Cliff Zellman Interview

216713_4130138386308_1205795391_a1. You started out in music, right?

Absolutely. Other than my Dad being an incredible 1940’s style piano player (and at 84, he’s just as good as ever!), it started for me one day while walking home from school in the 3rd. grade. It was a Thursday and that meant trash pick-up day. A neighbor was throwing away a badly damaged no name acoustic guitar. The back and sides were split. I pulled it out of the can and poured about 2 gallons of Elmer’s glue all over it, let it dry for a few days. I sanded down the glops and rode my Stingray to Baxter Northrup Music on Ventura Blvd in the San Fernando Valley. I put on nylon strings thinking steel strings would pull it apart. I also bought a Mel Bay “Learn to Play Guitar” book. To my surprise, it actually did play, although the strings were about an inch from the fret board. Well, it lasted for about 2 weeks until it imploded. My folks felt so badly, they allowed me to buy my first real electric guitar. Yes, it was a Teisco del Rey. And like the Bryan Adams song goes, “I played it ‘til my fingers bled”.

2. How did you move from there to production?

By the time I was 10, I figured I was ready to start a band. The drummer played suitcases and used wooden soupspoons as sticks. We were not very good, but we were makin’ music! Mostly Monkee’s cover tunes and a few Chad & Jeremy tunes. As the years past, we got better and better and so did our equipment. And that’s when it really got interesting for me. I LOVE GEAR! The pedals, amplifiers, mixers, microphones, cables, buzzes and hums, I loved it all. And I loved the toxic smell of lead solder. By high school graduation, my folks wanted me to be an accountant, yeah, right… and I went through the motions but instead of attending class, I was knocking on every door of every studio in L.A. looking for an entry position. I wound up answering phones, vacuuming, cleaning toilets and emptying ashtrays for Davlen Studios, one of the best studios in L.A. Home to Hall & Oats, Alice Cooper, Toto, England Dan & John Ford Coley, Fleetwood Mac (Rumors) and other chart toppers. I worked my tail off 18 hours a day for 2 years. A stellar moment in my early career was during a tape inventory in the library, a wall apart from the main recording room. I put my ear to the wall and heard Steve Lukather cutting the guitar solo to Hold The Line from Toto’s first album. I was literally trembling knowing full well I was hearing music history in the making. Soon after that, I got my big break. They allowed me to wrap cables! Then came tape machine alignments and eventually second engineer. I was offered a better position at Fidelity Studios, a hard-core rock and roll studio in Studio City, Ca. I moved up from second engineer to chief audio engineer and head of in-house production. That lasted for 13 years. As far as “getting into production” I guess that happened silently at first as an engineer. I would create sounds the bands never thought of and because I could never keep my mouth shut, and being a pretty good guitar and keyboard player by then, I spoke the language.

3. What made you decide to start the Dallas Voice Acting Meet Up Group?

I have always loved to teach. I’ve made 6 trips to Taipei teaching music production and engineering for BMG Asia, Music Impact and Friendly Dogs Records. When a new studio opened or a big Taiwanese artist was about to cut an album, I’d get an offer to engineer and teach their engineers how to run the room and make “Big American Rock & Roll Music Sound”. I also studied Mandarin for many years at UCLA while employed at Fidelity.  I LOVE Taiwan, the people, the food, the culture and the amazing talent I found all around me. That really fueled my love for teaching.  Skip ahead a few years to RadioVision, a full service Ad Agency in Dallas…. After ten years of directing Voice Talent for commercial/retail production, I wanted to add some new “local talent” to our roster. So I created a place to have talent meet and audition.  What I ended up with was a room full of absolute newbie’s. Not my intention. The meet ups became so popular I was having up to 40 people show up at each one. I wasn’t getting anywhere. Every meet-up was a Newbie’s Night. I took 3 months off and began writing a syllabus, scripts, exercises and techniques both voice & technical. I broke it into 8 “spokes” of the VO wheel. Now, every new member MUST attend Newbie’s Night first, where I spend an hour trying to talk everyone out of this career path. I speak of no glory, no cash windfalls, no fame, audition rejections etc. I stress talent, commitment, practice, education, technical knowledge, solitude and countless hours scouring the Internet for every ounce of VO information. I give URLS and stress the importance of not spending a dime until absolutely ready. We have spawned many a successful VO career and kept some folks from wasting their time. 116 meet ups later, I think the DVA, with 702 members could be the largest VO Meet Up Group out there. It is my passion beyond passion. It takes a lot of VERY hard work and please let me express my extreme gratitude for the incredible talents of Brad Venable, Jim Schrecengost, Amy Snively, Neil Kaplan, Bob and Stephanie Day Carter, Nazia Chaudhry and others that have helped to make the DVA what it is today. I believe that the success of the DVA, and Brad’s Super Hero University has helped to bring incredible talent to Dallas, such as Marc Cashman, Pat Fraley, Rob Paulsen, Bob Bergen, Marylynn Wissner and others. Please allow me to also send a shout out to Susan Bernard and her Dallas Area Voice Over Actors Network Shuffle for keeping VO social & creating a relaxing and sharing environment for anyone involved or interested in VO.

