12 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Voice Actors
By Jake Rossen
Everyone knows a guy who can do a pretty respectable Porky Pig. He might even mention how cushy a job it is to sit in a booth for a couple of hours, stammering, for a fat check. After all, how hard could it be to act like a walking piece of pork with a speech impediment?
“People have this idea you run in wearing tennis shoes and get lines thrown at you for a ton of money,” says Corey Burton, a veteran voiceover actor (DuckTales, Transformers) with over 40 years in the business. “That works if you’re Chris Rock. If you're a non-celebrity, it’s not an easy profession to make a steady living at.”
Of course, the job is a lot of fun. (And a form of self-defense: Burton’s Bullwinkle got him out of at least one childhood beating.) But it also requires actors to master a craft that requires a huge arsenal of talents, an ability to deliver a performance using only your vocal cords, and a willingness to work at the drop of a hat. We asked Burton, Sean Kenin (Family Guy, Smurfs 2, the web series 47 Secrets to a Younger You), and Wally Wingert (The Garfield Show, Batman: Arkham Knight) to let us in on some of the lesser-known facts about the voiceover business.
1. SOME ACTORS ARE HIRED JUST FOR BREATHING.
Kenin, who pops up on Family Guy as the cackling, hyper “Tiny Tom Cruise,” is known in the business as a mimic: He can approximate well-known performers right down to how they sound when they’re gasping for air. When sound engineers needed someone to sit in for a busy Ben Stiller to loop (re-record) his grunts for 2011’s Tower Heist, they called Kenin. “At first I thought they wanted words,” he says, “but they said, ‘No, no, we just want you to literally breathe.’” Kenin sighed, grunted, and ugghed his way through a session. (Kenin also does a good out-of-breath John Cusack.)
Mimic specialists tend to watch actors in films to get a feel for their vocal characteristics, but, as Kenin points out, “They might have had someone doing his grunts for Meet the Fockers, too, so I wind up doing an impression of an impression.”
2. THEY’RE ALWAYS ON CALL.
While animated shows and films still prefer to have group sessions in-studio when schedules permit, actors hired on gigs for network spots or commercials often take advantage of ISDN lines in their home to phone in performances. “I would say 95 percent of solo work, like movie trailers and promos, is done at home,” Burton says.
Because of the convenience factor, actors can sometimes get job offers on 10 minutes’ notice. “The demand is instant,” Burton says. “It used to be a minimum two weeks’ notice. Now it’s, ‘What are you doing right now? Can we email you a script?’” When Wingert was the voice of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, he was expected to be able to turn around material quickly. “I just had to wait for the leaf blower guy to leave,” he says.
3. THEY SOMETIMES DO VOICES THAT NEVER GET HEARD.
The marriage of live-action and computer-generated characters has opened up a whole new venue for voiceover artists—though they might not necessarily make the final cut. Kenin was hired to do voices for all of the animated characters during shooting for 2011's The Smurfs and its sequel; celebrities were brought in to do the final voiceover work later. He was even equipped with Smurf dolls so cast members Neil Patrick Harris and Hank Azaria had a visual as well as audio frame of reference on set. “I had these maquettes I would bounce around on my arm,” he says. “It’s kind of like playing with action figures.”
4. THEY LIKE TO USE VOCAL PROPS.
While computers can be used to speed up or slow down dialogue (which is more of a concern in dubbing Japanese animation, where the visuals are already done), certain vocal changes can easily be achieved using random items in the studio. “If the character is in a hollowed-out tree, I might stick my head in a wastebasket,” Burton says. “If it doesn’t sound quite right, I can throw some wadded-up Kleenex in there for better acoustics.”
Burton, who was trained by legendary voice artist Daws Butler (Yogi Bear), also prefers to eat real food when the moment calls for it. “They want you to sometimes just go, ‘Nom, nom, nom.’ No! I want a carrot, a cookie. I don’t want to make a dry slurping noise when I could be sipping a drink.”
5. THEY CAN BE PUT ON STANDBY—WITHOUT PAY.
Called an “avail” in the business, some actors agree to reserve an afternoon or even consecutive days for a recording session. Great, right? The problem: Their potential employer is under no obligation to actually use them. “No one else can book you during that time until they release you from it,” Burton says. “You might not know until the day before that you won’t be needed.”
6. THEY STILL WORK IN FRONT OF A CAMERA.
While some animators like to sit and sketch actors as they’re performing to pick up physical tics, schedules don’t always allow for it. Some shows wind up installing a kind of performer surveillance camera in recording studios to capture movement they can use as a reference. “They do a lot with facial expressions, blinking, looking around,” Wingert says. “You might do something with your mouth they’ll use for the character later.”
7. A GREAT CHARACTER VOICE MIGHT JUST BE A BAD IMPRESSION.
Hank Azaria, who voices a large chunk of the characters on the The Simpsons, once said bartender Moe is basically just a gravely Al Pacino impression; Comic Book Guy is someone he knew in college. “It’s about doing celebrities, doing relatives, doing hybrids,” Wingert says. “Mike Judge does Hank Hill based on a customer he had as a paperboy.” To come up with a take on the Riddler for the Batman: Arkham Asylum video game series, Wingert used a theater director he knew who would “chew on his words, like everything he said was gold.”
8. SOMETIMES THEY DON’T MAKE EYE CONTACT WITH THE DIRECTOR.
Because voiceover actors are in a recording studio and looking at directors and engineers through soundproof glass, physical cues can sometimes get misunderstood. “When you look and see someone shaking their head, you might think you’re terrible,” Kenin says. “But it might just mean they don’t want tuna for lunch. You need to pay attention to what they say, not what they’re doing.” Kenin will sometimes turn away from the booth so he can focus on direction, not gestures.
9. THEY CAN GET PAID BY THE WORD.
When performers accept movie trailer voiceover jobs, they usually need to shuffle the lines so the marketing department has material it can run throughout the week. “Each individual tag is an additional union scale payment,” Burton says. “So when I say, ‘Starts Wednesday,’ 'starts Friday,’ 'starts tomorrow,’ each one adds to the check.”
10. CELEBRITIES MAY NOT MAKE THE BEST V.O. ACTORS.
Beginning with the late Robin Williams in 1992’s Aladdin, studios and marketing departments have fallen over themselves trying to hire recognizable names for prominent voice work. “They can be surprised at how difficult it is,” Wingert says. “Four hours of talking is different from what they’re used to.” Some A-list performer recordings, Burton says, need to be spliced together, Frankenstein-style, in order to patch over weak points.
11. THEY DOUBLE AS MOVIE EXTRAS.
When sound is recorded on a film set, it’s usually focused on the leading actors who have dialogue: Extras in a restaurant scene, for example, are told to flap their lips but not actually make noise. That work is left to actors like Kenin, who comes in as part of a small cast known as a “loop group” to provide the background chatter. “You have to match their lip movement, which can be hard,” he says. “They were probably just mouthing made-up nonsense.”
12. THEY DON’T ALWAYS RECOGNIZE THEIR OWN VOICES.
For an experienced actor like Burton, who has had thousands of gigs over the decades, it can sometimes be a challenge to recognize when he’s actually annoying himself. “I once did a really crappy radio commercial that wanted a nasal, squeaky reading,” he says. “One morning I woke up to the sound of my clock radio and this awful voice. It was annoying as hell. ‘Screw this guy,’ I thought. By the end, I realized, ‘Oh, that’s me.’”