Friday, March 28, 2008

Star Voices and Mainstream Movie-Makers

Big, A-list star? Then what was he doing making all those cheapie Sherlock Holmes pictures at Universal-International?

This article from down under complains about celebrities and their vocal cords taking over the sweet, pristine world of animation:

Horton is a shining example of the "all-audience animated comedy", in which celebrity voices spearhead a teflon-coated combination of pop culture references for the adults (Horton, for instance, loves "the smell of bananas in the morning") and kiddie-friendly cute critters, manic slapstick and soft-serve moralising.

Anyone looking for a culprit can blame Robin Williams. The whole celebrity voiceover thing reached critical mass after the comic voiced the genie in Aladdin to worldwide success in the 1992 Disney film ... The elevation of celebrities to the sine qua non of animation is reaching its logical endgame in influencing the appearance of the films. Remember Shark Tale, in which the shark voiced by Robert De Niro had his trademark mole and Angelina Jolie's fish her puffy lips? ...

Actually, the die was cast for celebrity voices in animated films decades ago, when mainstream Hollywood execs ripped animated features from the hands of Disney old-timers and stopped making them the way Uncle Walt did.

The new posse in town wanted full-blown scripts instead of storyboards ("I don't get these drawings on cork board at all. I gotta see a screenplay!"). And they wanted writers with full WGA credentials to write them.

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They also desired 24-karat movie stars to voice the words in the script. Sometimes it worked -- as with Mr. Williams in Aladdin. And sometimes it didn't -- as with Brad Pitt in Sinbad.

The Aussie scribe misses one major point: It's not about celebrity voices per-se, or scripted animated films, or anything else. It's about dragging animated features out of the sleepy backwater they occupied at Disney for decades, where a bunch of middle-aged story artists nobody had ever heard of holed up in second-floor rooms in the old Animation Building turning out features like Bambi, Peter Pan, 101 Dalmations, Jungle Book and the like.

Face it. Mainstream Hollywood execs have held sway over animated features since the 1980s, and they're going to make them pretty close to the live action model they know and are comfortable with. (John Lasseter and Brad Bird deviate somewhat from this norm.)

The new way isn't bad, necessarily. But it's certainly different from the old Disney model.

15 comments:

Paul N said...

The celebrity voice thing goes way further back than the 80's. "Jungle Book" had Phil Harris, Louis Prima, and Sebastian Cabot, "Alice In Wonderland" had Ed Wynn and Jerry Colona, and "Pinocchio" had Cliff "Ukelele Ike" Edwards; all popular performers of their day.

And Disney was far from the only studio casting celebrities. When UPA cast "Gay Purr-ee", they tapped Robert Goulet, Judy Garland, Red Buttons, and Morey Amsterdam.

This is not a modern phenomenon in any way.

Steve Hulett said...

The celebrity voice thing goes way further back than the 80s. "Jungle Book" had Phil Harris, Louis Prima, and Sebastian Cabot ...

Point taken. However, the analogy doesn't quite hold up.

Phil Harris, Louis Prima and Sebastion Cabot were reasonably well-known performers, but they were a long way from the A-list talent used today.

I can't think of any equivalent big-time actors in the forties and fifties to Jim Carrey, Brad Pitt, Eddie Murphy or Bruce Willis now. Bob Hope? Burt Lancaster? Errol Flynn? Clark Gable? Nope.

Perhaps the closest you can come is Bing Crosby and (maybe) Basil Rathbone as "name" voice talent for "Ichabod and Mr. Toad" in the mid-forties.

Ukelele Ike? You gotta be kidding. He was little more than a bit player in "His Girl Friday" the year "Pinocchio" came out. Twelve years past his prime, even in 1940.

Anonymous said...

The problem is not in the hiring of celebrities to lend their vocal talents to animated characters. It's in the hiring of those celebrities who don't have texture, or richness in their voices. Phil Harris, George Sanders, Sebastian Cabot and the rest of the "Jungle Book" cast had wonderfully textured voices that were perfect for animation. Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz are definitely fine actors and all have a great screen presence, but their voices are quite ordinary.

