Ben Upson is a classically trained British actor based in Dubai. He recently got nominated for the Voice Arts Awards by The Society of Voice Arts and Sciences in New York. His narrated audiobook version of the illustrated children’s book, Nodo The Chairs’ Mover by Dubai-based author, Daniele Frau, was also published in April this year. If there’s one word to describe Ben’s style, it’s incredibly versatile. Okay, that’s two. But wait till you see how he dubbed clips from some of your favorite movies and cartoons on his Instagram account. Some of our favorites are his impersonations of Michael Caine in the Dark Knight, and scenes from Shrek and Guardians of the Galaxy 2.
Creativity Undefined spoke with him about how he got started in the wonderful world of voice acting, how he adjusted during the pandemic, his favorite roles, what drives him, and his tips for newbie voice actors.
Congrats on your recent voice arts awards nomination! Tell us about your artistic journey. When and how did you get started? Have you had any professional training as an actor?
I started learning about acting when I was 16 at college. I took a diploma in performing arts and after that I headed to university to study theater and film. When I graduated, I decided to head to drama school where I would attain classical training as an actor. I auditioned for a postgraduate position at the Weber Douglass Academy of dramatic art. A course that was an intensive year-long training covering voice, speech, acting techniques and Shakespearean acting as well as stage combat, movement, singing, classical dance and of course voice acting.
So overall since the age of 16 I have been involved in acting and the arts in one form or another.
What inspired you to pursue voice acting?
We learned how to voice act in drama school where they had a professional studio setup. However, I didn’t begin professional voice acting until many years later in Dubai. The film and theater industry is not very big in the Middle East (at least not compared to the west), the scale of jobs that I might be interested in is far smaller than that of London or America, although there is a decent sized creative industry of advertising for radio, web and television. It had been years since I had done any voiceover or voice acting, but I decided to get into it because of the pure need to go back to my creative roots.
I began by heading to studios around Dubai and letting them know I was available for work, and it wasn’t long before I landed my first radio advertisement. Slowly and steadily, I built my portfolio, invested in better equipment to record with and now have my own company recording voices for different media.
How would you describe your style? Who/What are your greatest influences and how did you develop your style?
I am very much a classically trained theatrical voice. A lot of people hear the word classical and immediately think of Oscar Wilde or Shakespeare, but that is not necessarily the case. Classically trained simply means that I have all the foundations in place and know exactly how to use certain advanced vocal, mental, and physical techniques in order to give a good honest performance. Being classically trained also doesn’t mean that a person will be a very good performer or actor. Being good comes from many different things including (but not limited to) passion, experience and the love of what you do. My style of voice acting has developed a lot over the last few years where I have had to do more advanced training, make many mistakes, learn from them and push my creative boundaries to a place where I am far more confident in creating different voices and characters with authenticity.
You’re very versatile with all the movie clips you dubbed. Are there any particular roles you enjoy voicing most?
I really, really love character roles. The stranger the better. It is in the darkest corners of our imagination that we can find the most colorful of characters. My first dubbed movie clip was Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice. I grew up on watching films like that and used to memorize all the different lines. My friends used to tell me I was good at voices when I was a boy, but I never thought anything of it. I just enjoyed disappearing into other worlds.
What voices/roles come naturally to you? And which ones are the most challenging to play and why?
The easiest roles for me to voice seem to be the ones that are intriguingly unique. Earlier this year I voiced two armies of different characters on a computer game called Conquerors Blade. One army was a set of Viking Beserkers with huge war cries and massively violent mentalities. The other was a bunch of feral wolfpack soldiers who spoke much like goblins and orcs. The personalities came easily to me because I could see them and imagine them and become them. At the same time, I found the entire process very difficult because my vocal technique was bad. I had to call on the help of my old voice coach from drama school to give me a refresher on how to voice such characters without causing damage to my vocal cords. The technique I ended up using was exactly the same as that of heavy metal singers. Whereby instead of using the throat to contort the voice into such a gravelly tone, instead the rear area of the mouth is used in conjunction with the tongue and very controlled breathwork from the lungs and diaphragm. This has been my most challenging role to date because of the pure physical work and mental concentration that it demanded. I recorded over 2000 different lines multiple times each in a three-day span.
How has life as an expat influenced your art and creative process?
