Thesis: Voice acting offers little recognition in the area that we would commonly refer to as fame and is a challenging, often frustrating business to get into, but in the end, the benefits in many ways are actually better than those of on-screen actors.
Voice-over actor, voice actor, voice talent, and voice artist. These are all words that describe an actor who uses only his or her voice as a performance tool. I would tell people that the topic of my research paper was "cartoon voice acting", and the typical response was, "What's that?" I would then say, "You know, the actors who put the voices to cartoon characters." They would respond with an, "Oh," and nod their head.
Cartoons are only one voice-over medium. Some others are radio and television commercials, audio books, documentary narration, training films, corporate videos, point of purchase displays, CD-ROM programs and games, telephone voice prompt systems, and many others (Shaughnessy 1). Voice acting offers little recognition in the area that we would commonly refer to as fame and is a challenging, often frustrating business to get into, but in the end, the benefits in many ways are actually better than those of on-screen actors.
My interest in voice acting stems from my love of the Warner Bros. cartoon, Steven Spielberg Presents Animaniacs. I have been a fan of the show off and on since 1993, but it wasn't until 1997 that I became very interested in what went on behind the scenes of my favorite cartoon show. With the help of the internet, I started learning about the extremely talented voice actors of Animaniacs. Rob Paulsen, Jess Harnell, and Tress MacNeille supply, among many others, the voices for the show's main characters, a trio of cute, zany species-less creatures named Yakko and Wakko, the Warner Brothers, and their sister, Dot.
Animaniacs is not your typical kid's cartoon. Its humor and style is right up there with the classic Warner Bros. characters like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. After all, today's voice artists are the next generation of the infamous Looney Tunes voice actor Mel Blanc. When I started searching the internet for information on Animaniacs, I
learned that there was a whole online Animaniacs community of fans just like me. People of all ages, ranging from the low teens up through their thirties and even forties were all crazy for Animaniacs!
Jess Harnell provides the voice of Wakko Warner, my all time favorite cartoon character, whose accent was inspired by the Beatles' Ringo Starr. Harnell has always loved doing voices, but he never dreamed that he could make any money at it. He feels that the people who thrive in life are those who take something they really enjoy and turn it into their career. Says Harnell, "If you love what you do, you are so far ahead of the game, man, 'cause everybody hates their job" ("Interview of Jess Harnell" 6). An sense of humor seems to come with the occupation. When Rob Paulsen, the voice of Yakko Warner, was once asked how it feels to hear himself on TV, he replied, "It feels like hearing yourself on radio, but with pictures" ("Animaniacs Voice Artists Live Kids' WB!" 5).
Simply providing voices for cartoon characters may sound like fun, and it is, but that doesn't mean the job is an easy one. The business is very fast paced. Voice actors need to be available from 10am to 6pm everyday because unlike on-camera auditions, casting calls are often last minute, and the actors may have to be there within the hour ("Fast-Paced Business" 1). Which means that voice actors must be willing to live where the jobs are. In North America, Los Angeles is where the majority of cartoon voice work is cast and recorded. No matter how talented, a cartoon voice actor will never get hired if they live somewhere such as New Jersey or Texas (Bevilacqua 2). "Voice-over is much more than reading words off a page. It is really an aspect of acting, with all the techniques, subtleties, and more" (Alburger 1). It takes true talent to act with only your voice ("Fast-Paced Business" 1). True talent is indeed what these actors have.
