Last month, I took a class at Voice One on cartoon voices with a comic legend, Mark Evanier. Mark is primarily known as a comic book writer but he’s written for quite a few television shows and wrote a book about Jack Kirby. One of Mark’s latest projects is writing and voice directing episodes of The Garfield Show which airs on Cartoon Network. During the class, Mark cast us in roles from an episode of The Garfield Show. We got to act on microphone and Mark directed us as if he were directing an actual episode. It was an invaluable experience. At the end of class, Mark extended an invitation to sit in on an actual recording session and I felt my stomach take a leap. This was an opportunity too good to pass up!
On Tuesday, my friend Chuck (we met at Voice One) and I flew from San Francisco to LA and drove to the studio where The Garfield Show records. We were nervous about traffic and finding the place and making a good impression and therefore, we were about 30 minutes early. Oh well, better to be early than late, right? And as my mom always said, if you’re early you’re on time. If you only arrive on-time, then you’re late. Luckily the studio didn’t mind and let us hang out in the lounge until Mark and the actors arrived. We didn’t know who among the cast we were going to see that day. Frank Welker, who voices Garfield, and Gregg Berger, who voices Odie, were safe bets, but who else might be recording that day? I knew it was a long-shot, but I was really hoping to see June Foray. Or maybe Melissa Disney or Laraine Newman or Julie Payne! Or any of the female cast, really. The men in this business are so prominent, I was hoping to see some cool women at work. (Girl power!)
Mark was the first to arrive, followed closely by Frank Welker. Mark told Frank that we were there to see Frank and no one else. Frank laughed that off with a comfortable, self-deprecating laugh. Frank was so approachable. I felt like I was greeting an old friend, not a legend of the biz, renowned and revered. Gregg Berger arrived next and Mark told him that we were there to see Gregg and no one else. Gregg knew better. Wally Wingert was the next to arrive. Mark extended his joke to Wally who laughed it off. In addition to voicing the character of Jon Arbuckle, Wally is the voice of the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Mark told us our party was almost complete and that we were just waiting on Stan Freberg. What? I’m sorry, what was that? Stan Freberg?? I couldn’t believe it. I was going to see Stan Freberg in action. Stan Freberg, who has recorded with Mel Blanc and Daws Butler and who would be impressive even without those names next to his! Luckily, I had some time to get used to the idea as Mark, Frank, Gregg and Wally stood around and told stories to each other. Talk about being a fly on the wall! It was so amazing to be on the sidelines of that conversation, listening to these four powerhouses tease each other, laugh, and tell stories for each others amusement. It was easy to see the rapport and camaraderie that existed between them.
Soon Mr. Freberg arrived and it was time to get started. We filed into the studio where we were greeted by our engineer Andy. The actors went directly into the booth which was maybe 10′ x 15′. Frank sat in a tall chair and Mr. Freberg sat opposite him in a lower profile chair. Gregg stood next to Frank and Wally stood opposite Gregg. I liked how solicitous Wally was of Mr. Freberg. He made sure Mr. Freberg got safely and comfortably to his chair before settling into his own space. Mark invited us to stand in the booth with the actors while Mark ran down the episode. The actors receive a script with only their lines, no direction or acting notes included. Mark describes the animation letting the actors know where they will need to add sounds to indicate their physical actions. Each actor notated his script differently. Gregg would circle certain lines in black ink and scrawl a quick note next to it. Wally highlighted different characters in different colored ink to keep track of who he was on each line. All of the actors played multiple characters with Frank doing the most characters in any one episode. As Mark gave a brief description of the guest characters, the actor assigned to the character would give a quick sample to make sure it lined up with Mark’s vision. Once the rundown was over, we returned to the engineer’s booth to watch the magic happen.
Andy asked each actor to say a line in turn so he could set the level on their microphone. While he was tweaking his settings, Frank tried to throw him off with some homemade “feedback” noises. Frank was pretty good too, he would’ve fooled me if I hadn’t seen his mouth moving. Mark informed us that this was a particular specialty of Frank’s and that he liked to drive engineers nuts with it. The actors joked around and laughed with each other waiting for Andy to give the go-ahead.
