Friday, August 8, 2014

The Vocalest Vocation: I Know That Voice!

Lawrence Shapiro's recent documentary I Know That Voice! (2013) is fast-paced, theatrical, and as exuberant as the actors themselves – who, the film forcefully tells us, strongly identify themselves as actors, and not just voiceover artists or studio jockeys. James Arnold Taylor, voice of Fred Flintstone since 2004, and Obi-Wan Kenobi in the popular Clone Wars series, contends that the craft of voice acting is far from reading lines off a page. These people inhabit their roles, becoming their characters as surely as any screen or stage actor (in fact, some see it as even more challenging, as they must express as much with just their voice as other actors do with their whole bodies). The picture is insistent in making sure you understand this; in fact, if it were emphasized any more distinctly, this well-meant assertion might begin to stink of insecurity. But perhaps this is apropos: the actors’ intimations about the true workings of the industry suggest a difficult, uncertain working life, which is at once fun and fragile. Job security for a voice actor means taking after Bob Bergen, who deconstructs Porky Pig’s famous stutter to show exactly how complex it is, and how only those who can master something so difficult can sleep comfortably at night.

The vast majority of the entertainment to be found in I Know That Voice! is given away by the title: attaching faces to the cartoon voices you already know. Plus, it’s fun to learn how Tom Kenny does Spongebob’s laugh (the secret is apparently to imitate a dolphin while using a finger to bobble one’s throat), or how Dee Bradley Baker can vacillate his vocal chords to make nearly any animal noise, real or fantastical. The names of each interviewee are provided almost every time someone reappears on screen, which helps with the sheer volume of interviewees and the audience’s ability to put names to faces (and, of course, voices). Additionally, the credit given each time a name reappears is usually different, giving a sense of the true scope of a voice actor’s prolificacy. Most have hundreds of credits to their name

I was disappointed that neither Frank Welker nor Tress MacNeille deigned to appear – especially Welker, as his awe-inspiring resume of over 700 credits make him an ideal spokesperson for the subject (not to mention I would have personally loved to hear from the man who voiced Megatron in the original Transformers cartoon). The bulk of screen time is given over to interviewee and co-producer John DiMaggio, probably best known for providing the voice of Futurama’s drunk, belligerent robot, Bender, and the loyal and exuberant Jake the Dog on Adventure Time. His brand of rough spun humour and his naturally raucous voice make him an ideal masthead for the film, and he is generous in his praise for other voice actors. The sense of camaraderie generated by this community of artists is palpable, and they are always quick to defer to the greatness of their peers. That’s a seldom-seen attitude in any big-ticket industry. Mel Blanc is listed by many, with zero hesitation, as their ultimate voice acting idol, and it’s good to know that so many in the industry attempt to emulate not only his fabulous vocal talent, but also his humility and kindness.

Sometimes an entertaining personality, however, will babble on in irrelevance, seemingly just because their own voice sounds wonderful. One such case is Billy West, whose work on Futurama is exceptional and whose voice is pure mercurial genius, but who comes off as cocky and egotistical in interviews. This is an issue with direction, but it’s most often saved by the editing, which is concise and economical. I Know That Voice! has all the heightened energy of a cartoon, and trades on the exaggerated personalities of the interviewees, who, as actors, are very intent on keeping your attention. So is the documentary itself – and it mostly succeeds, except for dragging its feet about an hour in. Unfortunately, as I'm sure any voice actor would tell you, no matter how entertaining your voice is, there’s no saving crappy writing.

Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

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