Dubai is very different from the UK when it comes to arts and culture. The city does actively try to boost the community, culture and overall scene and it does it very well. However, in London it has been ingrained in the culture for hundreds of years and is very hard to compare with, let alone compete with. On the flip side, Dubai greatly encourages entrepreneurialism and is an extremely inspiring city to live in. Due to this, the community is absolutely thriving and people like myself are free to push the boundaries and bring what we want to see happen in this city. I really don’t think I would have got to the point of setting up my own business if I remained in the UK, perhaps I wouldn’t have even got as far as a voice actor. The point is, there is an abundance of opportunity in a place like Dubai, but it is up to you to make it happen. Furthermore, when you do take that step you soon realize the sky is the limit.
What hidden gems should people know about in the UAE’s arts community?
Alserkal Avenue in Al Quoz is a must, it is full of the new art culture of Dubai and has great events and a thriving community. Just to go there and hang out at a coffee shop. It’s inspiring. The Courtyard Playhouse just across from there is also an amazing place. It has professional level shows, courses for aspiring actors and even workshops for people looking to just build confidence in themselves. Theatre is a wonderful tool for this and The Courtyard does it brilliantly.
How did you get your break as a voice actor? Have you always worked from a home studio?
I haven’t always worked from a home studio. I used to head to all the different studios around Dubai, however when the pandemic arrived this soon had to stop. I had been investing in my own studio for around three years prior to the pandemic, but this was to work with clients outside of the UAE. For the whole of 2020 I didn’t leave my house once for work and in 2021 I have only left my house once to do only one job, for everything else this year I have worked from home. The pandemic has shifted the paradigm and the industry has realized that home studios can certainly work to the level of the industry standard. My home studio has been built, as I said, over a period of years and the equipment I use is on par with many professional studios around the world, the only difference is I am not physically there while the client is directing me, but I have high definition video set up in my booth with a seamless video link, which is actually much more than if I were to be in a live studio, as even then the clients do not see me at work in the sound booth.
If you could travel back in time and grab the chance to voice any character in any movie, who would you choose to play and why?
I’m a big fan of new animation like Rick and Morty and Final Space. David Tennant plays a wonderful villain in that series, it’s definitely something I would like to have a stab at. These types of shows sometimes require a lot of improvisation and creativity on the voice actor’s part behind the scenes. It’s these things that I really want to be involved with, things like improvisation, spur of the moment comedy and just general creating of magic in a creative environment. What I really enjoy is working with writers, directors and other people who want to see characters come to life as much as I do.
Looking back, what was your greatest achievement and your greatest challenge? Why?
Opening a business that relied solely on me being a voice over was certainly a difficult challenge and to have that business being profitable and successful for nearly two years now is definitely a success. One of the biggest challenges was having to realize that I wasn’t as good in many areas of voiceover that I thought I was. For example, I am very good at character voices but that doesn’t lend itself well to something like a serious commercial. I had to learn and study the art of commercial voiceover, fine tuning my voice and the psychological aspect of, for example, endearing an audience by coming from a position of help rather than a position of sales in order to push a product in a radio ad. It took me so much trial and error, of which the most difficult part was hearing myself on the radio and realizing I really don’t like the work that I just did. However, as long as you are constantly being critical of yourself you will also constantly be improving.
Is there anything that you would’ve done differently or wished had happened differently? What? Why?
If there’s one thing I would have done differently it is to have more self-confidence earlier in my career. I always second guessed myself, always undervalued myself and told myself that I wasn’t good enough to aspire to the things that I wanted. However, perhaps if that hadn’t have been the case, maybe I would have come across far more arrogant, cocky and overconfident at an early stage. All three of those things are sure ingredients to turn industry professionals away from you.
Where do you draw your inspiration from? Has that changed since the pandemic hit last year? Why or why not?
I’ve always drawn inspiration from my favorite actors, cartoon shows and cult films. The pandemic certainly forced me and a lot of other people into a situation where we had to find inspiration and motivation in new places. I actually started streaming on twitch.tv and actively tried to get plugged in to that community. It was there that I found an amazing music making community that greatly appreciated my work as much as I did theirs. I have made some great friends there and collaborated with some very cool people. They very much became a source of inspiration throughout the pandemic and boosted my confidence in my own creativity.
Do voice actors get artists block? If so, how do you overcome it?
