I Know That Voice and You Can Too

Voice acting is one of the more mysterious parts of the animation production process and while luminaries like Mel Blanc managed to garner a high degree of public awareness, there is a legion of talented actors working away behind the microphone that most members of the public would never recognise. One of them, John DiMaggio, decided to change that and went about creating the documentary ‘I Know That Voice’ to highlight the job and the players that take part.

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Doing the Math On Celebrity Voice Acting

There is absolutely no legitimate reason whatsoever why this man was ever let near an animated film.
There is absolutely no legitimate reason whatsoever why this man was ever let near an animated film.

It’s a topic that strikes a nerve within the animation business, but celebrity voice acting (in features and TV) has become ubiquitous over the last 25 years. Today, practically all features from the larger studios rely upon celebrity voice talent regardless of whether or not the performer is right for the role. Aside from that though, is their cost, which is what we’re taking a look at today and why it’s detrimental to them.

The Base Cost of Celebrity Voice Acting

For starters, there’s the salaries. Not all will make a killing, but certainly the ‘millions’ term is bandied about often enough when it comes to celebrities that it makes as good a starting point as any.

Yes, millions of dollars is a lot of money, especially for one person and especially when there is often a full cast of them in a single film. All those extra millions add up once you get larger stars involved. Chris Rock may get one million for Madagascar, but Cameron Diaz purportedly got around $10 million for one of the Shreks.

Where Their Cost Multiplies

Say we have one or two big stars and, oh, five lesser known ones. The two at the top earn $10 million each and the lesser ones earn a million. There’s $25million right there; a quarter of the cost of a $100 million film!

Now, we have to double that to cover marketing costs so a $100 million film has to pull in at least $200 million just to break even. Where do the celebrity voices fit into that? Well, they were a quarter before and they’re just about a quarter now as well. So your $25 million voice actors are actually costing $50 million before you even make a cent.

Ah, but we’re not done yet. After all, box office grosses are no reflection on revenues since cinema chains keep a significant portion (up to half). Even at a conservative estimate (25%), that’s another $6.25 million that celebrity voice actors have cost the production.

Grand total: $56.25 million for seven voices before even $1 in profit is made and we haven’t even touched on those stars that can get gross points; you can add many millions for those if the film is successful.

What That Means For the Production

You see how easily celebrity voices can get out of hand? Is Eddie Murphy voicing the donkey in Shrek and getting $10 million really going to bring in $22.5 million in extra ticket sales?

If you’re making a film, wouldn’t you much rather put that $25 million into the animation itself? Or better yet, save the money and realise it as profit?

Regular readers of this blog will know where I would put it (hint: employment is a profitable investment), the question is: why do studios insist that major non-professional voice actors are a necessity? Remember, it was Robin Williams performance that made is appearance in Aladdin so successful; not the fact that it was Robin Williams doing the voice.

Today, (and we’ll defer from naming names right now) it seems that studios attempt to grab as many celebrities as possible and throw their names on the poster without thought to their talents. Sure Beyonce is a great singer, but does that make her a great voice actress? The trailer for recently-released Epic suggests not in an avoid-at-all-costs kind of way.

Animated films will continue to suffer the blight of celebrity voice acting until there is a bit of a shake up of the business. It’s coming at some point to be sure, but hopefully it puts things right.

Lastly, for your viewing pleasure, here’s professional Marice LaMarche at work:

Maurice LaMarche in full flow at a recording session
Maurice LaMarche in full flow at a recording session

Epic: A New Low In Celebrity Voice Casting

It’s a topic I’ve covered in the past, and one that continually grinds my gears in more ways than one. However none more so than the recent announcement of the cast for the upcoming FOX animated film, Epic. When I saw it, my heart almost sank.

Who picks these people? That’s what I want to know. Beyonce? OK, sure, she has some sort of vocal talent, for which there had better be some good songs coming out of this film. Pitbull on the other hand; how does he fit into the mix? I once read a tweet that described him as the guy who shows up in the middle of songs and starts rapping gibberish. How about Johnny Knoxville? The guy’s a decent actor for sure, but what about his voice? Can you picture anyone else shouting “I’m Johnny Knoxville and welcome to Jackass”? I can think of at least 5 personal friends that will give him a good run for the money. Throw in Colin Farrell, the guy from the Hunger Games and Steven Tyler among others and you have a very weird cast altogether.

