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Monday, June 18, 2007

Inspiration vs. Imitation

Everyone has been inspired by luminaries in given fields. Animation directors look to people like Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett, guitarists to Andres Segovia and Francisco Tarrega, race car drivers to Manuel Fangio and Mario Andretti. As an aspiring voice actor, my heros are people like Mel Blanc, June Foray, Rob Paulsen, Jim Cummings, Bill Scott, and Dan Castellaneta to name but a few. Most people who desire to enter the world of animated voice over start out watching the cartoons they love and trying to imitate the voices they hear. My love for voice over started very young, when I would pour over the one tape of Looney Toons I owned (on Betamax, no less) and start reciting the lines in approximations of the characters' voices. When I learned that most of the cartoons the Warner Brothers produced used one, two, or at most three actors per short, I was suprised, to say the least. How could one person provide three, four, or five distinct voices? Not just voices, either, but convincing voices? What were they doing?

I watched a lot of cartoons growing up (I still do. I'm grown up physically, but not mentally, I suppose), and though animation is what catches the eye and immediately draws us in, its the voice over work that keeps us there. Without convincing characters and dialogue, we wouldn't watch any form of dramatized fiction. Don't get me wrong, I love animation. Cartoons must be pleasant to look at, and the more epic, the better. But there are plenty of cartoons that have horrible animation and yet are classics because they also have brilliant writing and talented actors behind the mics. Rocky and Bullwinkle, for example. The animation was cheap, looking as though episodes were completed the week they aired. I never watched Rocky and Bullwinkle as though it were Yuri Norstein's Tale of Tales, dazzling me with artistic visuals. I watched the silly Jay Ward toon because it was hilarious. I loved June Foray's Rocky and Natasha, Bill Scott's Bullwinkle, Paul Frees' Boris, and the dozens of other excellent characters and voice over artists. Saturday morning animation quality has improved over the years, but writing and voice acting has stayed consistently high.

So, as I started mimicking the voices in these cartoons, I realized that I could pull some of them off with convincing accuracy. For a while, I thought this was as far as I needed to go in order to break into animation. What can I say? I was young and stupid. Now, I'm a little less young, and a little less stupid. It's great to be inspired, but that inspiration can't lead to imitation, or we'll never be successful ourselves. Cover bands never get recording contracts. Dread Zeppelin aside. Even they got contracts because they found their own way of performing Led Zeppelin's music: Reggae with an Elvis impersonator on vocals. I still think that's lame, but it's novelty. Anyway, my point is still valid: They made it because they had something unique to offer. Just because I can pull off a Homer Simpson well doesn't mean I'll get work. Sure, it impresses friends, but why would an agency hire me based on that? Why wouldn't they hire Dan Castellaneta, who not only created the voice, but can deliver consistent quality because he's a seasoned professional?

What we need to do as beginning voice actors is find what our individual voices do best. Start with your natural speaking voice. Listen where it goes up and down, how you begin and end words, and what your accent is like. Do you tend to modulate your voice a lot? Does it go higher as you get more excited? Do you break into falsetto at all? Do you let the ends of words drop off? Do you find that you have a particular accent, such as Southern Drawl, Brooklyn, or Pennsylvania Dutch? I'm from Lancaster Pennsylvania, so I've found that my accent causes me to say a few words in strange ways, unique from anywhere else in the country. I've lived in Pensacola Florida for six years and I've taken in some southern habits, but when I go back to Pennsylvania, I hear my accent "flare up." It was especially telling when I recorded a skit with my friend, Ted Stoltz. He still lives in Pennsylvania, so we decided to record the skit into our respective computers and we would listen to each other over the phone as we said our lines. I sent him the files I made and he edited them together. As I listen to his end of the sketch, I realized he sounds very Lancaster county. I've lost it a bit, not only from having been away for so long, but because I've been trying to get rid of it.

Read this sentence and listen as you say the words:

We'll go because you're going to help them for sure. Are you comfortable with that?

The way I said this before I started working on my diction was:

Wull go becuz yer goin' ta help thum fer sher. Are ya comfterble withat?

Some of the things in there are pretty common, such as comfterble for comfortable, and yer for your. Wull instead of we'll is a hard one to break out of for me. Also, separating words was difficult. With that becomes one word: withat. This mostly happens with words like, "That's stupid," or "hit Tom." They become, "Thatstupid" and "hitom." They need to separate, if only subtly. "But saying them separately doesn't sound conversational," you say, "they're awkward!" True, but you have to be able to pronounce them correct before you can say them in a colloquial way. Besides, this is all about helping you pay attention to your voice. Also, voice quality is important, too. How does your voice sound? Is it raspy? Is it soft? High? Low? These are important things, because you need to know how to market your voice. If you have a good pirate voice, you're not going to get a lot of work in Tampon commercials. Right?

Also, take acting lessons. Learn how to act with your voice. Take dialect lessons, learn how to do different accents. The difference between two of your voices can be as little as a slight English accent on one, and a straight Midwest tone with the other. People are going to hire you based on how well you can be understood, how believable you are, how easy you are to work with, that sort of thing. They don't care how good your Spongebob is if you sound like a guy sitting in a room reading to himself. There are voice over demos that people make which feature them doing hundreds of different voices, but they're all bland and one dimensional. Listen to Richard Horvitz or Jim Cummings, their characters voices are all variations on their natural speaking voices. However, they are very good actors with their voices, and can create many characters by changing how they deliver lines or adding a bit of an accent. Watch The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy (but not for long, otherwise you'll start to claw your eyeballs out) for a good example of Richard Horvitz's voice acting. He plays Billy and Billy's dad on the show. They are two different characters and the audience accepts this because Horvitz gives them unique personalities. "But," you say, "that's a father and son. They're supposed to sound alike!" True, but then there's Jim Cummings in Bonkers. In Bonkers he played both lead characters, Bonkers and Officer Piquel. They both sounded like Jim Cummings, but he performed them as independant entities.

Go ahead, imitate your heros. It's a great way to get yourself inspired to start trying your hand at voice over. Sometimes, your imitations of other characters will help you develop your own. Homer Simpson's voice started out as Dan Castellaneta's impression of Walter Matthau. The Brain is Maurice Lamarche's impression of Orson Welles. But those characters are not ruled by their origins, and neither are the voice actors. They developed those impressions over time so they could become three dimensional. You need to do the same. Heck, I know I need to.


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