Who doesn’t love animation? For most of us, cartoons were our first exposure to TV or movie viewing. In the Coivd19 world, after a brief hiccup to get certain studio protocols in place, animation is one area of content production that pretty consistently chugged along throughout, because of its voice-centric acting and production. Part 1 of my dive into animation voice over, gave the directors viewpoint. In Part 2, I talk to two of the voicing animation realm’s acting queens (with IMDB credits miles long) about their approach to voice acting in this genre.
Though she is most commonly associated with her Academy Award-nominated stint as the voice of Jimmy Neutron in film and TV, Debi Derryberry, has had a storied career in animation with roles in Doc McStuffins, Toy Story 1 & 2, Incredibles 1 & 2, Wreck It Ralph 1 & 2, The Christmas Chronicles, Zootopia, Trolls, Smurfs Lost Village and Boss Baby, just to name a few. Debi also wrote a wonderful book “Voice Acting 101: How to Succeed as a Voice Actor” where she shares tips and techniques not only specific to animation but to voice acting as a whole.
Elley Ray Hennessy, my former classmate from the School of Dramatic Art at the University of Windsor, is known for her role as MistMane in My Little Pony, and roles in The Becky and Bagel Show, Corn & Peg, Hotel Transylvania, Cyberchase and Arthur, along with a long career in animated series, movies and games work, but also teaches, coaches and directs animation demos from her home base in Toronto. Both she and Debi act in roles outside of animation ranging from theatre and film to television and commercial voice work.
Insights From Debi Derryberry On Creating Animation Characters
Animation is no different from other kinds of acting. It takes preparation – studying the script to analyze the relationships between characters, building backstory and subtext and all the work needed to fill in the gaps in order to create characters that as Debi says, “explode with life.” She notes, “The skills each actor has to work on differ for everyone, but two important ones apart from solid acting skills are improv and excellent reading skills.”
Debi knows a thing or two about creating characters. She says if you’re provided a picture or a drawing of the character, pick apart every little detail because those are clues. The writer, animator, producer and director are looking to hear those tiny clues come alive. Go beyond the first impression. Look at hair, nose, eyes, mouth. What is the character wearing, what are they holding or carrying?
In other interviews, Debi has been known to also point out that the non-verbal life of your character is also very important. Explore the sounds your character makes when they laugh, fall, run, cry and are otherwise non-verbally communicating. Also, what personality clues are you given? Is the character outgoing? Shy? Sweet? Secretive? Humans (and creatures in animation) are never just one emotion or personality, so look for opportunities to layer more than one note into your portrayal. Have different choices at your disposal for emotions that move through the story with your character – think of them as variety packed together that breathes life into your performance. Finding a switch, or an authentic 180 in emotion is also helpful in bringing out humour.
Voicing Animation Clues
In terms of technical creation, Debi recommends beginning with a vocal placement (head, throat, diaphragm, etc. see her book for more) then layer in other considerations. Does the character have an accent? A speech tag? What’s their general attitude? Speed of speech? Pitch? Think about the size or weight of the character? The more information you have about them, the more choices you will have when you’re in the booth.
Once you’ve found a character that feels right, Debi recommends recording it and also noting how it feels in your head, body and voice so you can anchor it and know how to embody that character whenever you need to. Also important is sustainability – if you have to maintain that voice for 4 hours…can you?
|Another gem from Debi: “I would say that being able to “let go” and have fun and not be inhibited is super important.”|
Insights From Elley-Ray Hennessy On The Action In Acting For Animation
Elley-Ray dials in on the action in acting for animation. But perhaps not in the way you might initially imagine. She says “you’re a storyteller and [animation is] a different genre that’s all it is. You embody a character always. It comes from a basic place called response driven dialogue.” She notes, “There is always an action involved when you act. An action and a reaction.” If the voice actor doesn’t have an action or a reaction and just regurgitates digits from a page, then “it’s one-dimensional – it’s not acting – nor is it provocative or inspiring.” To paraphrase, be careful when working with a microphone that you don’t lose your ability to respond and discover.
“If you listen to what’s on the radio, it is all reporting – false, robotic, reportive, stating announced,” she continues. Connecting with a character doesn’t work “when you just invoke words from a page. The words are secondary. What is important is the action. The emotional, mental, physical, spiritual, intellectual, musical action” in the actor’s performance. And for Elley-Ray, animation is no different from any other genre of acting except that it is a continuation of those actions.
She cautions that what sometimes happens with animation & gaming is we think, “Oh I’m a talking potato, so that means something else. But no, it’s the same. You have tactics that you use to achieve your objective.” There is always an action in everything you say.
Bonus – Resources From Pat Fraley on Approaching Animation and Character Work
I also want to mention the wonderful approach to animation and all character work that Pat Fraley outlines in his wonderful resource “The Complete Book of Voice Over Exercises.” And in his many other resources for animation (and great applications for audiobook study as well). Known for his work on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and seriously a ton of other animated roles, Pat is a teacher and coach extraordinaire and has created (digital) books, audiobooks, and home study course to help actors unlock technique to building authentic, original characters whether for animation or other genres. Worth their weight in gold.