Is this something that studios are losing sight of? Yes, a star can help sell a film, but it won’t make the film. Think of Delgo, it was a film that had an admittedly admirable B-list celebrity voice cast, but it was a terrible film that failed. Celebrities far from made that film into a success.

So why keep doing it? If Eddie Murphy costs $10 million, that’s $10 million that can’t be spent on (a lot of) animation. In addition, you have to earn double that at the box office to turn a profit. What studio wouldn’t want to get the same or similar film for a good deal less? Add in a couple of celebrities and we’re already talking double-digit percentages of the total cost. Will Eddie Murphy bring in $10 million more in box office gross? For something like a family film like Shrek, I would hope to doubt it, but then I do tend to overestimate the intelligence of people.

Another aspect of the practice is that celebrities are a brand onto themselves. By associating them with a film, a studio is essentially betting that their brand identity will be strong enough to boost sales. That may be OK if it were a company, but if you’re betting on a single person that could prove problematic, if say for example, that person ends up in rehab but you just cast them in a family film, and so forth.

Who si to blame? Studios are to be sure, but celebrities and their agents are the catalyst and someone in the casting department is getting hoodwinked.

I’m sure Epic will be an OK film, but with a cast like that, I can’t help but wonder whether the film will actually suffer instead of benefitting.

Essential Listening: The Talkin’ Toons Podcast

Via: Wikipedia

Voice-acting is one of my favourite parts of the animation business. Not so much because it’s the only creative aspect of the business that I have any hope of being good at, but because it really is a talent and skill that is often under-appreciated. Thankfully Rob Paulson (pictured above, left, with Maurice LaMarche) has made a long and fine career in the profession and is putting all that he has learned to good use with his Talkin’ Toons podcast.

Some episodes are Rob simply talking about the business and any advice he has (very worthwhile if you are even thinking about entering the business), but his guest podcasts, where he invites his friends and colleagues in for a chat are where the real magic happens. Besides the many, many pearls of wisdom to be gleaned, they are a superb insight into the world of an industry that doesn’t get a lot of coverage. There’s plenty of discussions about how people got started in the industry, why they like doing it so much, and also plenty upon plenty of what goes on when things aren’t being recorded.

Notable guests thus far have included Billy West, Maurice LaMarche, Tara Strong, Grey DeLisle nd Phil LaMarr and I can safely say that at some point during each of those podcasts, I almost had tears of laughter in my eyes they were that funny.

Rob’s clearly put a lot of effort into the endeavor and I’m happy to say that it has paid off. With many more guests to come, it is safe to say that I will be tuning in regularly from now on.

When Chris Rock Pissed Off Some Real Voice Actors

So you may have seen Chris Rock present the Best Animated Feature at last week’s Academy Awards (I did not, sleep was more important to me at that stage of the day), and you may have noticed that he apparently loves doing voice work in animation. If you didn’t see it, the clip is here, but before you click, please take a moment to admire the idiocy of the Academy for putting it online but disabling embedding.

What I’m sure Chris meant by all of this was to slag off the live-action folks who go into animation thinking that it’s an easy gig. We’ve all seen it before, where in the “making of” you hear said actor gush about how they can show up to work in jeans or shorts or hotpants or whatever. The only problem is that Rock comes off as a bit self-congratulatory when he mentions he earns a million dollars.

