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"With the Talents Of..." Celebritization of the VO Biz

Joe Strike talks with industry insiders about how the demand for celebrity voiceover is transforming the industry.

With megastars such as Mel Gibson in animated features like Pocohontas, the 1990s saw the steady growth of celebrity voices used to market animated films.

Once upon a time, as many fairy tales begin, animated features were voiced by dependable and versatile voice actors, respected in the industry but unknown to the public at large. Their only acknowledgement (if they received any at all) was a title card reading "With the Talents Of..." in the opening credits, perhaps leaving some doubt in the audience's mind as to what exactly those talents consisted of.

Names like Sterling Holloway, Phil Harris and Sebastian Cabot regularly graced the Disney features; talented men all, but their voices, recurring in film after film, saddled the movies with uniformity and predictability that ultimately sapped the films' vitality as the studio entered the 1960s.

A new generation gradually replaced the veterans, character actors from film and TV whose names in the credits might evoke an oh, that was him from the audience; the age of name-above-the-title, wow, she's in this film was still a ways off.

Things started changing in the 1980s, when Disney shook off the past, revitalizing itself with Broadway musical-style scores and stories. The market for animated features began expanding, and newcomer studios searched for an edge that would help their pictures reach an audience. Marvel and Sunbow's 1987 G.I. Joe: The Movie featured Don Johnson at the height of his Miami Vice TV fame, while the previous year the animated Transformers movie typecast Orson Welles (who died days after recording his lines) as the voice of an entire planet.

Welles and Johnson were the highest-profile names in their pictures, standing out from the character actors and voice pros that filled out the rest of the cast. However, beyond mentioning their names in the films' publicity, their presence was barely noted. It was a similar situation when Billy Joel starred -- and created songs -- for Disney's 1988 Oliver and Company, while Jimmy Stewart's presence in Steven Spielberg's An American Tail: Fievel Goes West amounted to little more than a cameo. The highest-profile celebrity voice back in the day was a comedian whose name was practically the movie's title: Rodney Dangerfield, starring as a canine version of himself in Rover Dangerfield. The film suffered the same disrespect as Dangerfield's stand-up persona: it got no theatrical play and, as of yet, no DVD release.

Rob Paulsen, man of many voices.

In 1991, things changed for good when, ironically enough, an actor refused onscreen credit for a voice performance that made and stole a movie. Robin Williams' star turn as Genie in Disney's Aladdin helped turn the picture into a phenomenon. If ever a performer and role were meant for each other, Williams' improvisational skills and mastery of mimicry made him the only choice for the part. The star asked Disney to keep his name out of it, but the open secret of his role in the film earned the studio tons of publicity, leading to a well publicized rupture between the two when McDonald's built an entire ad campaign around the genie. In an attempt to make nice, then-studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg gave the comedian an original Picasso, leading to Williams' famous quip, "That's me by the side of the road, holding the sign 'Will work for art."

Stars on the order of Mel Gibson (Pocahontas) and Tom Hanks (Toy Story) appeared in Disney's animated features in the 90s, but the studio chose to publicize, rather than advertise, their presence. Hanks and Tim Allen's names appeared on posters for Toy Story 2 in 1999, but the first no-holds-barred attempt to capitalize on star power may have come in 2001, when posters for DreamWorks' first Shrek movie prominently featured the names of Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz and John Lithgow -- and there was no turning back. Spielberg, Katzenberg and Geffen's upstart animation studio likely looked to celebrities to equalize the playing field vis-à-vis Disney, with advertising for their subsequent films also highlighting their star-studded casts.

Celebrity voices in animation are by now a given and, as might be expected, professional voice actors have mixed feelings on the subject. Rob Paulsen's cartoon credits go back to the early 1980s and into the future (with next year's Disney DTV Little Mermaid III). He's played Smurfs, Snorks and Ninja Turtles, and voiced Animaniacs' Yakko and the Brain's dim-witted accomplice Pinky. In last year's Ant Bully, Paulsen supported a multiple-Oscar-winning cast that included Nicolas Cage, Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep. "Most of the time," he says, "when I work with celebrity talent, they sound like what you expect them to sound like, character choices notwithstanding. You can't argue with the pedigree of those people, all of whom are not only world-class talents, but without question bona fide superstars.

"But in the movie, they all sound like themselves."

Sometimes, of course, producers go after celebrity talent for precisely that reason. "Oh, that story," sighs Surf's Up producer Chris Jenkins, when asked about the cartoony voice Jeff Bridges tried to supply for Big Z, his character in the film. "It was at the first [recording] session, a fleeting moment. It was pushed, more a head voice than a Jeff voice. We said no, just go with your own voice.