4. Tell us about winning an Emmy! (I did not know this about you and my jaw dropped when I read it!)

The Owner of Fidelity Studios was an old school N.Y. music man. He was beyond brilliant, an incredible producer and very difficult. I was his personal engineer. He had an idea to take popular TV shows (CBS) and create soundtrack albums based on the theme of the shows.  We did “China Beach” (60’s), “Dallas” (Country), Murphy Brown (Motown) and Beauty and the Beast (classical & poetry). For Beauty and the Beast, I recorded the 103 piece orchestra at A&M Studios reproducing the music written specifically for the TV show by Don Davis and Lee Holdridge, under the watchful eye of the great Armin Steiner. Wow, THAT was nerve-wracking! Once the music was recorded, I took the tracks back to Fidelity and recorded Ron Perlman (awesome) reading classic works of Shakespere, Rilke, Woodsworth, Byron, Shelley and others. That was my first real taste of voice over. The project lasted 4 months! We took the main theme from the show and created a “pop” music version. I oversaw the writing of the lyrics and hired the musicians and produced the track from scratch at Fidelity. It was aired during a special segment of the series. It won an Emmy for “Best Original Song in a Prime Time Series”.  A few years before relocating to Dallas (post ’94 earthquake) I began recording live dialogue for Animated TV series’ for Disney, DIC and Saban. Some of these show included, Power Rangers, Where in the World is Carmen San Diego, Little Mouse on the Prairie, Pro Stars, Sonic the Hedgehog and others. It was a semi difficult transition for me from the hard core daze of Rock & Roll. During this time, I was fortunate to work with Jim Cummings, Townsend Coleman, Rob Paulsen, Pat Fraley, Bob Bergen and other superstars of today. I learned from legendary animation directors. I was hooked!

5. So, not only do you do all kinds of production awesomeness, but you also do coaching and teaching?

My main gig is RadioVision. This is my dream job. The one I have been working for 20 years to get. I always wanted to be Darren Stevens from Bewitched. I’m going on my 18th year with RV. Heck, we must be doing something right. I moved out of RadioVision offices a few years ago and they allow me to work exclusively from home. I told them if I had my studio at home I’d probably end up working 18 hours a day… I was right. When it come to direction, I strive to bring musicality to VO as well as the obvious all important interpretation, intonation, ownership of copy, believability, script deconstruction and cadence. Teaching is simply an extension of who I am, what I’ve learned that works and what the client really wants. Coaching is the same way for me. I feel that directing IS coaching and believe me, working with some of the best commercial/retail talents in the business has taught me volumes. I am grateful for each one of them. I am doing more and more Skype coaching when time allows. After an hour of a Skype session, I am exhausted! Good times!

I consider myself to be extremely fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time… many times. But most important, I am incredibly grateful to the amazing talents and generosity of so many wonderful people who believed in this goofy surfer dude from the Valley.

Next week I’ll be sitting down with Lena Verwoord, Canadian Virtual Assistant!

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8 comments

  1. Dan Friedman says:

    Cliff Zellman rocks! I also love TOTO and am now very jealous. 😉

  2. Bill Brewer says:

    I have only recently gotten to know Cliff. What a brilliant giving guy. I feel very humble to be chosen to record my demo with his direction.

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  4. S Barker says:

    What a great interview – I’m now an even bigger fan of Cliff Zellman! Brilliant stuff!

  5. Rick Lance says:

    Good interview. Always interested in other talent that come from a music background.
    Although, like Dan Friedman, I’m jealous too! Toto… I still play that album that won 5 grammies. And Hall & Oats… how cool. I gotta talk more with Cliff and share some stories!

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