Animation, Part 1

By Stacey Turner

If you’ve dreamed of voicing characters for an animated TV series, or imagined crying out in pain as your video game character is felled by a hail of bullets, here’s some advice: before you schlep your family, pet ferret and collection of Stars Wars action figures across the country, read what four influential members of the animation industry have to say.

Unlike many other genres of voiceover, the bulk of animation work is still directed, recorded and produced in studios in Los Angeles. With a wealth of talented voice actors in L.A., and an increasing number of voiceover jobs going to celebrities, should a journeyman actor take a chance and head west to pursue a career in animation? Can a newcomer find work in animation and interactive?

Sara Jane Sherman

Sara Jane Sherman

“Absolutely, I think there’s work out there,” said Sara Jane Sherman, director of casting and talent relations for Disney Television Animation. “It’s an exciting time. We are providing content for three, 24-hour networks. You’ve got places like Netflix and Hulu coming in and doing their own animation and Web series too. There’s just tons of work out there.”

Sherman added that over the last 10 to 15 years, the number of voice actors working on a show has increased, and casts have become more diverse. “There are not the same 15 people on every single show,” she said.

Ben Hoppe, creative director for Disney Character Voices, agreed that opportunities to do animation voice work appears to be expanding.

Ben Hoppe

Ben Hoppe

“This is an anecdotal opinion, but I think the last 5 to 10 years have seen the number of jobs for voiceover actors increase” due to the expansion of new media, a thirst for online content and changing technology, Hoppe said. Adding audio to a project used to be a hurdle. “Now it’s really easy to add sounds and voices to things, so I think the amount of work is increasing.”

That said, Hoppe noted that among his friends and acquaintances, “there are very, very few people making a living doing just animated stuff. It’s just a numbers game, so everybody is doing everything.”

Emmy-winning animation and interactive director Ginny McSwain offered a more sobering assessment of the state of the industry. “I think it is something that has to be very, very—I can’t say enough ‘verys’— well-thought out…to move out here and be in this community.”

Debi Derryberry

Debi Derryberry

The expense of living in Los Angeles alone is daunting, so she recommends putting aside six months worth of living expenses before relocating. Legendary voice actor and coach Debi Derryberry suggested finding a flexible job in L.A. that will help pay the bills, but allow an actor to record auditions and attend recording sessions when they book voice work.

McSwain said: “I don’t want to be a dream killer, a dream saboteur. But I want to be painfully honest about what I have seen over the years. From when I started in the business in 1976 to the present, it’s a totally different beast, and we are never going to lack for talent in this town.”

Over the last two decades, McSwain said, the number of celebrities voicing animated characters has escalated. “The celebrity factor is big. I call it ‘The TV Guide School of Casting,’” she said. Even new creators, fresh out of school, have their “wish list” of celebrities they want for their projects, according to McSwain. “If that wish can be filled, it will take away a lot of the work that would have been open to (a newcomer) moving to Los Angeles, or from the great talent pool that already exists here.”

“There are layers of talent in every aspect of voiceover, exceptional actors who are extremely versatile,” McSwain said. “These are the unsung heroes who are now being hired for the scratch tracks for projects until the bigger name is in place.

Every big animated project wants a ‘name’ attached to it. I get that. But I’m from the school of ‘may the best voice win,’ celebrity or not.”

“I still want to believe that voice actors can be competitive and win if the ‘read’ is right, but I’ll never win that battle,” McSwain said. “People that are creating animated shows have watched a show or seen a movie with a ‘type’ or character being portrayed … they’ve witnessed a performance from an actor that fits the bill for a future animated project. So (the creator’s thinking is), with all those qualities, why not just get the person on screen to do it.”

Ginny McSwain

Ginny McSwain

Years ago, McSwain played a major role in casting voiceover talent and directing animated shows and is still hired to perform both tasks today. “Casting selections are still ultimately up to the creators, studio execs, networks—basically, ‘the powers that be’—but the names on the lists (that the casting director submits) are largely recognizable. I was always of the school where auditions could be a mixed bag, consisting of the unknown and new to high-profile,” McSwain said.

Sherman said her casting decisions are influenced by the executive producer’s needs and preferences.

“Some only want to work with voice actors, some only want to work with celebrities, some only want to work with people they’ve worked with in the past and what’s tried and true,” Sherman said. “So I’m always casting for different types of people.”

STEP ONE: SKILL-BUILDING

The first step toward pursuing work in animation is building your performance skills.

“I can’t even imagine a non-actor doing this. If you get into voiceover, you have to have a strong acting background,” McSwain said.

