In her column, Nancy Cartwright continues her series of chats with animation veterans talking with veteran voice over director Ginny McSwain.
Over the next few articles, I am branching out and asking my industry friends to give me their insider takes. I am going to focus on subjects that professionals need to have some knowledge of and get opinions from a wide range of specialties and hats in the business.
Ginny McSwain: When I graduated from Stephens College (majoring in theater and art) and moved to Los Angeles in '74, I would never have dreamed that I would have a 31-year career in animation! It was an artistic fluke! I used to pass Hanna-Barbera Prods. on the freeway going to my grunt job, and thought "Hmmmm... Flintstones, Huckleberry Hound... maybe they'll hire me there!" When I walked through the door to reception, there was a lovely man in the lobby who turned out to be a producer. He asked if I had an art portfolio, so I lied and said yes. He asked me to return the next night with my "artwork."
I came back with my meager collection of refrigerator drawings, and he introduced me to the art director, Iwao Takamoto (designer of Scooby-Doo) and I was hired -- not because of my artwork, but because I had a college degree! It cracks me up to this day!
NC: As one of the top voice directors for animation, how much do you rely on what the actors do to contribute to the final product?
GM: It's what the actors "do" that gets us all to Bart Simpson or SpongeBob! That's how a great animated character is born. The more the performer brings to the table with creativity, imagination and humor, the more fleshed out a role becomes. Obviously, the competition for animation voice over is intense. I'm looking for the talent that thinks outside the box. Often, a client or writer/producer doesn't have great actor communication skills.... the more the talent can read minds and "plus" the copy, the more everyone looks good!
NC: Please describe the directing process for a show (i.e., the preparation, the rehearsal, the record, post-production, etc.).
GM: It all depends on studio protocol. Sometimes, shows have table reads before the actual recording. For the majority of my shows, the scripts/storyboards are sent out prior to the session, the talent does their homework on their own (or should at least have the professionalism to read and prepare for their role before they arrive), then I do what I call a "rehearse on tape," where we put the actors in front of the mics and go! There'll be a brief discussion before each scene, working out questions or problems, but we go right to work, doing pick ups as needed for techs, rewrites or flubs. But, if things are working, we print'em... if things are a little rough, and direction is needed to correct beats, we do another round or two.
It's a great way to get fresh, spontaneous reads. Voice over (vs. on camera) table reads can wear everybody out by the time they get to the recording part of the day. The dialogue is then edited together and the tracks dictate what the animators can create. The recordings breathe life into the scripts and this starts the animation assembly line...
NC: The animation industry has the reputation of being a very tight-knit group, from writers to animators to voices. What does it take to be successful in this part of the business?
GM: Staying fresh, focused and disciplined... just knowing what's going on out there. Anyone who's interested in this business has to do their homework, which means watching cartoons. There are tons of them out there on every network and cable station, not to mention the Internet. They provide every vocal style, (natural vs. exaggerated) as well as every type and trend of show or animated film (action adventure vs. "toony." Spider-Man vs. Barnyard, etc.). Also, committed voice actors take workshops or classes. This is an art form and a training process, just like you'd expect in any other profession.
NC: Share with us one of your most challenging jobs as a director.
GM: They're all challenges... for different reasons! As a v.o. director I only have four hours (S.A.G. union rules!), for the most part, to complete a half hour show -- it's like making an audio "play" in a limited amount of time. But doing an interactive game recently, Mass Effect, was my most challenging assignment in quite some time. I worked on it for nine months or so, and when you direct games, they're often out of sequence, and often you never fully understand the game until you see the final product (not unlike films).
NC: Share with us one of the most fun jobs you had as a voice director.
GM: Dream jobs include Bobby's World, because of a tremendous, improvisational cast (including Howie Mandel, of course!); Earthworm Jim, where superior comedy scripts coupled with a hilarious cast made for a series that could have directed itself; Bump in the Night was a riot... a charming, irreverent early stop-motion series; and the fabulous Jimmy Neutron, which had the funniest scripts I've worked on to date (with the cast, including a couple of stand-up comics, being genius at improv)...
NC: And if I were interested in doing voices for animation, what steps would I take?
GM: My criteria for animation voice over are: a strong acting background; classes -- animation voice-over courses from beginner up to working pro level; workshops or workout groups to keep current and sharp; working out in home studios is a must... you will be your own hardest critic and director. Finally, knowing what your voice sounds like is essential for placement, volume and inflection. This is a craft that you never stop perfecting.
NC: What are my chances of a successful career in voice overs for animation if I don't live in New York or Los Angeles?
GM: Let's face it -- Los Angeles is the voice over capital in this business. You either come to L.A. to compete in a huge market where the competition is intense, or you stay where you are and try and be a big fish in a little pond. Obviously, there's more money to be made in a city where there is more opportunity.
NC: It used to be that voice overs merely supplemented an artists' desire to act on camera. Nowadays, you can't watch an animated film without seeing the name of a celebrity. What are your thoughts about this trend? Should there be a special acknowledgement for "non-celebrity" talent?
GM: Animation voice over, yet alone commercial voice over is a huge business... I'm mortified by the number of celebrities being used (and fighting a losing battle, thinking it will change)... I get the marketing thing, but what child cares if it's Julia Roberts doing the spider? I say may the best voice win... it should be faceless, profile-less!... If a movie needs a Hugh Grant type for the quirky, English mouse, great... but wouldn't it be a perfect world if it was an open audition and Hugh got the role because he was the best voice for it?
NC: And finally, what is your proudest achievement?
GM: Staying employed and versatile in an ever-changing, unpredictable, crazy business!
Nancy Cartwright is best known as the voice of spiky-headed Bart Simpson on The Simpsons. She has voiced dozens of cartoon characters in her career that has spanned more than 20 years. Currently, she can be heard as the voice of Rufus the Naked Mole Rat on Disney's Kim Possible and Todd Daring in Disney's The Replacements. To learn more about Nancy's career, listen to her audio book My Life as a 10-Year-Old Boy.