What you may not have seen or heard was the aftermath of his speech, which took place over on twitter in the days following the awards, when respected voice-actor Maurice LaMarche had this to say:

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/MAURICELAMARCHE/status/174532519457329154″]

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/MAURICELAMARCHE/status/174732544145764352″]

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/MAURICELAMARCHE/status/174752694488154112″]

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/MAURICELAMARCHE/status/174834448792158208″]

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/MAURICELAMARCHE/status/174839487661228033″]

So Maurice was pretty pissed, but how about Tara Strong? She decided to take the humorous route instead:

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/tarastrong/status/173979076258832386″]

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/tarastrong/status/173989067535564800″]

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/tarastrong/status/173992141775839232″]

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/tarastrong/status/174003560881725440″]

Four Live-Action Actors Who Successfully Jumped Into To Voice-Acting

Today, I’m pleased to feature a guest post by Sarah Stockton. Sarah is an Outreach Coordinator for Voices.com, a site connects businesses with professional voice talents where she enjoys helping potential voice talent find their start in the voice industry.

It’s pretty common these days for movie and television stars to voice characters in animated films. Movie studios even make this part of their promotions, and for good reason. Many people are more likely to want to see a film if one of their favorite stars like Tom Hanks or Angelina Jolie is performing a voice in it. You may also hear celebrities performing voice-overs in television and radio commercials, which is usually side work they take on because, to be frank, it requires little work and they get paid well to do it.

But some actors have moved from regular acting into voice acting on a regular basis. Sometimes an actor whose career in front of the camera may be waning can still find good work as a voice actor. In some cases, though, actors just find they have a knack for voice acting, and they enjoy it. Here are four actors whose characters and voices you may recognize, who got their start in front of the camera.

Julie Kavner

You may know Julie Kavner as the voice of Marge Simpson on The Simpsons. But because that show is completing its 23rd season in 2012, you may not know that Kavner had a thriving acting career before The Simpsons ever aired. After a few bit parts on television shows in the mid ’70s, Kavner landed the role of Brenda Morgenstern, sister to title character Rhoda, one of three spinoffs of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (Phyllis and Lou Grant being the other two). Kavner played Brenda through the entire run of the series, after which she went on to appear as a guest star in a handful of other shows.

She also landed roles in two Woody Allen films, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Radio Days. In 1987, she joined the cast of the sketch comedy vehicle, The Tracey Ullman Show. That show included quirky short cartoons about a yellow-skinned, bug-eyed family, for which Kavner voiced the mother. When Ullman’s show was canceled, the cartoons were developed into The Simpsons. The rest is history.

Cree Summer

After starting her career as a voice actor, Cree Summer gained recognition as a traditional actor with a role in the highly successful and popular A Different World in the late ’80s. The show had success built in, being a spin-off of The Cosby Show, and starring Lisa Bonet. Even after Bonet left the show, after just the first season, A Different World continued for five more seasons, making many of the actors household names, including Summer.

After that show ended, she took on a few other acting roles in shows such as Living Single and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. But then in 1994, she returned to voice acting, and hasn’t looked back since. Summer’s pliable voice has allowed her to win parts in dozens of cartoon series such as Tiny Toon Adventures, The Wild Thornberrys, Rugrats, and Batman Beyond. She remains an active and sought after voice actor.

Bill Fagerbakke

This isn’t a name that’s easy to forget, if you ever knew it in the first place. Before embarking on his voice acting career, Bill Fagerbakke took on roles in a couple of made-for-TV movies, a few TV shows, and had a small part in the Michael J. Fox hit movie The Secret of My Success. He hit the big time when he landed a regular role on the popular sitcom Coach, playing dumb but lovable Dauber Dybinski.

When the show finally went off the air after nine successful seasons, Fagerbakke began alternating between traditional acting roles on TV and in movies, and some cartoon voice-overs, including the role he’s become best known for, dumb but lovable Patrick Star on the hit show Spongebob Squarepants. Fagerbakke has now played Patrick for ten seasons, and the show is still going strong. He’s continued to take traditional acting roles here and there, but made a memorable return to television in 2005 as Marshall’s dad on the popular sitcom, How I Met Your Mother. Sadly, his character was killed off on that show, but you can still enjoy his acting talents as Spongebob’s sidekick.

