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Corey Burton: Man of a Thousand Voices

Audrey Brown chats with the veteran voice actor about Star Wars, haunted mansions, and all things Disney.

Man of a Thousand Voices.

If Lon Chaney was the man of a thousand faces, then Corey Burton is the man of a thousand voices. A much admired voice-over actor, he is also a self-professed "socially awkward, scatterbrained geek," -- one whose IMDB listing reads like a compendium of audio-visual pop culture.

Burton has stepped into roles such as Star Wars' Count Dooku, a Transformer here and there, and even Brainiac. He's the go-to guy for Disney. You may know him as the ghost host of the Haunted Mansion ride, or the familiar narrator in the Goofy short How To Hook Up Your Home Theater.

Burton is professional, knowledgeable, and he is... nice? Yes. Burton is highly approachable and makes it clear through his own writing at coreyburton.com that his concern and passion extend to the entire industry. I was thrilled to have the chance to hear what he would have to say to the aspiring artists, voice-over actors, and geeks of the world. Burton's insights extend to how he got his start in the industry, what it's like to work under George Lucas's "prime directive," and why he's uncomfortable with the idea of prank phone calls.

Audrey Brown: Who gave you your break in the VO industry?

Corey Burton: That's sort of a multi-part answer for me. As a teenager, taking advantage of a coincidental family connection, I met June Foray, who graciously permitted attending a few Hollywood recording sessions. Also at those eye-opening sessions was Daws Butler, who would turn out to be the greatest possible friend and mentor in the up-till-then mysterious world of show business -- later giving me the opportunity to audition for what was to be my first professional voice-acting job, as well as a place at the now legendary table in his newly formed workshop. That first professional role was soon recognized by a bright young character-voice aficionado at Disney, Les Perkins -- who later went on to establish the Disney Character Voices department -- while fellow Daws Butler Workshop member Jack Roth recruited my vocal and engineering services at a local radio station, where he served as program director and commercial production manager. From those two platforms, connections and reputation branched off in all directions, eventually sprouting career roots in every corner of this business. I have a whole crowd of great folks to thank for my continuing good fortune in the world of character voice-acting/announcing/narration.

AB: Who is your greatest professional hero? (Paul Frees is mine!)

CB: Paul Frees was certainly my greatest inspiration as a performer. But I'd have to name Daws Butler as greatest "professional hero," for his extraordinary dedication to excellence in all things great and small, and exemplary attitude and conduct as a person. (Daws was often described as "A Prince of a Guy.")

Daws Butler, Burton's greatest

AB: How does it feel to have lent a voice to some of the biggest pop culture phenomena in history, i.e., the Haunted Mansion and the Star Wars universe?

CB: I see myself as a privileged, veteran day player, as far as those iconic properties are concerned, not having personally created the famous lead character voices I've been asked to perform on projects under those particular umbrellas. Other than taking a measure of satisfaction in not committing serious offense to [those roles], I would never claim or presume personal authorship of any characterization established by the extraordinary writers, artists, and performers whose talents made them so popular to begin with.

Sure, it's nice to work on projects with a first-class pedigree -- but when you're brought in to perform a known-commodity character voice in a preexisting entertainment brand universe, it's like driving someone else's car. You only get to feel a sense of ownership when you've had a hand in building that particular vehicle from the ground up. And so those characterizations will always rightfully belong exclusively to their original creators. You can only ever legitimately feel some sense of professional accomplishment over not soiling the finish on any established classic, as I see it. Perhaps one day there will be a breakthrough iconic role I can honestly call my own in some unique new popular entertainment enterprise (you never know), but I am happy enough with how my career has turned out thus far, having gradually built a solid reputation as one of the industry's more reliable utility voice craftsmen.

AB: Were you a geek as a child? If so, what hope can you offer to current struggling geeks?

CB: I always was, and still am a socially awkward, scatterbrained geek. And proudly so. Those who look and behave conventionally may seem to have an easier time getting along in society, but I feel that we misfits and eccentrics of the world get a lot more out of life -- and you rarely find outwardly normal people excelling in any creative field of endeavor.

AB: Do you think voice actors deserve more attention in the industry, or do you think that most voice-over actors prefer to stay out of the limelight?

CB: We could certainly do with a bit more credit and recognition within the industry -- it would sure be great not to have to constantly re-audition and re-convince every new potential employer that we know what we're doing with each new project that comes along. And a respectable, legible display of voice credits for our work would be nice (as opposed to the insulting "micro-bursts" of squeezed lists of names -- compounded by the added injury of being visually and sonically shouted over by annoying promotional announcements). But at least among [voice-over artists], there tends to be very little desire for celebrity recognition, anyway. Frankly, being around showbiz for these past 35 years or so, I can't imagine why anyone would actually want to experience the unending horrors of fame.

Whether performing in a children's series or an adult-themed show like The Boondocks (above), Burton believes that good voice acting

AB: I always get chills when I hear Bea Arthur's voice-over work from a particular Futurama episode. Is there a clip or a moment like that, where another VO actor's work has given you chills or inspired you?

CB: Oh yeah, all the time. I've often mentioned Paul Frees' "Talking Rings" narration voices in George Pal's The Time Machine for their dramatically arresting presence in the film. But there have been so many classic performances and performers, especially those of my formative years... I will say that there haven't been many particularly impressive examples of truly great ones (in my opinion) outside of the "Golden Era" of voice acting, from the late 1930s through the early 1970s. Those before and after that time rarely have grabbed my ear as anything magical or extraordinary.

