in sounds and pronunciation. 

While in theory this might explain the change in vocabulary, I would retort that theories don’t always become laws! On either side of the Atlantic, I am always doing accent work when I am coaching an actor to learn specific sounds of a region. However, that can veer very quickly into dialect coaching, as even within English there are various grammar and vocab that are regionally specific. 

So, am I a really a disguised dialect coach in a world of accent coaches? Have I cast off a label in order to fit in? Is this a soul-searching moment?

For me, the US dialect coach and the UK accent coach do exactly the same work (keeping in mind that every show is different). Perhaps we can chalk this up to a difference in vocabulary, with 'accent coaches' in the east, and 'dialect coaches' in the west.

So the next time you are looking for someone like me, don't get bogged down in all those labels! A professional coach will identify if you are looking for an accent or a dialect, and will work accordingly - regardless of what their label is on the tin. :) 




Hints to Mastering Any Accent

Let's be honest: time is not always a luxury in the world of show business. So if you need to faux-master an accent in minutes, this is the guide for you. Instead of getting caught up on every sound, let's cut to the chase so that you can get back to acting.

However, before you rush into learning an accent, it might be worth reading the post 'What's in my Mouth?' to get a handle on the sounds your mouth can make. Then follow my 4 easy steps for fool-proof accents ...

1.     Where is the accent in my mouth? I find that this is the ultimate secret between sounding like a person doing an accent, and actually speaking in the accent. The Accent Kit is the best at exploring this idea, with their 'zones' ranging from 1 at the front of the mouth (an excellent spot for Irish, Welsh, or Standard British accents), 4 at the back of the mouth (giving a more American sound), and 7 in the nose (placing you square up in Manchester). Listen to find the zone of the accent, and then try speaking with your voice aimed in that area only. You'll find the sound changing, even if you aren't changing must else in your accent. Which brings me to ...

2.     Find the hesitation sound. Think of all the times in speech you pause to think, letting out an 'uhm'. Or perhaps you prefer 'erm' or 'uh' or 'eh' or 'ah'. That is your hesitation sound, and it varies widely in accents. This sound can often be found through the 'zone', which we covered in #1. An accent that likes to hesitate on an 'eh' probably sits farther forward in the mouth than an accent preferring 'uh'. You can understand this idea better by reading 'What's in my Mouth?' Vowels 101.

3.     Figure out 2-3 differences from your own accent. You're on a time crunch, so skip the phonetic analysis! Listen to the accent and think ok, what is extremely different sound-wise? Do they pronounce an 'r' when you usually usually do not? Or maybe they change their TH into Fs? Have a think, but don't bog yourself down. Go for the 2-3 most obvious changes and you're good to go.

4.     When all else fails, anchor yourself in 1 sentence or phrase that you feel confident saying in the accent. When you're off track, come back to this phrase to help get your mouth and brain on the road again.


Picture from How to Do Accents by Edda Sharpe & Jane Haydn Rowles






What's in My Mouth?: Vowels 101

I've recently been doing quite a bit of American accent coaching, and it has come to my attention that we as actors are vastly unprepared when it comes to the simple question: what's going on in my mouth?

"Bah humbug!" You say. "Actors don't need to know about the aryepiglottic folds! It's all about being in the moment!" To which I say, fair enough. I don't want you to start thinking about your oral twang mid-scene. But as it is better to be informed rather than ignorant, I would argue that it's better to be so versed in the workings of your own mouth that you don't need to think about it, as opposed to realizing mid-scene that you have no idea what you are doing.

But what is this even good for you ask? For one: accents. In an accent you will be changing, sometimes ever so slightly, what your tongue, jaw, lips, soft palate, etc. are doing. Knowing your way around your mouth is also needed for character voicing, when creating a voice for a character that is distinct but also consistent. I would argue you can only do this continually by knowing what is happening in your mouth.

To start: a bit of science: vowel sounds are all created in the same way, as the vocal folds in your larynx vibrate creating sound waves. The vibration then passes through your oral cavity (known at the mouth and throat in normal-person speak) which changes shape based on the sound. It is through the position of the tongue, lips, soft palate, and jaw that changes the vowel sound.

1.     To start, spread your lips into a smile, and push your tongue high and forward. Now see what sound comes out when you out some voice through it. Chances are you will get an 'eee' sound. This is the most forward and high vowel sound we can make.

2.     Keeping your tongue forward, move it down a fraction of an inch, and you arrive at 'ey'. I think of this as the Italian exclamation "AY!"

3.     Keeping moving the tongue down but staying forward and you land on a nice, solid 'eh' sound. This sounds vaguely English, such as in the word DRESS.

4.     Now going as far down as you can with the tongue at the front of the mouth, you will find yourself square on the sound 'aeh' as in the word TRAP.

5.     Let's start to move the tongue back in the mouth, but keeping it low. A few centimeters back from the previous sound you will find yourself producing a short 'ah'. This sound comes in handy when doing Northern English (UK) accents, such as in the word BATH.

6.     Going as far back and down as you can with the tongue, you'll find yourself in new territory, producing the sound 'ahhh'. This is the sound found in the standard British BATH. For Americans, this sound is found in the word FATHER.

7.     Now let's move the tongue up again, but keeping it in the back of the mouth. Round your lips over this sound, and out pops a nice round 'awww' or 'or' sound.

Note: Americans! This sound occurs a lot in UK accents, popping up in words such SHAW, LAW, NORTH & FORCE. In General American speech it shows its face in 'or' sounds, if you pretend there is no 'r' pronounced.

8.     Moving the tongue up, you'll pass quickly over a very pure 'ooh' sound. You know the one.

9.     Finally, bringing the tongue to the top we reach our highest back vowel 'ew', as in 'u'.

Now relax everything and reward yourself with the most lazy sound you can make: 'uh'. Voila, you've found your schwa, or most neutral vowel.

There are a few more vowels that fall in the middle, but you now know where the vowel homes are in your mouth. Now that you've paid them a visit, the quicker they will open their door to you in the future.

Happy vowel exploring!

This post draws heavily on the work of Jan Haydn-Rowles & Edda Sharpe of "How to do Accents," and of Dudley Knight's Knight-Thompson Speechwork