Mark Hamill

Yes, that Mark Hamill. Before he was, is, and forever will be Luke Skywalker, Mark Hamill dipped his toe into voice acting with a couple of stints on Scooby Doo and Flintstones cartoons, all while taking on traditional acting roles. Then came the Star Wars explosion, but as popular as those movies were, Hamill’s acting career never quite took off the way Harrison Ford’s did. He continued to act steadily, both in traditional and animated voice roles. He even did a voice for a video game. Then another. Then a few more, until now when he is a much sought after video game voice actor.

But he didn’t stop there. Hamill has also created a niche for himself in superhero cartoons. He’s done voices in Spider-Man and Superman cartoons, but the one voice for which he’s best known in comic book circles is that of the Joker in the animated series Batman, Batman Beyond, Superman, Justice League, and a few other spinoffs and specials. In fact, he’s such a fantastic Joker he’s gone on to play the role in several Batman and other superhero video games, bringing both his voice acting pursuits together in one endeavor. If you’ve never heard Mark Hamill’s Joker, you’re not only missing out, but will be astounded that the guy who played hero Jedi Luke Skywalker can sound so convincingly maniacal.

These are just four of the many celebrities and traditional actors who have either abandoned their lives in front of the camera for lives in front of a microphone, or have successfully combined both to create lucrative and high profile careers. Next time you watch a cartoon with your kids—or without—listen closely to the voices. You may be surprised by whom you recognize.

Patrick Stewart Likes Animation

Telling The Wrap, Stewart says:

Right now my feeling is that the greatest innovations in cinema are being made in the world of animation. There’s such a diversity of work that’s being done. So when there’s a chance to take part in this new wave of great filmmaking, I like to take part in it.

He gets a free pass on the whole “celebrity voice-actor” thing because he is, in fact, a great actor in the classical sense who can add just as much to a performance with his voice as his movements.

What Forbes Considers The ‘Animation A-List’

Via: Forbes.com

This managed to slip by me back in March. What is the ‘Animation A-List‘? Sadly it isn’t what I thought it was, which means it probably isn’t what you thought it was either. Nope, sadly it is a rather subjective list of the top “voice-actors” in the business. Did I mention that only celebrities, a.k.a. non-professionals were included? Well they’re not.

How was the list calculated? As follows:

To compile our list of the 10 actors whose animated films have earned the most at the box office over the last 10 years, we looked at the top-grossing animated films from the past decade using numbers from Box Office Mojo. We gave each star all of the money from each of his or her films.

So in effect, it’s the celebrities with the highest grosses that get the top spot, not necessarily the one who’s the most famous or the most talented.

Why use celebrities? Dorothy Pomerantz speculates that

Big names can definitely help a film at the box office. Just look at the Shrek movies. They starred Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz and Eddie Murphy, actors who over the past few years have earned big salaries for their live-action work. Who knows how the films would have fared at the box office if they had been cast with unknowns?

O…K…So it was all to do with the voice-acting and not the animation, story or even plot itself? If memory serves me correctly, Disney did some very tidy sums at the box office with their movies before they brought in Robin Williams for the Genie, and they did that because Williams is such a unique performer, not because he was a celebrity.

I’ve written before about celebrity voice actors and while there are a few who are genuinely good, there are a lot who just do it for the paycheque. In reality, an actor’s voice is incredibly boring comapred to the whole. A professional voice-actor is exactly the opposite; they might not have the looks, but they can knock your socks off with their voices.

Posturing over, here is the actual list:

  1. Cameron Diaz
  2. Eddie Murphy
  3. Mike Myers
  4. Ray Romano (WTF?)
  5. Tim Allen
  6. Tom Hanks
  7. Ben Stiller
  8. Jack Black
  9. Albert Brooks
  10. Ellen DeGeneres
  11. Ed Asner


Mark Evanier on "Voice Over Matter"

As much as I try and read all, or at least a majority of Mark’s posts, when time is not on your side, you often have to choose which posts you read based on their title. As soon as I saw “Voice Over Matter” however, I knew it was worth a look. In it, Mark recalls the story of how a famous voice-actor (Mark Elliott) came in to do some work and was there a grand total of 3 minutes, for which he was paid a tidy sum. It’s not a long piece, and while I recommend you check it out, the defining quote is this:

One of the crew guys grumbled a bit and said, “You paid him all that money for three minutes work?” Before I could say anything, the director said, “No, we pay him all that money because it only takes him three minutes.”