"I originally thought of Jeff as I was writing down the character's name, 'Big Z.' It just came to me at the same time, I could hear Jeff, a California accent, a surfer. What you always want with animation, whether you're using unknowns or celebrities, is a voice that fits the character. As you know Jeff is a very big guy. He's got the right gravel in his voice, he's in the right age group. He was a surfer in the 60s and so on. The problem is a lot of the time a celebrity will be cast who doesn't fit in a body. You're torn out of the movie, it doesn't work. You have to pay heed to characteristics -- you want a certain connection."

Billy West, Futurama's Fry, has doubts about Olympian actors.

A celebrity performer, chosen for name alone, who's a mismatch with the character he's portraying -- it's a reality that professional voice actors have to deal with. Even Jenkins acknowledges that "when I was at Disney I thought their reaching for celebrities was sometimes disingenuous. If you want a celebrity for celebrity's sake, you're going to get one voice. You may be casting not with a view towards what your character really needs, but what your marquee is looking for."

Billy West shares Jenkins' concern -- and then some. "It's ridiculous," says the voice of Ren and Stimpy's Ren, Futurama's Fry and classic characters from Bugs Bunny to Popeye. "The industry spends so much money on celebrities, then they write off the duds and sell the DVDs. Maybe they think this is the formula for success.

"They'll pay someone $10 million to come down from Mt. Olympus and sit in a studio for two weeks, and -- 'this is my fairy princess voice, this is my astronaut, this is my carrot voice' -- but it's them. There's no alchemy going on, there's no transformation."

Transformation wasn't Jeffrey Katzenberg's goal when he kept after Jerry Seinfeld to lend not just his voice, but his personality, to a DreamWorks animated feature. "Ultimately Jerry said, 'I can do it, but I have to write it, relates Christina Steinberg, producer (with Seinfeld) of the comic's upcoming Bee Movie. "It's hard for him to speak other peoples lines. Jerry created a character reminiscent of himself and his personality," she says of Barry B. Benson, Seinfeld's movie alter ego, "but the character developed a personality of his own and can definitely stand alone."

A Seinfeld or a Jeff Bridges have distinctive, pre-existing personas they bring to their animated counterparts, while a Robin Williams or a Mike Myers can invent and inhabit fictional characters as well as any fulltime voice actor. But what of other high-profile names that have been showing up in animated features?

"I have to be careful, I don't want this to sound like sour grapes, says Rob Paulsen, before observing that Cameron Diaz's role as Fiona in the Shrek movies "didn't require her manipulating her voice. I think I heard her say, 'this is a gift in terms of doing a gig. I don't think anyone could have a problem with the producer spending his money any way he wants to. If he wants to spend $100 million on his movie and give $99 million of it to Cameron, I have no problem with that.

Performers like Bee Movie's Renee Zellweger and Jerry Seinfeld bring acting and comic talents in addition to their name value. © DreamWorks Animation.

"But I venture to say any decent actress could've done her part. Not because she's not a good actress, but because it didn't require manipulating her voice. You could hire Tress MacNeille, April Winchell, Tara Strong, how many different actresses, Nancy Cartwright? They'd give you not only the princess, but six or seven other completely different characters, and do it for just $50 million. They could tap dance on her vocally."

Bee Movie's Christina Steinberg begs to differ. "That's not the case. The way Cameron Diaz interacted with Mike Myers and Eddie, her tone of voice and timing were important. They're huge celebrities because they have charisma and exuberance of personality that comes across in animation. There's a lot of Cameron Diaz in Fiona. It's special, unique, and it makes the movie better."

Similarly, Steinberg praises Renee Zellweger's Bee Movie performance as Barry's human girlfriend: "Everybody has a unique voice. I don't think just anyone could've played Vanessa. Renee has such a unique, an animated personality -- it's so specific to her tone and timing. She brought so much to the film. In the first recording session, when we were still trying to define her character, she told us 'I've been going over this -- Vanessa is Maude [from the film Harold and Maude] at 28.' We thought that was genius. Building on that insight really helped us continue writing the character."

According to Chris Jenkins, Jeff Bridges had an even greater impact on the shaping of Surf's Up: "We had Zooey {Deschanel], Shia [LaBeouf] and Jeff in the recording booth at one point. I'm looking in through the window, feeling like I'm being paid to go the theater. It was awesome, like watching them workshop a performance.

"Jeff works at his own pace. He'd get out there, establish props, imagine the environment and work with other actors: 'how about we do this?' Everybody would build into it and imagine that world. Even if we didn't have props, he'd pick up a chair and make it a surfboard."

Weinstein Co. head Harvey Weinstein insisted on recasting Glenn Close in the role of Granny in Hoodwinked. © The Weinstein Co.