Once the levels were set, Mark directed the actors to begin. The next thing I know, the voice that I associate with Garfield was coming out of Frank’s mouth! I watched each of the actors closely. Frank’s entire face would change depending on which character he voiced. I could see subtle changes in his mouth and lips, extending all the way into his face and eyes. No two voices sounded alike.
Gregg is a very physical actor. When his character picked up a box, Gregg picked up an imaginary box that looked heavy and unruly. I could see his stomach muscles contract with the effort to lift it. When he was playing Odie (who doesn’t really talk but communicates in very descriptive barks) he put his entire head and shoulders into barking whether it was declarative, inquisitive, or a comment on the action.
Wally was less physical but still had his distinct character poses. When he is Jon Arbuckle, his hands go into his pockets. It’s a simple gesture, but I can see that it anchors him into his character and helps him with consistency. When he played a television announcer, his hand flew to his ear holding an imaginary headphone in the classic announcer pose.
Stan, Mr. Freberg, exhibits wonderful acting skills. He doesn’t move much, and one hand is usually holding a page to better read his script, but he manages to imbue each line with a wealth of character and emotion. His free hand would often punctuate a word or line for emphasis. He too, would change his face for different characters and voices. He ad-libbed more than the other actors. Maybe that’s a privilege that comes with age. 🙂
All of the actors had excellent instincts when it came to adding “personality sounds”. Those little laughs or emotive sounds that we as human beings use all the time: a sigh, or a “whew!” or a hmmmm. You can’t write those on a page (I’ll bet each of you reading this have a different sound in your head for all three of those examples), it’s the actor’s job to use them to bring the character to life. Each character had a distinct laugh and distinct personality sounds.
After the actors completed one run-thru, Mark would then ask them to record “pickups” or one-off lines that he wanted redone. Maybe someone popped a ‘p’ or there was a little mouth noise on the line. Maybe Mark was looking for a slightly different inflection and he would give direction to get a different read. I liked the way Mark gave direction. He never once gave anyone a “line read” (the director says a line in the exact inflection that he or she wants and expects you to parrot it back). He always gave descriptive direction that would lead the actor to the point he wanted. Once or twice, the actor surprised him with a take that Mark hadn’t considered and that was the take he used.
In between takes, while Mark and Andy were conferring, the actors talked and joked. At one point, Mr. Freberg played Flight of the Bumble Bee on his lips. It was pretty impressive! They had no trouble amusing themselves or cracking each other up, but once Mark started talking, they all shut up and got back to work.
Once Mark got all the pickups he needed for the first episode, we moved on to the second, then the third. Same routine, Mark gave a rundown of the episode while we listened, then we left the booth and the actors got to work. They recorded straight through, then did pickups. For the most part, the actors only needed one or two takes for any of the given pickups. They’re that good. (I’ve been in a session where the director had me do 10 or more takes, though, I’m happy to say that’s a very rare experience for me.) For the last two episodes of the day, Mark needed some crowd noises: cats at a party, a bunch of young kids, a mob of angry dogs. This was a little like ADR; the actors all spoke at the same time, at a slight distance from the mic, ad-libbing all their lines. “Oh, I love what you’ve done with your fur!” “Yay” “Grrrrrrowl! Yowwwwwl!” I don’t know how they each kept track of what they were saying! But at the end of it, 4 people sounded like a crowd. Pretty neat trick!
This experience inspired me. This is what I want for my career. I love voicing commercials, promos, and IVR, but animation is my passion. So many characters! So many acting challenges! And yet, these gentlemen weren’t working. They were having fun! They loved their jobs and they loved the work they were doing. They were cracking up at the script Mark wrote, they were tickled by the voices they created, and they loved being together. I was humbled by the talent and creativity in that small recording booth. I wanted to be in there with them. I will be in there with them, one day. This was just a little taste of my future, a glimpse of what’s in store for me. I now have a very clear vision of what I’m working toward. It’s beautiful. I can’t wait to get there.