From “the Lego Batman Movie” and “The Boss Baby” to “Ferdinand,” theaters are full of animated films showcasing premiere acting talent. Will Arnett, Rosario Dawson, John Cena and Miranda Cosgrove are just a few of the actors who’ve entered the booth this year to give a vocal performance that will inspire animators as they create a character.
Voice-acting gigs were not always seen as plum jobs and voice actors often didn’t receive the same respect accorded other performers. That started to shift in 1992 when Robin Williams gave one of the most memorable voice performances as the Genie in “Aladdin.”
“A lot of people think it’s like an ADR process, like a post process when you’re directing a vocal performance,” says Tom McGrath, the helmer behind “Boss Baby” and the “Madagascar” films. “The main thing is to create a safe place for the actors so they can try things. As a director what you’re trying to do is give an actor context, and Alec Baldwin [“Boss Baby”] is huge on context. He wants to know where he is and exactly what he’s doing.”
Without a physical set, it’s also easier to refine a voice performance.
“I often think of a live-action film as being like a live band and an animated film is like a studio band,” says Kyle Balda, helmer of “Despicable Me 3” and “Minions.” “So, with the voice actor we work with them over several sessions and a couple of weeks later a voice actor can say to us that they’ve thought of something new and they want to try it again. It’s much more forgiving in that sense.”
Actors say they love the time and space they get inside the booth to explore the characters and scenes, even when another actor isn’t there with them. They’re not as limited as when a physical set is part of what they’re doing.
Many directors get the chance to workshop the character and the scene and discover new ways it can be played or even entirely new ideas not already on the script’s pages. Entirely new scenes can emerge as part of the production process.
“When I was working with [helmer Chris McKay] on ‘Lego Batman,’ we would go down all these paths with the character and try different things that you couldn’t do if you were on a set with everyone there waiting,” says Will Arnett, who voiced Batman in “The Lego Batman Movie.” “Think about Batman: He’s a billionaire playboy who has a bat cave and he’s raised by an English butler. It’s hilarious. There are so many tangents you can go on with that, and we wanted to explore them.”
Arnett did voice performances in “The Lego Movie,” “The Nut Job” and is the titular character of Netflix series “Bojack Horseman,” and is working on “Teen Titans Go! to the Movies” slated for release in 2018.
Actors aren’t always asked to give a wacky, over-the-top performance when working in animation. The stories still have their emotional, quiet moments and characters that speak in natural voices.
“[Carlos Saldanha] really wanted me to be me and express the emotions and things Ferdinand was going through in a very straightforward way,” says Cena, who voiced the title role in “Ferdinand.” “It’s a classic story and he’s going through things like losing a parent or friends that many people go through.”
“Ferdinand” helmer Saldanha agrees. “This story is about loss and friendship and finding out who you are,” he says. “So it is an animated movie, but it has all the emotions that you’re going to find in any great story and John gave a great performance and did things with his face in the booth that the animators definitely used.”
Cosgrove says of playing “Margo” in “Despicable Me 3”: “You prepare and think about your character in the same way as live action and you’re still reacting and giving a full performance.”
Not every actor gets into the booth in sweatpants and a T-shirt. Even without makeup or the traditional prep to go in front of a camera, every actor finds a way into the role.
“I was obsessed with Batman and Batgirl for a long time before I did this movie so I did wear a Batgirl mask when I was doing her voice,” says Dawson, who voiced Batgirl and Barbara Gordon in “The Lego Batman Movie.” “That’s part of who this character is.”
Directors cast voice parts in much the same way as live-action roles, where they look for chemistry between actors and the ability to convey the role to the audience
“When you’re casting these roles for animation, you’re still looking for the same kind of commitment and dedication and willingness to try things that you’d have for any project,” McKay says. “And Rosario was definitely committed and so was the whole cast to getting into this story, and that’s what made the relationship between Batman taking himself so seriously and Batgirl not being that into him so funny.”