One sensitive topic for all concerned is the replacing of fulltime voice actors, or lower-wattage star, with bigger names, after the original dialog has been animated. "The part that burns me," fumes West, "is doing a scratch track that's a combination audition and fact-finding exercise. They record you doing a line, but they've already got Nicol Williamson." (West is likely using Williamson as a hypothetical example, as his IMDB page is free of voice-acting credits.) "[The producers] have to bring in somebody who knows how to create a hook and give them a gift they won't get from a celebrity. They glean your 'best of' and tell the actor, 'see what he's doing -- we love that.' It's like a rigged fight. They need our talent. but they don't need us."

Writer/director Cory Edwards faced a slightly different challenge when his independently produced, low-budget (and sleeper hit) Hoodwinked was acquired by the Weinstein Co. Company head Harvey Weinstein has a legendary (and often notorious) reputation for reworking films that come his way and Hoodwinked was no exception. "This happens all the time at the 11th hour -- they bring in a celebrity to revoice a character. What kills me is that this is top-level, A-list talent and they're the most handcuffed. They have to loop dialog and they're not able to improvise, to mess with the timing or lines. They're locked doing what's onscreen. Many times [the vocie actors] are the ones who improv in the session and actually come up with funnier lines," Edwards says, echoing Billy West. "Then they bring in a celebrity who loops that improv. A lot of these voice actors are actually giving jokes to the film without getting writer credit. I hear their pain, I really do.

"The hard fact is there has to be a certain amount of celebrity casting if we, as a small film, [are to] have a chance to break through the marketplace and get noticed by parents -- 'oh this is a legitimate film, it's got Glenn Close and Anne Hathaway in it.' It was a shrewd move on Harvey's part to put Anne in there for the kids and Glenn for the parents. The stars totally had their names on the ads. They went on the talk shows: Conan, Regis and Kelly -- that was one of the best ones, Glenn Close on Regis and Kelly's Christmas pajama party show. She came out in her silk white pajamas -- 'oh, I'm in this wonderful film' -- and showed a clip. That's another reason you get those celebrities. Jim Belushi goes on a late night show and talks about 'how great it was and how funny it is' -- that's huge, huge promotion."

The impetus for Hoodwinked's recasting came from Harvey Weinstein. While Edwards credits the man's casting and marketing instincts as largely responsible for the film's success, he bridled at the amount of recasting Weinstein sought.

The casting of Nicolas Cage, Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep didn't help the box office receipts for The Ant Bully. © Warner Bros. Pictures.

Edwards was able to keep Patrick Warburton (as the film's laconic Wolf) and, after a battle, country singer Benjy Gaither. "There were several [higher-profile] country singers they wanted to replace him with. It just ended up they weren't available. The lizard director (Joshua J. Greene as 'Jimmy Lizard') is a friend of mine, I just loved his voice and it was one of the last ones Harvey wanted to replace. He wanted Albert Brooks or somebody like that. Sally Struthers was the original Granny for two years of the project. She did a fantastic voice. When Glenn Close walked in, she said, 'Why do you need me? Sally did a great job.' I didn't want to say 'because Harvey made us.' I'm friends with Sally through some other people -- I ended up writing her a nice note... Sally did more of a southern, battleaxe granny, Glenn's was more a prim and proper one.

"We recast eight of the characters and I'm like, 'we're done, we're done.' At a certain point it became Recast-o-Rama, everybody got recast-happy. My feeling is, you get two or three names on that poster, you're fine. Our Hoodwinked poster has like a paragraph of names on it. [Nine by actual count.] After a certain point, I don't think you need more than two, three celebrities -- give it to the voice actors. It sweetens the pot."

Edwards also had a hand in rescripting and revoicing the French CGI feature Doogal, an experience he describes as "a Frankenstein's monster...the dark side of celebrity casting." The film had already been redubbed for a British release, "but they tried to Americanize it a little more. The tone was all over the place, many different people were involved in rewriting it, and the casting situation became everyone they could possibly get to do a line here or there. It doesn't matter how many names you get in something if it's cobbled together from many sources and writers and takes too many different tones throughout the film that fight each other. That's not why you want to watch a movie, because Whoopi Goldberg and Jon Stewart are in it."

It's a point almost everyone interviewed for this article agreed on: just as in any live-action film, star power alone won't guarantee an animated feature's success. The Ant Bully's superstar casting "didn't put butts in seats, because the movie tanked," Paulsen points out. "I can't imagine any big-time executive would argue it's a slam dunk."

It's also a fact of life and a basic Hollywood gamble: big names = big box office. But lets put our cynicism aside for the moment and look at another, more optimistic, reason why the voices of high-profile performers are gracing feature-length cartoons: it could be a sign of growing respect for the medium that filmmakers are casting actors they see as the best possible talent to bring their characters to life. As Chris Jenkins observes, "it doesn't matter how many voices a person can do, it's how deep they can go with the emotion."

Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.

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Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.