Lost Voices

Have you heard the latest rumours flying around Hollywood? Word is that a certain actress (y’know, her) has got got a role for her boyfriend (that pop star who deflowered whatshername) in her latest movie (a cartoon sequel about a big green ogre – I can’t possibly tell you which one) and it turns out he’s just terrible. He’s stinking up the entire movie, and the producers can’t do a thing about it because she’s so damn important to the picture and they’re scared that if they get rid of him, she’ll walk.

Okay, so it’s just your usual tinsle-town tittle-tattle, but whether or not this particular gem is based in truth or fairy tale, it does highlight a particular casting trend that has been happening for several years now that has angered a lot of people. Not the appearance of ex-boyband members in summer blockbusters, no. It’s the casting of big-name stars in animated movies – stars who may look good on screen, but who just can’t cut it with voice alone.

Once upon a time it used to be that voiceover actors were a completely separate talent-base to their on-screen counterparts. Skilled craftsmen, they were brought in to bring the characters to life, and it didn’t really matter if the audience didn’t know their names or what they looked like. This month sees the release of Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume Three – over seven hours of classic cartoons. As the vocal talent behind Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Sylvester, Porkie, and many more, Mel Blanc is probably the closest thing to a voice-over superstar, but would anyone have recognised him on the street? It didn’t matter, because the characters were the stars, not him. They are as iconic as their human contemporaries, the Rat Pack; nobody needed to know who was acting into the microphone. Things have changed though – the stars have invaded this territory, and are pushing the professional voice-over artists out.

This change can be traced back to the early nineties when Disney re-launched their feature animation department. After Robin Williams’ show-stealing turn as the Genie in Aladdin, a typically short-sighted formula for success was carved in stone: that if you put a well-known celebrity’s voice into an animated movie it can’t possibly fail. What they overlooked is that Williams wasn’t simply cast because the audience knew his face. Love him or loathe him, he is particularly talented with his voice – his stand-up career was based on turning himself into different characters. Casting him in a cartoon was a stroke of cartoon genius. Well, it was the first time anyway – his recent performance in Robots is simply more of the same, but stands head and shoulders above co-star Ewan MacGregor’s effort. His forced ‘aw-shucks’ American accent was cringe-worthy – but so what? At least the producers got to put his name on the poster, right?

The voice-over artist community are – not surprisingly – vocal about this infringement on their craft. Take Corey Burton, for example. You’ve probably never heard of him, but chances are you have heard him: he’s voiced various Disney and Warner Brothers characters, not to mention a handful of Transformers. “Studio executives gravitate towards celebrities so that they have actors who have already developed a persona they can draw from to fill out the character, whereas a multi-voiced person is waiting for their idea to produce the particular voice. Plus, they see it as a big marketing plus, since they get little bits on Entertainment Tonight and other `behind the scenes’ TV shows. That’s not bad, but it’s just insulting when they completely ignore the regular voice people.”

As the voice of Stimpson J Cat and various characters on the all-too-brief Futurama, Billy West is a big name in the voice world, but even he feels sidelined by how the studios treat his craft. “Voiceover people were specialists. Voice acting is different than live acting. Yes there are actors who can understand how sonic performance and theatre of the mind works, but most of them cannot transcend beyond their own voices. The people I work with everyday can piss circles around any screen actor doing a voice in an animated feature. It takes five celebrities to perform a job that me or any of my friends could do alone. We had to be that good to stay working. Production companies always say there’s no money and we were versatile enough to save them tons of money. It is no longer a speciality. It’s a pig trough. Big stars go first and everybody else can go chase themselves. It’s already happening in television animation. Imagine what The Simpsons would’ve sounded like if they had stunt-casted it with celebrities as the main characters? Paris Hilton would be Lisa, J-Lo as Bart, Russell Crowe goin’ ‘Doh!’ etc.”

So is this the end of road for Burton, West and their peers? Not necessarily. Ironically, the current Big Threat To Cinema (there’s always something) is offering these artists plenty of opportunity to shine. The video games industry just keeps growing, as do the number of characters who have something say. Burton himself is making a healthy living from various pixelated roles. However, as the technology behind these games increases, so too do the budgets. This simply means that more recognisable screen-actors are heading into this medium as well.

One actor doing well out of the video games industry is Bob Bergen. He’s been the voice of one Luke Skywalker for the past ten years. He points out that the current situation may not be such a new thing after all. “If you look at Disney’s history, they’ve always used the celebrities of the day for their cartoons. Many were from radio, but well known voices to the audience. So this isn’t a new trend. I think it feels like a new trend because of the amount of animation projects out there. No other time in film has there been so much animation being produced.”

So what does the future hold? Maybe things will just swing back the other way, right? Billy West remains to be convinced. “I could almost see it, but there’s something else on a higher level going on. Like I’m thinking they’re only trying to save money – every production guy in my life, every company that was going to do something, there’s never any money... I’m thinking to myself, ‘Why would they pay four stars 20 million apiece to do voices in a movie?’ I mean, they’d save a fortune if they used voice people, and the magic would be back in those characters.”

As the cast for that ogre picture grows and grows, here’s hoping that the moneymen see it that way too and realise how well it worked for them back in Mel Blanc’s day.

Originally written for Sight & Sound/BFI Postgraduate Certificate in Film Journalism.