What does true talent look like? Voice artists, unlike on-screen actors, can be in many, many, programs and projects at once. Yes, occasionally a popular television star
will do commercials for telephone services or credit cards or star in a movie. Voice actors can do commercials and lend their voices to movies as well, but how many TV series is the "10-10-321" man, John Lithgow, currently in other than Third Rock From the Sun? In addition, John Lithgow, as many on-screen actors, is always John Lithgow. As far as the voices he can do, he is basically limited to one: his own. However, at any given time, a voice actor may be on as many as five or six cartoon series, doing twice as many different voices in addition to commercials and other projects. Rob Paulsen pointed out that "there are a million average-looking white guys in Los Angeles" like him and with one faltering audition after another, he realized that he could do things with his voice that he would never be considered for on-camera ("I Could Do That" 34). For example just on Animaniacs alone Paulsen voices Yakko Warner, a wisecracking Groucho Marx type character, Dr. Scratchansniff, a slightly neurotic German "p-sychiatrist", and Pinky, an absolutely goofy white lab mouse with a British accent. All three are major characters with three very distinct voices. Many of the minor roles in a cartoon are divided up among the actors who are playing the major characters. However, often these minor roles go un-credited and only someone with a good ear for the actor's many different character voices will be able to pick them out.
Recording voices for a show such as Animaniacs takes around three hours for each half hour episode. The actors gather in a recording studio and the voice director guides them through the script ("Animaniacs Voice Artists Live Kids' WB!" 3) . However, keep in mind that since many voice actors are involved in more than one series at a time, they may have to do three or four recording sessions like this each day, all for different shows. Then add the fact that a voice actor may be dealing with several different voice directors in one day. "The style of every director is completely unique and it's a real challenge to understand and fulfill each approach as closely as possible"
(Soucie 2). For a more humorous yet crude description of how voice directors work, I think the Warners put it best during the end credits of Animaniacs, episode #84:
One key element to cartoons today, especially Animaniacs, is the music. "You'll find that everybody in animation can sing because it's become a musical industry" ("Interview of Jess Harnell" 6). Voice-over agent Allen Duncan believes that actors with talents in music often do better in voice-over because there is more of an awareness of time, tempo, and timbre. In that case, music study gives voice acting talent an advantage (McBride 1). With that in mind, it's not a surprise that Jess Harnell and Rob Paulsen both originally trained as singers ("Animaniacs Voice Artists Live Kids' WB!" 2).
Since a voice actor's primary performance tool is his or her voice, it is quite obvious that fans of their work are more likely to recognize the actor for their voice rather than their face. Therefore, unlike on-camera actors, voice actors often enjoy a simple low-profile lifestyle (Fischer 1) which can be a blessing for those in the profession. However, the non-recognition from the fans can also be a voice actor's "curse". Maurice LaMarche of Steven Spielberg Presents Pinky and the Brain likes the fact that he can sit in any Los Angeles restaurant and eat in peace, but there are other times when he just wants to say to people, "Oh by the way, I'm the Brain" ("Voices on the Road" 2).
Jess Harnell knows the frustration of non-recognition first hand. Harnell and his mother were once at Disney World where they saw an eight year old boy with an Animaniacs shirt on. In the hopes of getting a positive response, Harnell told the boy that he did the voice of Wakko Warner. The boy only replied, "So? I do it too." Harnell clarified that he actually did the voice for the show, but the boy was not convinced, explaining that Animaniacs was taped in California. Harnell then took out his driver's
license to prove that he was from California. The boy only remarked sarcastically, "Oh yeah, if you live California then you must do his voice." Harnell was eventually forced to do his Wakko impression for the boy and at that the eight year old merely laughed and said, "You don't even sound like him" (O'Dell 1).
The fan/actor relationship regarding voice actors is on a far more personal level than it is with movie or television actors and their fans. In a live Animaniacs voice actor chat hosted on America Online, Jess Harnell even remarked that for him, one of the best things he had done in relation to Animaniacs, was going out on tour and meeting all of the fans in person (6).
I recall a certain post on the Animaniacs internet newsgroup, alt.tv.animaniacs. Two fans had made Pinky and the Brain stars Maurice LaMarche and Rob Paulsen really nice Pinky and the Brain t-shirts. LaMarche had lost the fans' return mailing addresses and was trying desperately to get in contact with the talented artists simply because he wanted to send the fans personal, handwritten thank you notes ("A Message From Maurice LaMarche" 1) .
