Animation is one of the most well-known genres in voice acting. The appeal of being the voice of a beloved cartoon character or the main character in a game is very attractive, especially to newcomers to voice over. Fun and exciting as it is, there is a certain preparation and specific approach to animation that takes discipline as well as exploration and creativity. Although I’ve booked a number of animated roles in my career, it is not the mainstay of my work. As I recently began teaching Voice Studio in the Theatre Department of my city’s college, I wanted to solidify my animation knowledge to transfer that to my students. So, I spoke to some colleagues at the top of the animation game and got some great insight. And of course, I wanted to share this with you.
In Part 1 I talk to casting director turned coach and booth director, Everett Oliver, who’s insight from casting Men in Black, X-Men Evolution and his work on The Simpsons, King of the Hill, and Jackie Chan Adventures among other shows has given him a unique perspective. Another consultation came from friend/colleague Richard Dumont, a talented actor-turned-director who (helped cast) and directed over 500 episodic animated series and is now also a gaming director (Assassin’s Creed, Open Season, Avatar). Here’s what they had to say:
Insights From Everett Oliver On Preparation For Animation Actors
“The biggest problem I see with actors is that they don’t prepare – they think they can just go ahead and just be the character,” says Everett. For inspiration on character creation, he suggests looking around your own life and to the people you know as well as. watching animated shows Then, draw from those performances’ bits and pieces of personality, quirks, and behaviors that you can combine together to make new characters. No need to limit yourself to the land of the living. Watch both actors that are living and actors that are deceased and take a little bit here and a little bit there to cobble original characters.
“Stop worrying about your voice and really hone in on your acting.” Everett points out that actors physically go with their voice automatically – “that’s the first instinct, that’s technical, but it’s so much more than that – they’ve got to bring in the organic to make it pop, make it real. As a casting director – you’re listening for consistency in the character – every character has the capability of multiple notes – they will sing, run, jump, whisper, yell, etc in character. So explore how the character you’ve created does that before you bring that character to work” (whether for an audition or a show you might be in).
Also, pay attention to your energy level – it has to stay up – although sometimes you can correct a drop in energy by picking up your pacing. A special Everett tip to keep in mind, he’s noticed, “when auditioning for casting on the East coast, you’re going to want to respect punctuation more than on the West coast where you can ignore it – which is more in line with natural speech.” Though he’s quick to also reinforce following any instructions given by casting. “You can also listen to demos from any agency in NY or LA. They all have demos of actors who do animation. Listen and explore what styles are on their rosters.”
Everett also says if you want animation to be your game, be comfortable in several genres of animation. You should have the ability to be cartoony or natural, be adept at embodying the performances of an action-adventure (Star Wars type), or an adult swim (dark humor), and know what specs fit you as a performer – are you the hero or the villain? Or do you have both buried inside?
Insights From Richard Dumont On Immersing Yourself In Animation
For Richard Dumont, if you want to voice animation, make a study of it. He suggests you really immerse yourself in the world of animation. Take a look at old animation from the 50’s and every decade thereafter and look at the genre changes and shifts. Compare animation made for film vs that made for TV. Pick a series through the decades. Like Bugs Bunny, Rocky & Bullwinkle for the 50’s, The Jetsons, The Flintstones,for the 60’s, etc. Pick long standing iconic shoes like Scooby Doo, or Ren & Stimpy, Rugrats, the Simpsons, Family Guy, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and study them. When you’re watching them think about how animation has changed over time. Who was the audience for these shows? What was their attention span? What was the humor like in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s compared with now?
Richard says, “You’ve got to do the Pre work. Listen to the characters, hear the development. Take a show like The Simpsons, look at an episode from the first season and look at one from the current season – see the character development that’s happened. The shifts and changes in the same character. For example Homer in the early episodes vs. how Homer has evolved. You know, Dan Castelano actually started doing this character as Walter Matthau, literally doing a Walter Matthau imitation on the Tracy Ulman show but had to change it because he felt there wasn’t enough range there.”
Once you’ve purposefully watched as much animation as you can, Richard says then you can start with character development, but play to your strengths and develop them from what you already do well naturally. He also says you must have a funny bone. “You need a good sense of humor to be able to bring out the comedy in animation.” This is also something that can be cultivated through watching others. Find the people who make you laugh and make others laugh and then imitate their pacing, their rhythm, and how they set up or deliver a punchline.
As a side note, when I spoke to Richard, he mentioned he is casting a game right now where he went through 540 auditions – demos. I’ll say that again, 540, just for the one game he is directing currently. Needless to say, he knows what is good and what is bad in the first few seconds of listening. So, be well versed in what works.
Bonus – A Great Video To Watch On How Actors Train Their Voices For Animation
I also wanted to tell you about this fun video put together by Insight that features the wonderful coaches Rudy Gaskins and Joan Baker who speak about all the preparation that goes into the performances of animation with pros like Phil Lamar, Nancy Cartwright, and celebrities including Will Arnett, Chris Pratt, The Rock, and others. Joan demonstrates some key warm ups for getting the mouth, tongue, lips and jaw, and body ready for performing animation voice over. (And go ahead and try that last tongue twister – it’s harder than you think!)