Anonymous said...

>>celeb-friendly package that means they can turn up for work in their trackie daks before collecting their squillion dollars on the way out. They can save their best performances for later, like Horton's Carol Burnett did when she managed to keep a straight face being interviewed for Entertainment Tonight about voicing a kangaroo. With purple fur. That lives in a jungle.<<

My favorite part of article, and the heart of the matter.

It's not just the voices, but the context of how plastic spastic Hollywood puts it all together - 'packaged.' It's volume filmaking for a Walmart/Costco volume market.

The Kirkland crab platter looks like a great solution for entertaining your backyard guests when you don't have the time and don't have the money, and - let's face it - when you really don't want to do the work.

It pays the bills for now, but it certainly won't pave future, not by a long shot. And at least not animation's future. Hollywood gives no more a crap about the art of animation than Walmart gives a crap about healthcare. As soon as the A-list machinery gets bored with poor old Woody, they'll chuck him to f*** over the next fresh and original medium with whatever titanic back-end box-office they can leverage for themselves.

Then we can change our name yet again, to The Video Game Artists Union, or whatever, so they again can be excused in the E interview for forgetting what it is those directors and artists did to actually make the movie.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure I'm not saying anything new when I say that animation is expensive stuff to make.

I don't blame studios for monetizing every bit of the film that they can, it helps pay to make sure the seats are filled. Without stars (or a star studio name like Pixar) folks kind of scratch their heads and say-- "Cartoon? Hrumpph. I think I'll give my money to the new Mutant-Fantastic-Spider -Hulk if its all the same to you."


It is frustrating, but you might as well be frustrated with the audience too who would rather see ten movies with Stars than one movie with none. (I, for example don't care about "Iron Man"-- never did even as a child-- but I think Robert Downey Jr's a hoot-- so I'm there) Folks need a lot of convincing to think somethings good-- the higher the "Unknown" variables are, the higher the expense in marketing it. You might say its preconditioning, but I don't think so. There are so many things out there vying for our attention, something has to to be a measuring rod. "Oh Robin Williams is good, He's usually funny... I'll go,rent, buy this film" because of that. Folks don't favor trailblazing entertainment. Yes there's the occasional Juno (who even still had recognizable people) smaller films that brought in the audience, but I have yet to see the equivalent in an animated film being made for 6.5 million dollars (as the Juno budget was) With animation budgets going up to a hundred million (and thats a Pixar film with no stars) I believe animated films need all the help they can get.

There's talk about the Pixar folks being so all about "regular guy" casting-- but I recall a little film called "Toy Story" with some not to little actors Golden globe winner, Tim Allen, who was a household name in "Home improvement" and Tom Hanks who had won at least two Oscars by that point

...hmmm, and on that note, I think I'll go watch "Sleepless in Seattle"

Anonymous said...

I recall a little film called "Toy Story" with some not to little actors Golden globe winner, Tim Allen, who was a household name in "Home improvement" and Tom Hanks who had won at least two Oscars by that point

It's been years, but I could've sworn that Tim Allen and Tom Hanks greatly downplayed their roles in "Toy Story" when it first hit theaters. They didn't want to destroy the illusion of their 3D characters or something. I don't think their names even appeared on "Toy Story" advertising.

Again -- it's been years -- but I don't remember star talent selling "Toy Story" half as much as the exciting claim: "first full-length 3D animated feature!"

Anonymous said...

Only Wall Street bankers and bloated marketing execs insist movies cost 100 million +. And just in case you haven't been watching the news, the former has proved themselves as fiscally moronic as George W. The latter we all know as moronic from personal experience.

Anonymous said...

"but I recall a little film called "Toy Story" with some not to little actors Golden globe winner, Tim Allen, who was a household name in "Home improvement" and Tom Hanks who had won at least two Oscars by that point"

Tim Allen was the big named star when Toy Story started--because of his popular TV show.

Tom Hanks started work on Toy Story before Sleepless In Seattle was made. He then made Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, and THEN Toy Story came out.

Hanks is a great actor, with a voice suited to that particular character very well.

