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

Stationed in Berlin

It's been over a month! I am still in Berlin working on the upcoming Paramount/Epix series Berlin Station.  Also look out for my work in The Crown, premiering on Netflix this autumn. Until those come out, enjoy a little glimpse of movie magic: 

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 ...
     

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.

HAPPY ACCENT-ING!

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