I 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.
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.
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.