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A.M.P.A.S. Voices of Character event showcased the talented performers behind your favorite cartoon characters

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A.M.P.A.S. Voices of Character event showcased the talented performers behind your favorite cartoon characters

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You've heard "How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria," right? The song that the nuns sing in "The Sound of the Music" when they're fretting about that novice's behavior? Well, have you ever wondered what that Rodgers & Hammerstein song might sound like if Roz from "Monsters, Inc." had sung it?

Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

If so ... Then you should have been at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater back on August 19th. When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences - as part of its Marc Davis Celebration of Animation - presented a "Voices of Character" panel.

Moderated by noted author & animation historian Charles Solomon, this was an evening that animation fans will remember for years yet to come. Given that this "Voices of Character" panel featured appearances by industry vets like June Foray, Russi Taylor, Susan Egan and Yuri Lowenthal. Not to mention Pixar screenwriter Bob Peterson's singing nun impression.

The evening actually got underway with this terrific clip reel that Les Perkins had created. The short montage featured a myriad of actors in live-action films followed by clips of their famous animated performances.   The audience in the Samuel Goldwyn Theater reeled with delight as they watched Lucille La Verne make her unmistakable cackle in a live-action film from the 1930s, which  was then reprised instantly in her iconic role as Snow White's Wicked Witch.  The clips oscillated from live-action actors - both legendary and almost completely forgotten - to their animated counterparts, each unforgettable.  The brilliantly edited clips featured everyone from Roy Atwell, first on-screen, then as the voice of the dwarf Doc, to Eddie Murphy in Bowfinger then as Donkey in Shrek.

Charles Solomon moderated the Voices of Character
panel at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater. Photo by
Richard Harbaugh. Copyright  2010 A.M.P.A.S.
All rights reserved

The audience was then treated to a short clip of Monsters Inc. where the dialogue changes to 30 different foreign languages.  The audience simultaneously giggled at the foreign languages emanating from these familiar characters, and marveled at the work it takes to produce these dubs and make them true to the story in so many different cultures.

Then Rick Dempsey (i.e. senior VP of Disney Character Voices International), animation master James Baxter and Bob Peterson took to the stage. Where Solomon asked the panelists when the voice of the character first enters their minds.  Baxter responded, "from the instant you see the first  artwork of a character... the possibilities start to open up.  And of course, once you cast an actor, that may affect the design of the character in the end as well." 

Peterson offered a different take on Solomon's question.  "When the character's flaw comes in, you know (you need someone who can then) balance that flaw."  He went on to explain that Woody's unlikeable behavior necessitated casting an actor like Tom Hanks who had inherent likeability that could then balance that flaw.  Up's Carl Frederickson was grumpy for a lot of that movie.  Which is why Ed Asner was the perfect voice actor to make that Pixar character appealing.

James Baxter offered up his thoughts at last month's Marc Davis Celebration of
Photo by Ivan Vejar. Copyright 2010 A.M.P.A.S. All rights reserved

James added modestly, "With a good voice, all of your work is done.  You pray for a rich, juicy voice. Then you just have to not drop the ball."

Baxter talked about the unique situation with Enchanted's Giselle.  Her animated design was tailored to reflect the live actress who was cast to play her - Amy Adams.  After showing her some of the poses of her animated counterpart, Amy then folded some of her cartoon mannerisms that James had created for that character into her live-action performance.  "There was more back and forth between actor and animator in that instance," he added.

Peterson shared that Tom Hanks has stated that voice-acting was the hardest thing that he's ever had to do, emoting with only your voice, working alone in a small booth.  Baxter then offered up James Earl Jones' impressions of voice-over from the production of The Lion King.  "When recording Mufasa, Jones likened it to the way ancient Greeks players acted behind a mask."

Bob Peterson shared some behind-the-stories about Pixar recording sessions.
Photo by Ivan Vejar. Copyright 2010 A.M.P.A.S. All rights reserved

Bob talked about Albert Brooks' approach to Marlin in Finding Nemo.  He was a gifted ad libber and would dial in the nuance of his character take after take.  Then they would move on to the next scene, and Brooks would stop them and say "Ooh, I want to go back. I thought of something else."

Speaking of ad libbing, Peterson shared an anecdote from Billy Crystal's recording on Monsters Inc.  At some point, Crystal's mic was unintentionally given reverb which then created an echo effect.  And so Crystal spent the next twenty minutes pretending to broadcast FM radio from inside of the Luray Caverns.  The crew at Pixar was in hysterics listening to Billy.  Inbetween laughs, Peterson noted to the others that " ... We should be paying him for this ...  Oh, wait. We are."

The next clip screened in the Samuel Goldwyn Theater featured Walt Disney in the only known footage of him recording Mickey Mouse.  Walt performed with Billy Bletcher as Pete in 1940's Mr. Mouse Takes A Trip.  It was a curious sight to watch tall, lanky Walt invoke this squeaky, friendly little voice.  And watching the diminutive Billy Bletcher bellow like a foghorn as Pete.

Walt Disney and Billy Bletcher. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

After this, June Foray, Russi Taylor, Susan Egan and Yuri Lowenthal were welcomed to the stage with a montage of their diverse spectrum of work  in everything from Rocky and Bullwinkle to Spirited Away.

Animation's grande dame June Foray shared many hilarious anecdotes from her life in voice-over.  One of which involved her annual Halloween phone call to friend Pat Buttram.  Pat would call June in order to speak with Witch Hazel, and receive a report on broom-flying conditions.  One year, Foray was running late from a recording session, and so she called Buttram from a phone booth on a busy street.  As June cackled and squealed from the phone booth, curious passersby wondered, "What kind of nut is that?"  The answer is obvious to us.  That's a real voice-over artist.

