Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Voice Work

One fine voice actor ...

Most homo sapiens, when they're between the ages of eight and sixteen, think it's wonderful and witty to do funny voices into recording devices. Back when I was a kid (and Ulysses Grant was wrapping up his second Presidential term), my friends and I would spend hours doing warped little comedy bits into tinny microphones attached to reel-to-reel tape recorders. Each minute of humor seemed hysterical.

At the moment of creation. But a year or two later, when we had the misfortune of putting the neglected reel back on a tape machine and listening again, we were always amazed at how absolutely lame our efforts were, how amateurish we actually sounded.

I was reminded of all this when I read Kevin's post yesterday:

I’ve never thought what voice actors did was easy. And I’ve known, at least since I was in a church play during the 7th grade, that I not only can’t act, but that I tend towards performance anxiety in those situations.

So it took a couple of beers to loosen me up enough to get into the sound booth. I didn’t have visions of being the next animator to do a memorable voice (Brad Bird doing E in The Incredibles comes to mind). I’m glad I didn’t notice until after I took my turn at the mic that there was a video camera projecting an image of me to the rest of the crew in another room with the sound engineer. The tiny sound booth was across the room, and through the two separate panes of glass and the distance I imagined no one could really see me. I managed to get over the horror of hearing, with great fidelity, the sound of my own voice in the headphones as I tried to perform, but I was rattled by the way the mic picked up every gurgle in my nervous throat.

It’s a funny experience trying to match vocal performances to new variations of shots you’ve already animated, having listened again and again to a professional actor reading the original lines. Now, with some shots having changed slightly, I got to try to match the performances of Luke Wilson or Danny Trejo or David Cross. I wasn’t nearly drunk enough to think I generated any usable lines, except maybe one of Wilson’s character, semiconscious, whispering “Why did you save me . . .?” as he lapses into unconsciousness. I kept thinking of what a field day my friend Ken Kim, now at Pixar, would have had in this situation. Some people just have a knack for doing voices, and I know I’m not one of them ...

I found out years ago how few people have the knack. I was part of a crew auditioning voices on a Disney sound stage, trying to find a voice to match the drawn image of an animated character. Actors came in and emoted, gave their absolute all, and we would thank them for their efforts and show them out. And after each one I would think:

Cripes. Not even close.

This went on for days. A few candidates weren't bad, but nobody jazzed us. And then one afternoon an actor nobody had heard of came through the door and nailed it. I mean, everybody on the stage knew the moment he was done that this was the guy.

Naturally he was hired. And in all the recording sessions we did with him over the next couple of years, he was never anything but professional, creative, willing to do another take after already doing fifty.

I've spent some time in the intervening years musing why there doesn't seem to be the same depth of voice talent as there seemed to be in the heyday of old, hand-drawn cartoons. I think one of the big reasons is this: dramatic and comedic radio shows don't exist anymore, and actors aren't forced to use their voices in the same way they had to when they were hired for a radio soap opera on Friday and then did Bing Crosby's or Jack Benny's nighttime shows the following Wednesday or Thursday.

There are few Paul Freeses or Hans Conreids around today who can narrate, act, double voices and you name it. Today it's (mostly) the name actor who's a presence on-screen but a lesser light behind the microphone. More's the pity.


Floyd Norman said...

I actually enjoyed doing scratch tracks when I was at Disney some years ago. However, it is work, and a two hour session can leave you exhausted.

I got to know and work with the great Paul Frees at Disney back in the sixties. He was a master, and could do anything.

Pete Emslie said...

Nice to see the photo of Paul Frees that accompanies this post. Everybody has heard his voice, whether they know it or not, as he had a whole bunch of different ones that he did brilliantly, but few know what he looked like. His talent for diverse voices was every bit the equal of Mel Blanc's, in my opinion. It's hard to believe that the funereal tones of the "Ghost Host" of Disney's Haunted Mansion are by the same fellow voicing the manic, Ludwig Von Drake!

I imagine that Paul Frees was able to live a life of near anonymity, rarely being recognized on the street despite his massive body of voice work in movies, theme parks and cartoons. For those who are curious, he can be seen onscreen notably in Sinatra's "Suddenly", as well as in the beginning of the Robert Mitchum film, "His Kind of Woman". He's also the psychiatrist assessing Fred Macmurray in "The Shaggy Dog".

Steve Hulett said...

Frees was ubiquitous. The same time he was doing Von Drake, he was narrating "Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America" on LP.

Hard to believe those voices belong to the same guy.

Anonymous said...

I took a cartoon voiceover class once. Every week I would sit in a room with a bunch of strangers and we'd read scripts with funny voices.

I always left in a good mood.

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