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How Do I Break Into Cartoon Voice Work?

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 9/27/96

A Flintstones recording session.  Left-to-right: Alan Reed, Jean Vander Pyl, Bea Benaderet and Mel Blanc.

In the last four days, I’ve received three letters and two phone calls from people who want to get into the field of doing cartoon voices.  One of the calls almost stunned me with its nonchalant assumption that this is an easy-entrance business.  This lady seemed to think it was like signing up to earn frequent-flyer mileage.  I imagine her deciding she wants to be in the movies, then calling up Martin Scorsese and saying, “Hi.  I’m a clerk-typist here in Dayton, Ohio.  Is it okay if I star opposite Robert DeNiro in your next movie?”

It would be wrong to tell these aspiring voice artists that what they want is impossible.  In show business, nothing is impossible, except an honest accounting of profits.  Not all that long ago, Conan O’Brien was a writer and bit-part performer.  If he’d told me he wanted to take over for David Letterman on NBC, I’d have gone, “Uh-huh, well, I wouldn’t bet on that ever happening.”

Still, when folks ask me about something like getting into cartoon-voicing, I feel I’d be doing them a disservice not to clue them in that it might not be all that easy to attain.  Is it possible? Of course.  But then so is winning the lottery.

The first cartoon voice artist was probably Walt Disney.  He made the first sound cartoons and he cast himself, altogether appropriately, as Mickey Mouse.  Many of the early makers of animated talkies looked no further than their own staffs, conscripting artists and secretaries to stand, often trembling, before the microphones.

Which is not to say they were all bad.  Walt was fine as Mickey — a task he kept for himself until he became too busy with studio matters.  Jack Mercer, the long-time voice of Popeye and other characters, was discovered in the Fleischer Studios art department.  And one of the all-time great voice artists, Bill Scott (voice of Bullwinkle, Dudley Do-Right and umpteen others) was first and foremost a writer and producer.

The first actor to make a living primarily doing cartoon voices was probably Clarence “Ducky” Nash, voice of Donald Duck.  Disney heard him on a radio show in 1934 and quickly signed him to what turned out to be a lifetime gig.  When “Ducky” wasn’t speaking for The Duck, he was the studio’s goodwill ambassador, making personal appearances with a ventriloquist figure of Donald.

Then in 1936, Warner Brothers gave a shot to a beginning radio actor named Mel Blanc.  Smart move.

Blanc billed himself as the Man of a Thousand Voices — good p.r.  but probably not an accurate count and certainly a misassessment of his talent.  It wasn’t quantity that made Mel great, it was quality.  His “voice characterizations,” as the credits called them, were rounded, fully-developed personalities — with comic timing and delivery as skilled as the best radio comics of the day.  The cartoon acting field had found its Olivier.

Soon, a few other masters happened along, including Daws Butler, Stan Freberg, Paul Frees and, in a class by herself, the incredible June Foray.  Butler — the man Blanc himself called “my only rival” — would later voice Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound and most of the early Hanna-Barbera characters.

Between 1950 and 1970 (all dates approximate), a relatively small talent pool supplied most of the cartoon voices in Hollywood.  Butler, Blanc, Foray, Frees, Hans Conreid, Don Messick, Allan Melvin, Howie Morris, Janet Waldo, Joanie Gerber, Hal Smith, Dick Beals, Walker Edmiston, Julie Bennett, Lennie Weinrib, Shep Menken, John Stephenson and a few others probably handled about 75% of the work.  In 1969, a young impressionist named Frank Welker began doing voices and quickly became ubiquitous.  If anyone were to ever tally who since then has logged the most hours making silly sounds before microphones, Frank would be the easy victor.

Since about ’70, there seems to have been a rush of new voice performers.  Some hail from the comedy circuit and from various improv troupes.  Others come out of disc-jockeying or on-camera acting.  Most grew up on cartoons, dreaming of someday being Mel Blanc or Daws Butler.

