12 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Voice Actors

Sony Pictures
Sony Pictures

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.

YouTube

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.

FX Networks

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.’”

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12 Secrets of Spirit Halloween Employees

Spirit Halloween stores are a sign Halloween has arrived.
Spirit Halloween stores are a sign Halloween has arrived.
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When Joe Marver founded Spirit Halloween in 1983, he probably didn’t have any idea his seasonal Halloween store would eventually grow to over 1300 locations in the United States and Canada. But now, seeing a Spirit pop-up materialize in a vacant building has become as much of a Halloween tradition as pumpkin carving.

In order to assist shoppers with Halloween costumes, decorations, and animatronic creatures, Spirit employs a small army of seasonal workers. To get a better feel for what goes into this spooky vocation, Mental Floss reached out to several current Spirit Halloween team members. Here’s what they had to say about everything from customers making a mess to the hazards of trying on a mask during this pandemic-heavy Halloween.

1. Most Spirit Halloween employees really, really love Halloween.

Why take on a seasonal job with no potential for year-round work? If you love Halloween and the macabre, it’s a dream job. “I've never once worked with an employee that didn't love Halloween,” Kota, a five-year veteran of Spirit Halloween in Kentucky, tells Mental Floss. “It's something that all employees have in common from my experience … It's a perfect place to meet people with the same interests.”

2. Spirit Halloween employees are supposed to open costume packages for customers.

Spirit Halloween employees are happy to help with your costume selection.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

If a Spirit Halloween employee is eyeing you with a little bit of consternation, it might be because you ripped open a costume package. Owing to issues of loss prevention and hygiene—even before COVID-19 struck—Spirit’s policy is to let employees open items and then package them back up. But not every customer is willing to wait.

“Our employees are supposed to deal with opening and closing each and every package,” Kota says. “This way we don't have to worry about things coming out or going into the packages that aren't supposed to. Although we try hard to make it as easy and friendly as possible, some customers would rather do it themselves wherever they may be standing in the store.”

3. Spirit Halloween employees can’t keep astronaut helmets in stock.

Every season brings a different phenomenon to Halloween shopping. In 2018, it was the popular video game Fortnite. This year, it’s an astronaut helmet. Not the suit, just the helmet. The trend is due to the popularity of a smartphone game titled Among Us, which puts the player in the role of a space explorer.

“Despite what you might think, the suits themselves seem significantly less popular than the helmets themselves for reasons beyond my comprehension,” Derek, a Spirit Halloween employee in New Jersey for the past three years, tells Mental Floss. “It's still just a bit too early to say, but if the helmets keep shipping out at the rate they are, in-store stock will probably remain at a near-constant zero. If I'm recalling it right, all of the stores in my area currently have one helmet if any, and no more than five are being shipped to each store.”

4. Spirit Halloween employees can’t believe customers are still trying on masks.

It's probably not a good idea to try on Halloween masks this year.Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Despite newfound concerns over touching surfaces or being exposed to infectious particles, customers are still willing to try on masks in the store, even though someone else may have already been wearing it. “Ultimately the pandemic hasn't affected my store, aside from everyone needing to wear face masks while they're inside,” Jayme, a Spirit Halloween employee in Florida who’s worked there for four years, tells Mental Floss. “But people still ask to try things on and … they do still put masks on despite orange signs everywhere saying not to.”

Derek agrees. “If you've bought a mask from Spirit in any of the past seasons, there's a very high chance you're one of at least five people who’s worn that mask, and that's a conservative estimate for some of the masks. Despite the rule, I think I've seen that many people trying on [fictional creepypasta internet character] Jeff the Killer masks just in this past week.”

5. Spirit Halloween employees have seen some spooky things.

While a store full of scary costumes and props is a Halloween lover’s dream, some Spirit Halloween employees say it can also be the site of some spooky events. “An associate and I have both seen things swaying on the shelves as if someone walked by it, though nobody else is in the store,” Jayme says. “We've seen a few shadow movements as if people were hiding behind [a] corner. The funniest one [was] at closing time. One of my associates yelled ‘whoo’ and we heard a guy's voice say something in response. It totally freaked him out. It was one of our sound-activated hanging [animatronics].”

