by John Pellegrini
Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to do cartoon voices. I don't know what the year was, or what the program was, but somewhere between the ages of three and five I saw a TV show that interviewed the people responsible for the Bugs Bunny cartoons. At the time I was only interested in the cartoons themselves, until they talked to this older gentleman who did all the voices of the cartoon characters. I didn't register his name or any of the facts of his career (after all, I was rather young). But I remember saying out loud to my parents, "That's what I want to do!" I had no concept of a "job" or Warner Bros, or even Hollywood. But as far as I was concerned anyone who got to do the voices for cartoon characters obviously was going to have a lot of fun.
Since then, I have become well acquainted with Mel Blanc's work, and with the work of his colleagues in the cartoon voice business, Daws Butler, Paul Frees, June Foray, Hans Conried, Stan Freberg, Bill Scott, and all the rest. Even when I discovered the Firesign Theatre I was more intrigued by the fact that all four of them did hundreds of different voices. Despite all the advances in television, photography, and computer enhanced visuals, I'm totally hooked on the sound of the voice and how you can create more character ideas by simply manipulating it.
My whole approach to acting has always been the voice. In order to give characters more depth I always tried to use a voice or accent different from my own. I was very impressed to find out later that both Peter Sellers and Lawrence Olivier operated with this method. Nice to know that my ideas weren't completely nuts.
However, when I first decided to write an article on developing character voices (over a year ago), I was faced with an interesting dilemma. How do you condense a lifetime of work into a few pages of comprehensive guidelines? That's how long I've been working on most of my voices, a lifetime. Throughout much of my life I've been working on accents, dialects, or even silly cartoonish mouth noises. You can imagine what sort of wonderful moments of embarrassment this can lead to, but I keep at it. A baseball player constantly practices; so does the musician. But when I practice, people think I'm in need of some emotional therapy.
None the less, I have managed to catalog some points that I use as a guide to discovering new voices, isolating key audio images, and developing my reproduction of these new voices and images. One thing that definitely helps is the ability to scream for prolonged periods of time without getting too hoarse. Realizing that the vocal cords are in fact muscles is a big help in developing them to take on more.
Also, recognizing the fact that we all have already developed a character voice is the key to doing more. Think about your voice and the way you use it on the air or in production. It's not at all like it was when you first started in radio, is it? For most of us, our natural voices are much higher, and perhaps not quite as forceful. Well, that's how you learn to recognize new voices. So, you now have two voices to work with.
Where do you go from there? That depends upon what you want to do, and how far you're willing to push yourself. My voice range covers everything between Betty Boop to Sydney Greenstreet. But that's just octaves. There's also tonal differences which are a lot harder to master. Both Ronald Reagan and George Bush speak in the same octave range, but their tonal resonance is what sets their voices apart. George is more nasal, sort of like Mr. Rogers, while Ron's voice has an airy, sort of whispering quality to it. Also, Reagan tends to pronounce "s" like "sh", though it's not quite obvious. Little distinctions in pronunciation and speech habits can be a big help in developing characters. Tom Brokaw has trouble with any word that has the letter "L". Many women reporters have a whistling "S". And who can forget Baba Wawa and the Elmer Fudd syndrome. Of course, over use of speech impediments for characters can have drawbacks. If you're not careful you might end up using them in regular speech. I now have difficulty with the word "remember". Never used to.
If you have a background in some form of musical training, then you've already got a good ear for differentiating between sounds. The trombone and the bassoon play in the same octave range, but they don't sound alike. You can apply this same reference to help you distinguish differences in the voices you're trying to do. Also, as I mentioned before, screaming, shouting, and growling can change any voice. Foghorn Leghorn shouting becomes Yosemite Sam. George Bush without the nasal effect, and with more force and purpose becomes John Wayne. Find the similarities between a voice you can do and one that you'd like to master, and you're on your way. The "musical style" of the voice pattern is the way I hook into characters.
But the toughest part is stretching those vocal cords to take on all these new qualities. Actually, it's more than just your vocal cords that are going to get a workout. You've also got to develop new breathing techniques, different mouth and jaw controlling abilities, as well as overall body exercises. Because a voice isn't just your throat. Your whole body gets into the act. The way you stand, sit, even the direction you turn your head can all effect the sound of your voice. Tensing and relaxing can also effect your voice in different ways. Speak with your teeth tightly clenched, and you've got the Connecticut Preppy sound. "Gosh Buffy! This frat bash is simply FAB!" Stick your tongue firmly under the corner of your bottom lip, and you've got Sylvester the Cat's lisp. Just don't bite down with your teeth. Try speaking with the same grunting and groaning sounds you make when you're constipated or extremely ill. As disgusting as it seems, gagging and puking sounds are a form of character voice. That's how to do the Tasmanian Devil (adding a couple of bronx cheers), as well as Mumbles from the old Dick Tracy Cartoon shows. It's also how you do the standard skid row derelict.
Other characters become new characters. At the end of the movie The Maltese Falcon, Peter Lorre screams at Sydney Greenstreet, "YOU STUPID BLOATED IDIOT!!" Fans of Ren Hoek may know that he's a Mexican Asthma-Hound Chihuahua, but there's a lot of Peter Lorre in him. Cary Grant and David Niven were the basis of numerous cartoon characters, as well as Bela Luggosi and Boris Karloff. Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden is the foundation to Fred Flintstone. Dean Martin and Joey Bishop were the voices that John Byner imitated for The Ant and The Aardvark cartoon characters. Movies are a great place for learning new accents, dialects, and even the typical phrases of regional speech patterns.
As I said earlier, for me, the voice is the place where a character begins. No matter how you try to disguise your physical appearance, your voice will always give you away. The best actors are the ones who can change it all. Peter Sellers played three different roles in Dr. Strangelove. Not only did he change his physical appearance, he also had a different voice for each one. Contrast that to Sir Alec Guinness who, although is incredible at physical transformations, still has that distinctive voice that always gives him away. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing but tremendous admiration for Sir Alec's talent. I'm merely pointing out the differences in technique (which, I might add, was pointed out by Sir Alec himself in numerous interviews...he was Seller's biggest booster when the latter was getting started).
Your voice is your tool. Developing new characters, voices, dialects, and octave ranges will put a strain on it. Approach it as you would any other form of exercise. Take it slowly and don't overdo it. Build up your tolerance over a period of time. If you smoke, quit. Cigarette smoke is the worst thing for vocal cords. You may have mistakenly believed, as I did, that smoking is how you get your voice to sound deeper, but it's not. What you hear in your voice from smoking is the result of damage, not strength. And since the vocal cord is a muscle, you've got to think in terms of strengthening it. Learn the exercises that an Opera singer uses. Stay away from dairy products like milk or ice cream which can coat your throat and cause (for want of a better term) too much phlegm in the voice. Coffee and tea without cream are the best beverages for the throat. Keep a supply of cough and sore throat lozenges handy. I've become quite the connoisseur of the various vintages (Riccola lozenges have a distinguished fruity bouquet that's prefect for lighter meals, chicken or fish, while N'ICE offer a robust crispness that's best suited for stronger fare such as beef, venison, and hearty soups).
Also, it's probably a good idea to keep yourself in soundproof isolation while you're working on your voices. It's comforting to know we've picked a career choice that allows so many people the opportunity to question our sanity. Irritating others is what makes it fun!