BCC 2012: Interview with Phil LaMarr

If you were to list the top five voice actors in the animation business, Phil LaMarr would be on that list. In addition to a history on stage and TV (the UPS guy remains one of my favorite MAD TV characters), LaMarr’s incredible voice talent can be heard in a humongous swath of animated productions – in movies, on television, and in video games.

Even if you haven’t realized it, you’ve heard his voice.  A few highlights from his IMDB page: Hermes Conrad (Futurama), Green Lantern John Stewart (Justice Leauge), the eponymous Static Shock, Vamp (Metal Gear Solid), Jazz (Transformers: Animated), Kit Fisto (Star Wars: Clone Wars), and many, many, many, many more.

At Baltimore Comic-Con, Mr. LaMarr was kind enough to give us a few minutes to talk about the audition process, the distinctions between different types of acting, and more!

Open the Fridge: At your panel, you were talking about how you transformed Static from a teenager [in the Static Shock series] to an aged adult [in the “Once and Future Thing” episode of Justice League]. When you receive a character to voice, what goes through your head when you’re trying to find where that character falls in your voice?

Phil Lamarr: Well, you start out with the description that the people who created the cartoon give you. They usually are pretty specific about certain things, if they don’t have a voice in mind already. Sometimes they will say “he’s gravelly” or “we want something in a higher register” because maybe they already have somebody that they want to counterpoint.

If they don’t say that, then they’ll describe the kind of person [the character is.] Then, you look at the picture of the character, and, coupled with their description, you go: “Okay, how do I want to make the sound?” If it’s somebody [in an elongated voice] who’s very tall, do I want to give it a “tall” sound? Or [in a wide voice] a very heavy sound, you know, if that’s entitled to the character.

Sometimes, you might decide to go opposite. If the drawing of the character is someone very, very large, then [in a compressed voice] you might try to go in a different way with the voice.

Basically, it starts with descriptions and visuals, and then whatever that brings up to me – my first instinct. Then, if it doesn’t feel like it’s right on the money, you start to adjust from there.

OTF: And then at that point it becomes a collaborative work with the voice director to determine exactly how you’re going to go from there?

PL: The process I just described is for an audition, actually. Now, when you’re in a session or a callback with the producers, then, yeah. Animation voiceover is a collaborative medium. Period. We don’t create the character; we create one aspect of the character. If we were making sculpture, we would be in charge of the legs. What we do is in no way the whole character. Without the drawings and without the concepts of the writer, the voice would mean nothing.

OTF: You’ve had experience working in both single recording sessions and in ensemble recording sessions. For example, I know that Andrea Romano always like to record as a group for Justice League. How would you compare the two experiences for voice acting?

PL: Well, it’s like this: if you’re starring in a movie, would you just want to shoot your closeups alone, with you and a camera in a room? No. That’s much harder, and much less fun. So, yeah, group records are always much preferred.

OTF: Another point we picked up at the panel was that you actually have a background in stage acting. How would you compare doing full, physical stage acting with acting purely with your voice in a booth?

PL: The distinction between voice acting, stage acting, and on-camera acting is a difference in emphasis, more than it is a difference in performance style. You’re still trying to find the emotions and communicate them to people: that’s the core. Take the script, find out what feelings the words are tying to express, and how to communicate that to whatever is taking it in – be it an audience, be it a microphone, be it a camera – and you have to do different things.

With the stage, you have to be aware of your entire body at all times. With a voiceover, you have to make sure that, for example, when you’re trying to project more anger, you’re not just making an angry face because the microphone’s not going to know.

And with on-camera, it’s full body, but there are a lot of other technical aspects involved, too: You have to stand here because that’s where the light is. You’re supposed to be talking to this person, but you can’t actually look at them because you’re looking at the camera; and the camera is supposed to be this person, but we need you to look slightly to the left. So it’s the same thing, but with a lot of different technical aspects.

OTF: You’ve had the opportunity to work with a ton of the most prolific voice actors in the past. Is there one or two that you always look forward to working with in a group?

PL: No — there are 10 or 20 people that I always enjoy working with in a group!

OTF: You had mentioned previously that, when you’re still developing a character, you try to find a “pitch pipe line.” A line that helps you quickly find where that character lands in your voice. By now, you can probably step into John Stewart or Hermes immediately, but was there a pitch pipe line that helped you in the beginning?

PL: Pitch pipe lines for those guys? I don’t know. For me, once I see the first full episode animated, then it’s locked in – don’t really need a pitch pipe line anymore. Before that, I think it was the introduction line for John Stewart: “My name is John Stewart, Green Lantern of Sector 2814.” That was sort of the pitch pipe for that character.

OTF: Voice acting has a reputation for being a hard industry to break into. Because of its very nature, producers and directors always choose to work with the same people again and again, especially if they’re versatile enough to voice all sorts of different characters. What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into the business?

PL: Well, it’s funny… well, the first thing I tell people to do is learn to act. The second thing is to go to Dee Baker’s website, www.iwanttobeavoiceactor.com. It has a lot of questions that you need to know and things that will help weed you out because it’s not for everyone.

Other than that, it’s very difficult because there’s no single, specific path into voiceover. Everybody I’ve ever met found their way into it in a different way.

Thanks a million for chatting with us, Phil! We here at OTF are crazy big fans, and we wish you continued success!

Written by: Dwight Tejano

Dwight is the founder of Open the Fridge, which he started in 2008 and rebooted in 2010. Due to the nature of early adopting, his bank account is normally empty. He likes to sing in world-renown choruses to forget such things.

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