In Defense of Lip-Sync Acting. The phenomenon of acting out a scene… | by Morgan Pryor | Oct, 2021

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The phenomenon of acting out a scene while lip-syncing has risen to popularity on TikTok. But is there value in performing with another’s voice?

Morgan Pryor
Graphic of a set of lips opening, with the words “Sync it!” superimposed. A TikTok logo is pasted on either side of the image, along with a happy and sad mask.
Graphic by Cat Tebo

At first I pay attention because I recognize what I’m hearing. What I’m viewing through my phone screen is an eye-catching variation of the familiar. It manipulates material that’s recognizable and retains some of its essence, yet makes its essence considerably different. It doesn’t quite veer into uncanny valley territory — these are still humans after all, not robotic imitations of them — but perhaps some sort of lesser, parallel phenomenon that doesn’t provoke any feelings of unease. It’s entirely more fun, triggering the recollection of a fond memory and considering it in a new light. They allow me to look at how I know something to be from an alternate angle, and encounter something that’s wholly new.

TikTok lip-synced acting videos — where actors use short dialogue clips from films or movies, mouth the words, and put their own spin on them — act as a sort of funnel for whatever performance they are working off of. In other words, the lip-synced performance can critique or comment on the original, and perhaps become something else entirely. “Defamiliarization,” a term created by 20th century Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky, refers to the practice of presenting familiar objects in a strange way. Thus, it increases perception and changes the audience’s perspective. Tiktok lip-sync acting does exactly that, especially if it’s a widely known performance that has been watched multiple times in its original form. In lip-sync videos, when the familiar and different are pitted against each other, something else altogether comes out of that conflict. The original may bore us now, but as a lip-synced version, the audience can focus on it more and learn something.

Take one such lip-sync performance, this one based off of Helena Bonham Carter and her character from the Harry Potter film series, Bellatrix Lestrange. Derived from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the lilt to Bonham’s words is so distinct that I immediately recognize it — however, the total familiarity begins and ends with the sound. On the screen, her voice isn’t coming from her mouth, her character’s gothic get up, wild hair, and too-wide eyes nowhere to be found (though some creators will copy her look, expressions, and mannerisms exactly, and these I don’t find particularly valuable). Instead, TikTok creator Julia Gava is close to the screen, bound within the four by two inch frame. She is working with nothing aside from the original voice, not aided by a set or editing. Whereas Bonham Carter’s version conveys annoyance behind the madness, Gava’s microexpressions hint at some insecurity, anger, then finally sarcastic humor — her character’s manic state of mind comes through.

Bonham Carter’s dialogue coming from Gava’s mouth doesn’t hinder or necessarily help the performance, but it still gives the viewer a fresh understanding of the character. In fact, Gava owns it in spite of the lip-sync, and makes something new: perhaps an entirely new character, or at the very least intrigues the viewer enough to think about the original performance in a different light.

I first considered these videos with some interest, and not much in the way of appreciation, aside from being slightly entertained. Lip-syncing by no means is a new phenomenon — despite being popularized and persistent in the music industry, and it’s largely frowned upon by consumers, especially during live performances. Even if the singer puts on a show and performs, the knowledge that they’re not vocalizing in real time cheapens the performance; they aren’t making an effort, most would agree, so the value of the performance is significantly lessened. As audience members, we dedicate our time — and oftentimes money — to the performance, so we expect an equal exchange on behalf of the artist. The artist gives their part through live vocals, or more generally, putting in the work to give the audience a unique and memorable and authentic performance. The audience has listened to the studio version of the song before, maybe from a CD or download, so why would they pay to hear that exact same version? This naturally prompts the question: Why should an acting performance be considered any differently?

There is a side of me that wonders if it’s possible to create something worthwhile when the creator’s voice belongs to someone else. Sure, acting happens when the performer isn’t speaking — but when the actor isn’t speaking at all, instead using the voice of another, what becomes of the performance’s overall effectiveness or its value? Is it unaffected, a mere imitation, or does it feel cheapened, as in music? Is it possible to enhance the original?

Though it isn’t without value, lip-syncing isn’t what one would call necessary, or what one would consider a particularly invigorating art form; audiences associate worthwhile performances with authenticity, and there is some inauthenticity in declining to use such one’s own voice. But is someone’s true voice necessary for authenticity at all? Authenticity, whereas it’s valued above all in film, television, and stage plays, is considered a bit differently on social media platforms. Though social media users like to see the real, they don’t really. What is “real” is a painstakingly curated version of reality by the creator. Is acting’s “authentic” element really all that different? The actor manipulates the audience into thinking they are believing what they’re saying, and though voice is a useful tool in achieving such a goal, they can still believe their character’s story with the words of another, their physical choices informing how the audience perceives the character’s reality.

The fact of the matter is, a lip-syncer can still feel what they’re “saying,” regardless of if the voice is or isn’t theirs, by taking on the reality of that character. Despite the choices of inflection and tone belonging to the original performer, they can make their own choices, perhaps even more deliberately, based on how the words work their way from the outside in, then how they root their performance in acting from the inside out. There is value in that I, as the audience, can understand their take on the story of the character, and still feel convinced and moved.

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