An Interview With Kris Zimmerman On Voice Directing & Timing

Laura Schiff interviews voice director Kris Zimmerman about her approach to nailing down the best performance time after time.

Kris Zimmerman began her career eight years ago as a voice director of animation programming. After studying under respected stage and screen director Gordon Hunt at Hanna-Barbera, Zimmerman climbed the studio ladder and eventually branched out on her own as a freelance director in 1994. Her produced credits include Hanna-Barbera's Cow and Chicken, I Am Weasel, Jonny Quest and a number of Scooby Doo features for home video. In addition, she directed Metal Gear Solid, the much-lauded Sony PlayStation game. Zimmerman is currently helming Weird-Ohs, a Mainframe Entertainment series that will debut this September on the Fox Family Channel. Also, along with veteran voice actor Charlie Adler, Zimmerman teaches a successful voice acting workshop.Laura Schiff: As a voice director, what are some of the responsibilities of your job?Kris Zimmerman: What we do is we take the script or storyboard, hire our actors to come in, and record it. I prefer to take them through it like a radio play. The voice director is responsible for watching the script, watching the story board, listening to the actors, and making sure that they paint the picture of the story vocally so that it matches what the artists', and writers', needs are. We might have a brief rehearsal beforehand. At that point, I can describe to them the action, tell them how their characters are moving, where they are -- if they're sneaking around a corner and need to be quiet, if they're on the top of a 20-story building shouting down to someone below them -- so that at the time of the session, when we actually put it on tape, they'll have a little more idea of the environment around them.LS: What's the advantage of recording it like a radio play, as opposed to each actor delivering their lines in isolation?

KZ: I prefer to have the interaction between the characters, but you can do it the other way, too. I remember we were doing Captain Planet several years ago, and I think five of the main characters were in different parts of the world. We had to pick them up from wherever they were, but when the show was cut together, you couldn't tell. It all sounded like they were responding to each other. That has to do with my memory as the director, in remembering how one actor said a line, so that the other one can respond accordingly.LS: How do you make sure that their voices are timed to the animation?KZ:

The animation comes second. Most of the time, they animate to the dialogue track. But sometimes you'll get a foreign cartoon that's in a different language and they need to translate it into English and have the actors come in and do what's called ADR, automatic dialogue replacement. In this case, they will actually be watching the cartoon and would have a cue in to when they're supposed to start speaking. Then it's a matter of watching and speaking as quickly as that mouth is moving, and with the same emphasis as that mouth is moving. Sometimes it's difficult because if it were perhaps translated from Japanese to English, sometimes three or four words in their language ends up being about ten in ours. So you have to kind of cheat a little bit, either kind of ignore the lips of the character or find a different, shorter way to say the same thing. Or a longer way to say the same thing. There's been many instances where "Hey!" gets added in front of a line, or some small, almost meaningless word, just to add an extra syllable.LS: What are some other difficulties that you face as a voice director?KZ: Sometimes there are many opinions involved in the performances. For instance, how a character should be played or how a line should be read -- and sometimes those opinions don't necessarily mix with each other. As a director, I need to have my own opinion about what works. I need to be able to give the producers a reason why something works or something doesn't.

LS: What are some common mistakes that beginning voice directors make?KZ: Giving line readings to the degree that it takes the creativity out of the performance. Telling the actor how to say it by performing it themselves. I was told when I wanted to become a director that I needed to learn how to talk to actors. I think that's a real important issue, because the actors are the ones who are going to be giving you their creativity and their performance to help give that character life. And if you don't know how to communicate with them, and you frustrate them and you give them line readings, or you don't participate with them in the energy of the performance, then it loses something and sometimes it dies. Also, if they're not speaking, the actors don't need to know every movement that that animated character makes. I call animation direction, "direction on a need-to-know basis." If the character is on camera for five minutes and doesn't say a word, the actor needs to have a brief description of what happened so he knows what's happening when he comes in, when the actual words begin. But he doesn't need to know every single movement that character makes. I've seen producer/creator/directors walk actors through a story board where, at first it's interesting because it's new and it's fresh and it's fun, but it gets tedious for the actors after a while. You have to keep the actors' energy level up in order to get the energy needed for the performances.

LS: What qualities should a voice director have?KZ: I think you need to have energy. If it is a comedy show, you have to understand comedy. If it is an action-adventure dramatic show, you have to be able to understand drama. You have to also be able to direct under many, many, many different circumstances. It almost becomes psychological, in that certain producers respond and act in a certain manner. Certain actors respond and act to different things. I can give one actor a certain direction that would be perfect and spot-on for that actor, whereas the second actor, if I needed the same response, I might have to tell them something totally different. Sometimes I tell the actors the wrong thing to get the right performance. I'll give the actors a set-up that's completely different from what's on the story board, because I know that if I give that particular actor that particular set-up, they'll get it and be able to deliver. When I tell them exactly what's on the story board, if it's not connecting with them for some reason, I give them something different that I feel would connect with them. You have to be able to be in tune with the personalities of a lot of people in a room all at once. I think that's a big factor right there. You have to understand acting. You have to understand how a scene works and why it works. You also have to understand how to hear the words that are coming out of the actor's mouth and visualize them coming out of the animated character's mouth and body, and how that body moves and how that character's mouth moves. If the character happens to be an enormous character, they would speak differently than a teeny, tiny little fly character.LS: Can you give some timing tips for cases in which you would have to match the voice to the animation?

KZ: You have to have a really good eye. You have to be able to see, as well as hear, when it matches and when it doesn't, and also be able to fix it relatively quickly. You have to really pinpoint what needs to be done differently. Be specific -- very, very specific.LS:

What advice would you offer to someone who wanted to become a voice director?KZ: I think that the more they know about acting, the better. The more they have learned about scene structure and character development and working with actors, the better. You have to watch television, go to movies, watch animated programs to see and hear what works and what doesn't work. The more practice you can get at animation voice-over, the better, even if that means taking classes yourself as an actor. Voice directing doesn't look that hard to people outside, but when you get into trouble, when it's not working, then you need to have skills to fall back on other than the parroting line read.LS: What do you like best about your job?KZ: I like the energy of it. I like being able to participate in helping the actors create a performance that makes the characters come to life. This is the first step where it actually starts to live, that a voice is put to it, that the life is breathed into it. And, besides, it's a hell of a lot of fun!Prior to becoming a freelance journalist and screenwriter, Laura Schiff sold animation art for Hanna-Barbera Cartoons. Her work has been published in Animefantastique, Creative Screenwriting, Mademoiselle and Seventeen. She thinks Velma is the coolest Scooby Doo character

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