But he was only a run-of-the-mill movie actor when he started working on Toy Story. And he had NOT even been nominated for an Oscar yet.

Anonymous said...

I sympathize with the "professional" cartoon voice actors' frustration with celebrities taking their jobs. However, let's face it...some of those celebrities do a fantastic job, probably better than any "pro" voice actor could. I doubt Hank Azaria could have voiced a better Shrek than Mike Myers, for instance. And as an example of a direct contrast...I play the "Spyro the Dragon" video games, and in the "New Beginning" game, David Spade did the voice of Sparx, the Dragonfly. In the follow-up game, "The Eternal Night", Spade was replaced by Billy West. And in comparison, West's work stunk. He wasn't the least bit funny, just annoying. So while I'm not partial to the idea that celeb voices can guarantee a cartoon's success, they certainly don't sabotage it either. It all depends on both the voice...and stop me if you've heard this before...THE WRITING!!!!

Anonymous said...

Apparently the thinking is that celebrity voices will help sell more tickets. I have no idea what celebrity voice talent costs, but let's say it costs an additional $20 million. Do ticket sales increase by at least $20 million to pay for the expense of the celebrity voice talent? What would happen if a really talented but relatively unknown voice actor who is not a celebrity, did a really great character voice that the audience loved? Whatever money was saved using the really great voice actor could be added to the production value of the film. And twenty years from now, when nobody knows who the celebrity du jour was, the great voice talent will endure. I'm sure most people have no idea who Cliff Edwards was, but, boy, is he still the perfect voice for Jiminy Cricket or what?

Anonymous said...

Most celebrity voice actors get a relatively small flat fee for doing a voice. If the film is a hit, and a sequel is made, larger fees are required.

Anonymous said...

I've heard people in the distribution biz say that it's very difficult to book a lot of screens for a film without name "stars" and just about impossible if it's an animated film. The theater owners don't want to chance lots of empty seats.

I don't know if they are right, but that's what I've heard them say in public forums discussing distribution.

Anonymous said...

While I have notthing to say to the idea of downplaying the importance of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen's contribution to marketing viablity of the film since I can't remember back that far I do have something to say about the cost of distribution of the film. Yes, I have heard the same thing from Distributors. Animation is incredibly difficult to sell and the stars (or familiar stories)help bring people in to see the films.

I'm currently working on a short live action film to put in film festivals. I submitted it to Tribeca and they passed. Hey, thats their perrogative. But I also hear that Tribeca is moving away from the uknown indie route and are looking for stars in the films. It makes sense, in the end, they want to make money. And now adays, with folsk being able to make their own films in their own houses, they have a HUGE pool from which to pull. So if I make a short film that looks beautiful and has a moving story to tell, and say someone like Matthew Modine makes a movie (the visuals to which I cannot say, because I only saw the poster and no trailer on the Tribeca page) Of course they will go with Matthe Modine becasue the adverage Joe on the street knows him and not my star (although I cast him because when I saw him I thought-- oh my gosh this guy is going to blow up and I want to say I had him in my movie)

Theres a huge tension between the folks who make the films for the love of it, who are funded by the ones who love film, but want to make money at it. But if we want to keep making the movies we love to make (unless we are willing to fund it on our own and be satisfied with showing it to the friends we can commit to coming to a screening--which, trust me is not is not easy--) for which we pay (and believe me, that aint cheap either) we have to learn to live with that reality.

Whether you believe the idea that animated film costs a hundred million is true or not, it is true that it takes the budget half again to promote it. (so, if a film cost 50 million to make, its going to take 25 million to market it-- which to me seems ludicris, but now that I'm trying to market my film I can easily see how it could be true.) Therefore the stars help with marketing. Genre helps with marketing. Race helps with the marketing. Directors names help with marketing. Every bit that is famiiliar and comfortable to the mainstream audience before they see the movie helps assure the movie gets seen. Its part of the business of making the show.

Anonymous said...

what's a movie theater?

Anonymous said...

"what's a movie theater?"

or DVD's or downloads streaming or any form of media distribution in-perpetuity

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