In toons, one man's unknown is another's star

Technically, the fact that audiences never see the actors in an animated film means anything goes behind the mic, but the decisions made in the recording booth can make or break a blockbuster toon. From whether to go with no-names or stars to how to schedule the sessions, everyone has their own secret formula.

“I cast everyone in ‘Bee Movie,'” says animation neophyte Jerry Seinfeld, “and what I learned is, you don’t want a great performance — you want a silly one.” To enhance the toon’s laugh quotient, Seinfeld recruited friends such as Chris Rock to lend their voices. “We played actors’ tapes without looking at them, as it doesn’t matter what anyone looks like. You just want to hear the amount of energy and acting they can put in their voice.”

Comedians make popular choices, but aren’t the only options, says “Surf’s Up” writer-producer Christopher Jenkins. “What you’re looking for is an actor to inhabit the character and not just be a funny, wacky voice.”

Celebrities go a long way with “Shrek” producer Aron Warner — thus the casting of Justin Timberlake, who impressed the filmmakers when he hosted “Saturday Night Live.” “It’s a two-pronged thing: You want the best, but you also want someone who’ll help bring people into the theater,” Warner says.

While using stars may help box office, the tradition of casting relative unknowns goes back to “Bambi” and before. Sometimes animators record temp tracks themselves and never find an actor to deliver the performance better.

On Pixar’s “The Incredibles,” production designer Lou Romano and storyboard artist Peter Sohn’s voices made the final cut, inspiring director Brad Bird to cast them in larger roles (as Linguine and Emile, respectively) in “Ratatouille.”

The Simpson family’s world-famous voices also originated out of convenience. “We just grabbed whoever was around when we started on ‘The Tracey Ullman Show,'” recalls “The Simpsons Movie” producer James L. Brooks. “We have people who do eight parts, totally delineated.”

Now, celebs line up to do guest voices on “The Simpsons.” “Tom Hanks was a nice surprise in the movie, and it was so easy getting him,” notes Brooks. “And when Dustin Hoffman did the show, we all went to New York, as it was such an important acting scene that we wanted all the actors to be together.”

But stars can also be distracting. “I don’t think Pixar has any hesitation with using a star if the voice is perfect,” says Bird.

In “Ratatouille,” Peter O’Toole plays fearsome food critic Anton Ego. “But we don’t think people go to animated movies to listen to celebrities. We just want to have our animators be inspired, because what takes an actor five seconds to say is going to take an animator three weeks to animate.”

Jenkins co-wrote the “Surf’s Up” script with Jeff Bridges in mind, skeptical that the star would take the part. “We got lucky,” he says. “We took a line from ‘The Big Lebowski’ and animated our penguin to that. Jeff saw the test and loved it.”

And star voices were crucial to “Shrek’s” success, says Warner: “I can’t imagine anyone but Eddie Murphy being Donkey.”

Another long-standing tradition is the practice of recording all the performers’ dialogue one at a time, then engineering them together in post.

“We had to do it all separately as I couldn’t get other actors together because of their busy schedules,” reports Seinfeld. “But I was able to record every line and work with every actor in every session.”

According to Seinfeld, the approach provided greater flexibility to tinker with the performances after the fact. That was crucial for the “compulsive polisher,” who admits to bringing Zellweger back for one session, “just to change ‘Yes, it is’ to ‘Yes, it kind of is.'”

On Sony Pictures Animation’s first project, “Open Season,” stars Ashton Kutcher and Martin Lawrence didn’t actually meet until the film was done. For “Surf’s Up,” Sony wanted a different dynamic.

“It’s downright abnormal how we did it,” says Jenkins, “but we knew we had to have the actors in a room together where they could improv off each other. It’s a matter of chemistry. You just get a whole different level of performance when they can look each other in the eye.”

“I think we do it really well without having the actors together,” counters Warner. “It’d be great if we could, but the bigger the star, the harder it is to schedule, and scheduling more than one at a time in the same place is practically impossible. And (recording stars separately) certainly hasn’t hurt ‘Shrek.'”

“The whole process of capturing the magic is a tricky thing,” sums up Jenkins. “We all have our own approach.”

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