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Sony Pictures

12 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Voice Actors

Sony Pictures
Sony Pictures

Everyone knows a guy who can do a pretty respectable Porky Pig. He might even mention how cushy a job it is to sit in a booth for a couple of hours, stammering, for a fat check. After all, how hard could it be to act like a walking piece of pork with a speech impediment?

“People have this idea you run in wearing tennis shoes and get lines thrown at you for a ton of money,” says Corey Burton, a veteran voiceover actor (DuckTales, Transformers) with over 40 years in the business. “That works if you’re Chris Rock. If you're a non-celebrity, it’s not an easy profession to make a steady living at.”

Of course, the job is a lot of fun. (And a form of self-defense: Burton’s Bullwinkle got him out of at least one childhood beating.) But it also requires actors to master a craft that requires a huge arsenal of talents, an ability to deliver a performance using only your vocal cords, and a willingness to work at the drop of a hat. We asked Burton, Sean Kenin (Family Guy, Smurfs 2, the web series 47 Secrets to a Younger You), and Wally Wingert (The Garfield Show, Batman: Arkham Knight) to let us in on some of the lesser-known facts about the voiceover business.

1. SOME ACTORS ARE HIRED JUST FOR BREATHING.  

Kenin, who pops up on Family Guy as the cackling, hyper “Tiny Tom Cruise,” is known in the business as a mimic: He can approximate well-known performers right down to how they sound when they’re gasping for air. When sound engineers needed someone to sit in for a busy Ben Stiller to loop (re-record) his grunts for 2011’s Tower Heist, they called Kenin. “At first I thought they wanted words,” he says, “but they said, ‘No, no, we just want you to literally breathe.’” Kenin sighed, grunted, and ugghed his way through a session. (Kenin also does a good out-of-breath John Cusack.)

Mimic specialists tend to watch actors in films to get a feel for their vocal characteristics, but, as Kenin points out, “They might have had someone doing his grunts for Meet the Fockers, too, so I wind up doing an impression of an impression.”  

2. THEY’RE ALWAYS ON CALL.

While animated shows and films still prefer to have group sessions in-studio when schedules permit, actors hired on gigs for network spots or commercials often take advantage of ISDN lines in their home to phone in performances. “I would say 95 percent of solo work, like movie trailers and promos, is done at home,” Burton says.

Because of the convenience factor, actors can sometimes get job offers on 10 minutes’ notice. “The demand is instant,” Burton says. “It used to be a minimum two weeks’ notice. Now it’s, ‘What are you doing right now? Can we email you a script?’” When Wingert was the voice of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, he was expected to be able to turn around material quickly. “I just had to wait for the leaf blower guy to leave,” he says.  

3. THEY SOMETIMES DO VOICES THAT NEVER GET HEARD.

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The marriage of live-action and computer-generated characters has opened up a whole new venue for voiceover artists—though they might not necessarily make the final cut. Kenin was hired to do voices for all of the animated characters during shooting for 2011's The Smurfs and its sequel; celebrities were brought in to do the final voiceover work later. He was even equipped with Smurf dolls so cast members Neil Patrick Harris and Hank Azaria had a visual as well as audio frame of reference on set. “I had these maquettes I would bounce around on my arm,” he says. “It’s kind of like playing with action figures.”    

4. THEY LIKE TO USE VOCAL PROPS.

While computers can be used to speed up or slow down dialogue (which is more of a concern in dubbing Japanese animation, where the visuals are already done), certain vocal changes can easily be achieved using random items in the studio. “If the character is in a hollowed-out tree, I might stick my head in a wastebasket,” Burton says. “If it doesn’t sound quite right, I can throw some wadded-up Kleenex in there for better acoustics.”

Burton, who was trained by legendary voice artist Daws Butler (Yogi Bear), also prefers to eat real food when the moment calls for it. “They want you to sometimes just go, ‘Nom, nom, nom.’ No! I want a carrot, a cookie. I don’t want to make a dry slurping noise when I could be sipping a drink.”  

