Actors face special challenges in animated roles

While the directors of animated, stop-motion and almost-fully-animated films (“Avatar,” “Where the Wild Things Are”) gain more and more traction with awards voters, the actors voicing the characters are still snubbed by kudos counters.

Despite the many challenges actors face when delivering an effective v.o. perf, not to mention a wide repertoire of past worthy candidates and 2009’s roster that includes Oscar winners, the Academy has never nominated a voice-only performance in its acting categories — the closest was in 1947 with an honorary award for James Baskett’s perf in Disney’s “Song of the South.”

Actor Keith David, who turned in two standout performances in two very different animated pics, “Coraline” and “The Princess and the Frog,” admits that while he sees no inherent difference in recognizing voice-only and onscreen thesping — “good acting is good acting” — animation “is a different genre, and it should be recognized as such.

“Great voice actors bring so much to the whole experience,” he adds. “I don’t lose the value of what I’m trying to communicate because I can’t see who I’m looking at.”

In the 3D stop-motion toon “Coraline,” David plays a wise feline with questionable motives, and in Disney’s return to hand-drawn animation, “The Princess and the Frog,” he taps into a darker side as villain Dr. Facilier, whose motives are tattooed on his forehead (or at least depicted on his hat). David says playing two such opposite characters gave him the chance to stretch his thesping muscles, just as with any two differing onscreen roles.

Yet, while he admits the basics of acting stay the same between mediums, voice acting presents a few challenges not encountered in live-action films: principally, the lack of co-star interaction.

“The biggest challenge is not having the other people to relate to,” he says. “But you still have a creative imagination to fulfill all the demands of the genre.”

In the case of Wes Anderson’s stop-motion toon “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” the director managed to tape his acting sessions with most of the actors in the same room — something relatively unheard of in the genre (actors usually record their perfs alone in a sound booth).

Jason Schwartzman, who had never before worked on an animated feature, provides the voice of Ash, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Fox (voiced by George Clooney and Meryl Streep). He says Anderson recorded their performances “documentary-style,” in quick blasts of three- to four-day sessions, which increased “the chance of accidents happening, but the good kind,” he says.

Schwartzman describes an intense scene where both he and Clooney were lying on the floor, panting after their characters are washed down a storm drain.

“George had his hands on my shoulders, shaking me, and that’s what it was really like,” he says. “This was the most collaborative experience I’ve ever had on a character.”

Director Adam Elliot notes he didn’t have that opportunity when making fellow stop-motion toon “Mary and Max.”

Philip Seymour Hoffman, voice of titular Max, recorded his entire performance in London during two weekend sessions of six hours each. Elliot says much of the film’s success depended on the voices, so hiring the right actor was key.

“For my style of animation, I don’t have talking animals, so we have to find a way to make these blobs seem real,” he explains. “I wanted an actor with an authentic New York accent, and someone who could act. I try not to differentiate between animation and live-action films in that way.”

He credits studios like Pixar for putting performance and character before anything else and observes it was a strong year for animation as a whole.

Likewise, Schwartzman says some of his favorite performances during the past year have been in animated films.

“There shouldn’t be too much of a divide between animation and live action,” he says. “Teri Hatcher’s performance (in ”Coraline”) scared the shit out of me!”

Whether or not the Academy’s acting branch will open its doors to voice-only performances — or perhaps create a separate category — David says he’s just happy to be working, especially in animation.

“There’s a wonderful freedom working in this genre,” he says. “It’s called a ‘play,’ and acting should be fun.”

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