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Monday, July 23, 2007

Time To Absorb Some Great Voice Work!

I'm willing to bet you know the name, Mel Blanc. "Hey, that's Bugs Bunny, right?" Yes, yes it is. Now, do you know why you know Mel Blanc's name? "Uh, because he did Bugs Bunny?" Well, yes, that's part of it, but not the whole story. You see, I always took for granted that the name, Mel Blanc, was synonymous for "Voice Actor" just because he was so good and so prolific. I mean, how could the guy who did the majority of the voices for Warner Brothers' cartoons not be famous?

There's a problem with this theory, however. Let's explore that. You've heard of Yogi Bear, right? "Yup!" Well, who did his voice? "...uh, Mel Blanc?" Sorry, incorrect. It was Daws Butler. How about Rocky the Flying Squirrel? "Mel... Blanc...?" Nope, it was June Foray, the most important living voice actress, possibly the most important of all time. Oh, and who did Elmer Fudd? "Ok, now I know that was Mel Blanc!" Well, that's true, Mel Blanc did voice Elmer. "Yes! Got one!" At least, he voiced Elmer in maybe 10% of Elmer's appearances in the classic cartoons. Most of the time it was Arthur Q. Brian, and when he died, Hal Smith. "Oh."

There's a reason Mel is famous beyond his being the best and being prolific; He was a marketing genius. When he was negotiating with Leon Schlesinger for more money from his Warner Brothers cartoons, Leon refused. So, Mel got an idea that would make him far more money than pay raises from Schlesinger; Credit. In the 1940's, nobody but the studio heads got much credit for what they did. If you were a lowly animator or voice actor, you were unknown to the public because "Leon Schlesinger" or "Pat Sullivan" were all the public ever saw on the cartoons. This is why Felix the Cat fans had no idea, for decades, that Otto Messmer was the real genius that drove the animated shorts. Pat Sullivan's name was all they ever saw. But Mel knew getting credit was the future if he wanted more money. So, he asked Schlessinger if they could put "Voice Characterizations by Mel Blanc" in front of all the cartoons, and they did. Even if people like Bea Benaderet, June Foray, Stan Freberg, Arthur Q. Brian, and Kent Rogers starred in the cartoons, too, Mel was the only name they saw.

The fact that the original Warner Brothers shorts were aimed at adults, not kids, didn't hurt, either. While a kid may have seen Daws Butler or Don Messick's name at the beginning of a Hanna Barbera short, he probably wouldn't have remembered unless he were a voice over geek. People in positions to hire voice actors, namely adults, were the ones who were seeing that "Voice Characterizations by Mel Blanc" credit. So, they did hire Mel. Lots of 'em. In fact, Mel would even go to work at Hanna Barbera alongside fellow actors Butler and Messick, his biggest competition, in shows like The Jetsons, The Flintstones, and Secret Squirrel. He was also on Jack Benny's TV program and even landed some work in Spike Jones' orchestra, singing in songs like, "Clink, Clink, Another Drink."

While Mel's deal seems a bit self serving, it has aided in raising the level of voice over art in the past eighty years to something beyond, "Hey, let's get somebody to give Felix some cat sounds. Larry, get in here!" Thanks to his stroke of genius, voice actors have realized that what they do is pretty special and deserves recognition. Now, AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) and SAG (Screen Actor's Guild) have thousands of voice performers signed up.

Let's not forget in all this that Mel was also the best of the best. Yes, in the early days, he did alter tape speed to create new voices. For example: at first, his Daffy Duck voice was just his Sylvester the Cat voice sped up a few cents. He later learned to replicate this speed trick with his voice because of having to do the characters live. But, that aside, his choices for the characters were nothing short of genius. Let's just take Bugs Bunny for a second. I believe he changed the characterization for Bugs slightly depending on who the director was. Listen to the Bob Clampett Bugs and then listen to the Chuck Jones Bugs. The difference is striking, I find. The Clampett Bugs voice matched the visual. While Rod Scribner was making Bugs look like a stretchy, squashy ball of manicness, Mel matched that with his loose, crazed vocalization. When Bugs was under the direction and pen of more conservative animators like Bob McKimson and Chuck Jones, the voice became more serious, more collected, more street smart than wacky. I have to believe that Mel knew the styles of the people who made the cartoons and let that influence his take on the voice.

