Voice Acting

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This episode was written & produced by Miellyn Fitzwater Barrows.

We hear disembodied voices all the time, in everything from cartoons and anime to commercials and trailers. It seems easy, but it's actually an intricate craft involving a great amount of training. What does it take to create multiple, unique personalities using only a voice? Featuring voice actors Christopher Sabat (Dragonball Z, One Piece) and Cissy Jones (Firewatch, The Walking Dead).

MUSIC FEATURED IN THIS EPISODE

Coding - Steven Gutheinz
Crutch - Instrumental - John Steen
Blame The Weather - Instrumental - Clubhouse
Better and Better Instrumental - Andrew Judah
Japan (no-oohs-ahhs) - Watermark High
Washedway by Evolv

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View Transcript ▶︎

[Music start]

From Defacto Sound, you’re listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz. The stories behind the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds. I’m Dallas Taylor.

This is a little glimpse of what it’s like to be a voice actor.

[Mickey Mouse clip]

Ever since Mickey Mouse whistled those first notes while steering this boat in Walt Disney’s 1928 short film Steamboat Willie, the public has been fascinated with animated characters who have funny voices.

Just two years later in 1930, Warner Brothers launches Looney Tunes to compete with Disney’s Mickey Mouse shorts. Originally designed to promote Warner Brothers’ music catalog, these cartoons became more famous for their characters. A majority of which were voiced by one man: Mel Blanc.

Mel Blanc brought to life enduring favorites; Bugs Bunny [Bug Bunny clip], Daffy Duck [Daffy Duck clip] and Porky Pig [Porky Pig clip]. Along with 397 more characters in his lifetime.

Christopher: He is the iconic voice guy. Anyone who grew up on any of the Bugs Bunny cartoons or anything like that, his voices just part of your subconscious. I am Christopher Sabat. I am a Voice Actor.

Even to this day anyone from any age you can use, "Yeah, can you make this sound a little bit more Yosemite Sam?" Everybody knows what you're talking about. He's just such an iconic voice.

Mel Blanc was soon followed by other iconic Voice Actors. There was also June Foray, best known as Rocky from Rocky and Bullwinkle [Rocky and Bullwinkle clip] , Don Messick, the original Scooby Doo [Scooby Doo clip], and Daws Butler, AKA Yogi Bear [Yogi bear clip].

These actors paved the way for contemporary favorites like Christopher Sabat of Dragon Ball Z Fame [Dragon Ball z clip] and Cissy Jones, the voice behind award-winning video games including The Walking Dead and Firewatch [Firewatch clip].

When asked to describe their own voices they has this to say:

Christopher: Man, what does my voice sound like?

Cissy: How would I describe my voice personally?

Christopher: My voice would be like if Don LaFontaine, the famous trailer guy was just your bro and you guys were totally tight.

Cissy: Maybe, if Charlize Theron were maybe an overtired mom?

Christopher: My voice is like a muscle car that has really nice interior. Now, that doesn't work either.

Cissy: Your best mom friend who changes your kid's diaper so you can have a margarita.

Christopher: My voice is like Nutella if you put on really good bread but it's also really warm too like you toasted the bread first. I don't know.

Cissy: Yeah, that about sums it up.

Both Christopher and Cissy have incredible ranges and I wanted to know what it takes to create so many different kinds of characters.

Christopher: I think it's different for each person. What I do think is very similar between a lot of different voice actors is that we become voice actors because we have an ability to quickly look at something and decide what kind of voice that thing needs. I look at people’s teeth and I look at their eyes. Does that person look up tight?"

The person has a really tight face [voice example] and so you kind of scrunch your face up a little bit. Does that person look really formal? They look [voice example] real loose, real jowely.

You have to imagine or ask where the person is from or what life they've had. There's just all these subtle factors that go into finding a voice. Then a lot of times you just look at that person, you go, "Oh, that looks like my uncle Johnny." You know what I mean? Sometimes you just draw voices from things in your life.

For Cissy Jones, character development starts with finding the answers for lots of questions.

Cissy: "Who is this person? What are their dreams? What are their fears? What is the first thing they think of in the morning, and the last thing they think of as they're going into sleep? What excites them? What terrifies them? In terms of scenes, who are they talking to? What are they talking about? Where are they? Is this a very intimate scene [voice example], or are they shouting across a field to one another [voice example]? Is this a battle scene, and I'm going to start screaming, and throwing blows?"

