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Fill in the Beep – Voice Matching for Film and TV

Many people have a general idea of what a voice sounds like, but there is a tremendous amount of skill and integrity involved with voice-matching an actor.

The room reeked of formaldehyde, a smell that still zings my gag reflexes. We were being asked to do the unthinkable, cut off the rear legs of a frog. This called for an immediate intervention of mass proportions. Mrs. Cleaver (quite fitting eh!), the Eighth grade science teacher had left the room for a moment and I seized the opportunity to belt out “Reunited” from Peaches and Herb in a slow Southern drawl perfectly replicating Mrs. C to a T. First, there was sheer laughter, and then a look of horror came upon the faces of my classmates. Mrs. Cleaver had returned mid verse and decided to join me. Needless to say, I wasn’t sure whose fate was worse…mine or the frog’s.

As the years went on, I perfected my impersonation craft without visits to the principal’s office. I could do a ton of voices. You might be thinking how might that get me a voice over job if the actors can do their own voices? Well, in 2004 the entire cast of the Simpsons went on strike. At that time, it was the most popular show on TV. This was going to hurt a lot of people. The advertisers relied on the popularity of these characters to tout products; radio stations needed the voices to continue with long time imaging campaigns. A solution was needed, and fast. As soon as people got wind of my Marge, my dance card began filling up with endless radio and TV commercials. I even joined a popular BBC morning zoo radio show as Marge. I wasn’t on strike and I seized this glorious opportunity.

Movie studios have often pulled old films or TV shows from their vaults. Awhile back, Miramax released over 11 films that needed a slew of the best voice matching talent in town. It was a great time in the industry because these studios had money to burn and they wanted to reap the benefits of making money again without having to put it into huge productions. But in order to meet today’s high industry standards, the post-production team had to update, and often recreate various components of the scenes. I was lucky enough to be given the role of voice casting these projects. I had to pull together a large stable of voice actors who were incredibly adept at manipulating their voices and, without fail, could match the original actor’s performance spot on. With the growth of these projects, so too did my popularity. Unlike dubbing where voice actors replace the entire line of an actor, voice matching usually requires only a few words to be replaced from the original. Sessions are a lot shorter and can often earn $800 for a few minutes.

Beyond the vaults, there are many other places where voice matching is used. During a scene in a popular new film, the main character has the Jetsons on in the background. The scene is clearly pointed on George’s faithful robotic servant Rosey. Good ol’ Jean Vander Pyl has been long gone, so I replaced the entire 2-minute scene doing my finest Rosey. It was the Rosey from earlier years because the later years were deeper and older. This week, I was asked to do the voice of Susan Sarandon for a movie trailer that was being mixed for TV. The sound quality on it was too low on one word and the dropout was significant enough to find a replacement. I listened to her saying the entire line, replicated it over and over until I got her character and voice down, recorded from my home studio, and sent it off.

By the time a movie hits post-production, the original actor may be onto their next project in a remote land. Getting them back to the studio could be deemed temporarily impossible, and it’s often cost prohibitive. When this happens, it’s up to the post team to find a voice match replacement. Sometimes we go in for an audition with a lot of other actors in hopes of landing the job on the spot. This is known as Work for Hire. Other times, we are simply sent an mp3 snippet of sound from the original performance and we send it back in hopes of them using it.

Many people have a general idea of what a voice sounds like, but there is a tremendous amount of skill and integrity involved with voice-matching an actor. Along with the sound of the actor’s voice, it’s our job to take on the nuances of the character they are portraying in their role. Sean Penn is a chameleon that adds regionalisms, dialects, underbites, stammers, and winces to both his body and voice. By watching the actor in character, we must capture these subtle choices so that we maintain the integrity of the project. Oddly enough, I find that the actors who can change themselves drastically are much easier for me to voice-match. Generic voices like Kevin Costner or Julia Roberts are often one note and very hard to replicate, even for the trained ear.

Being a good voice-match voice actor is about expanding your vocal impersonations and staying on top of your craft by knowing who is trending. Pulling a Rocky or Bullwinkle out of your hat isn’t going to get you very far in this day and age, but if you study the sound of Matthew McConaughey and other A-List actors in the business, your chances of voice matching increases significantly. Back in 2007 I was making a killing as a voice-matcher for Janeane Garafolo and she loved not having to go back into the studio to do more lines. She once told me that I sounded more like her than she sounded like herself. Today, I’m more apt to match Katherine Keener or Dame Judy Dench. How’s that for range!

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