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.’”

Wayfair’s Fourth of July Clearance Sale Takes Up to 60 Percent Off Grills and Outdoor Furniture

Wayfair/Weber
Wayfair/Weber

This Fourth of July, Wayfair is making sure you can turn your backyard into an oasis while keeping your bank account intact with a clearance sale that features savings of up to 60 percent on essentials like chairs, hammocks, games, and grills. Take a look at some of the highlights below.

Outdoor Furniture

Brisbane bench from Wayfair
Brisbane/Wayfair

- Jericho 9-Foot Market Umbrella $92 (Save 15 percent)
- Woodstock Patio Chairs (Set of Two) $310 (Save 54 percent)
- Brisbane Wooden Storage Bench $243 (Save 62 percent)
- Kordell Nine-Piece Rattan Sectional Seating Group with Cushions $1800 (Save 27 percent)
- Nelsonville 12-Piece Multiple Chairs Seating Group $1860 (Save 56 percent)
- Collingswood Three-Piece Seating Group with Cushions $410 (Save 33 percent)

Grills and Accessories

Dyna-Glo electric smoker.
Dyna-Glo/Wayfair

- Spirit® II E-310 Gas Grill $479 (Save 17 percent)
- Portable Three-Burner Propane Gas Grill $104 (Save 20 percent)
- Digital Bluetooth Electric Smoker $224 (Save 25 percent)
- Cuisinart Grilling Tool Set $38 (Save 5 percent)

Outdoor games

American flag cornhole game.
GoSports

- American Flag Cornhole Board $57 (Save 19 percent)
- Giant Four in a Row Game $30 (Save 6 percent)
- Giant Jenga Game $119 (Save 30 percent)

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

11 Secrets of Aldi Employees

Aldi is known for its unique cost-cutting measures that allow the chain to have some of the lowest prices for groceries.
Aldi is known for its unique cost-cutting measures that allow the chain to have some of the lowest prices for groceries.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Since opening its very first store in Germany in 1961 and then coming to America in 1976, discount grocery chain Aldi has grown to over 1900 stores in 36 states. Using inventive cost-cutting measures—customers are responsible for returning their own carts and the store charges for bags unless you bring your own—the brand has become synonymous with quality at an affordable price.

Tasked with overseeing the long hours of daily operations are the company’s 25,000-plus store employees, who are typically part of a small team of 20 or fewer people per location. Aldi workers are expected to be proficient in everything from unloading pallets and stocking shelves to checking out customers at a speed that meets or exceeds standards—employees are even timed on how fast a customer pulls out their credit card.

To find out more about this challenging line of work, Mental Floss reached out to several current and former Aldi employees. Here’s what they had to say about memorizing barcode numbers, how many miles they walk during a typical shift, and why sitting down at the register is actually more efficient than standing.

1. Working at Aldi means walking. A lot.

At Aldi, employees aren’t given set roles when it comes to unloading, stocking, cleaning, or working the register. Everyone is expected to be able to do everything, which means a lot of physical effort. “Our job is considered physically demanding, because Aldi has very few employees running per shift, meaning there are more expectations placed on each of us,” Jonah, an Aldi employee in Pennsylvania, tells Mental Floss. “If you aren't ringing, you are expected to be cleaning, stocking, re-stocking, or organizing the shelves. There is no ‘down time.’”

That suits many employees just fine. “I don’t like to sit around and do nothing, and this job is the complete opposite,” Kyle, an Aldi employee in Virginia, tells Mental Floss. “I actually wear a Fitbit when I work, because I have been curious about how many steps I take. I average about 127,000 steps every [five-day] work week. I’d say an estimate is 25,400 steps a shift.”

2. Aldi employees sit down at the register for a very good reason.

An Aldi employee is pictured ringing out a customer in Chicago, Illinois in June 2017
Aldi employees are expected to ring customers out as quickly as possible.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Employees can sit on stools while ringing guests up at a register, but getting a little rest isn't the sole reason for the seat. “While [resting] is true, Aldi says that cashiers sit at the register because, according to their testing, it allows us to ring up items faster,” Jonah says.

3. Aldi employees are monitored for their ringing speed.

Part of the reason Aldi can get away with as few as three to five employees in a store at any one time is because customers can be processed quickly. Aldi typically sets performance standards for employees at the checkout, who might be expected to process as many as 1200 items per hour. “We are given reports at the end of each day for our ringing statistics,” Jonah says.

And that’s not the only performance metric used to evaluate workers. “Ringing is the only part where we get an actual report, but managers will tell us that we are expected to knock out two pallets per hour, or one pallet every half hour," Jonah says.

4. Aldi employees “train” customers to move quickly.

Part of an employee’s register performance review depends on how quickly they can get a customer away from the register and toward an area where they bag their own groceries. To do this, employees encourage customers to have their payment method ready and inserted into the card reader before their items are done being scanned. “Aldi is all about efficiency, and encouraging our customers to ‘pre-insert’ their card while we are ringing allows the payment process to be near instant, rather than having our customers wait for us to finish ringing and then pull out their card and insert it,” Jonah says.