Between 1970 and 1990, the field became flooded with new performers and, since then, it’s only gotten more crowded.  As a result of Disney features, The Simpsons and a general depression in Screen Actors Guild employment, it is no longer unfashionable for on-camera actors to do cartoon voice work.  Many animated shows have rushed to cast actors who are best known for their work on live-action TV series on the questionable (I think) premise that employing these folks elevates the cartoon to some higher level.

Some of these TV stars are as good as the full-time voice actors, many are not, and at least one producer has openly admitted that he doesn’t care.  For reasons of promotion and prestige, he’d rather have a “name actor” delivering a mediocre performance than a good job by a professional voice artist whose name most folks wouldn’t recognize.  (Most of them are working for S.A.G, scale, so the celebrities don’t cost any more.)

The end result of all this, of course, is that the field keeps getting more and more overrun with talent.  Like all forms of professional acting that have ever existed on this planet, the number of folks who want to perform will always greatly exceed the number of roles that could possibly exist.

Cartoon voices are almost always done before the pictures.  The animation is done to the voice track.  (One exception was at the Fleischer Studios where they usually animated first and voiced after.  This order of business is what led to Jack Mercer doing all those wonderful under-his-breath mutterings as Popeye.)

For theatrical cartoons, it has usually been the practice to record the dialogue a line at a time.  The actor does multiple takes of each speech, doing it over and over until the director is satisfied.  Often, when two or more actors are involved, they’re recorded at separate times…or, when one actor does multiple roles, they record one character at a time.  Mel Blanc would sometimes perform Tweety one day and Sylvester, the next.

Television cartoons are almost always recorded like a radio play, with the entire cast gathered together in one room, everyone doing his or her lines in sequence.  The few instances wherein the actors aren’t all together, it’s usually because someone wasn’t available, not because the producers wanted it that way.  Usually, the actors all record together and when they can, the procedure goes something like this…

1.  The first thing that happens, of course, is the casting.  On a new series, they usually have auditions for the recurring roles.  Actor after actor is brought in and recorded reading a few lines of copy, then the producers (or network folks or whoever) whittle down the pile and make their selections.

Each episode also has non-recurring roles — one-time characters who are usually cast by the voice director without an audition. Whenever possible, to save money, they’ll try to have the regular actors double.  The Screen Actors Guild contract says that, for the basic session fee, an actor can do two roles, plus he or she can do a third for a small increase.  If an actor does four roles, the “count” starts over and they get paid the basic session fee again.

Not all actors can double.  Some are hired for their one wonderful voice and can’t really do a few lines as Man #1 or the Policeman in Scene 22.  But to the extent possible, the voice director will have the show’s regulars cover other roles, then hire as many other actors as necessary to fill out the cast.

After the actors are booked, everyone gathers at the specified time at a recording studio and the real work begins.

2.  Voice actors work from scripts that contain all of the dialogue but little, if any, description of the visuals.  Each line is numbered.  Sometimes, they may be shown a storyboard or other artwork, especially if the episode contains a new character whose voice must be invented.

The director assigns roles and explains the action.  He tells the actors what their characters are doing when they go, “Yow” or whatever.  He takes them through the script and may have them read it aloud once or twice.  (On certain shows with certain actors, there is a value to not doing this.  You let them read it the first time with tape rolling, just in case magic happens.  Actors have been known to do things on a first read that they cannot replicate once they know what they’re doing.)

Actors will usually mark their scripts as the director explains things.  They all have their own mysterious codes and symbols.  Don Messick, who is unparalleled at switching voices and playing nine people talking to each other, carries an array of colored markers.  He’ll highlight one character’s lines in yellow, another’s in green and so on.

3.  The actors are placed at individual microphones in a studio.  Each has a few pages of script spread out on a music stand before them.  It’s not a good idea to have the actors turning pages during a recording.  Good takes have been ruined by the sound of paper rustling.

4.  The director, who sits outside the booth at a console by the engineer, will designate a sequence to be recorded.  He’ll say, for instance, “Let’s do lines 1 through 20 this take.”  The engineer will roll tape and then slate, meaning that he’ll record some information to identify the sequence.  He might say, “This is [Name of episode], take one, lines 1 through 20.”  This will help him locate the proper takes when it comes time to edit.

