Voice Acting

upI heard a radio interview the other day with Pete Docter, one of the directors of Pixar’s “Up.” He was talking about how they cast Ed Asner as the old man. The process he described was a completely organic one; he and Bob Peterson designed a rough sketch of the character, they showed it to the voice actors who were auditioning, they recorded test lines, they listened, and then they refined their drawings based on Ed Asner’s performance.

Click on me and find out why he bothered to write about me.
Click on me and find out why he bothered to write about me.

I find this worth mentioning because it is a pet theory of mine that many American animation studios miscast their voices because they do not understand how to do it properly. With the emphasis clearly on “star” talent rather than interesting voices, many cartoons end up with boring characters. Not so in the old days.  Sterling Holloway was never a star, just a hard-working character actor with a great face and an even better voice. Ed Wynn and Mel Blanc were big on radio, where interesting voices mattered. Voice actors were always credited and there were always star talents. But they weren’t chosen for their on-screen personas in live action films.

Somewhere along the line it became fashionable for the studios to cast big names in the world of live-action filmmaking instead of interesting voices.  It’s likely this happened in the 80s, when most of the really crappy filmmaking practices came to fruition.  In any event, it has lead us to today’s situation, in which most voice talent is cast because of star power as actors rather than their actual talent as voice actors.

Which is why the interview about “Up” was so exciting to hear.  The Pixar boys are doing it right again – this time by designing a character and sharing that design with the voice actor – letting his performance guide the design, but also – and this is the interesting part – letting him SEE the character he is portraying.

Here’s where the theory part comes in.  I have seen numerous DVD featurettes showing voice actors reading their lines in recording studios.  In many of them, you can see the actors working from scripts.  But you never see any drawings.  I can’t help but think that this both leaves the voice actor with little guidance as well as it makes the board artists and animators sloppy.  If the actors could see the pictures of what they are voicing, they would have more input, and probably an even better idea what to do.

This is upside-down – shouldn’t the director and animators decide what works best for the story they are telling and then invite the actors to create with them?

The second part:

Why is it that I seem to prefer Japanese voice artists?  For one thing, there is an entire industry of people who work solely as voice artists.  They are chosen for their vocal talents, and not for their acting abilities in live-action work.  Does anyone know if there is much or any cross-over?


I also notice that Japanese voice artists seem more adept at making sounds that work with the drawings.  A character may gasp, gurgle, or bleat in a way that would never work in live action.  But because the sound the actor makes seems to go along with the picture, it works.  I do not know for sure, but I would bet that the Japanese industry works more from storyboards in the voice recording sessions than from a script without pictures.  Just a guess – can anyone corroborate?

Similarly, the American industry, with their focus on stars, seem to miss the point on casting specific voices that add depth and quality to the characters portrayed.  Often it seems like they’ve been randomly assigned.

Here is the one that gets under my skin the most.  It’s a small clip from Hayao Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle.”  You might be aware that Disney bought the rights to Miyazaki’s whole catalog.  They have been releasing DVDs of each film with  dubbed soundtracks.  This is good for the young set, who may not be able to read subtitles fast enough.  But though the Disney dubs are labor-intensive, expensive, technically accurate exercises, they also rely on “star” casting rather than conveying identical qualities of voice.

Compare these two tiny sections of the English and Japanese versions. Watch the original, Japanese one, first.

[flashvideo filename=https://www.nakedrabbit.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/calcifer_japanese.flv /]

Download mp4

[flashvideo filename=https://www.nakedrabbit.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/calcifer_english.flv /]

Download mp4

Right away you notice one thing.  In the proper version,

Tatsuya Gashûin’s voice has specific qualities that Billy Crystal’s does not.  No matter what, Billy Crystal sounds like an old Jewish guy, which he is.  No problem with that, except is this the proper voice for this character?  Even though you may not understand the Japanese version (I cannot) you probably notice that Tatsuya Gashûin’s Calcifer sounds like a rude teenager.  This is a big key to the character.


Calicifer, the fire-demon, has made a pact with the Howl back when Howl was a child. Howl should be a responsible adult, but he is immature, childish, and full of himself.  Howl’s eventual maturation will be a big theme in the film.  This will coincide with the breaking of the pact.  Howl’s maturity comes as a result of shedding the childish pact.  So, of course Calicifer should sound like a sullen teen!  His development is arrested, just like Howl’s!

What place does Billy Crystal’s old Jewish man voice have in this schema?  How can that add to theme?  It runs counter to it, and an entire level of depth and meaning is lost.

1 comments on “Voice Acting

  1. “Somewhere along the line it became fashionable for the studios to cast big names in the world of live-action filmmaking instead of interesting voices. It’s likely this happened in the 80s, when most of the really crappy filmmaking practices came to fruition.”

    Video killed the radio star! Marketing wants “voices” who look good on the Letterman show, “voices” whose faces and names are recognizable and thus easily promotable. Also at some point producers ceased hiring actors to perform roles in a classical thespian sense, and began hiring actors who basically play themselves. Producers purchase a standardized character personality as if from a catalog.

    Accountants agree that the publicity value of employing celebrities in Feature Animation is greater than the relatively low salaries the celebrities have been willing to accept (when compared to their live action projects).

    Occasionally a celebrity’s talent will actually match his ego. Disney’s Aladdin was rescued from terminal triteness by Robin William’s unscripted improv in the recording studio. It made sense for animators to follow his lead, as Williams was clearly the most talented person in the room. Although not necessarily the highest paid… Willams voiced the genie for scale, a mere $75,000.

    “For some scenes, Williams was given topics and dialogue suggestions, but allowed to improvise his lines. It was estimated that Williams improvised 52 characters. Eric Goldberg, the supervising animator for the Genie, then reviewed Wiliams’ recorded dialogue and selected the best gags and lines. Goldberg and his crew then created character animation to match Williams’ jokes, puns, and impersonations.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genie_(Aladdin)

    “No matter what, Billy Crystal sounds like an old Jewish guy, which he is.”

    What you say? Crystal was famous in his standup comedy career for vocal impersonations such as Howard Cosell, Sammy Davis Jr., Edward G. Robinson…

    I realize those are all old Jewish men. Me make funny.

    When people pay money to see a Billy Crystal movie they have a certain expectation regarding the product, producers might think it risky to make the celebrity’s voice unrecognizable. After all, why use a celebrity if you can’t even recognize that it is a celebrity voice? Why not just use a non-famous professional voice actor?

    Your point is made that marketing rather than artistic concerns are heavily influencing voice actor selection. Also the “tail wagging the dog” effect you describe, how an animated character is forced to become Billy-Crystal-like, rather than Crystal becoming like the character.

    In fairness it must be noted that we are comparing Crystal’s dub to an original performance which was sheer genius. Most fans had modest and realistic expectations for the dub, knowing that the original stylized voicing could not be duplicated.

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