5. THEY CAN BE PUT ON STANDBY—WITHOUT PAY.

Called an “avail” in the business, some actors agree to reserve an afternoon or even consecutive days for a recording session. Great, right? The problem: Their potential employer is under no obligation to actually use them. “No one else can book you during that time until they release you from it,” Burton says. “You might not know until the day before that you won’t be needed.”   

6. THEY STILL WORK IN FRONT OF A CAMERA.

While some animators like to sit and sketch actors as they’re performing to pick up physical tics, schedules don’t always allow for it. Some shows wind up installing a kind of performer surveillance camera in recording studios to capture movement they can use as a reference. “They do a lot with facial expressions, blinking, looking around,” Wingert says. “You might do something with your mouth they’ll use for the character later.”

7. A GREAT CHARACTER VOICE MIGHT JUST BE A BAD IMPRESSION.

Hank Azaria, who voices a large chunk of the characters on the The Simpsons, once said bartender Moe is basically just a gravely Al Pacino impression; Comic Book Guy is someone he knew in college. “It’s about doing celebrities, doing relatives, doing hybrids,” Wingert says. “Mike Judge does Hank Hill based on a customer he had as a paperboy.” To come up with a take on the Riddler for the Batman: Arkham Asylum video game series, Wingert used a theater director he knew who would “chew on his words, like everything he said was gold.”

8. SOMETIMES THEY DON’T MAKE EYE CONTACT WITH THE DIRECTOR.

Because voiceover actors are in a recording studio and looking at directors and engineers through soundproof glass, physical cues can sometimes get misunderstood. “When you look and see someone shaking their head, you might think you’re terrible,” Kenin says. “But it might just mean they don’t want tuna for lunch. You need to pay attention to what they say, not what they’re doing.” Kenin will sometimes turn away from the booth so he can focus on direction, not gestures.   

9. THEY CAN GET PAID BY THE WORD.

When performers accept movie trailer voiceover jobs, they usually need to shuffle the lines so the marketing department has material it can run throughout the week. “Each individual tag is an additional union scale payment,” Burton says. “So when I say, ‘Starts Wednesday,’ 'starts Friday,’ 'starts tomorrow,’ each one adds to the check.”

10. CELEBRITIES MAY NOT MAKE THE BEST V.O. ACTORS.

Beginning with the late Robin Williams in 1992’s Aladdin, studios and marketing departments have fallen over themselves trying to hire recognizable names for prominent voice work. “They can be surprised at how difficult it is,” Wingert says. “Four hours of talking is different from what they’re used to.” Some A-list performer recordings, Burton says, need to be spliced together, Frankenstein-style, in order to patch over weak points.

11. THEY DOUBLE AS MOVIE EXTRAS.

When sound is recorded on a film set, it’s usually focused on the leading actors who have dialogue: Extras in a restaurant scene, for example, are told to flap their lips but not actually make noise. That work is left to actors like Kenin, who comes in as part of a small cast known as a “loop group” to provide the background chatter. “You have to match their lip movement, which can be hard,” he says. “They were probably just mouthing made-up nonsense.”

12. THEY DON’T ALWAYS RECOGNIZE THEIR OWN VOICES.

FX Networks

For an experienced actor like Burton, who has had thousands of gigs over the decades, it can sometimes be a challenge to recognize when he’s actually annoying himself. “I once did a really crappy radio commercial that wanted a nasal, squeaky reading,” he says. “One morning I woke up to the sound of my clock radio and this awful voice. It was annoying as hell. ‘Screw this guy,’ I thought. By the end, I realized, ‘Oh, that’s me.’”

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10 Secrets of Christmas Tree Farmers
Patrick, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
Patrick, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

A Christmas tree may occupy a corner of your living room, and your consciousness, for only a few weeks each winter. But it and its evergreen ilk are a full-time, year-round preoccupation at the thousands of farms across the country that grow holiday pines and firs and spruces. And there’s a lot more to the business than sticking trees in dirt and then chopping them off at the trunk a few years later. Mental Floss tracked down some of the men and women working on farms around the nation to learn some of the secrets of their trade.