Like actors, voice actors do get artist block. It’s so easy to get locked in to one way of saying something, one tonality and just overall you find yourself at a dead end sometimes. There are loads of ways to overcome this though. A few years ago, I read a book called ‘The Art of Voice Acting’, by James R. Alburger which has so many fantastic techniques that combat artist block. Many of the techniques you learn when training as an actor and they translate very easily into voice acting. There are much more advanced techniques though, which an actor may never use, and a voice actor would heavily rely on having in their arsenal.
Who would you jump at the chance to collaborate with, if given the chance? Why?
There was a fantastic adaptation of Rick and Morty done by a guy called Michael Cusack from Australia. It was called ‘Bushworld Adventures’ and had me rolling in tears of laughter. I love comedy, creativity and exposing the parts of our imagination that society doesn’t like to see. It would be really cool to collaborate with him, or someone like him, and just have a really good time creating something hilarious and possibly controversial to the mainstream.
The pandemic’s had a lasting impact on everyone. What was the biggest adjustment that you’ve had to make?
I was really lucky because I left my full-time job in January of 2020 to go and work from home. I did however have many plans to travel the world and meet many people to work and collaborate with. I had just returned from Los Angeles where I had many positive meetings and the possibility to go back for some exciting projects was very much on the cards. That all got put on ice due to the pandemic, as did everyone else’s plans worldwide. I’m even conducting this interview from Portugal where I am attending the American Film Market remotely. My Creative Director and I are working to gain traction on a documentary surrounding the world of voiceover, however the reason we are in Portugal is because we cannot physically be in America for the event as it has been transferred online because of the pandemic.
Do you think that you’ll maintain any changes once things return to normal? If yes, what and why? If no, why?
I certainly think the media and creative industry will have permanently changed due to the pandemic. As I mentioned earlier, I have only once been physically to a studio to work in the last two years. Aside from that, all the work I have done has been from home. Pre-pandemic this definitely would not have happened. The industry has adjusted and even seen some benefits in having people like myself record remotely. At the same time creativity is not something that can thrive too well in a virtual environment. People need to be near each other, react from one another’s energy and be in the same room in order to drive any creative idea to its full potential.
What shifts have you observed from creatives? Will these last beyond the pandemic? Why or why not?
I have seen the filmmaking and video editing community adapt extremely well to remote working. Some great ideas and even finished productions have come of this. I think a lot of this will maintain a positive trajectory after the pandemic.
What are you currently working on? Can you share some details about some upcoming projects?
I’m currently working on a documentary shining a spotlight on the VO industry and the huge world that is voice over. It’s very exciting, extremely interesting and is getting great feedback from those we have shared the idea with. I will hopefully be going back to Los Angeles in the new year to further develop the film. I have also recently opened a dubbing studio in collaboration with one of Dubai’s top audio studios and together we hope to really plug ourselves into the center of that industry.
What is your dream project?
My dream project as a voice actor is 100% Japanese anime. I grew up watching all the cult classics from Akira, to Fist of The North Star, the Studio Ghibli films and other more obscure titles and series. I’d also love to of course work at the top of the ladder in things like Disney, WB and other animated productions that have such wonderful stories and characters to portray. Most importantly, my daughter would be over the moon to have her father voice the things she loves to watch.
What advice would you share with anyone starting out that you wished someone had told you?
Get good at audio production. It’s half the reason why I’m at the level I work at. If you rely on other people to put your demo together for you, then you don’t always have full control and you can spend a lot of money making yourself sound good. Study it and treat it as much like an art form as you do voice acting. At the same time, don’t think that just because you have the best microphone and studio equipment that you sound great. You have to constantly develop yourself and work on the areas that you are vocally weak in. Finally, be honest with yourself with those weak areas. You are not always as good as you think, there is always room for improvement. I am not even close to where I want to be with regards to my vocal range.
What’s the WORST piece of advice you’ve ever been given and why?
I have been lucky to have some great mentors and teachers over the years. I haven’t really had much bad advice. I have learned the hard way with some other things though. One thing I would advise is that if you haven’t got anything positive to say, then don’t say anything. Positivity is infectious, but so is negativity and people remember you for both things. In this industry you meet a lot of people for very short instances, try to leave them with a positive image of you.
What’s a goal that you hope to achieve, personally and professionally, in the next five years?
In the next five years I want to get signed to an animated series, produce some good films and see our new company thrive in this amazing industry. I’d also like to somehow find a way to help the industry and community thrive in general.
Personally, I just want a happy future for my wife and daughter, full of laughter, fun and celebrations. I don’t get to spend enough time with them, and they are what I care about most.