Your time with big “name” actors is minimal and you must be overly prepared for recording sessions. For a main character in a film the studio will usually only have 5–8 recording sessions agreed upon in the voice actor’s contract to be used over the term of the movie. Each recording session takes forever to schedule with the actor’s agent and by the Screen Actors Guild (SAG – the actor’s union) rules, a session can only go for a maximum of four hours with any one actor. The studio is paying a lot of money for that actor to come in and probably pulled a lot of strings to make it happen. The studio heads and executives will be anxious that everything goes well so they may request to be in the recording room with you. Their stress slides down to the producer and then her stress to the director to make sure that session runs efficiently. The concern is not only that the actor is happy but most importantly, if you do not get all of your script material recorded in that session, it may be months before you get that actor back again.
When recording Eddie Murphy as the voice of Mushu for Disney’s Mulan, scheduling was horrible. Murphy was busy with filming several movies during the duration of work on Mulan (most notably The Nutty Professor) so getting him to commit to a schedule was near impossible. This back and forth of schedule requests went on for months until the production couldn’t wait anymore. We had to record him or we were in jeopardy of not finishing animation on time. It finally came down to his request of us flying out to his home in New Jersey where he would give us some time. He had a small recording studio in his basement that he used to record some of his music. We quickly rigged it for our specific film recording needs and he came down in his bathrobe and recorded his lines. It was where he felt comfortable and at the end of the day it was worth the hassle because that’s what gave us the great performance of Mushu for the film.
I have learned a few dos and don’ts over the years of recording various actors that can really help in making the sessions run efficiently and make the actor feel comfortable.
Before the recording session:
– Go over the story animatic and discuss all of the scenes you will be recording. Know why every line is there thinking over the subtext or meaning behind each one. Bring in a separate “comedy punch-up” writer, if necessary, to add more comedy to the dialogue if it is lacking.
– Work over the script one last time. Put together a “prerecording” meeting with you, the producer, the writer, and any recording PA that will be in the room with the actor on the day of the session. Review the “highlighted and numbered script” only (the PA should have already gone through the script highlighting the actor’s lines and numbered them so it is easy to discuss a specific line individually). Make sure to highlight things like laughs, coughs or impact noises that you will need from the actor but maybe forgotten because they are in the script description but not the line.
-The recording PA should staple all of the actor’s pages on individual cardboard pieces for ease of use during the recording session. If the pages are just loose paper alone they make noise that can be picked up on the microphone as the actor turns pages. Rustling noise during a take is a lost take!
-The day before the recording session make notes in the margins of your script on lines that you feel may need extra coaching for the actor to get the read you want. I will write acting instructions like, “as if hearing this for the first time,” “like you just got punched in the gut by this news” or “like a bratty kid teasing” next to the lines to remind me of what I am going for in the read. I try to paint an emotional picture for the actor with the notes. Stay away from technical notes like “should be fast” or “staccato read.” More on this below.
-Just before the actor arrives talk with the recording engineer about how you like to call out takes or any other procedural business so that it is not wasting the actor’s time later.
During the recording session:
-Don’t assume that just because the actor has done years of television and movies that they feel comfortable in front of a microphone in a dark room by themselves. Although your producer or the casting director should have communicated how the session will run and should have asked about any specific personal needs the voice talent might have in advance, you should still “roll out the welcome mat” to make your voice talent feel comfortable upon his or her arrival. Talk briefly to the actor about the environment of the recording room.
– Decide whether to show the animatic with scratch dialogue to the actor or just pitch the scene to them on boards. The latter approach is preferred by the more sensitive actors because to hear the sequence with someone else doing scratch for their character can throw them off their ideas of what they want to explore in the character reading. I really only show the edited animatic if there is a pacing or cadence to the dialogue that I think is important to point out. Even at that I always prelude the sequence with, “what you are about to see is very rough and performed by non-actors around the office . . .” That way the actor won’t be under the false impression that you are showing something they are to imitate in some way and they feel like they are necessary to the process.
– Remember to keep the energy up in a sequence. Slow readings are trouble in editorial because there is not much to do editing-wise to speed them up without making them lampoonish.
– Be conscious of the time. If you spend two hours of a four-hour session just going over the first 10 pages of script then you will have to rush everything else.
– Lastly, do whatever you have to do to get the performance recorded.
Excerpt from Directing for Animation by Tony Bancroft © 2013 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.
Tony Bancroft, director of Disney’s Mulan, is an award-winning animator whose work is well-known to animation audiences. He served as supervising animator on new Disney classics The Lion King and The Emperor’s New Groove, for which he created the recognizable characters Pumbaa and Kronk. He has gained experience in every artistic position from assistant animator to director, serving as the animation supervisor over all CG characters in Stuart Little 2 (Sony), and gaining directorial credits on numerous animated commercials for Disney, Hasbro, and others. Bancroft’s years of experience have culminated in the founding of his own animation studio, Toonacious Family Entertainment, where he directs and produces commercials and direct-to-DVD projects. A multiple animation award-winner, Bancroft’s proudest moment came when he was given the Annie award for Best Director for his work on Disney’s Mulan.