1. THE TREES THEY GROW NOW ARE DIFFERENT THAN THE TREES THEY GREW FOR OUR PARENTS.

Americans love firs. The type available at your local tree stand or choose-and-cut farm depends on conditions in each of the states that grow them. Rainy weather in Oregon—which sells some 7 million trees a year, the most of any state—is favorable to noble firs. Frasers thrive in North Carolina’s mid-range elevations, where it’s cold in winter and cool in summer; balsams are native to Vermont. But 40 years ago, folks were partial to un-manicured spruces and Scotch pines. These trees were “taller, spindlier, and had barren gaps between the branches, which were conducive to [decorating with] candles,” Luke Laplant, who sells trees from Vermont’s Windswept Farms on the streets of Brooklyn, tells Mental Floss.

What can we expect for the next big trend in trees? Marsha Gray, director of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association, says that growers have lately been experimenting with exotic species like short-needled Turkish and compact Korean firs.

2. THEIR CUSTOMERS HAVE SOME … UNUSUAL IDEAS.

Customers bringing home a Christmas tree
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Doug Hundley, a retired grower from North Carolina, still laughs about misconceptions he heard from customers at the farm he owned for 30 years. To wit: They imagined that the tidy rows of trees planted on his five acres had magically sprung from seeds dropped from a nearby pine stand. In fact, tree farms are usually launched with young, 3-to-5-year-old trees purchased from specialty nurseries, which are planted in 5-foot by 5-foot grids— about 1700 trees per acre. An acre of additional trees is planted every year, and after eight or nine years, “You’ll have that first acre starting to come ready” to sell, Hundley tells Mental Floss. Trees to replace them go in the ground soon after the initial batch comes down, staggered about a foot away from the leftover stumps, which quickly rot away.

Many of Laplant’s customers ask about adding supposed “preservatives,” like Sprite or aspirin, to the tree water in the stand. But he says these stunts are unnecessary for keeping trees green. “Just make sure you make a fresh cut to the bottom of the trunk before you put it in the stand, so it doesn’t scar over, and check it for water every day,” he advises.

3. THEY HAVE A DIFFERENT TASK FOR EVERY SEASON.

Christmas tree farmers are like farmers of every other crop: They rarely have time for vacations. There’s a brief lull in activity during winter, once the year’s trees have been cut and the farm goes dormant. But otherwise, there’s work to be done in every season. Hundley explains, “Starting in March, we’re really busy planting more trees and fertilizing. In summer, we’re managing weeds and insects and shearing the trees.” Then it’s fall again—harvest time; farmers start collecting wreath-making greenery as early as October, and the actual tree-cutting lasts through December.

4. THEY WORK (REALLY) HARD TO BRING YOU THAT CONICAL SHAPE.

Christmas trees at a Christmas tree farm
iStock

That stereotypical tapered Christmas tree silhouette doesn’t happen all by itself. It’s the result of heavy hand labor over time. For two months beginning in July, workers head out to the fields with knives and other tools to shear the trees, cutting off new branches and needles from the sides in order to slow down growth and encourage a fuller, more pleasing shape. Every tree gets whittled down like this every year, which is why it takes almost a decade for it to reach its desired height of six or seven feet, rather than, say, four years.

5. NATURE IS CRUEL, BUT SCIENCE IS TRYING TO HELP.

The number one blight on Fraser firs is phytophthora root rot, which causes needles to turn yellow and fall off. This troublesome oomycete (related to algae) can’t be controlled with chemicals. So, evergreen farmers have been attempting to breed disease-resistant trees: Frasers are grafted onto rootstock from Abies firma (a.k.a. the momi fir). It’s native to Japan, and it’s supposed to have serious oomycete-repelling properties. Hundley says positive effects from these efforts have been slow to manifest, though.

6. THEY ALL AGREE: FAKE CHRISTMAS TREES ARE THE ENEMY.

Red Christmas ball on a background white artificial spruce
iStock

“Nine years in the house, nine million years in the landfill.” That’s a phrase popular among real-Christmas-tree farmers to describe their nemeses, plastic “pines”—many of which are imported into the U.S. from China. Hundley remarks that sustainability-minded Teddy Roosevelt banned Christmas trees from the White House during his time in office, in order to protect trees growing wild in forests. But, “We don’t harvest wild” anymore, says Hundley, adding, “Would you buy artificial roses to give your [spouse] on Valentine’s Day?”