Really understanding who the person is in terms of what has gotten them to this scene, and then what the scene is. A lot of it is made up in my head. A lot of times, we don't get what the scene is. Sometimes we don't even get the actual name of the game, if it is a video game. We just have to make up whatever came before this line that I'm supposed to say, that makes absolutely no sense, but I have to make it make sense.

If I don't believe it, why should anybody else? You know, when I was working on "The Walking Dead," I used to come home and have nightmares about the zombie apocalypse.

I remember the last scene I did for Katjaa, and I had my, spoiler alert, death scene. I'm sitting in a booth in LA, and the directors are in San Francisco, and I gave my big emotional moving thing, and I just hear, [crying voice example] "Um, yeah, that was great. I think we can move on." I was like, "Okay, my job here is done."

Cissy actually played nine different characters in the video game series - The Walking Dead.

Cissy: I played Katjaa, Jolene, Brie, Dee, Shel, some randos, a couple guards, and most recently for "Michonne," I played the main bad guy, Norma, and another woman in a dream sequence named Vanessa.

[voice example] Jolene was just crazy. She was in the woods, and she'd been alone for a while. She was a crazy, you know. [voice example] And Brie was, she was suffering from cancer, and she was real angry about a lot of things. [voice example] Norma was just angry. She was running stuff, and she didn't like what she saw going on.

[voice example] Katjaa, she was a Belgian immigrant; she had been living in the United States for 14 years, but she was very sweet and matronly, and Katjaa gets very upset when she is panicked, and she cries a little bit, but she's not too crazy because her husband is usually the one who goes crazy. But she maintains decorum to a degree, unless she's getting run down by zombies, and then it hits the fan.

I developed the accent by following around a Belgian friend of mine with a tape recorder, for far too long, until it became awkward. Just played it back and listened to him before every time I had to record, before every session, before the auditions. I believe I had a weekend; I got the audition on a Friday, and it was due on a Monday, and I just followed him around like, "Talk more, talk more." He was like, "You're really getting on my nerves." But he loved the final performance.

It comes down to understanding who the characters are, and what makes them different, before picking a voice, if that makes sense. And that is true for any character in voice over; you never want to go for the voice first, because it's not believable.

Find out how Christopher keeps it believable, even with unbelievable characters and learn an industry secret about trailers from Cissy, next.

[music out]

MIDROLL

[music in]

It’s crucial to focus on believability, even when working with larger than life characters like Christopher does in anime, because if the audience doesn’t buy it, it can pull them right out of the story.

When he does the English versions for shows and films originally made in Japanese, he can look at the characters’ facial expressions and adjust his voice accordingly.

Christopher: I do a lot of voices for a show called Dragon Ball Z. Okay, so to go through, [Piccolo's voice] alright ah, we’ll start at the bottom. The lowest character I play is this guy named Piccolo. Piccolo has two emotions. He's either just cool and calm or he's like yawn at Gohan or something like that. On the other end of the spectrum, it's almost the same voice except where Piccolo is very low in my voice. Vegeta is very high [Vegeta voice], comes out of the nose and has this weird like British thing but if I take the scratch out of it and then make it not as British then I've got this guy named Yamcha [Yamcha's voice] who's like this totally dorky guy. Then if I put the scratch back into it and then I make it go like this I become this character named Burter [Burter's voice]. He's got this lispy weird thing going on. Then if I go back down to Piccolo again [Piccolo's voice], I then can open up the back of my throat and I can do this guy named Recoome [Recoome's voice] and believe it or not of all the voices I've ever done, that's the one that hurts the most because I have to tense up these muscles in the back of my throat and it hurts real bad sometimes.

Yeah, a lot of voices are just so close to one another but yet you can add like an accent or a lisp or that Burter voice [Burter's voice] have this lisp in it. Recoome, [Recoome's voice] I do this thing on my throat, with my mouth too.

And then right in the middle it's closer to my voice his name is Zarbon [Zarbon's voice]. He's just like a normal guy, he's close to my voice except with a slight British accent to him as well. There's where we're at, sometimes when I'm choosing a voice I do pick whether this is in my upper range and my lower range or I just try and find somewhere along my vocal chords to make a sound then I just try and keep it there.

But voice acting isn’t just about being able to do different character voices. Most voice actors, including Christopher and Cissy, do a lot of commercial work, too.

