I can’t quite pinpoint when I first heard about I Know That Voice, the upcoming documentary about the voice over industry. It was definitely over a year ago because I remember seeing posters for it at San Diego Comic-Con 2012. One year later, at SDCC 2013, IKTV held a Q&A with some of the talented folks featured in the film, and as an enormous fan of the voice actors who give life to our favorite cartoon and video game characters, I knew that if there was one panel I was going to be at this year, it was going to be that one.
To wrap up the first day of Comic-Con in the late afternoon on Thursday, Room 6BCF was taken over by none other than John DiMaggio, Executive Producer of IKTV and the voice behind such memorable characters as Bender (Futurama), Jake the Dog (Adventure Time), and Marcus Fenix (Gears of War). The immensely talented Johnny D took the podium to raucous applause and before the fan noise could even die down, he treated the hall of 2500+ people to a preview of the finished documentary. The clip showcased interviews with such folks as Billy West, Jess Harnell, Jason Marsden, and others, all of whom received applause when they appeared on screen.
When the lights came back up, John brought out his fellow panelists. Voice over all-star Billy West was unable to make the panel, but in his stead, James Arnold Taylor (Obi-Wan Kenobi, Clone Wars) took the stage. He was followed by Rob Paulsen, the voice behind Yakko Warner and Pinky from Animaniacs, as well as the host of the Talkin’ Toons Live podcast. Filling out the rest of the panel were Dee Bradley Baker (Clone Wars), Tom Kenny (SpongeBob), voice director Andrea Romano (Batman: The Animated Series), Larry Shapiro (director, IKTV), Tommy Reid (producer, IKTV), Fred Tatasciore (Gears of War), and Pendleton Ward (creator, Adventure Time).
After introducing the panel of all-stars to deafening applause, John DiMaggio immediately opened the up the floor to questions about the film. Naturally, the first question shouted out was “When does it come out?” and according to John, the filmmakers are in the process of finding a distributor for the documentary. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to have a release on iTunes, Amazon, VOD (Video on Demand), and maybe have a really short release in theaters.”
Once the fans found the microphone in the center aisle, more questions followed, and the panelists made it clear what we were in store for in the next 45 minutes. What followed was a hilarious, sincere, and all-out awesome panel with some folks who have had a hand in just about every piece of animation you have watched and loved in the past 20+ years.
When asked if there are any voices that hurt from performing too much, DiMaggio took point on the response. ”Sometimes you make a choice and it sounds like you’re gargling concrete. That’ll be tough.”
“The important things is, especially if you want to be a voice actor, don’t get yourself into a box where you’re doing a voice that is going to hurt your voice,” added James Arnold Taylor. “We try to do something that we can do. [high voice] Johnny Test is 11-years-old and he’s up there, and if I do that for four hours [normal voice] I’m tired, but I can still do it. And then, if I can’t do it, that’s why there are all these other people. They can do it. So don’t try to kill yourself.”
Tom Kenny jumped in, adding some humor to the discussion. “We will do stuff in an audition, thinking we’re never going to get the gig. So, you just go balls to the wall, thinking ‘I just want to bring everything!’ and then you find out you got the gig and you’re like, “Oh sh*t…” Kenny then dipped into his voice for Eduardo from Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, evoking cheers from the crowd, and described how it’s one thing to do a difficult voice for a regular episode, but when that character ends up doing something like screaming for a 4-hour recording session, you have to bite the bullet.
“I had an experience like that doing the recent pass of the Adventure Time game,” added DiMaggio. “I had to play the Banana Guard and my Banana Guard is basically an impression of Pendleton [Ward] doing Lumpy Space Princess. After two hours, I felt like I was eating my own throat by the end of the time!
Andrea Romano, the ever-wise voice of experience, then gave her own account of dealing with actors who can produce a difficult voice. “I always ask actors when I’m auditioning them, ‘How does that feel to your voice? Does that hurt your voice? Can you do that for four hours?’ and they say, ‘No, it’s good!’ Then we hire them, and after 15 minutes, [hoarse voice] ‘I think I need a few more seconds.’”
“We just want to please you, Mother,” Dee Baker added, prompting laughs from the crowd.
The topic shifted to the documentary itself, exploring the genesis of the project. “Last year, we were here shooting film just trying to get this thing going and now we’re here with a completed product and a room full of 2000 people,” said DiMaggio. “You just keep going and you keep talking about it, getting more and more stuff. You finish your product, you jump in, and you get it done.”