5.  The actors will perform their lines in sequence.  If someone makes a mistake, the director will stop them and either start over or try to find a natural place in the dialogue to restart.

6.  Once the take is done, the director may give them comments and do it again several times.  Then he may do pick-ups of individual lines.  Once he’s satisfied he has at least one good take of every line, he will designate which ones to use.  He might tell an assistant, “Let’s use 1 through 10 from the second take and 11 through 20 from take three, except that I want to edit in the pick-up of line 15 from take four.”  Later, the editor — sometimes working with the director, sometimes off the notes — will assemble all this accordingly.

(Some directors will also do what is called a “protection take,” meaning that they get what they need, then they record another copy in case there proves to be a technical defect with the first version.  As the technology improves, this is becoming increasingly unnecessary and many shows are dispensing with it.  On Garfield and Friends, we never bothered — and, in 121 half-hour shows, only once did we have to go back and redo lines later because we didn’t have a protection take.)

And that’s pretty much it.  The “gang” method is generally preferred to the system where the actors are recorded separately.  Actors like working with other actors.  They draw energy and inspiration from one another and the result is usually a more natural flow.  Also, this way, the actors have a bit more control over the timing of the dialogue and the pauses between speeches (although even then, the editors may later shorten or lengthen these pauses to suit the animation).

Which brings us back to that original query of how one goes about getting into the field of cartoon voices.  The first thing that should be explained is that the competition is fierce and that you must be very, very good.  Just being able to do one silly voice around the dinner table is not enough.

Another must: You must be where the work is.  About 5% is in New York, maybe 20% is in Toronto or Vancouver, and the rest is in Los Angeles.  (I’m talking here just about cartoon jobs.  In actuality, no one functions as a full-time cartoon voice actor.  They all do other things like commercial voiceovers, announcing, dubbing of movies, narration, etc.  But the point is that you have to be where the work is.  It won’t come to you.)

Those who think they don’t need acting lessons are almost always wrong.  Even many working voice actors find it helpful to take classes.

There are teachers who specialize in voiceovers.  They’re usually located in the same cities as the work but any kind of acting coach is better than none.  I’d especially look into classes on improvisational comedy and on cold readings.  (A cold reading is when you’re handed a script and have to perform with zero time to think through the role and rehearse.) If you can find a good tutor of dialects, sign up immediately.

Then you must have a demo of your work — an audio cassette of 2-3 minutes, demonstrating versatility and professionalism.  In most cases, you edit up a little montage of scenes and speeches.  Excerpts from actual jobs, if any, are more impressive than homemade stuff but, in either case, it ought to be professionally recorded and edited — in a studio, not on your friend’s deck from Radio Shack.

In each city where the work is, there are agents who specialize in voiceover performers.  The local actors’ union/guild should be able to give you a list of them.  You would submit a copy of your demo tape to each and then cross every part of your body that can be crossed, hoping that yours would arouse some interest.  The odds are steep: Last year, one of the top voice agents received in excess of 2,000 submissions from novices and accepted a grand total of two as new clients.

If the agent takes you on, he or she will send you to a few auditions to see how you fare.  If you audition and the director thinks you’re better for the role than Charlie Adler, Frank Welker, Rob Paulsen, Joe Alaskey, Greg Burson, Gregg Berger, Don Messick, Hal Rayle, Jeff Bennett, Maurice La Marche, Corey Burton, Howie Morris, Jeff Bergman, Greg Berg, Neil Ross, Billy West, Brian Cummings, Jim Cummings, Bob Bergen, Bill Farmer, Hamilton Camp, Michael Bell, Nick Jameson, Dan Castellaneta and about ninety other guys, you’ll get the job.

Good luck.  You’ll need it.

P.S.  Please don’t send your tapes to me and don’t write for further advice.  Everything I have to offer is in this article.  I thank you.

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