5. Aldi employees need Tetris-type skills to load carts.

Aldi shopping carts are pictured in Chicago, Illinois in June 2017
There's even a science behind how an Aldi cart is loaded.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

When an employee rings up a customer, items are loaded from the cart to the conveyor belt and then back into the cart. Because heavier items need to be placed first, employees need to be strategic when placing products. “[We put] light items like eggs, bread, chips, etc. at the top of the cart and everything else on the bottom,” Sara, an Aldi employee in Indiana, tells Mental Floss. “However, it really just depends on the order that customers put their items on the belt.” (They prefer you put heavy items like bottled water first.)

For maximum efficiency, Jonah prefers customers take products out of their display boxes and avoid trying to bag their groceries while cashiers are still ringing them out. “It slows us down and causes a longer wait for everyone,” Jonah says.

6. Aldi employees memorize barcode numbers.

An Aldi shopping basket is pictured in Cardiff, United Kingdom in August 2018
Aldi employees know the barcode numbers for several products by heart.
Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Ringing speed is so crucial to Aldi’s success—and an employee’s job performance—that many workers memorize barcode numbers to keep the line moving. “Items like milk and water have codes that we memorize,” Sara says. “For example, someone could be buying six gallons of milk, and instead of having the customer put all of them on the belt for us to scan one by one, we tell them to leave them in their cart and we key in the codes, making the checkout process faster.”

7. Aldi employees may or may not give you a quarter if you forget one.

Because it would take time and money to collect shopping carts, Aldi has a system where customers insert a quarter to unlock a cart from the collection area. When they return it, they get the quarter back. But not all customers remember to bring a quarter, and first-time shoppers might not even know they need one. And if they ask an Aldi employee to borrow one, they may or may not get it.

“I try not to give them a quarter because the quarters we give come out of our own registers,” Kyle says. “So if we don't get them back, we end up losing money out of our own drawer. If it's a first-time shopper, I gladly give them a quarter and explain to them why we have this system in place, and pretty much every person is very understanding on why we do it.”

If you’re short a quarter, don’t try shoving anything else in the slot. “People will try to use foreign currency that are the same size as quarters,” Kyle says. “Doesn't hurt us; it's just annoying to deal with.”

8. Aldi has a store phone, but customers shouldn’t bother calling.

Customers are pictured in front of an Aldi store in Edgewood, Maryland in December 2017
Aldi employees are too busy in the store to answer the phone.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Aldi keeps the phone numbers for individual stores unlisted, preferring that employees deal with customers already in the store. Limits are placed on when the phone can be used. “We do technically have a store phone, but this phone is strictly used for receiving calls from the warehouse, global help desk, and to our security company we use,” Kyle says.

9. Aldi’s return policy is something employees can find a little too generous.

Aldi has a unique return policy for items purchased in their stores. Under their Twice as Nice Guarantee, customers can return a product and not only get a replacement item but a refund, as well. “Our Twice as Nice Guarantee is a very good system; I'd say one of the best in grocery,” Kyle says. “That doesn't mean it's perfect, though. I have seen people abuse this system. It's happened in my own store numerous times.”

Kyle declines to explain how it’s abused, though anecdotal reports are that perfectly good items are sometimes brought back to exchange for the benefit of a new item plus the refund. Serial returners are sometimes flagged and told to ease up. (The policy is currently suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic but is expected to return in the future.)

10. Aldi employees are required to wear steel-toed boots.

Work boots are pictured
Aldi employees need to protect their feet from inventory mishaps.
banjongseal324/iStock via Getty Images

Check out the footwear of an Aldi employee and you’ll notice they have on steel-toed boots normally seen on construction sites or warehouse jobs. That’s because workers are expected to unload the massive inventory pallets that arrive regularly. “All associates are required to wear steel-toed boots because of the equipment we use on the job,” Kyle says. “We use pallet jacks and it is just a safety precaution.” (Aldi does reimburse workers for the boots.)

11. Aldi employees appreciate you taking the survey.

Customers are pictured inside of an Aldi store in Chicago, Illinois in June 2017
Aldi employees say that receipt surveys can make a real difference in stores.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The customer surveys that appear on Aldi receipts might go ignored by many, but they serve a real purpose. Employees are expected to meet a store quota of completed surveys, and customers can actually influence the selection inside the store. “We encourage customers to fill them out if they want a certain item brought in since the surveys go straight to corporate,” Sara says.

Regardless of how they offer their input, customers can often get what they want. “One thing that may surprise people is that you have a very strong voice on what items we should carry in our stores,” Kyle says. “A prime example of this is the [L’Oven Fresh] Zero Net Carb Bread. It was an Aldi Finds [a limited-time item] and people wanted this item to be a normal item so badly, and the company listened.”