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Voice Actors for ‘Encanto,’ ‘Mitchells vs. the Machines,’ ‘Raya,’ ‘Luca’ Talk Recording From Home, Staying in Character for Years

Encanto Luca Raya and the Last
Encanto / Raya: Courtesy of Disney; Luca: Courtesy of Disney / Pixar

Imagine standing by yourself in a room and having a conversation that needs to sound like it’s taking place on a bumpy bicycle ride. Or in the midst of a heavy lift, or during an epic battle. Imagine this all because unlike performing in a live-action film with other actors, props and thoroughly designed and decorated sets or locations, voicing an animated character means not just visualizing it, but convincingly vocalizing it.

Animated films take a notoriously long amount of time so actors return to the recording booth, sometimes over a period of years, as scripts evolve. In between sessions, great chunks of the movie may have been rewritten, but the actors need to jump back into character as though they never left.

Encanto” director Byron Howard remembers working with Stephanie Beatriz (who plays Mirabel) over a period of years and at least 15 recording sessions for the film’s dialogue alone. The musical numbers added up to even more.

But even before the movie had been fleshed out, during early studio pitches Howard says everyone’s hearts went out to the unnamed “woman in a family of incredible people who herself was very ordinary.” It was key that she wasn’t too earnest, and needed to sound like an old soul that had been through a lot; she didn’t want anyone’s pity.

Beatriz found that depth. While she originally came in for a different role, Howard and fellow director Jared Bush decided she was the “missing piece” after an audition during which she performed an energetic version of “You’re Welcome” from “Moana,” also directed by Bush and written by “Encanto” songsmith Lin-Manuel Miranda.

When it came time to record the final rendition of “Waiting on a Miracle,” Beatriz found herself, like Mirabel, mindful of her Disney family: the pregnant actor recorded the song while in labor.

“I didn’t want to tell anybody at Disney because I didn’t want anyone to freak out,” Beatriz recalls, “but I was already having some contractions when we were scheduled to record that day. I was like ‘Well, fingers crossed I finish the song before [the baby] comes!’” Beatriz gave birth the very next day.

Asking Howard later if he’d had any inkling of Beatriz’s secret, he laughs in shock. “We knew she was very, very, very, very ready to have that baby. But she did not tell us she was almost, almost ready,” he says. Songwriter Miranda liked to joke that she was singing “Waiting on a Miracle” while waiting for her personal miracle.

“Most of [my roles] I disappear into the character, and in a weird way it’s the same with this because it’s the most ‘like me’ role I’ve ever played, yet I’ve disappeared. It’s not my face, it’s an animated person,” Beatriz says.

It’s a unique situation in which actors find themselves on screen, but not on screen, while still on screen since the voice is theirs, but the look and physicality are not.

Jacob Tremblay, who voiced Luca in writer-director Enrico Casarosa’s film of the same name, reveals he has the Funko Pop figurine of his character, who he feels resembles him in vague ways.

Recording the character partially in-person pre-COVID times and later over Zoom, Tremblay had the chance to see some artwork to help dive into his part. Snacks helped, too. During the pasta-eating scenes, Tremblay says he utilized a “massive jar of gummy bears [to] stuff my face with and that would help me do the chewing.”

Casarosa cast Tremblay for the innocence and curiosity inherent in his voice and allowed the actor to improvise and change lines to suit his own way of speaking.

“I’m still young and [yet] the movie still reminded me of earlier childhood memories,” says Tremblay.

Working with an actor in his early teens created a unique challenge for the filmmakers: when would his voice change?

“I lost some sleep, absolutely,” says Casarosa, who adds that he talked to Tremblay’s mother about it. “We had a window. And to be honest, the last couple of sessions when we hadn’t seen [Tremblay] for a month or two, I was crossing my fingers. We got lucky that [his] voice changed after the movie.”

There’s a lot that happens in between recording sessions, not just with the actors but also with the dialogue changes, as well as entire acts.

Mike Rianda, co-writer and director of “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” jokes there were around “300 versions of every scene,” all of which he asked Abbi Jacobson (Katie) to perform. And, while he may have marked a favorite during the recording session, later he’d find a different take that fit better.

“When you’re hearing it, it hits you one way, versus seeing it,” says Rianda of connecting the audio and visual.

Jacobson influenced the character by providing more than just audio. She reflects that “the physical comedy, all that stuff is the animators.”

It went even further than that. “The original Katie was so unspecific with a purple hoodie, and that was it. She looked like a background character,” Rianda says. “[Adding] Abbi as her voice affected her and [helped us find] this look where she was exploding with creativity, like drawing on her shirt and pants, and those specific things ended up really connecting with people.”

Adaptability on multiple fronts is particularly key for animated films in a way that’s wholly impossible with live action. “Raya and the Last Dragon” director Carlos Lopez Estrada says the process is always in flux and “while some scenes are completed, others are getting totally reimagined, so you may have a scene that’s just been turned in … and you’re trying it for the first time” in a recording session without having ever read it aloud before.

Kelly Marie Tran (the voice of Raya) would receive scenes with the expectation of performing them in the recording booth only minutes later. With the COVID pandemic in full swing, that meant stepping into a makeshift setup in her apartment while communicating with a full contingent of directors, writers, storyboard artists and other key crew via a highly secure Zoom room.

“It really felt like we were doing this in a scrappy way,” recalls Tran. “I was in my apartment with bedsheets around, trying to block the sound, and it felt silly, so I’m always surprised by how emotionally moved I am seeing something people made together during a time when the world sort of stopped.”

While the improvised booths meant the actors had to lean into their imaginations even more to ground themselves in the film, it had some surprise added benefits.

“It felt really intimate,” says Lopez of seeing the actors’ homes, pets and interior closet space in real time. “We’d hear about their days in a whole other way that was nice and warm and reassuring.”

Aside, that is, from the occasional battle with technology. There was the time Daniel Dae Kim (Benja) performed an entire session before they found out none of it had recorded: “The best one we had gotten, reached some really profound depths of his character and gave it his all [with] crying involved,” Lopez remembers of the loss. Kim, a pro, did it all again.

In the midst of working other jobs and performing different roles, the actors return to their animated counterparts repeatedly over a long stretch.

Tran says of course she doesn’t “live in Kumandra but I do come from a family whose past is very much enraveled in war [and] have that in my DNA and my upbringing. These are the things I bring because the character is sort of renewing me and rekindling parts of my past and parts of my history. As you get further into sessions you start to realize it isn’t hard to come back to something, because that something is so inside of you.”