We, as voice actors, need to understand how our voice will fit the final product, and Mel Blanc is the best example I can think of. If we get to do a cartoon, we need to pour over pictures of our characters, and even test animation if we can. Get to know the animators, understand how they're going to make your character move. Unfortunately, much of the voice over work these days is rather impersonal. Unlike the 1940's, there aren't going to be any "house voice actors" for the major studios anymore. Theatrical shorts with high budgets are a thing of the past, and almost all cartoons are either aimed toward children and are bland "purple and pink" monstrosities, or are ultra vulgar flash based mutations made for Adult Swim. Very cookiecutter. What will most likely happen is that you'll get a gig after nightmarish networking, walk into the studio, get handed a script, and do a reading that's over in as few takes as possible. That doesn't mean you'll never get to work with the animators on a project. John Kricfalusi, for example, makes sure he gets voice actors whom he works with during the recording so they'll deliver the right reading for a given character, and even does voice work himself (Ren in Ren and Stimpy, Citricet in The Ripping Friends). Also, his work is the most artistic and cartoony of all current animation. Doug Lawrence (better known as Mr. Lawrence) does the big three in cartooning; Writing, Directing, acting. He's written, directed, and acted in Rocco's Modern Life, Spongebob Squarepants, and Camp Lazlo (my favorite cartoon on TV right now).

I don't want to get off topic, the genius of Mel Blanc, but I wanted to show you that pockets of the old ways can be found in the modern system. Now, what you need to do is get onto Youtube and Google video to look up the following cartoons:

1. Falling Hare. This is my favorite Bugs cartoon of all time. It was directed by Bob Clampett and animated by Rod Scribner. Mel at his finest, too.
2. Fresh Hare.
3. Southern Fried Rabbit. I warn you though, this cartoon is one of the infamous "Censored 11," a list of cartoons banned from television because of their racist nature. In other words, lots of Blackface and cultural stereotypes. Just watch the cartoon as a cartoon, leave your easily offended sensibilites at the door and watch it for Mel Blanc's brilliant Bugs Bunny. It's also the last Bugs short directed by Tex Avery.
4. Baseball Bugs.
5. Case of the Missing Hare.
6. Wackiki Rabbit.

Once you're done watching these public domain shorts, and your appetite is whetted, go out and buy the DVD's of the classic Warner Brothers cartoons. You'll be glad you did.


Blogger Bill said...

Hi, I've been doing some research on Mel Blanc and came across your piece"Time to Absord Some Great Voice Work!"

Very informative and thought provoking. And gratifying as well, since I worked for and with Mel for nearly 20 years, and have been his son Noel's partner in a joint venture with Warner Bros. since 1996. The company has provided Mel's Looney Tunes voices to Warner Bros. licensees for toys, games and in the last few years, online greeting cards ( American Greetings) and ringtones for all the major carriers. There are imitation tracks out in the pipeline now, but it's easy to tell the Mel from the non-Mel.

Your point about finding out as much as one can before creating a voice for an animated character is excellent. It also helps to know how the director is going to approach things. wish I had known to ask Mel about tailoring his Bugs voice to the animation director, but it doesn't surprise me at all.

I'm often asked, why was Mel Blanc so good? Or more to the point, why is it that no voice actor today can nail any of Mel's character voices?

First of all, it's unfair to a talent like Joe Alaskey to expect him to match Mel Blanc's "Daffy Duck" or any other LT character voice done by Mel, although Joe is the first I've heard since Mel passed away in 1989 to do a pretty good Pepe Le Pew; I can think of at least four reasons:
1. Mel Blanc was a great actor, every bit as gifted as Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart. 2. Mel had flawless timing - not only as a result of his years on live radio, but his musicianship.You talked about this in a previous entry; Mel, a fine violinist and later bass player, understood the music of speech and how rhythm was so important to interacting with others live. 3. Mel Blanc had perfect pitch, which helped him greatly in creating his brilliant musical moments with Bugs and Porky a lot of the time. I was watching an interview with Mel around 1981 and the subject was the World War II work he did as Bugs and Porky singing with Arthur Q. Bryan's Elmer in the famous animated War Bonds song, "Any Bonds Today". The interviewer asked Mel how the song went, and he began to sing it as Bugs. I listened, then would the interview back and listened again to make sure. In an interview on a Seattle TV station 40 years after the first recording of "Any Bonds Today", here Mel was not only singing the song in the right key signature, but the right tempo as well. It was amazing,but that too was what Mel Blanc was - amazing. 4. The final separator is Mel's instrument itself: his vocal chords, and physical construction. Listen to Mel doing Tweety sometime and then listen again and note that Mel's Tweety has a distinct high range, mid and bass to it. Whether it's Tweety, Taz, Forhorn or Bugs, the depth and range of Mel's voice leaves an audible voice print out of reach of the ability of most mortals. A survey of the voices of the 20th Century was carried out sometime in the early 1970'sveryone from Harry Truman and Hitler to Mel Blanc. Only one voice matched the power and special nature of Mel Blanc's voice and vocal chords and that was the great tenor, Enrico Caruso.

Thanks for the tribute to Mel.
Best regards,
Bill Baldwin, Jr.
Warner-Blanc Audio Associates

12:03 PM  

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