Working in animation has always been a really satisfying and exciting part of my voice over career but creating a believable voice for animation is a lot more involved than just doing a funny voice. So, how do you find the clues to making choices, that create memorable characters?
Getting The Job
First, you have to get the job.
So just how do you get cast for animation jobs, animation shorts, films or series?
Usually you’re invited to audition because you are either a known performer with a good track record or you’re a voice over professional with a great deal of experience and a solid repertoire of character voices. You may have an unusual or quirky sounding voice, or you may just happen to have exactly the right natural voice for one of the characters.
More often than not, Producers use mainstream sound recording studios to audition prospective voices or cast members, although it can occasionally be done at a casting studio, where you perform the voice on camera, in front of the producers.
When you’re asked to audition, you’ll be sent a character breakdown, an image of the character, and a script or a few scenes from the script. Auditions like these are seldom paid.
You could also be asked to audition for an animated character for a television commercial. In that case you’d be booked to do what’s called a submission. That is, you go to a studio and record the complete script. Then your voice will be submitted to Advertising Agency creative’s and the client, for approval.
Preparing the Audition
In the ‘brief’ that you’ll be sent, you’ll be given the important information about the character and the character’s role or journey in the story.
Unless you’re playing a lead role, you may only be sent a few scenes or pages from the script. Hopefully this will give you enough information about the character’s role in the story or scene and its emotional journey or attitudes.
And, of course you’ll always be sent an image of the character, which will give you all the clues you’ll need to make choices about how that character sounds.
In cartoon animation, often the attributes are extreme, a really huge nose, really bug eyes, impossible buck teeth or strange body shape. It probably won’t surprise you to know that most of the really memorable work comes when you add charm by making strong choices around the character’s physical traits. Another way to say that is that you need to physicalise many of the clues you are given.
Let’s have a look at this image. There are a couple of great clues here. The first thing you notice is the eyes. This character is definitely mischievous, wicked, up to no good. That’s the emotional state or attitude and this will colour the choices you make with the script; the way the character bends words and the words that become important. The next thing to look for are the physical clues!
I mean, look at those extra-ordinary teeth! Now you do need to speak clearly, but you can’t ignore such a strong physical attribute and need to find a way for him to speak, making something of those teeth that’s humorous and engaging, as well as capturing the attitude behind the look in his eyes.
Now this one is cute, with all the attributes of cock-eared playfulness. The image says curious and innocent, so you would play with those emotional attributes… and that certainly is a good sniffing nose. I would use the open-mouthed aspect to do something, whether it be doggy panting or small quizzical noises, that aren’t in the script, to add to this character’s believability.
While it’s definitely not okay to change the script, unless it comes from the Producer or Writer, it is definitely okay to add colour to the character that help to further physicalise, such as sudden intake or exhaling of air and small physical reactions that there are not really any words for. Think about it? There are heaps of those that we use every day to add colour to our own expression and meaning in conversation. Here are some you may have even used today; huh? ha! mmmmmm? pffft tsk, tsk, tsk, aaaahhhh! You with me?
How about this one? It’s neither human nor animal but has some interesting human features, specifically the fact that the character is almost all arms and…chest, if you like. The shape reminds me of a Genie, the one’s that come out of a bottle, so you could make a choice to go with a Genie style voice or attitude to bring this one to life.
Voice Versus Visual
Voice over for anything is about the art of creating a strong visual for a disembodied voice. Every disembodied voice has a persona. Let me explain it like this. When we meet someone face-to-face, we get the whole picture and we accept what we get. With a disembodied voice, what we get is ‘that something’ in the tone of the voice that gives us a strong visual.
For instance, how often have you met someone over the phone, (the disembodied voice) and, because of clues the voice gives, created a visual for that person. Then, when you meet them, you’re completely blown away because the voice doesn’t match the visual you’ve created for it. That female with the bright, energetic 20-something sounding voice, who you’ve visualized as a petite, slim brunette with a big smile, turns out to be a tall, 50-something woman with big hair and pock-marked skin. That male with the deep, authoratative, even sensual voice is actually a pale-skinned, reedy guy with thin lips. Or conversely, the most annoying, unattractive voice you’ve ever heard falls out of the mouth of a goddess. Voice doesn’t fit the visual.
What animation or character creation is asking you to do is to find a voice that absolutely fits that visual, whether it’s a ‘character’ style voice or your own natural speaking voice, which just happens to have the right persona for that character.
Doing The Job
Often in animation, the record sessions are booked as scenes and much like film, can be recorded out of sequence. Sometimes, you may even find yourself alone in the studio, with the director taking you through your character work line by line. In this case, you really need to trust the director and hope that he or she has an absolutely spot-on vision for the work.
Of course, it’s much more fun to work with the other performers and I believe there’s more opportunity for spontaneity and ideas. That’s certainly been my experience anyway. Once the work is recorded, the audio is taken away and then the animation is done. This can be a really long process, often taking months. Then, when the animation is complete, you’re often asked to come back into the studio to embellish your work. Your character may be in the background and the animators have created a response from your character that there was no dialogue for originally. Occasionally the director feels that a line needs to be delivered differently. Sometimes, you’ll also be asked to add your voice to crowd scenes, such as people gasping in horror, or an audience laughing or random people in a crowd yelling something. These sessions are called Additional Dialogue Recording (ADR), and are always great fun.
Animation is great fun. No wonder so many people who call me about voice over say that have a real interest in it. And remember, not all animated characters are like the old Looney Tunes; Sylvester, Tweety and Elmer Fudd, although it can be incredibly rewarding to create a completely original, unusual voice for a character. Just think of brilliant animation films like Toy Story, where the casting is more often about the ‘right natural voice’ for the character. Once the right voice is cast, it’s up to the performer to bring all the character’s physical attributes to life.
Make a study of the animation you’re hearing out there. How about you revisit your favourite animation characters and ask yourself why they still resonate?
Find Your Voice As a Voice Over Actor And Artist With The Voice Over Coach. For over 30 years I've had a successful voiceover career. I work in mainstream voice over for radio and television, narration for the corporate sector, website content and documentaries, as well as characters for animation, IVR, ADR, on-hold and foreign film dubbing.