When I was 13, I had another career path in mind in addition to wanting to be a writer. That other career aspiration was voice acting.
Lately, I’ve been indulging in nostalgia by watching various cartoons from my childhood and appreciating them on two different levels: as a fan and as a writer. In feeding this newly revived interest in animation, I’ve also been watching interviews and listening to a lot of podcasts featuring the creators of these beloved cartoons as well as the voice-over artists behind our favorite characters.
When you’re a little kid, you don’t really stop and think much about what goes into making a cartoon while you’re watching it. You simply sit back and enjoy, engrossed in the stories and visuals and antics and life lessons. I know when I was five, I didn’t think about how there were real-life people drawing and animating the shows I watched, let alone the fact that there were actors doing the voices for the characters. It wasn’t until I got older that I became more interested in how these shows got made. Thanks to the endless array of information available at our fingertips, I’ve learned about original concepts for shows, the evolution of the characters and many other fun tidbits that have given me a newfound love and appreciation for all these shows I used to watch on a daily basis as a child. In doing so, I’ve found that I can still enjoy these shows just as much, if not even more so today.
Growing up, I remember how I’d occasionally recognize the same voice from two different cartoon characters, especially when it was a distinct voice (e.g. E.G. Daily voicing Buttercup from The Powerpuff Girls and Tommy Pickles from Rugrats). The older I got, the more I’d recognize the same voice actors doing multiple roles, to the point where it was no longer groundbreaking knowledge. Still, the initial discovery was always exciting to me, a burst of, “Hey, that’s Tommy Pickles’ voice!” Only recently have I learned how much of a niche industry the voice acting world truly is. In fact, if you look up a voice actor’s IMDb page, you’ll see literally hundreds and hundreds of roles, and you’d be amazed by how many of those shows, movies and video games you’d recognize from your youth.
As I mentioned, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately featuring different voice actors. They often share some of the ins and outs of the animation industry, how they got their start and their experiences working with other professionals in the business. It seems that one of the biggest misconceptions about voice acting is that people assume it’s all about the ability to do unique voices when, on the contrary, it’s so much more than that. First and foremost, you need to be able to act. Every single one of these voice actors has a performance background, whether it was in stand-up, theater, on-camera acting, singing or improv. Thus, it doesn’t matter if you can do a bunch of silly voices or the best Bugs Bunny impression ever; if you can’t act, you won’t be able to voice act, at least not professionally.
In that same vein, one of the most commendable qualities voice actors possess is their ability to fully commit to a role and become their characters, to convey emotions and capture nuances using only their voice. Like any career, it takes not only natural talent but also a lot of hard work, and it’s interesting when you think about how many different characters a voice actor can do that are completely different from themselves. Case in point: Tommy and Dil Pickles, Chuckie Finster, Phil DeVille, Timmy Turner, Jimmy Neutron, Dexter from Dexter’s Laboratory and Bart Simpson (to name only a few, as the list goes on and on) are all voiced by women. In general, having grown women voice young male characters is the norm in the voice-over world, since the producers don’t have to worry about a boy’s voice changing and ultimately needing to be replaced. That said, having young actors voice young characters does provide a meaningful level of authenticity. Case in point: Charlie Brown and the whole Peanuts gang, as well as the kids from Hey Arnold! were all voiced by child actors.
To me, one of the coolest things about voice acting is that it’s essentially the bridge between storyboard and animation, between script and screen. In other words, in addition to the artists and animators, voice actors are the ones who make the characters come alive. What we often remember most about our favorite cartoon characters, even more so than how they look, is how they sound, and we have voice actors to thank for bringing those characters to life.