AB: Do you get asked to do voices on the street -- say, Megatron -- the way Thurl Ravenscroft used to be asked to do Tony The Tiger?

CB: Never happens, for me personally. But as you may know, I don't sound at all in real life like the characters I generally perform. Unless people already are somehow aware of what I do for a living, there really isn't any way anyone would just randomly spot me as a recorded voice they've heard in the public media.

AB: I'm an addict of DVD special features, so I know your work on so many Disney DVDs. Do you enjoy being a long-term member of the Disney family in that sense?

CB: Though there isn't the same kind of recurring demand for "The Making Of..." type of narration work that there was a few years back, some recent Special Edition releases include interactive games and such that I've done voice work on. But yes, I do enjoy my very long and continuing association with the Disney name... Nearly everything great that has come along in my lifetime can be traced back to Walt and his factory of geniuses in one way or another... "It all started with a mouse."

AB: You worked on five episodes of Aaron McGruder's The Boondocks not too long ago. I imagine that must've been a really different experience compared to much of your other work, which is more geared for children.

CB: That reminds me of a Daws Butler-ism: "Music is Music." Good voice acting is all about playing a character with soul and sincerity, no matter what the genre or style of production. I have worked on other "adult-oriented" animated productions over the years (I especially enjoyed Korgoth of Barbaria), but the major difference with Boondocks is the socio-political satire and sarcasm at its core. I don't have a problem with controversy or profanity, so long as it isn't seriously mean-spirited, but is truly clever, and hopefully genuinely amusing. Profanity used as a substitute for more expressive language is what offends me; in the same way any "lazy" writing infuriates me.

As the narrator of How to Hook Up Your Home Theater, Burton modeled his performance on Goofy's original narrator, John

AB: Can you relate to me a little bit about your experience working on Justice League: The New Frontier? How closely did you work with writer Stan Berkowitz? Did you find that you worked more with him or more with Andrea Romano, the voice director?

CB: As with most animation, the ideas are formulated among the writing and production staff, and communicated through the voice director. Every now and then there may be an additional bit of information related directly from the writer, animation director, or producer; but Andrea was the "maestro" at those sessions.

AB: I have to tell you that I sat and watched How To Hook Up Your Home Theater before National Treasure II, and I found it so hilarious! It got a wonderful uproarious response from the audience. You talk often about just filling in for VO artists of the past with Disney (like Paul Frees). But this was clearly you being funny in an original Disney short. I'm afraid that means you have to take some credit for that short.

CB: In this case, the voice and delivery were meant to emulate the overall sound and feel of Goofy's original narrator, John "McLeish" Ployardt; so not entirely original for me. Although I have adapted my initial impression of this particular narrator over the years, since before it became a recurring bit in the Goof Troop series, to apply to various narrated Goofy bits whenever the need arises.

AB: Did you ever imagine that the Goofy "How to" shorts would ever be produced again? And did you ever imagine that you would be involved?

CB: There were actually several that were produced by the Disney TV Animation division for the Mickey Mouseworks/House of Mouse series, aired on The Disney Channel. The Half-Pipe short released to theaters several years ago was fairly well-received (even nominated for a few awards, I believe). I was surprised, however, to be working on a full-budget, first-class Feature Animation-produced revisit to this "Golden Age of Cartoon Shorts." We can thank John Lasseter for reviving the shorts department at Disney. Everyone loves them!

A permament fixture in the Star Wars universe, Burton has voiced Count Dooku in Clone Wars and numerous Star Wars videogames. © & ™ Lucasfilms, Ltd.

AB: What do you think would surprise people the most about your past recording sessions for Star Wars work? I tend to picture you hanging out at Skywalker Ranch playing plastic lightsabers with George Lucas...

CB: I'd say that the recording I've experienced with the LucasArts/Lucasfilm LTD folks has been, overall, less formal than a lot of feature animation work, but fairly standard for TV cartoon series. [The new Clone Wars series] is recorded at one of the most popular multipurpose audio production facilities around town, using all the usual state-of-the-art equipment. Some are full or partial cast sessions; others are solo, depending on scheduling issues and script content. I haven't been to the ranch, nor met Mr. Lucas… maybe one day.

For this series (and associated theatrical release), our maestro is Dave Filone, and the sessions seem a lot more like artistic after-hours playtime than serious business -- although the only toys we have at the studio are our voices (and microphones, of course: specifically, the standard premium Neumann U87 and Microtech/Gefell UMT70). What sets a Lucas production apart from the rest is mainly George's "prime directive" given to all creative staff at the start, characterized in one word: "Innovate!"

AB: I just can't help but ask... I bet you are the master of prank phone calls. Got a good prank call story?

CB: Well, I've never been one for pranks and practical jokes. I'm just not comfortable putting people on -- which is probably why I'm actually not very good at it. As a teenager, friends once put me up to ordering at a Jack in the Box drive-thru as Bullwinkle... which was not appreciated by the guy taking the order. He made us re-order "in a real voice" when we got to the service window.

Audrey M. Brown is a freelance writer (and frustrated novelist) hiding among the cornfields of Indiana. She proudly specializes in all things "geek," and is still trying to invent a way to manifest herself as a cartoon. Audrey can be reached via her myspace page at www.myspace.com/ambrown5.

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