The panelists were asked about how much, if any, of the performance is physical while recording.  They all noted that it is surprisingly physical.  Russi noted that Bill Farmer bends his body into an S-curve just like Goofy when recording the iconic character.  Yuri Lowenthal shared a story from when he was cast as Superman for a project.  Several sessions passed and while they were on break, the show runner asked Yuri "if [he] always records like that?"  Yuri didn't realize that, at each of the sessions, he had been standing at the podium with his hands on his hips in the signature Superman heroic stance.

Yuri Lowenthal struck a heroic pose at last month's "Voices of Character" panel.
Photo by Ivan Vejar. Copyright 2010 A.M.P.A.S. All rights reserved

In discussing the origins of Roz's voice for Monsters Inc., Bob Peterson shared that "... she was my lunch ladies from the 1970s, dispensing government cheese."  It has a guttural didgeridoo quality he noted, "But you can't make any physical noise while recording. So you learn to act from the waist up."

Russi told a story she had heard about legendary actress Carol Channing.  While recording voice-over some years ago, her elaborate blouse made so much noise that it was ruining every take.  So finally Channing took off her shirt and finished recording in her bra.  "That's a woman."  Russi declared gleefully

June Foray noted that she's been playing Granny in the Looney Tunes since 1957.  "I'm still doing it. But now I'm old enough." 

June Foray proved to be an audience favorite at this Academy of Motion
Pictures Arts and Science event. Photo by Todd Wawrychuck.
Copyright 2010 A.M.P.A.S. All rights reserved

Susan Egan described dubbing anime like a jigsaw puzzle, which is what she says really appeals to her about it.  It's such a technical process, working with the director & writers to find just the right colloquial American word or phrase to convey the intent of the dialogue.  But then it also has to fit the timing of the existing mouth animation, which changes everything all over again.   

Egan -- who recorded Meg  for Hercules as she was performing in Broadway's Beauty and the Beast -- was asked if she felt her nightly stage persona creeping into her voice recording.  "No," she responded, "but Alan Menken came to the show one night.  And after the show he came backstage and said 'your Meg is creeping into your Belle and I have notes for you.' "  The panelists noted that THAT was a version of Beauty and the Beast they'd really like to see - a Belle with Meg's snark who takes none of the Beast's crap.  Without missing a beat, Susan dropped into Meg's voice and started snapping at the Beast.  She referred to this as "Beauty and the Beast 2:  The Divorce."

Susan discussed the difference between auditioning for the stage and auditioning for voice-over.  Egan marched in, handed them her materials and the casting personnel & directors promptly put their heads down on the table.  They just listened and "I felt very alone up there.  But they had a camera on me.  And sure enough, a year and a half later, I noticed some of (my) gestures in Meg's performance." 

Russi Taylor remembered what it was like to work on some of your favorite Saturday
morning shows. Photo by Ivan Vejar. Copyright 2010 A.M.P.A.S. All rights reserved

Solomon then asked about recording in isolation and yet creating a great sense of chemistry.  Foray responded simply "You have to be a good actor."  Taylor talked about the fact that this wasn't always the case.  All  of her work on DuckTales (Huey, Dewie, Louie and Webby Vanderquack) and Muppet Babies (Gonzo) was performed all together.  The panelists noted that this was a rare luxury these days, and one that they certainly relish when they have the opportunity. 

Peterson then shared an amusing anecdote of recording Christopher Plummer's performance as Charles Muntz in Up.  Because of his long-ago experience in radio, he physically moved past the mic, recreating the effect of falling past the mic.  They had to tell him that they will create the falling effect in post. 

Susan followed Bob's story by recalling the call that she received from Disney while that they were working on the direct-to-video feature, Lady and the Tramp II.  "Can you sing like Alyssa Milano?,"  they asked. Without a moment's hesitation, Egan responded "Yeah, of course. You know, it's something -- as an actor - (that)  I've been working on for years."

Susan Egan talks about some of the sillier requests that casting
directors have made over the years. Photo by Ivan Vejar.
Copyright 2010 A.M.P.A.S. All rights reserved

The panelists then took part in a table read of the classic Jay Ward Fractured Fairy Tale, "Aladdin."  Bob Peterson assigned roles.  They created voices.  Once completed, they returned to an earlier point in the script and read again with the same actors assigned each part, but with completely different voices.  As a member of the audience, you couldn't help but marvel at their skill. 

June Foray talked about what a rare gift this is.  Lots of people can do funny voices.  But few can actually act, creating a performance in that character's voice.  Russi added, "...and keep it up, often for hours!  You have to start high energy and keep it up or go even higher!"

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences'  Marc Davis Celebration of Animation: Voices of Character event closed out with a montage of Mel Blanc performances. Which easily illustrated why Blanc was called the man of a thousand voices.

(Seated) Charles Solomon, Susan Egan and June Foray. (Standing) Yuri
Lowenthal, Bob Peterson, Rick Dempsey and Russi Taylor. Photo by
Richard Harbaugh. Copyright 2010 A.M.P.A.S. All rights reserved

In short, this was one of those nights that the animation fans who were lucky enough to be inside of the Samuel Goldwyn Theater on August 19th will remember for the rest of their lives. And not just because they got to hear Roz sing "How Do You solve a Problem like Maria?"

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  • Wish I could have been there!

  • Great Scott! How I wish I could have been there. Thanks for publixhing such a detailed report. I enjoyed every word!

  • I so wish that an organization like this would film such events... seems so limiting not to do so. In this day and age of on-demand video and burn-on-demand DVDs, I have to think there would be an affordable - even profitable - way to record and distribute such events - just for posterity if nothing else!!

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