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Producing Animation: The Voice Track

Catherine Winder and Zahra Dowlatabadi give step-by-step instructions about what one can expect during a production's casting process. How and when will auditions take place? Who will call? All this and more revealed!

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The right choice of actors during casting, combined with a great performance during the recording, are two of the most critical steps in the production process. Since the voice track serves as a guideline and source of inspiration for the animators, if it's weak, not even the best animators can produce good performances. The animation, timing and overall success of the project, therefore, hinge on the quality of the voice track.


Casting is the process by which actors are chosen to play parts on the project. Unlike in live-action, actors are not seen by the audience, only heard. It is the producer's job to determine the casting expectations of the buyer/executive, seller (or creator), and director in order to focus the process in the right direction from the start. When stars are attached, their names can be used as a marketing tool. It therefore needs to be established early on whether the project can afford them and wants to pursue them. Prior to the start of casting, it must be decided whether the production is going to be union (that is, Screen Actors Guild [SAG]) or non-union.If the show is non-union, casting choices can be limited. Most professional actors are union members and are prohibited by SAG or any other acting union from working on non-union shows.

Casting begins when a casting director is hired onto a project. Large studios usually have their own in-house casting department. On the other hand, smaller studios tend to hire a casting director on a freelance and per-project basis. It is the producer's job to share with the casting director the amount of money and time allotted for casting sessions (auditions), the rehearsal of the script, and the recording of the voice track. Armed with information on the time and fiscal boundaries of the project, the casting director works with the producer, director and creativeexecutives to come up with a list of potential talent to audition. A brainstorming session takes place at which everyone suggests ideas for talent based on the characters to be cast. It is typical to refer to "like" types. (An example of this would be "like Woody Allen in Antz.") At these sessions, reference artwork is helpful for inspiration. Following the creators' and/or directors' prerequisites for the voice talents, the casting director begins the search for actors.

Once a list has been made, the casting director reviews his or her inventory of CDs or talent cassettes, contacts his or her roster of agents, and researches the availability and interest of the talent to audition for the part. The casting director also asks about other actors represented by the agent who may be appropriate for the project. If the voice actor is not someone the casting director is familiar with, the agent submits sample tapes to review before including him or her in the casting session. Agents are more than happy to send out materials. In fact, it may be necessary to limit the number of actors they can submit. On occasion, the casting director sends scripts or sides to agents to ask actors to record an initial audition at the agency. Most established agencies have small recording booths set up just for this purpose. This pre-screening process gives the casting director a sense of whether the actor is the right type without having to spend the time and money for a studio audition.

In cases when a star talent is being considered for a role, the casting director has the careful balancing act of timing when this information gets communicated to the agents. Some star talent will not audition for animation. This talent is called "offer only."As a result, if a phone call is made to the agent and the actor is interested, the creative team must be willing to greenlight the actor without hearing him or her. Most experienced casting directors know who will and will not read for them. In such cases, the casting director can pull previous work together on an audio cassette for the producer, buyer and director to listen to for some background. Everyone including the casting director, voice director (if applicable), buyer/executive, director and producer should be completely in sync in terms of who they want to go after and what strategies they will use to get the actor to sign on.

On one project that I (Catherine) produced, the casting director took it upon herself to offer a lead part to a very high-profile actor with whom she had a personal relationship. The good news was the actor was very interested in the role. The bad news was that this choice of talent was an offer-only person and the creator and creativeexecutive assigned to the show did not consider him the best choice. Given the stature of the actor, it was impossible for the studio to back out of hiring him. This misstep by the casting director created a great deal of stress on the production. First, we were forced to use a talent that we considered inappropriate. Second, the talent refused to be recorded with the rest of the cast, and we had to spend additional money to record him separately and cater to his specific needs. The casting director had the best interests of the project in mind, but failed to discuss her plans with us. As a producer, I learned that I should have double-checked that everyone was on the same page before the casting director had any conversations with the talent.