There are also times, however, when things do not run quite so smoothly. I sent an email to Rob Paulsen asking if he would answer a few questions about voice acting that I could use in my paper. Exactly one week later, I received a reply from Rob who said, "Sure, I'll help you!" Voice actors recognize the importance of their fans who play a big part in helping the actors become as well known as they are. By treating the fans on a personal level, the voice actors can perhaps give a little back as a way of saying "thank you". After that final email from Rob Paulsen, I never got another email that answered my questions. Nor did I receive any kind of message explaining why. I sent another email two weeks later re-submitting a revised list of questions, asking what had happened. Still nothing. Why? Had I done something wrong? I suppose Paulsen himself puts it best in a July 1997 interview where he says that he is very flattered by the attention that anyone pays him and he appreciates the support that fans give him. He wants people to know that if he
doesn't get back to them when they email or write, it isn't out of arrogance or that he doesn't want to. It is because he is lucky enough to have the work that keeps him busy these days. Often, he is just too busy to respond ("Rob Paulsen Interview" 7). That may be true Mr. Paulsen, but it still does not mean that it doesn't hurt. (author's note: The day after I turned in this report, I found a reply from Rob when I checked my email! It was too late to include here, but I will be using the information for a speech in another class about V/As on 11/5/98. I put up a page with the interview here! Thanks Rob!)
Animated character voices are not the only thing that cartoon voice actors do. The 1996 comedy film Mother, starring Albert Brooks and Debbie Reynolds, featured Jess Harnell singing in a rendition of the Simon and Garfunkel tune, Mrs. Robinson, that was written just for that movie (Fink 37). In 1996, under a small record label, Harnell even released his very own album called, The Sound of Your Voice. Also, just this past summer, Harnell played the part of the Cowardly Lion in a small live Californian stage production of The Wizard of Oz ("Interview of Jess Harnell" 5).
Maurice LaMarche's Orson Welles impression was made famous in recent times through his character the Brain, a white lab mouse bent on world domination, in Pinky and the Brain. That same voice was also used to dub over the actor who played Welles in the 1994 movie Ed Wood (Ranbom, Cremeans, and Leung 4). LaMarche can also be heard as the off-screen announcer on the syndicated talk show, The Howie Mandel Show ("Message From Moe (PATB V/A)" 1).
Rob Paulsen, LaMarche and Harnell's co-star from Pinky and the Brain and Animaniacs, can heard as the voice of a goldfish and a hyperactive paint roller in most recent television commercials. When the Jim Carrey film Liar, Liar goes on network television and Carrey's character uses a naughty word, it will be Rob Paulsen's voice that is dubbed in with a nicer, kid-friendly word. Paulsen re-voiced some twenty to thirty lines for the film. Since Paulsen wonderfully voiced the cartoon version of Jim Carrey's The Mask, Carrey and his manager could think of no better person qualified for the job ("I Could Do That" 34). Paulsen also did at least one promotional spot this season for the NBC comedy, Friends. Promotional spots are simply the commercials that tell people
about upcoming shows. Paulsen, says he can get about $200 per promo and can do ten to twenty of them in an hour and a half. He also notes that although it pays well, "it's not very creative stuff" ("I Could Do That" 34).
Voice Acting is one of today's fastest growing industries so the business has never been more open to new performers. It's not the "closed circle" that it was twenty years ago when only a select few actors could be heard in every cartoon. Agents are always looking for the "next great voice" for they would be bored if they weren't able to search for something new. Voice acting today is an "ever increasing circle", always looking for new people ("Know Your Limitations" 2).
Voice acting may have its ups and downs, but those who make a career out of it do indeed believe that voice acting is the greatest job in the world. Jess Harnell notes, "What we do isn't brain surgery and we're not saving the world, but on the other hand, if in the course of what we do we make somebody smile, it's been a worthwhile day at the 'office', even if you were playing a dog" ("Interview of Jess Harnell" 7) . The profession, as all acting careers, may be difficult to break into, but the benefits from such a job are deeply rewarding, satisfying and well worth the struggle. I hope that the next time you turn on the television or listen to the radio, you will think twice about all of the talented "invisible actors" who are so much a part of our lives... and we didn't even know it.
