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Friday, June 23, 2006

Actors are NOT necessarily Voice Actors.

There is a great and growing problem these days, and it should interest you a lot. In fact, it had better interest you if you know what's good for you. Capisce?

So, what is the problem, you say? Why it's the greatest threat to the burgeoning young voice actor today:

Celebrities getting hired for voice over parts.

This is an especially heinous crime in light of the fact that most screen actors are very poor voice actors. Now, before I get into too many details, let me preface this a little with some history.

In the early days of animation, voice over parts were done by whoever happened to be handy. Popeye was originally voiced by his lead animator, and at one point Woody Woodpecker was voiced by creator Ben Hardaway's wife. However, people such as Mel Blanc and Daws Butler became very talented in the area of acting with their voices, and eventually studios began to hire specific people to do the voices on their cartoons. This was much better for the end product, of course, as the performance was much more believable and deliveries could be made by people with comedic timing, good acting ability, and the ability to perform in many different types of voices. For example, Mel Blanc was the voice of Bugs Bunny, Secret Squirrel, Barney Rubble, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Yosemite Sam, and pretty much all the Looney Toons. Daws Butler voiced Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Snagglepuss, Elroy Jetson, and is pretty much the Hanna Barbera equivalent of Mel Blanc.

The voice over business is not just cartoons, either. With the advances in technology over the past eighty years, areas for those who can perform with their voices have exploded. Commercials for television and radio, computer software, even the voice for telephone answering services and airport trains provide areas for people to make a buck using their voices.

However, in the seventies, something started happening. Celebrities started doing voice overs. Now, at first it wasn't really an issue. Perhaps the celebrity had a distinct voice and didn't come with a too high a price tag, such as Jim Backus of Mr. Magoo and Gilligan's Island fame. But, slowly but surely, bigger names started appearing in voice over roles.

The problem really took off in the nineties, as we suddenly had people like Mel Gibson doing Pocahontas, and Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury in Beauty and the Beast, not to mention John Cusack and Meg Ryan in Anastasia. Eventually we started seeing cartoons that featured celebrities, such as Christopher Lloyd in the edutainment cartoon, Cyberchase. Now we have Gene Hackman doing commercials for Oppenheimer Funds.

So, what's the problem, you ask? Isn't it a good idea to get big names to draw in crowds to a movie?

Well, let me dispel that little myth with some good examples. These are a few of the many, and I could easily go on for an hour about Disney alone, but I'll narrow it down to four.

1. Dilbert: A show with very clever writing and mediocre voice acting. Many jokes that could have been funnier were given a poor delivery by the voice actor. The frustrating thing is, there were some very good voice actors in there, but they were generally secondary or tertiary characters. The best line from the entire series was from an episode that featured Dilbert going to Elbonia to inspect one of their manufacturing plants. At the factory he found babies, the elderly, animals, and even dead people working there. The hilarious line was given by the dictatorish foreman, as he cracks his whip, saying, "Get back to work, you lazy corpse!" The line is pretty funny, but he said it with such authority, as if this were a chronic problem that is solved by a whip crack. Daniel Stern, the voice of Dilbert, delivered his lines pretty much the same way every time; whinily. He sounded like he was merely annoyed with everything, even things that pleased him. I just pictured Daniel Stern sitting at a mic, saying after the session was over, "Well, I said my lines. Can I get lunch? Can I go do something else?" Equally wasted was the smug and irritated sounding Dogbert voiced by Chris Elliot. Jason Alexander as Catbert also gave a monotone and one dimensional performance. Kathy Griffin, Larry Miller, and the rest of the supporting cast were a bit better, but Maurice Lamarche (of Pinky and The Brain fame) playing the Garbage man was probably the best, due to his familiarity with being behind a microphone, though he wasn't given many lines, and the lines he got were OK at best. The problem was that the material given to the cast wasn't served as well as it should have been. They were screen actors and comedians that were put into somewhat unfamiliar territory, and it showed. Larry Miller was also on Buzz Lightyear as the wise cracking robot, but since that was a one-dimensional character for the most part, and one that required good joke delivery, it was a better fit for him. The material was good, it just needed a more experienced cast of voice actors.