Hoppe concurred. His division of Disney exists to maintain the consistency and integrity of so-called legacy voices like Mickey Mouse or Simba from “The Lion King.” Performing a strong Donald Duck or Buzz Lightyear impression isn’t enough to land you a job. “I’m more concerned with a person’s acting ability than anything else,” he said. It’s easier to mold the sound of an actor’s voice, than it is to work with a subpar actor, he added.

Training with top-flight teachers is essential, McSwain said. Voice actors must be able to stand out from the hundreds of others auditioning for the character. Ask around to find out who the best instructors are, why they are teaching and what their track record is, she said. Richard Horvitz, Pat Fraley, Susan Boyajian and Lynnanne Zager are among McSwain’s favorite teachers.

Work on improv, singing, dialects and scene study, she said. “They all come into play in animation and interactive voiceover.” Classes and workshops can help voice actors understand the difference between animation styles, such as cartoony shows, action-adventure programs or those with a sitcom feel, “where it’s what you do with the copy to be funny, instead of using a quirky, contrived voice.”

Hoppe agreed that singing is a highly marketable skill. “It is very important to me to know how musical someone is or can be,” he said. “Most of the characters we work with have to be musical to a certain extent, but they don’t have to be great singers, because even if Minnie (Mouse) is singing ‘La Traviata,’ you want it to sound like Minnie.”

If voice actors can sing, particularly in character, they should put a snippet on their animation demo, Sherman and Hoppe advised.

DEMO ADVICE

Speaking of demos, McSwain said voice actors should not come out to Los Angeles with an animation demo. “You don’t know what this city, this market, is requiring of your demo yet. There is great talent in every city, but every city has a protocol and there is a big protocol out here,” she said. Plus, “demos are not cheap. Why make a mediocre demo?” Once an actor lands an agent, changes will likely be made to the demo, McSwain said.

An animation demo should be 60 to 90 seconds in length, Sherman said. “Going on for 2 to 2 ½ minutes with voices that are only so-so isn’t going to get you a job,” she said. “Put only your best characters on your demo and start out with your strongest ones” because an agent or casting director may not listen to the entire reel. “Don’t put characters that are too similar next to each other. Really make it interesting for the listener,” Sherman advised.

Many actors mistakenly think they need to have 25 voices on their demo, McSwain said. “You don’t. You could win a series on your own voice with your own fabulous acting. Half the cartoon shows out there are action-adventure. They want real voices. They don’t want gimmicky things; otherwise it will sound like 1972.”

McSwain’s advice: perform some characters in your own core voice; know the age range of characters you can perform; determine what your strengths are; and consider the demo an acting showcase. Each character doesn’t need to tell a complete story, she said, but “you want to give the listener enough (script) for the ear to land on.”

“You’ve got to set the scene for these characters. There’s got to be subtext. That’s where Acting 101 comes into all of this,” McSwain said. Someone listening to a demo should hear nuances, beats and the actor’s comedic timing.

McSwain’s pet peeve is women performing children’s voices that are contrived, pushed and forced. “It makes my ears bleed,” she said.

“Some people have a built-in ‘texture’ to their voice … that can lend itself to all kinds of characters, whether a kid, something inanimate or animate,” she said. But a forced or pushed attempt at a child’s voice only leads to a dated-sounding character, which would only be appropriate if auditioning for a retro-style project.

When preparing to record a demo, actors should make sure they have fully developed characters rather than a number of silly voices, Hoppe said. “Everybody can do a Cockney accent or a Boston accent, but I don’t really care, because I need actors.”

“The best animation reels I have heard are the ones where, from beginning to end … I’m hearing a variety of characters, all of which sound fully developed and distinct from one another and give me the impression that voice number one and voice number three might not be coming out of the same person,” Hoppe said.

Production values are crucial for the demo reel. Sherman said she receives a surprising number of demos and auditions that make it difficult to get a sense of the talent’s voice.

Don’t fret if you can’t squeeze all of your characters into a 60- to 90-second demo. A demo can give an agent or a casting director a good sense of an actor’s range. “I’m not necessarily thinking ‘I’m going to hear the voice I need (for an upcoming project)’ on your demo reel, because, in a perfect world,” actors will tailor unique characters for each audition, Sherman said.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Animation

Stacey Turner, a former ink-stained wretch (a/k/a journalist), dabbled in
voiceover for five years before jumping in with both feet in January. She
primarily does commercial and narration VO, but she has a burning desire
to work in animation. Stacey can be reached at StaceyTurnerVO.com.

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