Cats talking, and how to film & voice rodent actors

Watch a little of this clip first (if you are not a crazy cat lady, you don’t need to watch the whole thing)

Then watch this clip:

Usually in animation, the voices are recorded early on and the animators match the picture to the voice performance. But when speaking for animals, the actors have to match the voice performance to the animal behaviour, since the animals’ timing is so difficult to control.

I do a couple voices on a really cute kids series where all the characters are rodents: the lead is a hamster, and there are mice, rats, rabbits, guinea pigs (I know rabbits and guinea pigs aren’t technically rodents but let’s just relax with the taxonomy for a sec) and a chinchilla (what did i say about your taxonomic rigidity).

Anyway, the scripts are written ahead of time, the sets are built to animal scale (using a lot of dollhouse props), and then they pop the animals into the set and film them running around interacting with things. Lots of seeds, bits of broccoli, and peanut butter are strategically placed to get the animals to hit their marks and interact with props.

Convincing a dwarf hamster to flop over on its back and point its tiny right foot?  NOT EASY

Convincing a dwarf hamster to flop over on its back and point its tiny right foot? NOT EASY

The director shoots the animals like they were human actors, taking wide shots and closeups of them, and because you can’t really tell a chinchilla what to do, the crew ends up rolling until the animals finally approximate the behaviour that he needs, more or less by chance.

With human actors, this director usually shoots about 3-to-1 or maybe 5-to-1, which means 3 or 5 takes in order to get the 1 take you need. With furball actors, he shoots 20-1: it might take 20 takes before he gets the hamster to walk down the stairs and pause to eat the broccoli.

The hamsters are paid extra for stunts, as per the ACTRA upgrade system.

The hamsters are paid extra for stunts, as per the ACTRA upgrade system.

One thing I love about this particular director is that he goes out of his way to choose takes where the animals’ behaviour is extra-cute: for instance, perhaps all that he needs at a given moment is a closeup of the rabbit that lasts 3 seconds.

But if on one take, the rabbit were to sneeze, you can pretty much guarantee that’s the take he’d use in the episode, which means the voice actor now has to sneeze midway through his line to match the rabbit’s behaviour. It adds richness and humour to the series.

They tried to use this glossy baby gerbil in an episode but it was so cute that I ate it.  Oops.

They tried to use this glossy baby gerbil in an episode but it was so cute that I ate it. Oops.

Later, in the voice record sessions, the director plays us the footage, along with a “scratch track” of himself reading the lines at approximately the right pace, with many of the little extra details included.

He gives the actors tons of freedom and lets us create lines that reference what the animals are actually doing. I’ve gotten to improvise lines where Burfy, my shy salesmouse character, is talking, and out of nowhere she shakes herself (“Brrr! Is it cold in here or is it just me?” or where she’s speaking and the hamster randomly starts licking her face (“Sir, please! Too close! Too close!”).

You can see some examples in this clip- in the beginning a rabbit cleans his face while he’s talking, and later the hamster has one of my favourite lines from the whole series: “What the–? How the–? Blublle blubble bluuble blubble-the–?”

This series was double Gemini-nominated last year, which I thought was well deserved.

Anyway, all this to say that’s why I love the talking cats video so much. Having to match performance to an animal’s behaviour can lead to some really awesome little moments, and the cat video has lots of these. When he muffles his mouth for the cats as they hunch down and whisper while licking each other? Man. Canadian YouTube user Klaatu42, the dude who did those cat voices, totally rocked it. I wonder if he does animation?

Or maybe he just wanders around with small animals sitting on his shoulders and interprets their innermost thoughts for them, like he’s totally insane, yet oddly saintly.

2 Responses to Cats talking, and how to film & voice rodent actors

  1. […] my favourite YouTube user, Halifax’s Klaatu42- this guy is […]

  2. Hello there, just became alert to your blog through Google, and found that it’s realply informative.
    I am gonna watcch out for brussels. I wilkl be grateful
    if you continue this in future. A lot oof people will be benefited rom
    your writing. Cheers!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: