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How to Act like an Actor

I do a couple of “odd jobs” in an effort to gain a variety of different experiences here. One of those jobs involves working with a company that produces language learning materials for people all over the world. They don’t just produce Japanese language materials, but dozens of other languages as well. Some readers of this blog might be familiar with the Japanese Pod 101 series of materials. That’s the company I work for!

I do a couple different things for this company. Initially, I was hired to be the host of a web series called “English in 3 minutes”, a short series seeking to instruct students of English in more natural phrases and manners of speaking. The series is entirely in English, and is geared toward people who have already studied English and have a decent grasp of communicating, but need work improving their studies to be more “natural” and less “textbook”. It’s an effort to get away from the: “How are you–I’m fine thank you, and you?” That every textbook teaches, and replace it with: “How’s it goin’?” “Not bad!” Here’s an example (excuse the horrible preview photo):

I am told that the channel has been exploding with popularity. In December, the company told me that the channel had been getting 700 new subscribers every week. I remarked: “Hey, I should just be doing these videos myself!” To which my director replied: “Yeah, you’re not supposed to realize that.” The company also claims that I am their only host not to receive any negative comments. The only thing I’ve ever seen on YouTube is a snarky quip about my eyebrows, and some occasional mutterings that English being taught in English makes no sense. Oh well. Can’t please everyone.

In addition to this web series (for which I am contracted for 25 episodes, 24 of which are filmed), I also do voice recording for audio programs. Thus far, I’ve helped in the production of an Arabic series, a Spanish series, and today am heading off to do the final recordings for a Swedish series. Each series is 25 lessons in total. I don’t actually speak any of these languages (except for a little Spanish). Rather, my role in these lessons is to be the English guide. I’m the voice that asks questions on behalf of the listener, banters with the native speaker host, and tells listeners: “repeat after the host!”

Occasionally I also come in to record English vocabulary; they stick me by myself in the recording studio, and I record a few hundred words and phrases for vocabulary lists. This is arguably the hardest job because I do for them because I am placed in a dim, warm studio with my only job being to push a button and speak a word or two at a time. I won’t lie; I once nodded off.

Before I began doing this sort of work, it all sounded very fast-paced, exciting, and, well, “glamorous”. The reality of it, however, is that it’s pretty normal. It’s fun to have the chance to work with people from all over the world, but it does have downsides.

A green screen in a studio
This is the green screen I stand in front of to shoot the videos. It was freezing this morning.

The studio I shoot the videos in is actually just the office where entire company works. There is no separate space to shoot in. There’s just a green screen on the back wall, and the camera, lighting, and mics are all setup in a space in the back of the office. Because this is the setup, every video has to be shot really, really early in the morning – before the other staff comes in and starts making noise. We often have to stop recording and do re-takes because someone sweeping outside or a car door slamming gets caught on tape, and ruins the shot. We all have to be at the office and ready to go at 7 AM. This means on my shoot days I get up at about 5 AM to get camera-prepared and get to the place for shooting. Following the shoot (which can sometimes last up to 2 hours), I then go to my regular day job. Admittedly, these shoots happen very infrequently, so it isn’t an issue, but it does make my days rather long.

The audio recordings happen once or twice a month, and I have an agreement with my current company where I can plan in advance to leave the office a couple hours early in the afternoon to go and take care of my voice recording responsibilities. The sessions usually involve 2-3 hours sitting across from the native speaker in a tiny studio, and a supervisor sits outside, cutting in occasionally to tell us to re-take lines.

Alisha and Fernando, a voice host for Spanish lessons, in the studio

An Audio Recording Studio where language lessons are created.

It’s an interesting, fun thing to do occasionally, and it’s just another little tidbit of experience to add to a resume. The studio folks and the people I record my videos with tell me that I’m actually pretty good at it, but I like to think it’s because I have the rather unfair of advantage of doing all my work in my native language.

So, how does one go about getting a job like this? There are a couple things you can do to increase your chances. One is to sign up with an agency. There are a number of agencies throughout Tokyo that do extra work, or have connections for TV or voice recording jobs. I’m signed up with Group Echo, an agency based in Tokyo. The owner, Hikaru, is a very nice bilingual woman who runs things. Show up for a short interview and an introduction to the work, submit a few photos, and they contact you whenever work comes up. I get emails perhaps once a month about jobs I’m eligible to apply for, provided my schedule is open on the days specified.

In the case of this job specifically, however, I found a posting on craigslist and responded to it. I was looking for a little extra part-time work at the time, and although I didn’t have any professional experience in front of a camera, I figured having done a few YouTube videos was at least a foot in the door. I applied, and did a screen test. They liked me, and I got the job! Pretty straightforward.

I will warn people getting into this sort of thing that it does not pay the bills (at least on this level). The pay for the video work and the infrequency with which I come to the office means I get very little in my bank account from this company each month. It’s usually only about $50 a month or so, but I do it because I enjoy a little break in my routine now and then, and it’s a good chance to learn a little bit and meet some interesting people.

The agency I’m signed up with is much the same; jobs are infrequent. I receive emails now and then about upcoming positions that I fit the client’s needs for, and the agency sends out a call to all eligible individuals, asking if they are interested and available. Pay varies from job to job. Average for most one day jobs (as an extra), is about 10,000 yen a day (about $100). I did see one job come through recently for a very high profile video game client, however, where pay was more like $700 for a job. In almost a year of being signed up with the agency, however, I’ve only ever seen one job opportunity like that. The agency pays on time, but it’s usually two months after the date of the actual job.

If you’re interested in this kind of work, get yourself signed up with a few agencies, and have another job or another source of income. Unless you’re wildly successful and famous, chances are that you will not be supporting yourself solely with a career as an extra in Tokyo.

I’m not an actor, but I do act like one from time to time because it’s something I enjoy doing, and it’s a straightforward, interesting job. Many other Tokyo residents have dabbled in this kind of work, and there are a wide range of experiences. As with all career choices, how far you go is up to you! My only recommendations are to be smart, only do work you are comfortable with, and have another source of income. If you think you’re going to be the next big star, you’re setting yourself up to have your hopes dashed. If you’re going into the experience just looking for an couple interesting little jobs here and there, you’ll be in good shape.


  1. Ted A Ted A March 2, 2013


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