The Right Voice Can Help Animate Characters in Feature Toons

It takes two (or more) to create a performance in an animated film. The actor who records the dialogue and the artists who put together the character’s physical performance. And because the dialogue is recorded first, it can not only influence the script, but also the way a character looks or moves. In fact, during recording sessions, even though a script has been written, actors are often encouraged to improvise.

“The animation medium is ideal for vocal improvisation,” says veteran animator Ron Clements, who co-directed several Disney films with John Musker, including 1992’s “Aladdin,” which starred Robin Williams, a master of improv, as the Genie. “Because the voices are recorded and edited together first, and the animation is done to fit the prerecorded soundtrack, there’s a lot of freedom to experiment and explore multiple variations of line readings. If something doesn’t work, you don’t need to use it.”

“I think when you work with a great character actor, you can really hear those characters in your head and it affects, first of all, the writing and then the animation,” said “Soul” director Pete Docter during Variety’s FYC virtual event. “We had a great opportunity to allow for a lot of improvisation and playing around. We record first and then animate to that. So the animators are following a lead in many ways. We even set up cameras as well. I don’t know that everybody looks at the performance. Some people just listen and are influenced purely by the audio. But the actors really do have a far reaching effect on the film in a lot of different branches.”

Many of today’s animated features are created by thousands of artisans working on several aspects of the film. Often while the vocal performances are being recording, other parts of the film are being put together: storyboards, layouts, character designs and more. If they know the actor who’ll be
playing the character ahead of time, artists can use their prior work as a reference as well as watch tapes of the recording sessions.

“As a character, it was really beneficial to be able to look at Tina [Fey] in ‘30 Rock’ and kind of glean bits of her from that and put it into [the character of] 22,” says “Soul” supervising animator Jude Brownbill. “Things like gestures, mannerisms, acting choices. It could even be a mouth shape, a brow raise, the timing of a blink, things like that. Those are the things that we as animators would look at for inspirations and try to get a little bit of that into our acting with the character.”

“The Croods: A New Age” director Joel Crawford inherited a star-studded voice cast from the first film — Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener and Cloris Leachman — and “most exciting part about jumping in with them, all of them were so gracious and passionate about their characters and going, ‘Where can we go next?’ And so, it wasn’t just coming in and recording lines and getting out. There was a lot of improvising, a lot of talking about where the character could go,” he said at the FYC event. That spontaneity was key to making the dialogue, which was recorded more than three years ago, “feel like it’s happening now.”

“Onward” director Dan Scanlon agrees about the importance of spontaneity. “That is a huge thing, and it’s so hard to get in animation. It’s one of the few times you really get to let someone like Chris Pratt, who improvises a lot, just do things. Try something that’s written and then let him do whatever he wants and see what happens.”

Robb Denovan, who animated Pratt’s “Onward” character Barley recalls that the actor came onto the film a little later than Tom Holland, who did the voice of Ian, but that his vocal work fit the idea the animators had of the character. “As soon as we started animating to him, he was an obvious choice because the character needed to be fun, energetic and really likable. It’s kind of him when it boils down to it.”

Getting to watch recordings of Pratt in action doing Barley’s dialogue was helpful, according to Denovan.

“Looking at when Chris would deliver a line, you’d be like, ‘Oh, when he says that line, he kind of tilts his head to the side and that makes him read as more sympathetic.’ And then also with his face, you can see, ‘Oh in this one he’s really grimacing when he says that line and that feels genuine. So that’s something I’m going to try to put in my work.’”

For the artists behind Netflix’s “Over the Moon,” having recordings of the all-Asian cast was especially helpful in the filmmakers’ effort to make their film culturally accurate.

“I think having an all-Asian cast allowed them to bring their own personal experiences to the roles,” says producer Peilin Chou. “I think that
says something about the level of authenticity that we were going for in the film, in all the details of how the characters were designed, and how they were animated.”

Having the artists present at recording sessions can be helpful to the actors as well.

“Improv was always an important part of our recording sessions,” says “Over the Moon” director Glen Keane. “The actors are each, at heart, entertainers, so we found that when they recorded their lines, if we could manage to be in the room with them rather than behind a glass wall, they would see and hear our responses as if we were the audience [which of course we were]. Invariably, they would spontaneously try another idea and then another to see if they could pull out even more of the desired reaction from us, whether it was a laugh, a tear or an ‘aahhh.’ This was not only great fun, but it lifted the performances tremendously.”

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