7. ENVIRONMENTALISM IS PART OF THE BUSINESS.

Unlike their plastic counterparts, real trees get returned to the land once we’re done with them, in the form of mulch. Farms full of live trees can also offer environmental benefits: The trees hold the soil against erosion, and they provide habitat for hosts of beneficial critters such as ladybird beetles and spiders, as well as birds, rabbits, and deer. These farms’ secondary function as wildlife hotels has caused growers to adopt more eco-friendly pest management techniques in the last 25 years, according to Hundley—including scaling back on pesticides. “We’re trying to create the most ecological environment we can,” he says.

8. THEY FEAR THE WASP.

Wasps in a yew tree
iStock

Harboring wildlife comes with a downside: wasps, which are attracted to the sweet “honeydew” produced by sap-sucking aphids that feed off the trees. Wasps can be ornery when disturbed—like when crews of workers head out to shear trees in July. “The rule is,” Hundley says, “if you hear a loud humming, you put down your (very sharp) knife and take off running. And when one guy runs, everyone runs—you don’t wait to see where the sound is coming from.”

9. HARVESTING HAPPENS FAST.

There’s a short window of time in which to get trees to market—about a week or two, according to Gray. That’s because a cut tree exposed to sun and wind quickly starts to dry out and shed its needles. Growers with small farms may rely on family members to cut each tree with a chainsaw, shake the dead needles off it, then bale and stack it somewhere cool and dark. “A lot of farmers have a stand of natural evergreen forest on their property, and they’ll store the cut trees in their shade” where they retain moisture, Hundley explains. Larger producers in the Pacific Northwest, who grow millions of trees on thousands of acres, hire seasonal crews of 100 or more cutters and “slingers” to saw and stack. Gray says they use helicopters to get trees down the mountains and load them—as many as 1000 an hour—onto the flatbeds of market-bound trucks.

10. THEY WORK UP TO 16 HOURS A DAY IN THE SELLING SEASON.

A man cutting down a Christmas tree
iStock

“Our Brooklyn stand is open every day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., but I get here earlier to set up and afterwards, there are deliveries and lots of cleanup,” says Laplant. To keep warm, he relies on layers of long underwear, a waterproof hooded coat, plenty of extra socks (he travels down with 40 pairs) and gloves (12 pairs). “On a rainy day, gloves get wet after you handle the first 10 trees, so you have to swap them out,” he says. Other annoyances: people who let their dogs pee on the trees or who aggressively pull at the needles then complain that they’re falling out. What makes the aggravations worth it: For Laplant and his coworkers, it’s getting delicious food delivered from all over town.

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9 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Hollywood Body Doubles
Hugh Jackman and his Real Steel body double, Taris Tyler
Hugh Jackman and his Real Steel body double, Taris Tyler
Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

When you see the back of an actor’s head in a movie, it may not be the actor you think it is. In addition to stunt performers, most movies employ body doubles (or photo doubles) with a passing resemblance to the principal actors. While some body doubles are brought on set for specific skills—like helping an actor pass as a professional athlete—the job can often involve just being a body, whether that means being nude on camera, having photogenic hands, or appearing in place of actors who can’t be on set for some reason. Here are nine secrets of the job:

1. THEY MIGHT ONLY BE MODELING ONE BODY PART.

Body double Danielle Sepulveres has played the hands of other actors in plenty of roles in her career, on TV and in beauty commercials featuring close-up shots of her holding moisturizer or makeup. She’s drizzled dressing on salad in place of Brooke Shields. She regularly slides files across tables, makes lists, and pours wine in the place of actresses on The Good Wife. (She has also played Jill Flint's butt on the show.) “I knew only glimpses of my hands might make it into a shot, or part of my shoulder along with a wisp of hair,” she wrote of one of her jobs in Good Housekeeping in 2016. But she overheard the director complaining that her wrists looked “vastly different” than those of the principal actress in the movie, 2015’s Mania Days. “Luckily, I didn't get fired in spite of my wrists, but I wouldn't have been surprised had it happened.”

