10 tips for doing cartoon voices

//kennethjunior.blogspot.com/">scott hepburn</a>.

Cartoon me; Illustration by Scott Hepburn.

Today I took a voiceover workshop. I’ve done a bit of voice work before, but recently, I recorded scenes opposite two really experienced animation performers, and observed this thing they both had, which I’ve chosen to call “technique”. I thought I’d try riding that-there bus myownself.

So, in no particular order, here are some of the things I’ve learned about voice work- some from the workshop today and others just from using my looking.

1. If you observe yourself, you’ll fix most of your problems yourself.
I always say this to anyone who will listen (seriously, like on busses and stuff, it confuses people). But it bears saying again: it’s really useful to record yourself. I put myself on tape at home to prep most on-camera auditions, and I’m gonna start putting myself on cassette for voice auditions, too. Common sense and observation are highly underrated teachers. This also applies to many types of dating faux pas, and also to unzipped jeans.

2. I verb, you verb, it verbs, we verb.
That thing we learned in theatre school, about verbing everything? I never do that. Too bad, because today I learned that it really helps. This afternoon I was rehearsing my scene in front of the mirror in a warm washroom that someone had just made warmer (such is my dedication to my craft), coffee on the floor outside so it wouldn’t get poo-taminated, and I figured out a couple good line reads that I wanted to keep.

So I tried to notate what I’d done. On Line One, I used a cryptic series of wiggly lines and carefully-drawn emoticons; and on Line Two, I used a single, active and meaningful verb: “reassure”. When I got in the booth a scant three minutes later, the wiggly lines meant absolutely nothing, they might as well have been in Klingon (no, I do not speak Klingon, what you must think of me). So Line One was pretty much a lost cause. But Line Two? Let me reassure you that Line Two was exceptionally reassuring, and sounded just like it was supposed to, ie, reassuring. Moral of the story: Use verbs. Choose a nice, uncomplicated, active verb for each mini-beat, and write it in the left margin so you scan it naturally as you read the sides.

3. Gesticulate like a madwoman.
I’m talking, like, arms up, over your head. Wave those suckers. This is really hard to do, because all voice work is recorded in a glass-walled booth- and on the other side of the glass wall sits a sound engineer. Invariably, he is a cool, salt-of-the-earth hockey guy, and you just know he would NEVER humiliate himself like you’re about to do. But he also doesn’t get to play a talking cheese wheel in a cartoon that takes place in a refrigerator, so who’s laughing now? He is. Arms up.

4. Bring room-temperature water.
Because cold water freezes your voice, and the astringency of tea or coffee makes your mouth sound pasty. I like to bring a lollypop, too- I’m very neurotic about spit-smacks and mouth-noise (because I believe they make you sound like Heath Ledger). And so sometimes you need to swish water to kind of wash away the pasty spit; and sometimes you need something tangy to encourage your poor nervous salivary glands to make more spit. It’s a delicate balance, but do you wanna be famous or not?

Okay, so you get the script. You pick your verbs. Your next burning question:

5. What happens in a session?

First of all, every line in the script is numbered. The director will break the script into little beats- generally trying to find tidy little self-contained chunks of the story. You’ll record all your lines within each chunk as a “pass”. The director will say, “This first pass we’ll do lines 1-6″– and out of that pass, you might have lines 1, 4, and 6 (with other characters owning lines 2, 3, and 5). Most likely the other actors won’t be there, so nobody reads with you. It’s lonely; be strong.

It's not like this.

Basically, you have to quickly scan the line before yours so you know what your character is responding to- you can even whisper it aloud to help yourself out. Then you take a little pause before cleanly delivering your line. Pause, quickly read ahead in the script, then deliver your next line. If you mess up, just take a quick pause and re-start the line. They can & will edit out your mistakes, it’s no big deal. So don’t even bother apologizing, because nobody cares and it just makes more edit work for them anyway.

And now some basic microphone technique tips, or MicTekTipz, as we* like to say in the biz.
* NOTE: by “we”, I mean “douchebags”.

6. Face the mic at all times.
Don’t turn your head to the side, even if you ‘re speaking to a different character.

7. Soften the harsh sounds.
Lean slightly back or dip your chin slightly on plosive consonants like Puh and Buh, so your air doesn’t make a popping sound on the mic. Duh. (You see what I did there?) Also, if you’re gonna get loud (yelling, squealing, etc), lean or step back in proportion to the loudness so you don’t overload the mic.

8. Avoid “dirty audio”
Dirty audio is any noise that interferes with, or overlaps, a scripted line: this means shuffly noise from your script pages or clothing, noisy gestures like clapping or slapping your thighs, and overlapping other actors’ lines if they’re in the booth with you. Don’t worry about pacing at all- deliver every line between a couple seconds of neutral silence. The secret to comedTIMING- but the secret to audio recording is


9. Project, and keep all sounds on-voice.
Even if you’re delivering a quiet line, always keep a solid stream of sound & energy moving forward out of your face. If laughing, it’s probably better to do it with a fully verbal noise rather than a wheeze, for instance. If you need to whisper, do a “voicey” whisper.

10. Don’t tinkle in the booth.
Don’t wear tinkly clothing- I always take off my earrings so they don’t hit the headphones. You might not wanna wear your chainmail vest.

11. Bonus tip: Look at your shoes.
Try to wear shoes that your character might wear. If you’re reading for a 5-year-old, don’t wear heels- they change your alignment and make it harder for you to act young. Likewise, auditioning to play a 50s housewife while wearing Chuck Taylors is just trashy, fellas. The right shoes- or at least the right height of shoes- will instantly make you feel more like the character.

I learned a lot of other cool stuff, but I don’t wanna give away all the teacher’s secrets, because she deserves to be paid for her expertise, yo. She’s a solid teacher, gave thoughtful & specific feedback to each person, and gives easy-to-understand, very practical notes. I noticed that she was especially good at helping people create character voices on the cute-and-energetic end of the spectrum, although that’s by no means all she does. She also had great tips for stuff like getting into character quickly, what kinds of questions to ask in auditions, how to create young characters, and how to develop a roster of characters. All in all, I’d say the class was a solid investment. And voice work pays really well, so you’ll be able to afford a lot of weiner cakes.

How is this relevant, you ask?  I'm not going to tell you.

How is this relevant, you ask? I'm not going to tell you.

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62 Responses to 10 tips for doing cartoon voices

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    \”sound engineers\”…

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  3. Hi there,

    Great article and neat tips. You’ve observed quite a bit at Sunday’s class, I’d say :)

    Thanks for popping by VOX Daily!


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