In order to prepare the talent for an audition, specific material should be sent to them before the casting session and should be made available on the actual day of the session. For a large project, a casting coordinator may be hired to help the casting director. It is the casting coordinator's duty to schedule talent for auditions(a typical audition slot for animation is 5 to 10 minutes of record time for the actor), process any necessary paperwork, and prepare the following materials:

Casting bible: The casting bible is a written description of the project and the characters to be cast, including any pertinent information, such as personality, age and vocal quality. Character designs are also included in the casting bible.

Script: It is important that this is the most recent version of the production script.

General information sheet: This sheet includes the time of call, location and parking instructions for the recording facility.The actor should also be told who or what character they are auditioning for.

Sides: Sides are portions of the script specific to a character that best reflect their personality. These sides are read by the actors and recorded during the casting session.The casting director, voice director or producer usually chooses the sides.

Visual materials: This includes any color artwork that shows the characters and their environment. If the project is based on published material with illustrations that are used as reference on the show, it is useful to have them on hand.

The casting session takes place in a recording studio. Generally, the producer, director and casting director attend these sessions. Depending on the director, there may or may not be a voice director hired to direct and communicate with the talent. Some animation directors are not comfortable playing this role. In feature production, the director usually directs the talent. In this book, we refer to the individual responsible for directing the actors as the voice director. The voice director has the actors read their sides individually or with other actors playing opposite parts. Often on television shows and direct-to-video projects, actors are given sides for several parts as it is cost effective to have a versatile talent that can play different parts. Working with the casting director, the producer ensures that the session is moving on schedule, allowing for extensions with certain actors and schedule changes throughout the day when people drop out or are late.

After the director and/or producer select the preferred performances or "circle takes," the chosen lines are edited onto a final listening tape. If they do not like any takes from an actor, the entire audition is dropped. This is called a "no print." Edited tapes, along with a list of talent recorded, are given to key team members such as the buyer/executive for review. Each person listens to the tape, makes notes, and ranks his or her choices. The casting director gets everyone's feedback and sets up callbacks. The purpose of callbacks is to re-record the talent in order to finalize casting. The original list is trimmed down significantly for these sessions. It is important to note that if you have a third callback for the same actor, SAG rules state that the producer has to pay for this and any further sessions. If none of the voices fit the part, additional casting may be necessary. Several sessions may be held until actors are selected. The final choice of talent is a collaborative process. Actors are chosen based on their vocal quality, ability to bring the character to life, star power, versatility, availability and the budget. In those cases when there is a tie between actors for a part, the buyer or creative executive will usually make the final casting decision.

Before auditions, the casting director typically communicates to the talent (through their agents) what the standard fee is. There should therefore be minimal negotiations necessary. For those actors above union scale or above the flat rate paid for non-union actors, negotiations need to take place. These negotiations are generally done by business affairs in concert with the producer and creative executive/buyer. In case there is any visual likeness to the actor in the design of the character they are playing -- which sometimes happens with star talent -- the design needs to be legally cleared in advance. Other issues to be agreed upon for star talent are fees, size and placement of credit, and publicity. In the case of musicals, the topic of singing needs to be discussed, as some actors sing and others do not. If the talent cannot sing, another voice will be used to perform the songs. If the talent can sing, there will be a different rate paid, and the details of soundtrack royalties must be addressed. The business affairs department negotiates with the star talent's representative regarding the actor's willingness to conduct interviews and his or her availability for other promotional purposes. Generally, star talent is paid a fee to take part in promoting the project.

Other topics covered in the Voice Track section of Producing Animation include: Rehearsal, Session Preparation and Recording.

Catherine Winder has worked as both an executive producer in television and feature animation. Her background in development, as well as production with studios from around the world has given her a rare global expertise in the field of animation. In her present position as vice president production for Fox Feature Animation, she is overseeing production of the studio's 2D traditional and 3D CGI animated movies. She has co-written Producing Animation with Zahra Dowlatabadi.

Zahra Dowlatabadi, an award-winning producer, started her animation career in 1986. Since then, Dowlatabadi has worked in almost every major studio in Los Angeles along with many internationally acclaimed animation studios and talent. Dowlatabadi is the founder of an organization entitled Animation Team, which assists studios with production staffing needs ranging from qualified line producers to experienced production assistants. She also has co-written a book entitled

Producing Animation with Catherine Winder for Focal Press.