A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes

I fell in love with voiceover the first time I saw Cinderella, a film made 25 years before I was even born. I don’t own the film (I wish I did) and I’ve only seen it a handful of times, but I think I know every line by heart. I can sing along with Ilene Woods and her silvery bell of a voice is indelibly etched in my mind. I love the delicious loathing that drips from Eleanor Audley’s voice as Lady Tremaine. She is so evil! By today’s standards, Cinderella’s animation may seem dated (to those who care about such things), but the voice acting is still superb!

I’ve always associated my love of voice acting and cartoons with Warner Bros. I grew up on Looney Tunes and can recite many of those cartoons by heart as well. Bugs, Daffy, Witch Hazel, and later the Animaniacs, have all heavily influenced me. But when I attended the Marc Davis Celebration of Animation at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science in Los Angeles, on August 19, the amazing voiceover panel opened with a retrospective of animation and voiceover including many Disney animated films. During clips of Cinderella, I was forcibly hit with memories of the film and my deep and abiding love for it. It was then that I realized how much that movie had influenced me at such a young age. It would be many years later before I found my path to voiceover, but I now know Cinderella is what started my journey.

The Marc Davis Voices of Character panel featured James Baxter, Bob Peterson, Rick Dempsey, Susan Egan, June Foray, Yuri Lowenthal, and Russi Taylor. After the opening montage of animation voice artists and a welcome from Academy President Tom Sherak, we were privileged to see “Around the World with Monsters, Inc. in 30 languages.” It was incredible! It really showed me the care that Pixar takes to cast its films. Not only did the non-English voice actors have to sync to the English version, but many of them took care to match the voice characteristics of the English voice actors. It was really impressive.

The first speaker panel featured James Baxter, Bob Peterson and Rick Dempsey. They talked a bit about casting voice actors and the relationship between voice acting and animation. Bob said something that I found very insightful. He said for him, casting comes into focus when one finds the character’s flaw and the actor’s ability to balance that flaw with something positive. He also cautioned voice actors against over-acting. Today’s trend is toward very authentic acting and the over-the-top stuff just isn’t appropriate. James talked about how voice actors can inspire the animation through our physical characteristics or the character traits that we bring to the acting. I think it was Bob who said that he likened voice acting to greek acting behind a mask. I liked that idea. I often hear voice acting taken back to the old timey radio shows. I think the comparison to greek theatre is just as fitting. We have only our voices to convey a wealth of emotions and we, the actor, are hidden by the animation used to portray our characters. During the second panel, Yuri Lowenthal said he felt that voiceover is the greatest gift because it opens up the possibilities of what we can do. It’s a challenge too, but I agree it’s definitely a gift.

The second panel featured June Foray, Susan Egan, Yuri Lowenthal, Russi Taylor and Bob Peterson. I’m going to have a very hard time describing this panel to you (it was full of intelligence, fast talking, and humor) but I’ll do my best. They talked about physicalization during their voiceover performances. June said that when she played Witch Hazel, she often hunched over with her arms curled up in front of her. Yuri said that when he was voicing Superman in Legion of Superheroes he couldn’t help but go into that “superhero pose” while he acted his lines. Russi said that when she played the Cat in Babe: Pig in the City she couldn’t help but to slink her shoulders a bit and apparently Billy Farmer, the voice of Goofy, stands in the shape of an ‘S’ to get into character. They each felt it’s important to incorporate physical movement in their vocal performances.

They talked a bit about ADR and voice acting to existing animation. Yuri said something that I found intriguing. He said ADR is all about timing and music. It’s not just about syncing the lines to the animation on-screen, it’s about finding the rhythm of the lines and the character. Finding the musicality in the timing. When I spoke to Susan Egan at the end of the night, she mentioned that her musical theatre training really helped her find that timing. She also said that voiceover changed the way she acted on stage. She said it taught her to use her voice in more dynamic ways even when she wasn’t doing voiceover.

Yuri said something else that I found to be very true. He said that when you worry about the technique and the acting you can forget that you get to use your imagination. Yet another gift of voiceover! I feel like the older we grow, the more our imagination is stifled. It’s a hurdle I’m trying to overcome in my acting. Voice acting is a wonderful way to stimulate one’s imagination. I work to visualize as much detail about the character and surroundings as I can before launching into a script. I imagine my physical traits: my hair, my body, my clothes; my attitude and personality; my physical surroundings: indoor, outdoor, casual, etc. The more detail I fill in, the better my performance! And now I’ve got Yuri’s permission to use my imagination even more!

At the end of the discussion, we were treated to an impromptu table reading featuring the panel. It was so great to see them in action and see the spontaneous improv that came from working in the moment. June is such a spitfire, she was a joy to watch. And it was fun to see a somewhat awed Bob Peterson try to keep up with her. Yuri and Susan had a totally unplanned moment of serendipity and humor when they both chimed in on a line together. And the host of the evening, Charles Solomon, was tickled pink to play the narrator of the story. It was a fantastic way to wrap up the panel. Our final treat of the night was when Charles Solomon surprised us with some special guests in the audience: Kathryn Beaumont (Alice from Alice in Wonderland), Stan Freberg (Pete Puma), Bob Bergen (Porky Pig, among many others), Tony Anselmo (Donald Duck), and Bret Iwan (Mickey Mouse).

As the audience left, I made my way over to Yuri Lowenthal and his lovely wife Tara Platt to say hello. We’ve interacted on Twitter and I’ve learned a lot from their book Voice-Over Voice Actor. Our meeting was brief but pleasant and it was nice to say hi face-to-face. Then I went to say hi to Bob Bergen. I’ve taken class from Bob a couple of times and he’s becoming (dare I say a friend?) and a trusted mentor. We shared a hug before he went to say hi to June Foray. I came within two feet of a woman and actor whom I idolize. I didn’t try to say hi to June; it was enough to see her speak on stage. She is one cool lady. I came close to Bob Peterson too, but I stayed away for similar reasons. I didn’t want to approach him as a fan, I’d much rather speak to him as a peer. One day I will.

My dreams were fed by this evening. It was magical. I hope I was able to convey some of that magic through this post. Use your imagination and don’t be afraid to feed your own dreams!!

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