It makes me wonder why some studios insist on using celebrity voices when there’s clearly no advantage (cost or otherwise) to using them.

Why You Should Listen to This Podcast With Voice-Actor Scott McNeil

Via: Wikipedia

First of all, who is Scott McNeill? Well, if you think he looks Australian, then you are correct, he was born there, much the same as my good chum Mr. Elliot Cowan. Certain folks out there will be familiar with his work in Tranformers (as Bumblebee) whereas others may know him from the literally hundreds of anime shows that he has done over the years. I discovered him through his work as the paranoid emo alien Stork on the Nerd Corps. series, Storm Hawks.

Scott’s an incredibly talented, genuinely funny guy who is a real character in his own right. He’s a veteran of the industry and has this podcast is chock full of insightful., witty anecdotes from his time in the Vancouver scene. He also makes some excellent, decent points on the use of celebrity voice actors and he throws in a few horror stories for good measure.

The podcast contains plenty of discussion about the nature of the animation industry in Vancouver and how it differs from that of it’s California neighbour. Scott also has plenty of tales of how he managed to get his break in the industry and how he manages to keep a full schedule in an industry where unemployment lurks after every project.

It’s also great to hear from such a down-to-earth character talk candidly about life in an industry where some of the heaviest hitters rarely seem to get a similar chance for discussion.

The podcast was originally part of the A3U (Ages 3 and Up) series that has sadly vanished from the interwebs hence the lack of a link back to the source. It’s just over an hour long but I can guarantee you there is hardly a boring minute in the entire thing.

Click here to download the mp3 instead.

Celebrity Voice Acting Part Deaux

This morning I was watching CBS Sunday morning. It’s a show I particularly like because, quite frankly, there aren’t many shows like it being broadcast, at least not in the US anyway. Long story short, they had a quick segment on voice-acting, focusing initially on Dora the Explorer followed by the world of commercials, etc.

During the course of the report, I learned even more about celebrity voice-acting than I knew when I previously wrote about it, surprisingly enough, in April 2009. As it turns out, celebrities do all sorts of voice-acting nowadays, not just for animation shows or films.

Just some examples from this morning include:

  • Morgan Freeman: CBS Nightly News
  • Michael Douglas (!): NBC Nightly News
  • Gene Hackman: Lowe’s Home Improvement

With the likes of Wanda Sykes, George Clooney, Tom Selleck (!!) and so forth doing various TV spots. What I find fascinating is that at least for a TV show or film, the producers can at least broadcast or notify the public as to who is in the production in question. For advertisements, there’s nothing of the sort!

If I hadn’t been told this morning, I would have no idea that it was such well known celebrities doing such voice-overs. Why on earth would you, as a company allow your advertising agency to engage in such behaviour?

For one, celebrities are expensive (hey, I’m sure George Clooney, as damn fine a voice as he has, doesn’t rent it for nothing), and unless it is clearly obvious that the person in question is in the advertisement, your basically wasting money.

As I mentioned in the previous post, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of professional voice-actors out there that are more than capable of conveying the fact that Boniva isn’t for people with a heart condition or whatever.

Recently I’ve been reading the excellent book, Ogilvy on Advertising. Witten by David Ogilvy, a Scotsman who went from being a farmer in the Pennsylvania Amish country to the head of one of the most successful advertising agencies on Madison Avenue, it offers many lessons he has learned on the basics of advertising.

One thing he points out numerous times is that celebrities don’t improve your sales. Imagine that! People normally believe (and most of the time they are right) that when a celebrity appears in an ad, they are getting paid to do so, not just because head & Shoulders really does leave them dandruff free.

Ogilvy points out data that he believes proves that normal, unknown actors are more effective at selling stuff than celebrities. More so when it comes to voice-acting, which is a profession with a lot of skill. Any eejit can stand in front of a microphone, but to put emotion into a voice takes work and sadly, I think celebrities aren’t the best people to do that, real voice-actors are.