Rob Paulsen jumped in, expressing how IKTV has only helped further the fan awareness of folks in the industry. “It’s amazing how many people you run into around the world when you’re able to be in this position, and they know who you are. It does nothing but make people happy and often you find the characters that we have had a part in creating have had a profound effect on people to the extent where it helps them get through bad times. So when Johnny and his buddies put together a movie and kind of get the feelers out there, it’s a win-win-win. Everybody loves cartoons, and it just makes everybody incredibly happy on both sides of the issue.”
“And if you don’t love cartoons, there’s something wrong with you,” added DiMaggio.
Kenny echoed Paulsen’s sentiment, stating “Here at Comic-Con, it’s one thing where you’re running into people who are saying, ‘You were my childhood!’ or ‘I love this really obscure show that you didn’t think anybody watched but it was my favorite thing when I was a kid!’ and it feels great. I think you guys wanted to bring voice actors to the forefront because in the general world of show business, like big guys in big glass skyscraper offices, to them, the journeyman voice over people are really one step above the guy that sets up the Tilt-A-Whirl at the carnival.”
DiMaggio went on to describe voice actors as the “blue collar actors” who show up to work whenever they’re needed, regardless of the time or the place, and if one person can’t provide what’s needed, they know who can.
“We’re like the Robert De Niro character in Brazil,” added Baker. “We come in on a little zip line, fix it real carefully, and we’re out. That’s it.”
Asked simply how she does it, Andrea Romano gave some insight into the world on the other side of the glass in the recording studio. “I’m very fortunate. I’ve had a wonderful ride in this career and I had no idea this is where I’d end up. But, aside from having specifics as to what is required for certain characters or what kind of voices you have to have, I always keep in mind the fact that I spend at least 8 hours a day in closed-in, dark rooms with these people. So I think, ‘Who should I put in there? Someone who’s fun and talented, or someone who’s a jerk and talented? Fun!’ So I surround myself with people like this.” She also spoke about how the key to being a successful casting director is creating an environment for people that is a comfortable, safe place where they can create, play, and make an absolute fool of themselves.
John DiMaggio then took a moment to acknowledge the turnout for the panel, evoking cheers and applause from the crowd.
“And I always wanted to be Billy West,” exclaimed Taylor as he held up Billy West’s name placard. “Now I am!” This prompted Taylor and DiMaggio to bust out their Billy West impressions, regaling the crowd with their best Fry and Zoidberg voices, much to the crowd’s amusement. And if I may say so, DiMaggio does a spot on Zoidberg. I guess when you stand next to Billy West for 100+ Futurama recording session, you pick something up. This led to a discussion about how people of small stature like West and Taylor still manage to produce amazing sounds with the voice.
“As a matter of fact,” added Paulsen, “last night I had Clancy Brown on my podcast and he was talking exactly about what you’re talking about, and he mentioned James, Corey Burton, and Dee, specifically, the fact that your physicality belies all this stuff that you do. Corey Burton, [holds up a water bottle] who’s this big! I love that about this gig!”
The next question for Andrea Romano asked if she has specifics in mind when she casts, or if she lets the auditioning actors just play. “It’s different for every project,” said Romano. “For Batman: The Animated Series, I probably listened to well over 500 auditions just for the voice of Batman over a long period of time, and then called back over 120. We had four or five that we thought, ‘They could do it’, but then Kevin Conroy walked in the room and opened his mouth, and I went home and drank a bottle of wine. My job was done.”
Keeping the focus on casting in the industry, the next fan asked for advice about getting into the business. Dee Baker was quick to respond. “We’re asked this kind of question all the time and over the past year I made a website just for you and for anybody who is interested in voice acting or becoming an actor. It’s not the only place to go, but it’s a good place to go. It’s called iwanttobeavoiceactor.com. You go there and it lays it all out.”
Baker also plugged Rob Paulsen’s podcast, Talkin’ Toons Live, getting a big reaction from the audience, and citing that he was one of the recent guests. “[Rob] interviews and talks to all of us about our careers, how we work, and how we came here, and you can learn from each and every one of us. It’s free and you can learn directly from the horse’s mouth how to get going, and you start to get an idea.
Fred Tatasciore added that an aspiring voice over artist should study acting as much as they can. On the heels of his comment, Rob Paulsen asked Tatasciore if he could hear from Jimi Hendrix. Tatasciore happily obliged, much to the crowd’s pleasure.