2. THEY’RE NOT JUST THERE TO SHOW THEIR BUTTS.

Yes, body doubles are often brought in if an actor doesn’t want to bare it all on camera. But they are hired for other reasons, too. For one thing, union rules mandate the actors get 12 hours off between when they leave set for the day and their next call time, so if the shoots are running long, the crew might employ someone else to stand in. Other times, it's a matter of particular talents. Most actors may be able to sing, dance, and cry on camera, but few also have the athletic skills to allow them to pass as a sports legend. In Battle of the Sexes (2017), Emma Stone plays Billie Jean King, one of the best tennis players of all time. To realistically represent King’s skills on the court, the movie makers brought in tennis doubles to play in place of Stone and her co-star, Steve Carell. Stone’s double was chosen for her playing style, which resembled King’s, and worked with King on-set to perfect her imitation. The effort was, according to The Wall Street Journal, a huge success. “Not only is the tennis believable, it’s a meticulous representation of the type of tennis played in that era: serve and volley, chipping and charging to the net, touch volleys and soft hands.”

3. ACTORS CAN GET TOUCHY ABOUT WHO PLAYS THEM.

When you are tasked with choosing a celebrity doppelgänger, you’ve got to keep egos in mind. “The choice reflects on the principal actor,” DeeDee Ricketts, the casting director for Titanic, told Vanity Fair in 2016. “We have to take into consideration that they can’t be too thin, or more beautiful, or too heavy, or too old, or else the principal actor will think, That’s how they see me?” Actors often get to give input on who will be their double, and sometimes have final approval rights written into their contracts. When she was being considered for the job of Janet Leigh's body double in Psycho's iconic shower scene, model and Playboy covergirl Marli Renfro had to strip down for both Alfred Hitchcock and Leigh herself so that they could make sure her body looked enough like Leigh's, as Renfro recently revealed at a Brooklyn screening of the documentary 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene. In the case of nude scenes, actors might even have final approval on what physical moves their doubles are allowed to make.

4. THEY MIGHT NEVER MEET THEIR DOUBLE ...

If you’re working as an actor’s double, by definition, you’re not going to have scenes with them, and so some body doubles never meet the stars they’re pretending to be. Danish actor Elvira Friis, who worked as a body double for Charlotte Gainsbourg (and her character’s younger self, played by Stacy Martin) during the racier scenes of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2013), never met the actor. “The closest I got to Charlotte Gainsbourg was that I was wearing her dress,” Friis told The Wall Street Journal.

5. OR THEY MIGHT SPEND A LOT OF TIME WITH THE PEOPLE THEY'RE PORTRAYING.

But how much time an actor spends with their doppelgänger really depends on the role. Some actors spend plenty of time with their doubles on set helping them get into the role. In What Happened to Monday (2017), Noomi Rapace plays the roles of seven identical sisters, making body doubles a necessity on set. Rapace helped direct her doubles during filming, “as they needed to know how the star would play the scene for each character so that it would sync up when she performed the part herself,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. Game of Thrones star Lena Headey (who plays Cersei) worked closely with her double Rebecca Van Cleave for a nude scene in the show’s fifth season finale. Headey walked Van Cleave through her character’s thinking and movements for each shot. Then, Headey did the same performance herself, wearing a beige dress that could later be edited out. In the final product, Headey’s facial expressions were merged with Van Cleave’s nude body.

6. THEY DON’T ALWAYS LOOK EXACTLY LIKE THEIR COUNTERPARTS.

Because body doubles are often only seen from the back or side, they may not look quite as much like their acting counterpart as you’d think. Brett Baker, who worked as Leonardo DiCaprio’s body double for Titanic, is several inches shorter than DiCaprio and seven years older. From the front, you wouldn’t peg him as a Jack Dawson lookalike. But with the same clothes and haircut, shot from above and behind, he passed easily as DiCaprio. Once Leo’s closeups were done, according to Vanity Fair, