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.’”

13 Secrets of Halloween Costume Designers

vadimguzhva/iStock via Getty Images
vadimguzhva/iStock via Getty Images

For consumers, Halloween may be all about scares, but for businesses, it’s all about profits. According to the National Retail Federation, consumers will spend $8.8 billion this year on spooky goods, including $3.2 billion on costumes. “It’s an opportunity to be something you’re not the other 364 days of the year,” Jonathan Weeks, founder of Costumeish.com, tells Mental Floss. “It feels like anything goes.”

To get a better sense of what goes into those lurid, funny, and occasionally outrageous disguises, we spoke to a number of designers who are constantly trying to react to an evolving seasonal market. Here’s what we learned about what sells, what doesn’t, and why adding a “sexy” adjective to a Halloween costume doesn’t always work.

1. Some Halloween costumes are just too outrageous for retail

For kids, Halloween is a time to look adorable in exchange for candy. For adults, it’s a time to push the envelope. Sometimes that means provocative, revealing costumes; other times, it means going for shock value. “You get looks at a party dressed as an Ebola worker,” Weeks says. “We have pregnant nun costumes, baby cigarette costumes.” The catch: You won’t be finding these at Walmart. “They’re meant for online, not Spencer’s or Party City.”

2. … but there are some lines Halloween costume designers won’t cross.

Although Halloween is the one day of the year people can deploy a dark sense of humor without inviting personal or professional disaster, some costume makers draw their own line when it comes to how far to exceed the boundaries of good taste. “We’ve never done a child pimp costume, but someone else has,” says Robert Berman, co-founder of Rasta Imposta. Weeks says some questionable ideas that have been brought to the discussion table have stayed there. “There’s no toddler KKK costume or baby Nazi costume,” he says. “There is a line.”

3. Designers can produce a Halloween costume in a matter of days.

A lot of costume interest comes from what’s been making headlines in the fall: Costumers have to be ready to meet that demand. “We’re pretty good at being able to react quickly,” says Pilar Quintana, vice-president of merchandising for Yandy.com. “Something happening in April may not be strong enough to stick around for Halloween.”

Because the mail-order site has in-house models and isn’t beholden to approval from big box vendors, Quintana can design and photograph a costume so it’s available within 72 hours. If it's more elaborate, it can take a little longer: Both Yandy and Weeks had costumes inspired by the Cecil the Lion story that broke in July 2015 (in which a trophy hunter from Minnesota killed an African lion) on their sites in a matter of weeks.

4. Beyonce can help move stale inventory.

Extravagant custom tailoring jobs aside, Halloween costumes are a business of instant demand and instant gratification—inventory needs to be plentiful in order to fill the deluge of orders that come in a short frame of time. If a business miscalculates the popularity of a given theme, they might be stuck with overstock until they can find a better idea to hang on it. “[In 2016] we had 400 or 500 Zorro costumes that we couldn’t sell for $10,” Weeks says. “It had a big black hat that came with it, and I thought, ‘That looks familiar.’ It turned out it looked a lot like the one Beyonce wore in her ‘Lemonade’ video.” Remarketed as a "Formation" hat for Beyonce cosplayers, Weeks moved his stock.

5. Women don’t usually wear masks as part of their Halloween costumes.

Curiously, there’s a large gender gap when it comes to the sculpted latex monster masks offered by Halloween vendors: They’re sold almost exclusively to men. “There just aren’t a lot of masks with female characters,” Weeks says. “I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because men in general like gory, scary costumes.” One exception: Hillary Clinton masks, which were all the rage in 2016.

6. Food costumes are always a hit for Halloween.

At Rasta Imposta, Berman says political and pop culture trends can shift their plans, but one theme is a constant: People love to dress up as food. “We’ve had big success with food items. Bananas, pickles. We did an avocado.”

7. Adding ”sexy” to a Halloween costume doesn’t always work.

It’s a recurring joke that some costume makers only need to add a “sexy” adjective to a design concept in order to make it marketable. While there’s some truth to that—Quintana references Yandy’s “sexy poop emoji” costume—it’s no guarantee of success. “We had a concept for ‘sexy cheese’ that was a no-go,” she says. “'Sexy corn’ didn’t really work at all. ‘Sexy anti-fascist’ didn’t make the cut this year.”

8. People ask for some weird stuff when it comes to Halloween costumes.

In addition to monitoring social media for memes and trends, designers can get an idea of what consumers are looking for by shadowing their online searches. Costumeish.com monitors what people are typing into their search bar to see if they’re missing out on a potential hit. “People search for odd things sometimes,” Weeks says. “People want to be a cactus, a palm tree, they’re looking for a priest and a boy costume. People can be weird.”

9. Halloween costume designers have workarounds for big properties.

Go out to a Halloween party over the past few years and you’re almost guaranteed to run into the Queen of the North. But not every costume maker has the official license for Game of Thrones. What are other companies to do? Come up with a design that sparks recognition without sparking a lawsuit. “Our biggest seller right now is Sexy Northern Queen,” Quintana says. “It’s inspired by a TV show.” But she won’t say which one.

10. People love sharks.

From the clunky Ben Cooper plastic costume from 1975’s Jaws to today, people can’t seem to get enough of shark-themed outfits. “We do a lot of sharks,” Berman says. “Maybe it’s because of Shark Week in the summertime, but sharks always tend to trend. People just like the idea of sharks.”

11. Dead celebrities mean sales.

It may be morbid, but it’s a reality: The high-profile passing of celebrities, especially close to Halloween, can trigger a surge in sales. “Before Robin Williams died, I couldn’t sell a Mork costume for a dollar,” Weeks says. “After he died, I couldn’t not sell it for less than $100.”

12. The Halloween costume business profits from people shopping at the last minute.

Ever wonder why food and other novelty costumes tend to outsell traditional garb like pirates and witches? Because costume shopping for adults is usually done frantically and they don’t have time to compare 25 different Redbeards. “People tend to do it at the very last minute, so we want something that pops out at them,” Berman says. “Like, ‘Oh, I want to be a crab.’”

Weeks agrees that procrastination is profitable. “We make a lot of money on shipping,” he says. “Some people get party invites on the 25th and so they’re paying for next-day air.”

13. It’s not actually a seasonal business.

Everyone we spoke to agreed that the most surprising thing about the Halloween business is that it’s not really seasonal on their end. Costumes are designed year-round, and planning can take between 12 and 18 months. “It’s 365 days a year,” Quintana says. “We’ll start thinking about next Halloween in December.”

This piece was first published in 2017 and republished in 2019.

11 Secrets of Lexicographers

Fotokresba/iStock via Getty Images
Fotokresba/iStock via Getty Images

Merriam-Webster defines a lexicographer as “an author or editor of a dictionary.” The job sounds simple enough, but the work that goes into researching and writing definitions like the one above takes a unique combination of skills. Lexicographers have to be passionate about words without being pretentious, knowledgeable without being overeducated, and analytic enough to treat language like a science while being creative enough to define tricky words like art and love.

To learn more about what goes into being a lexicographer, Mental Floss spoke with a few from the world’s top dictionaries. Here’s what they had to say about where they find new words, what goes into the editing process, and how they really feel about defining literally as “figuratively.”

1. Being a lexicographer doesn't require a specific degree.

There are a number of different paths you can take to get into lexicography. Most people who write and edit dictionaries come from some sort of humanities background, but there’s usually no specific degree or training required to become a lexicographer. Emily Brewster, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster since 2000, double-majored in linguistics and philosophy. She tells Mental Floss, “A lot of people have an English background. There are some editors who have linguistic backgrounds. But really, when your job is defining the vocabulary of the English language, expertise in any field can apply. We have science editors, we have people who are specialists in chemistry, specialists in law, so any kind of expertise can make you a better definer.”

According to Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer who worked for the Oxford English Dictionary and Random House Dictionaries, an education with a focus on lexicography specifically can actually be a turn-off for employers. “There was a university that once offered a degree in lexicography, but no dictionary house would ever hire someone with a degree in lexicography [...] In general, the people who are going to be teaching it that way are probably not experienced practical lexicographers, and the kind of things you need to do the job are rather different than what academics would study if you were studying lexicography.” Students studying lexicography at Université de Lorraine in France, for example, learn about etymology, polysemy (the existence of multiple meanings for one word), and lexicological analysis. A class can provide helpful background on the subject, but it won't necessarily equip learners with the skills and instincts they need to find and define new words.

Too much education, regardless of the subject, can also hurt someone’s chances of working for a dictionary. “In general you want someone with some but not too much training in some kind of general humanities discipline," Sheidlower says. "Not someone with a Ph.D., because people with Ph.D.s tend to think you can spend the rest of your life studying things, and when you’re actually working for a dictionary you have a list of 50 things you have to get done by the end of the week. The fact that one of them or all of them might be super interesting doesn’t mean you can spend three weeks studying the same thing.”

2. Lexicographers don’t decide which words are "proper."

The role of dictionaries is largely misunderstood by the public. Lexicographers don’t decide which words are valid and dictate how they should be used. Rather, they find the words that already exist and do their best to represent how they’re being used in the real world. “This is something non-lexicographers in particular have problems with,” Sheidlower says. “But the role of a dictionary is not to say what is correct in any sort of sense handed down from above. It is to say what is in use in language, and if people are using something different from how it’s used traditionally, that thing is going to go in regardless of whether or not you like it.”

3. Lexicographers know their decisions can create controversy—and not always for the reasons you’d think.

Even if lexicographers don’t think of themselves as linguistic gatekeepers, many people see still them that way. That can cause controversy when a word or definition makes it into the dictionary that people don’t approve of. One recent example is the inclusion of the word they in Merriam-Webster as a non-binary pronoun. “That’s been getting a tremendous amount of attention,” Sheidlower says. But as he explains, the dictionary didn’t make up the usage—it simply acknowledged its existence. “Singular they goes back to the 14th century—even nonbinary they goes back to the 18th century. ... New isn’t necessarily bad, but those things aren’t new.”

Words that fall outside sensitive social and political arenas can also stir outrage. A classic example is defining literally to mean "figuratively." “People hate that, they hate it so much,” Brewster says. “But it’s old, it’s established, and if we didn’t enter it, we’d be saying the word is not used this way, and the word is used this way and it’s been used this way since Charles Dickens. It’s not really our place to make a judgement if a word or a use is a good word. Our job is to report words that are established in the language.”

4. Lexicographers add hundreds of new words to the dictionary each year ...

Language is constantly evolving, which means that a lexicographer’s job never ends. Brewster estimates that roughly 1000 words are added to Merriam-Webster.com each year, including new senses of existing words. The most recent batch consisted of 533 new terms and uses, ranging from highly specific words like non-rhotic (the Bostonian habit of not pronouncing the letter r unless it’s followed by a vowel) to Instagram-friendly slang like vacay.

5. ... But lexicographers also have to be choosy.

More new words enter the lexicon each year than can fit between the covers of even the most comprehensive dictionary. To give readers an up-to-date picture of the English language without overworking themselves, lexicographers have to be selective about which words make the cut. As Brewster explains, every word that goes into the Merriam-Webster dictionary meets certain criteria. “We have to have significant evidence of a word in use over an extended period of time,” she says.

Those standards are a little vague for a reason. Taking the popularity and staying power of a new word into consideration, editors get to decide what counts as “significant evidence” and an “extended period of time” for themselves.

Brewster elaborates, “For example, the verb tweet as in the Twitter sense erupted very suddenly in the language. So that was a case in which very quickly it became clear that our readers were going to be served by having this term be defined. You can contrast that with a term like adorkable, it requires a longer amount of time before it meets that criteria of being in the language for an extended period of time because we don’t want to enter words that nobody’s going to be using in five years.”

6. Lexicographers struggle with words like love.

Lexicography is methodical and scientific work most of the time, but it can get subjective. If you’ve ever had trouble defining a term without using a related word, chances are whoever wrote its entry in the dictionary encountered the same problem. “A term like art or poetry or love, these are notoriously hard to define because their meanings are extremely broad. You can’t pin it down,” Sheidlower says. “The word itch is very hard to define. Trying to define the word itch without using the word scratch is very difficult. I’ll let you think about that one for a moment.” (In case you were wondering, Merriam-Webster defines itch as “an uneasy irritating sensation in the upper surface of the skin usually held to result from mild stimulation of pain receptors.” Pretty spot-on.)

7. Lexicographers rarely argue over words.

If you’re looking to have spirited debates over the value of certain words with your fellow language enthusiasts, lexicography may not be the career for you. Most of the work is done in silence in front of a computer, and conflicts that get more passionate than a politely worded email are rare. “People think we sit around a table and argue about the merits of a word. Or say, ‘Yeah, this word should get in!’ Or ‘Yeah, this word should never get in,’” Brewster says. ”It’s actually very quiet, solitary work. You can make a case for a word, but it’s all in writing. So when I draft a definition for a word, I will say that we have evidence of it dating back as far back as this date, and it’s appeared in all these different types of publications. We’re not very emotional about these things. I think we’re much more biologists than pundits.”

8. Several lexicographers look at each entry.

Putting together a dictionary is collaborative work. According to Brewster, a single word entry must go through several editors before it’s ready for publication. As a definer—what most people think of when they think of a lexicographer—she sets the process in motion. “Being a general definer, my job is to define all the non-technical vocabulary in the language. But that varies really broadly, from economics terms, like a definition for dark money, to pronouns, to prepositions, and also informal terms, like say twerking.”

After she drafts a definition, it also goes through the cross-reference editor (the person who makes sure any other relevant entries are addressed), the pronunciation editor, the etymologist (who traces the word's historical origins), the person who keys it into the system, the copy editor, and the proofreader.

9. Lexicographers promise they aren’t judging the way you speak.

You may assume that someone who makes a living defining words is a stickler for language rules. But lexicographers might understand better than anyone that there’s no one right way to speak English, and the “correct” version of any language is determined by its speakers. “Sometimes when people learn that I work on a dictionary, they worry that I am judging how they write or speak, and nothing could be further from the truth,” Erin McKean, the lexicographer in charge of the online dictionary Wordnik, tells Mental Floss. “I love English, and I love all the different ways to speak and write English. I'm much more likely to ask you to make up a word for me than I am to criticize the words you use!” So if you find yourself in a conversation with a dictionary editor, feel free to use slang and mix up farther and further—you’re in a safe space.

10. Don't ask lexicographers to pick a favorite word.

Lexicographers know more words than the average person, but if you ask them to pick a favorite, they may decline to answer. "You’re not allowed to play favorites," Sheidlower says. "You have to put in words that you dislike, you can’t spend more time researching words that you do like. It’s not personal [...] Just like if you’re a parent, you’re not allowed to say that one child is your favorite, which is generally the metaphor lexicographers will use when they’re asked that question."

11. The internet makes a lexicographer’s job easier.

For most of the job’s history, lexicographers found new words by reading as many books as possible. Reading is still an important part of their work, but thanks to the internet, they have a greater variety of materials to pull from than ever. Emily Brewster mentions Google Books and online corpora—collections of text excerpts from different places, sometimes related to a particular subject—as some of her favorite sources for researching new words and their definitions and origins. But her most reliable resource is a popular social media site. “I really like Twitter in general,” Brewster says. “From Twitter, I get to a huge variety of sources. It’s a really good network for connecting with all kinds of publications.”

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