Beyond the Voices

Studio Center, Headquartered In Virginia Beach, Is Now The Largest Production Company In The Country, Offering Casting, Catchy Jingles, Creativity ... And Plenty Of Cookies

The first thing you notice when you visit Studio Center is the smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.

“Help yourselves,” Chris Wilson says as she offers a plate of gooey goodness to the group of visitors relaxing in the recording studio’s well-cushioned lounge, tricked out with multiple TV screens and a pingpong table.

The Studio Center staff was directed to taste-test dozens of brands just to get the right company cookie, the marketing director says. Both Virginia Beach locations of Studio Center, including the company’s main corporate office (a former headquarters for Gene Walter Homes), boast video editing suites, soundproofed studios and casting rooms that share the dreamy aroma. “Chocolate Chip cookies are one of the things that Woody likes to have at all of our locations,” Wilson says.

Woody is William “Woody” Prettyman, a former radio ad salesman and executive who, 10 years ago, bought the long-running, Norfolk-based Studio Center, moved it to the beach and expanded it both physically and creatively. The CEO has added a “Total Production” tag to the company name and opened handsome new Studio Center locations in New York; Santa Monica, Calif.; and Richmond, with a soon-to-be location in the Georgetown area of Washington D.C. A long-standing branch in Las Vegas is still going strong.

“We’re the largest production company in the United States,” the 51-year-old Pettyman says with no small bit of pride, petting his beloved Labradoodle, Chloe, who is along for the tour.  

Evidence would suggest he’s not just bragging. Studio Center works with roughly 15,000 different clients every year, including bigtimers such as Starbucks, Comcast, Audi, McDonalds, HBO and FedEx. The recording and voiceover specialists have copped thousands of industry awards—Addys, Andys, Tellys, Clios, and even a Grammy for a George Carlin book-on-tape. In recent years, the company has expanded its reach to include on-camera talent casting, full-service video production, translator services, a Studio Center Network for radio, and more. The risks are paying off—with 68 employees spread across six locations, Studio Center posted record earnings of $20 million last year.

“Look, here’s our philosophy,” Prettyman says, deeply tanned and dressed casually. “I’m no genius. I look at how much we spend on translations, say, and it’s a lot. So I say, huh, let’s buy a translation company.”

So he did. And now Studio Center, among its other offerings, is a major player in the language conversion business. ”We have certified translators in just about every language imaginable,” he says.

He offers up another cookie. “Everything is organic in our approach. I’m a sales and marketing guy, but I learned a long time ago that we can’t sell anybody anything. It’s our job to tell them how to buy it.”


Inside the Studio
It can be hard to get a handle on all that Studio Center does. Walk into a random studio or office and you might find a voice actor recording GPS prompts for automobiles, or an engineer mixing down a Subway sandwich commercial, or casting directors auditioning actors for a cable TV ghost show.

Today, sitting before a giant screen, Jeff Russell—director of the motion graphics department—is subtitling an online advertisement for an insurance company. “It started out at as an American TV ad,” he says. “I’m dubbing it all into 18 different languages. I’m working on Russian right now.” A formidable band of monster figurines keeps careful watch on him as he works.

In the company’s “Design Center,” Ken Whitaker and John Carolino are building websites and working up brochures and posters. The duo recently wrapped up local work for Ellwood Thompson, Atlantic Shores, Rowena’s Kitchen, Back Bay Gourmet and Norfolk FestEvents “A lot of the jobs come from clients we already have,” Whitaker says. “It’s kind of a progression.”

 “The Studio Center team is extremely creative, responsive and professional,” says Karen Scherberger, the president/CEO of FestEvents, which first worked with the company 15 years ago. “They did a series of radio spots for us. Two years ago, we started engaging their services for writing press releases, developing social media strategies, helping us with some new creative design work. And then last year we engaged them to do a complete overhaul of our website, which we just launched.”

In its relationship with certain clients, like FestEvents, Studio Center functions as more of an ad agency than a recording studio. “We’ll never use the word ‘agency’,” Prettyman maintains. “That denotes misogynistic men drinking Scotch. Most of our department heads are women. We have all kinds of folks working here. If you walk around here, you’ll see 22-year-old people and you’ll see 65-year-old people.”

 

Dave Davis, the studio’s operation manager, represents the older demographic. He’s the longest-running employee here. “We’ve gone from a local to a national firm,” Davis says of today’s Studio Center. “We were in some different markets before, but Woody took us into New York and Los Angeles and helped us get a nationwide presence.”

He was hired by original owner Warren Miller 38 years ago. Times were different, but innovation was still key. “Warren scratched out a niche for himself, especially in commercial productions,” Davis says. “He was charging for something that radio stations were giving away. The reason he succeeded was that he was doing it better than radio stations could.”

The original Studio Center, established in 1966 as D’Arcy Studios, began by servicing local musicians and bands (“we don’t do much of that anymore,” says Davis) but soon pioneered the practice of producing independently-made commercials for the broadcast industry, building a strong stable of local voice talent in the process.

“Warren Miller was doing a unique job of selling voices,” Prettyman says. “He had a unique model to sell them around the country. He had a great vision to say: people need voices, and we can deliver those voices.”

The company’s formidable voice actor roster is still one of the anchors of its business. You’ve heard them on airline flights and radio commercials, coming from department store intercoms and at sporting events, and from within Dora the Explorer dolls. The Studio Center’s exclusive tonsil brigade is a veritable who’s-who of well-known Hampton Roads media personalities heard far and wide—Nikki Reed, Gigi Young, Eric Worden, Joe Flanagan, even the venerable Dick Lamb and Andy Roberts are on standby.