But not all employees get creeped out. “As much as I want to say that I've experienced anything creepy or paranormal, the store's about as creepy as a former Circuit City can be,” Derek says. Still, he's seen some strange things. “The lights used to turn off at the exact same time every day for about a month, there's always been the occasional inexplicable bang or creak, and some of the aisles do get messy a bit too quickly. One time, I was working at the fitting room. I sent a kid back with a previously unopened, dry Morphsuit costume [a full-body spandex outfit] and it came back warm and moist.”

Wet costumes aside, Derek won’t declare any paranormal activity just yet. “If I see a kid go flying across the store, I'll let you know.”

6. Spirit Halloween employees wish customers would stop making a huge mess.

Spirit Halloween employees like to keep stores neat.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

Owing to the nature of pop-up stores or the excitement over the holiday, customers at Spirit Halloween stores tend to make messes. Big ones. “You could've just finished putting every mask neatly back on the racks, and half of them will be back on the floor before you've caught your breath,” Derek says. “It seems like everyone takes a little pride in the sections they helped set up and the animatronics they built, and that definitely manifests in how we feel about customers messing with those things.”

7. Spirit Halloween employees would prefer you not use the aisle as a dressing room.

Some customers like to try on outfits in the aisle instead of the dressing room, a habit that predated the current pandemic. (Spirit Halloween fitting rooms are closed this season.) Employees would still prefer you not try to dress—or undress—in the middle of the store. “It's very common to find people, mostly kids, trying on costumes in aisles,” Kota says. “We [did] have multiple fitting rooms to try to stop this from happening, but once again, people would rather do things themselves sometimes.”

8. Spirit Halloween employees move a lot of licensed animatronics.

Animatronics are a popular item at Spirit Halloween.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

Among the most popular items in Spirit Halloween locations are the life-sized animatronics that provide a scary atmosphere for homes or parties. “Animatronics are one of our largest-selling items,” Kota says. “There's a certain group of people that love them and look forward to them annually. Some of our buyers buy them and use them for their haunted attractions. It's always nice to go to one and see a familiar face.”

While Spirit offers a number of original animatronic concepts—the Harvester of Souls being among the more popular—Kota says that customers usually gravitate toward licensed characters. “I've noticed that the most popular animatronics are our licensed ones. Pennywise [from 2017's It] and Sam [from 2007's Trick 'r Treat] have been huge sellers this year as was Michael Myers a few years ago. I've also noticed the ones that stay behind at the end of the season are almost always the swinging animatronics. I think they're interesting, but they don't sell as often as the others do.”

9. Spirit Halloween employees might sell you a used animatronic, but you need to get lucky.

Come the end of the season, Spirit Halloween locations often unload animatronics that were on display and no longer being manufactured. “Older animatronics, if I recall correctly, will stop being manufactured and then sold until it runs out,” Jayme says. “As for the displays, we do sell those at the end of the season. It's just a matter of putting your info on a waiting list.”

10. Spirit Halloween employees meet a lot of cosplayers.

Cosplayers are frequent shoppers at Spirit Halloween.Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It’s not just Halloween customers that Spirit Halloween stores service. According to Kota, cosplayers looking for that perfect accessory sometimes show up. “Spirit actually gets quite a bit of cosplayers and I personally think it's a great place to go for more specific items,” Kota says. “I'm sure we get even more cosplayers than I'm aware of since some customers like to talk about it and others don't say much about it.”

11. Spirit Halloween employees get a steep, steep discount once Halloween is over.

Between the standard employee discount and the after-Halloween fire sale available to customers, Derek says that he can go shopping in November and save a considerable amount of money. It’s one reason he keeps coming back. “It's hard to say no to an 80-percent discount during the November clearance sale,” he says. (The regular discount is 50 percent, and employees get an additional 30 percent.) “There's nothing like rewarding yourself after a busy season by spending $150 on, like, five or six things.”

12. Spirit Halloween employees sometimes get holiday shoppers.

Halloween means holiday shopping for some people.JJBers, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

For some customers, a Spirit Halloween store is a perfect place to start their holiday gift shopping. “I made a friend last year with a kid who comes in weekly to see if we have anything new in yet,” Kota says. “He's maybe about 7 years old and [he] and I go around the store almost every time he comes in and talk about new things and animatronics we have. His parents then secretly go around and buy him animatronics and props as Christmas presents. It's so nice to see his love for Halloween all year round. It reminds me of myself when I was his age.”