2. Sinbad, Legend of the Seven Seas: Dreamworks animation decided that cartoons simply couldn't survive without celebrities and computer effects, so they threw a buttload of both into this turkey. Brad Pitt gave what I consider the worst voice over job I've ever heard in this movie as the largely uninteresting Sinbad. Michelle Pfeiffer tried to sound sexy as the evil seductress/goddess, Eris. She sounded instead like she was deeply committed to the ways of half-hearted sarcasm and unconvincing smugness. Catherine Zeta Jones fared well, but didn't do any better than any Candi Milo or Kath Soucie could do. Joseph Fiennes was the best of the lot, but had about 12 minutes of screen time and probably ten lines. It was an example of poor voice talent getting a lot of screen time, and good voice talent getting none. I believe voice over legend Jim Cummings had about one line. He should have been Sinbad, darnit.

3. Over the Hedge: ATTENTION DREAMWORKS: Bruce Willis is a terrible voice actor, don't make up for it by giving R.J. over the top facial expressions. Also, microphones and cameras should fill out a restraining order on Steve Carell. I think that he had a lot of voice coaching like, "No, way too understated, give it MORE." And he did, but perhaps they shouldn't have kept saying that to him after every take. And why on earth did you have Avril Lavigne? Did anyone care that it was her? I think the most well informed casting decision was William Shatner. How often does someone say that? I mean, the man's great with his voice, and I don't think he comes with a high price tag. I wish I could say that about the other cast members.

4. Osmosis Jones: Chris Rock I understand. Even David Hyde Pierce to a certain extent. But Lawrence Fishburne? I mean, why? Did he give a vocal performance that someone half his price tag couldn't deliver? Or is it because "and also starring Lawrence Fishburne from The Matrix" sounded good on press statements?

So, there are my examples of poor voice acting from otherwise mostly OK screen actors. But, there's another problem than the hit or miss performance given, and it's one I've mentioned a couple times:


Tom Hanks got paid $5,000,000 for doing Toy Story 2. Christine Cavanaugh got paid less than $40,000 for doing the voice of Babe. Do the math.
You can get almost a guaranteed better voice over performance with someone like Rob Paulsen, Frank Welker, Jim Cummings, Grey Delisle, Cree Summer, Charlie Adler, Richard Horvitz (my favorite living voice actor, mostly for his work as Invader Zim), or perhaps voice over legend June Foray, voice of Rocky the Squirrel, Warner Brothers' Granny and Witch Hazel, and a slew of others. And you could hire them all for the price of one Robert Redford or Tim Robbins. And they would give a much better performance. So, why would you do anything else?

Also, celebrities taking all the voice over spots makes it that much harder for prospective voice over artists to get work. With all the established voice actors being forced into doing more low paying gigs, how are those who want to break into the biz supposed to get any gigs themselves? I mean, how strapped for cash are these celebrities that they need to do voice overs? And why do production companies not yet understand that hiring a big name actor doesn't mean you'll get a good performance, especially if their schedule doesn't allow them to perform with their fellow actors, but have to bounce lines off of the director or, worse yet, just remember where they are in the script. An experienced voice actor can do that. I doubt that Ewan McGregor can do that without it sounding jerky, or taking forever to get a good take.

So, why on earth don't you get voice actors to do these roles? I don't care who's in a dang cartoon, as long as they turn in a good performance!

So, for those of you who are interested in voice over work, I recommend that you visit the Voicestarz link on my Links section. It's a voice over coaching class done online, and it's owned by the very versatile and talented Tara Strong of Powerpuff Girls fame. Also, head over to Amazon.com and purchase the excellent book, The Art of Voice Acting by James Alburger.

For those interested, here's a list of screen actors that are allowed to be in cartoons, they've earned it with all the voice work they've done. It also helps that they not only do good voice acting, but that voice over jobs probably make up as much work for them as on screen acting does.

1. Mark Hamill
2. Wayne Knight
3. Clancy Brown
4. Brad Garrett
5. Kevin McDonald
6. Katey Sagal
7. William Shatner
8. Charlton Heston
9. Danny Cooksey

And here are posthumous mentions, and deservedly on this list:

1. Peter Ustinov
2. John Ritter
3. Phil Hartman
4. Orson Welles
5. Terry Thomas
6. Jim Backus
7. Long John Baldrey
8. Elizabeth Hartman (No relation to Phil Hartman, was Mrs. Brisby in The Secret of Nimh.)
9. Roddy McDowall

And no voice over list would be complete without the five most influential voice actors of all time, creating the golden era of voice over work:
1. Mel Blanc
2. Daws Butler
3. June Foray (still alive, and almost 90!)
4. Paul Frees
5. Don Messick


Blogger srvdove said...

Mr Lawrence rocks!

6:45 PM  

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