Animaniacs Episode #84. Perf. Rob Paulsen, Jess Harnell, Tress MacNielle, 1996.
"Animaniacs Voice Artists Live Kids' WB!" 17 May 1996. Online. Available http://wbanimation.warnerbros.com/. Accessed Mar. 1997.
Alburger, James R. "The Art of Voice Acting: The Craft and the Business of Performing Voice-Over" Amazon.com Review. 30 August 1998. Online. Available http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/024080340X/002-4328250-1047265. Accessed 16 Sept. 1998.
Bevilacqua, Joe. "Voice Acting 101." Animation World Magazine April 1997: 1-6. Available http://www.awn.com/mag/issue2.1/articles/bevilacqua2.1.html. Accessed 16 Sept. 1998.
David, Amelia. "Fast-Paced Business." Back Stage. 17 July 1998: 28. Available http://web4.searchbank.com/. Accessed 15 Sept. 1998.
David, Amelia. "Know Your Limitations." Back Stage. 17 July 1998: 32. Available http://web4.searchbank.com/. Accessed 15 Sept. 1998.
Fink, Mitchell. "Hey, Hey, Mrs. Robinson." People Weekly. 23 Dec. 1996: 37. Available http://proquest.umi.com/. Accessed 12 Sept. 1998.
Fischer, Rachel. "Off-Camera Oasis." Back Stage West. 23 July 1998: 10. Available http://web4.searchbank.com/. Accessed 15 Sept. 1998.
"I Could Do That." FHM Magazine October 1997: 34. "[ARTICLE] Rob Paulsen interview in FHM (text) (fwd)" Online posting. 7 Oct 1997. Deja News. alt.tv.animaniacs.
LaMarche, Maurice. "A Message From Maurice LaMarche." Online posting. 08 Aug. 1996. Deja News. alt.tv.animaniacs.
LaMarche, Maurice. "Message From Moe (PATB V/A)." Online posting. 10 July 1998. Deja News. alt.tv.animaniacs.
McBride, Murdoch. "Taking the Action a Step Further." Back Stage. 17 July 1998: 30. Available http://web4.searchbank.com/. Accessed 15 Sept. 1998.
O'Dell, Ron. "Jess Harnell Meets Young Wakko Fan." Radio interview transcription. Online. Available http://www.amory.com/~keeper/jesshirt.html. Accessed 19 Jan. 1998.
Ranbom, Larissa, and Lee Cremeans, and Kane Leung. The Nifty Animaniacs Reference File. 11 Aug. 1998: 4. Online. Available http://www.cis.ohio-state.edu/text/faq/usenet/tv/animaniacs/faq/faq.html. Accessed 6 October 1998.
Shaughnessy, Peter. "Non-Union? No Problem!" Back Stage. 17 July 1998: 36. Available http://web4.searchbank.com/. Accessed 15 Sept. 1998.
Soucie, Kath. "And I Get Paid!?!: The Life of a Voice Actor." Animation World Magazine March 1998: 1-5. Online. Available http://www.awn.com/mag/issue2.12/2.12pages/2.12soucievoice.html. Accessed 23 Sept. 1998.
Tindall, Linda. "Rob Paulsen Interview." Toon Talk. 9 May 1998 5-7. Online. Available http://www.voicechasers.org/ToonTalk/050998.html. Accessed 14 Sept. 1998.
Tindall, Linda. "Interview of Jess Harnell." Toon Talk. 11 June 1998 5-7. Online. Available http://www.voicechasers.org/ToonTalk/061198.html Accessed 14 Sept. 1998.
Tindall, Linda. "Voices on the Road." Toon Talk. 15 July 1998 2-5. Online. Available http://www.voicechasers.org/ToonTalk/071598.html. Accessed 14 Sept. 1998.