“I’m really popular with hospitals right now,” laughs Gigi Young, who joined the Studio Center voice roster in 1982. “I just recently did work for a racetrack in Ohio and … ” She beams. “I will be the voice heard at that racetrack.” (To watch an in-depth video interview with Gigi Young and fellow Studio Center voice talents Eric Worden and Ann Flandermeyer Kirwin, visit CoastalVirginiaMag.com.)    

We reach the desk of Debbie Manzione, the auditions and voiceover director, who is stationed outside the closed door of a noisy casting office. “She has the most thankless, intense, difficult job in the company,” Prettyman says. Manzione coordinates thousands of voice jobs a month and oversees a database that keeps track of the mic work being done at the different Studio Center locations. “The clients will call us and give us the perimeters of the job and we’ll choose the talent to fit that,” she says, staring at a screen filled with dates, times and colored tabs.

Augmenting its voiceovers, Studio Center purchased the Atlantic Talent agency in 2009. The studio has since helped to find actors for number of major films, such as Super 8, Evan Almighty and Captain Phillips, as well as TV shows such as The Walking Dead and Homeland.

“We have a roster that we work with,” says Tiana Lopez, one of the talent directors. “We also do auditions and use different networking sites to look for talent in different areas and within all genres, races and ethnicities.”

“We cast everything from training videos, web videos, television series, films, commercials, you name it,” says talent director Genevieve Hayes-McBride. “If a person is in front of a camera, we want to be the one to put them there.”

 

But who needs an actor when you can create one from scratch?

Daryl Gangadeen faces a myriad of screens in his nearby office, working on an online training video for Owens and Minor, the medical company. Gangadeen specializes in, as he says, “3D animation, character animation, 3D logos and environments … I’m making a character for them that tells the company’s story and shows what they do.”

He recently built a snazzy 3-D online exhibit for the renovated Chrysler Museum’s website. Another recent customer was building a hotel. “They wanted a photorealistic look to show what [their project] is going to look like, so we built that building for them [virtually]. Another client wanted to remake their office space. So we built that 3-D space up and showed a couple guys walking around in it.”

Every job is different, Gangadeen says. “We do a lot of 2-D animation here as well. Whatever the client needs, if they need characters, or story direction, we can do it.”
    
You Can Have It All
The new Studio Center is set up to be an all-media idea factory, capable of doing as much, or as little, as a customer wants. You may, for example, need a catchy song.

We stop into the studio of Peter Pope, producer and music writer. The bespectacled tunesmith has been creating jingles and producing commercials here for nearly two decades, working with clients as far-ranging as Napa Audio Parts, McDonalds, Hacienda Mexican Restaurant and Guitar Center. He just wrote a catchy ditty for the Baltimore Electric and Gas Company—some feat.

“Peter will bring in people sometimes to help him with lyrics, but he does the music himself,” Prettyman says. “Play the one for Priority, if you don’t mind.”

Pope cues up a recent commercial for Priority Insurance and says, “we do a lot of work for Priority. They have their own jingle.”

Prettyman adds: “They had this spot recently called ‘Welcome Home Dad,’ and they asked us to take their jingle and make it ‘ethereal and sweet and patriotic.’” Pope first plays the original jingle, a mid-tempo, guitar-filled rocker with a female voice intoning that “you can have it all.”

“Kind of an impossible task,” Prettyman says. “But I was walking through here at 9 o’ clock one night and I saw Peter, and he said, ‘I think I’ve got it.’”

We watch the Priority Insurance commercial with the musical rearrangement. Pope’s reworked soundtrack is plaintive, understated and touching—a perfect fit for the sentimental “troops come home” nature of the ad, which Studio Center also cast.

“He nailed it,” Prettyman says.

 

The CEO points out similar work done for Barbasol shaving cream and Pure Silk body lotion. “We do all of their stuff, we even tweak their scripts,” he says. “For Pure Silk, we just went to the Bahamas in February, shot on a boat, shot some windsurfing, shot the LGPA golfers … ”

These ads showcase all that the new Studio Center can do, he says. “We helped write it, we conceptualized it, we shot it, did the audio and video post-production, did the voice over and cast the actors.”

“Everyone but the windsurfer,” says Pope, who wrote the jingle.

“Yes, she was a professional windsurfer and we had to give her a pedicure because her toes were all busted up,” laughs Prettyman.

Pope admits that he never saw Studio Center growing into the full-service entity that it is now. “I thought it was going to grow but not to this extent. I always thought we would stay in Norfolk. I never saw it growing the way it has now.”

You never know whom you might bump into at a Studio Center. Football legend and broadcaster Terry Bradshaw was just in, sampling the cookies and voicing commercials for Ferguson plumbing. A few weeks before, actor William H. Macy was in the Santa Monica location, lending his tones to a documentary. The company has worked with the likes of Morgan Freeman, Susan Sarandon and the late Isaac Hayes.

The creative environment has attracted Chad Hugo, one half of the Grammy-winning Neptunes production team (he’s Pharrell Williams’ right-hand man). The beach native and member of N.E.R.D. has his own office at Studio Center.

“Chad basically wanted a place where he can show up, throw some stuff in and have a coffee cup,” Prettyman says. “He’s done a jingle for us. He’ll send us raw tracks from the road and have us mix them. He might be here for three weeks, and then we won’t see him for a month. For some reason, he loves us. But that’s probably because we don’t ask anything from him.”  

Studio Center’s owner recalls one Friday afternoon when the hip-hop producer brought some tequila out and invited the staff to do shots with him.

“So we all did one shot of tequila,” he grins, “and we got back to work.”

For more on Studio Center, and to see samples of its work, go to studiocenter.com.

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