Cissy: Commercial is what you're going to book most often. Commercial is where you will make money.

Christopher: When you start getting into modern commercials where they are wanting really natural sounding voices. And that's where you're almost having to take out as much support of your voice as possible.

It's the sound you make when just like you're laying down next to somebody and you don't necessarily want to wake him up but you're having a conversation with them at the same time. When I'm having to read something realistic, sometimes the lower end of my voice sort of goes away and that just becomes really subtle because that’s what they’re looking for.

They are like, "Oh man, I want that everyday sounding guy” This is a true story too, "Could you say fresh pappardelle pasta like maybe ten times and we'll just pick the one we like?" Fresh pappardelle pasta. Fresh pappardelle pasta. Fresh pappardelle pasta. Fresh pappardelle pasta. I mean, it's over and over and over again and that's when being able to really play into your voice random generator that exist in any voice actor's head really comes in handy.

Cissy: I do ads for a grocery store in town every week, I do their weekly specials... you know, [voice example] "Stop by Ralph's this week for broccoli at $2 for whatever." You kind of have this range of emotion that you portray in your commercial reads.

You know, [voice example] bright and perky, and authoritative, and like a little bit sexy, and a little bit wry.

It’s her wry voice that’s really put Cissy on the map. She used it as the basis for her award-winning portrayal of Delilah in Firewatch, a first person mystery video game set in the Wyoming wilderness. As the player, you go to work as a Firespotter and Delilah is your boss. You never see her, so your entire relationship is over a two way radio.

Cissy: Well, Delilah's pretty much me. She's a little more flirty, she loves her puns, but you know, she's just kind of a wild card. You just never know what she's going to say.

She's funny, she's witty, she doesn't care what people think about her, which is what I loved about her so much. My favorite thing about the game is that you had to decide as a player how to feel about her, just based on her personality.

I also did a game right after "Firewatch" called "Adrift," so in "Firewatch," you pretty much have me talking non-stop for six hours, and in "Adrift," I'm an astronaut who wakes up in a space station that is destroyed, and I have to figure out what's happening and how to get home. It's basically me mouth breathing for six hours.

[Breathes] Yeah. I almost passed out during that session.

The amount of control a voice actor has to have over their face and body is pretty surprising. And doing what it takes to get the performance right can be...interesting.

Christopher: Some people will go, "I need that, I need a trailer voice done," a voice over thing, I have to go, let's see, [voice example] “Coming this Friday”, whenever I do the trailer voice type voice I always add a lot like this weird growl to my voice because one thing I noticed about the Don LaFontaine's voice.

Don LaFontaine is possibly the most famous voice in movie trailers. He’s the one known for the phrase...

[Don LaFontaine clip]

Christopher: It's not that it was like the deepest voice in the world. It's just he had this ability to send sound through his nose no matter what he was saying, [voice example] if it was a vowel or a consonant he always had something going through his nose. That was his signature, that's what made it so cool.

But the “voice of God” narration, as it’s referred to in the industry, isn’t the only thing voice actors get hired to do in trailers. There might be a line or two in a trailer that sounds like the star of the film, but it isn’t always that person.

Cissy: A lot of times when they’re writing a trailer, they need a single line of dialogue to make the trailer cohesive, but to bring in the celebrity is crazy expensive so they bring me in or someone like me. So I do [voice example] Penelope Cruz. I also do [voice example] Charlize Theron. When she's not available, I come in and do her; as a very British kind of sound. Or [voice example] Rebel Wilson. You know, it's just kind of all over the board. It's like whatever you can match, you get paid to do.

Most of us don’t think about our voices on a daily basis. What they can do and what we can do with them, but for some it’s their livelihood and they educate, inspire, and entertain us every day.

Twenty Thousand Hertz is presented by Defacto Sound a sound design team that makes sounds like this [sci-fi shooting SFX], this, [boxing SFX] and this [mnemonic SFX] for advertisements, trailers, TV Shows, games and tons of other things. Check out more and the videos associated with those sounds at defactosound.com. This episode was produced by Miellyn Fitzwater Barrows and me. With help from Sam Schneble. It was mixed by Jai Berger.

The music in this episode is from Musicbed. They represent more than 650 great artists ranging from indie rock and hip hop to classical and electronic. Head over to music.20k.org to hear our exclusive playlist.

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