Someone asked what it was like to talk to yourself if an actor had multiple roles in one scene, to which DiMaggio replied, “It’s fun when the drugs kick in!” He also mentioned how he’s watched Billy West do three pages of dialogue with himself on Futurama.
“I did a fair amount of talking to myself in Clone Wars,” added Baker. “It’s a specific adjustment in acting. So long as your idea is clear of the characters that you have, you can just jump right over from one to one like you’re jumping from rock to rock in a stream and you can do it very nimbly. That’s being a good actor.”
Before another audience member could ask a question, Andrea Romano posed a question to Larry Shapiro and Tommy Reid, asking about the amount of people they interviewed for IKTV. Shapiro stated that they interviewed around 150 people, ranging from actors to agents to sound engineers, and that making a movie about the voice over industry is the best possible way to learn about it. Tommy Reid chimed in, adding that it was an enormous challenge to coordinate schedules for the interviews as well as cutting 160 hours of footage down to a 90-minute documentary. Personally, I would love to see every interview they did, uncut, but I doubt the I Know That Voice: Extended Edition will be getting a release, sadly.
In response to the next question, DiMaggio talked about taking roles that break from an actor’s norm: “The more we can break from the norm, the more fun it is – the more of a challenge it is. That’s what you want to do as an actor. You want the challenge. That’s the thrill of acting.”
“Everybody, including Andrea, has a theatrical or performance background,” added Paulsen. “The great thing about this is not being limited to being an average-looking white guy for the things that I get hired for. I am hired for things with my voice that I would never be considered for on camera.” Following up Rob’s statement, DiMaggio switch to his Tracy Morgan impression, getting the audience’s approval, and Tom Kenny talked about how auditioning for something that is really outside the box and then booking the part feels like you got away with a con.
Dee Baker even went so far as to tell the story of scoring the role of Klaus the Fish on American Dad! because he had the balls to read the character as German when the script called for French. “Sometimes you need to stick by your creative guns,” said Baker. “If you go down in that battle, then you do it for the right reasons; you give them your best and if they don’t like it, that’s fine. But stick with that, and that’ll get you somewhere. He followed that up with some sultry German, much to the pleasure of Rob Paulsen and the audience.
The next question, from yet another aspiring voice actor, asked about demos. “Your demo should only be about 90 seconds, tops,” said DiMaggio. “Or less. Maybe even 60. Have stuff in short bursts, and have them completely contrast between each voice and each character.”
“And it has to show you can act,” added Baker. “It’s not just doing a funny voice.”
“Or imitating other people too,” said Taylor. “You don’t want to just do a popular voice, you want to do ones that are your own too.”
Andrea Romano tacked on her opinion by stating that short bursts are good for grabbing the listener’s attention, but you must prove that you can sustain a voice. Also, keep it about acting. A person may be able to do only three voices, but if they do them well, and can act well with that voice, they’ll get work.
The next question asked the panel if they find that voice actors are getting more respect now, as opposed to 15 or 20 years ago. James Arnold Taylor was quick to answer: “With video games and all the things that technology is bringing out, there’s more of a relevance to it. People want to know who does their favorites characters.” Rob Paulsen followed that up by stating that things like DVD extras, podcasts, and of course, IKTV, are presenting more opportunities for the fans and the actors to interact, and therefore, giving the audience the chance to express their appreciation for the actors’ work.
Tom Kenny then took the conversation on a bit of a tangent as he broached the topic of people viewing on-camera performers as the “real actors.” Taylor echoed this with an anecdote of his own, which in turn prompted the physically imposing DiMaggio to say, “They don’t say that s**t to me”, which, of course, received a strong audience reaction. He followed that by saying, “That’s why we made the movie”, which earned another round of applause.
The next question, directed solely at Rob Paulsen, asked if he could serenade the crowd with a rendition of the now famous Yakko’s World from Animaniacs. After the cheers of support died down, Rob belted out the first verse of the song and was met with a standing ovation from audience members and panelists alike.
The final question asked if IKTV would feature any anime voice actors, to which DiMaggio answered in the affirmative and rattled off names including Steve Blum, Kari Wahlgren, Robin Atkin Downes, and Tara Strong.
Larry Shapiro closed out the panel by stating that making the film was an honor and a dream come true, and sincerely thanked everyone on the panel for the opportunity.
Be sure to check out the two trailers for I Know That Voice at the documentary’s home page, www.iknowthatvoice.com, give it a like on Facebook, and follow John DiMaggio on Twitter to hear the latest news as IKTV gets ever closer to its inevitable release!