In addition to writing scripts, it’s part of my job to sit in on voice recording sessions to help make sure that what we intended comes across in the actors’ performance. This is primarily the job of the voice director, but it never hurts to have an extra pair of ears. Also, some things that seem clear when written don’t translate to the actor. For example, on Buzz Lightyear, I described a character as “a cross between Elisha Cook Jr. and Huggy Bear.” Made sense to me, but it took some explaining.
Today’s session, my last for Tarzan, is at the prosaically named L.A. Studios. Picture one of those Behind the Music bacchanals, minus the drugs, groupies, and musical instruments. (There is, however, a kitchen freezer stocked with ice cream sandwiches. In the cartoon world, this is big-time perks.) We’re in Studio B. In the control room, there’s a big console, computers, tape decks, and many racks of cool flashing lights. There’s also an engineer, an assistant to take editing notes, the voice director, and me.
When I first started in cartoons, recording sessions were typically done with all the actors in the booth at the same time, like a radio play. They’d spend about an hour rehearsing and then a few hours knocking out the script, with a little time left over for dueling Wayne Newton and Bob Hope impressions. These days, we tend to record one or two actors at a time. What you lose in group dynamics you more than make up for in the freedom to push for a more nuanced performance. Actually, I’m guessing about that last part. It might just be about scheduling flexibility, now that we use so many actors who are also shooting live action shows.
On the other side of thick glass in a soundproof booth is Jim Cummings, whose face you might not recognize, but whose voice is inescapable. He’s done roughly a billion cartoon characters and is also the high-octane narrator beseeching you to rush out to umpteen movies or chain restaurants. An old pro, he’s in—boom—he’s done.
Actors all have different approaches to voice work. The director has to sense what the actor needs to get the feel of a scene. Sometimes that means reading in the part of another character, while other times it might mean offering a telling physical detail, like “It’s a high cliff you’re falling off, so make sure it’s a really long scream.” (That’s the kind of “nuanced performance” I’m talking about.)
Typically the actor does a few takes of each line. If the first pass doesn’t work, the director tries another approach. If things get desperate, my opinion is sought. That’s when I weigh in with something insightful like “Maybe try adding more of a sardonic subtext when you shout ‘Watch out!’ ” Whatever works. It’s a group effort.
We pick the best take as we go along. Sometimes this means editing together sections from various reads. The instantaneous computer wizardry is pretty amazing, as the engineer puts together pieces, shaves off mouth noises, time-compresses a phrase. In no time at all, a disjointed series of wrestling grunts can sound like a fluid, meaningful series of wrestling grunts.
Cartoon acting isn’t for everyone. If the performance is too naturalistic, it can play as flat. Get too amped up and it just sounds like a lot of yelling. Many of my favorite characters on our last few shows have been created by supporting actors on sitcoms. Brad Garrett (Everybody Loves Raymond), French Stewart (3rd Rock From the Sun), and Diedrich Bader (The Drew Carey Show) are good examples. They’re funny, broad, and they really seem to enjoy the work. It’s also a special treat to work with childhood faves like Mike Connors (TV’s Mannix!) or Diahann Carroll (TV’s Julia!).
I carry around in my head a wish-list of people with great cartoon voices. They aren’t necessarily actors. (Pet peeve: nix on anyone self-described as a “storyteller.”) Fellow Diarist David Sedaris makes the list. Tom Waits. Vin Scully. Normally, I don’t like to tout my power and influence, but if you’re ever channel surfing on Saturday morning and there’s a duck who sounds just like that wacky guy at Trader Joe’s, well … enough said.
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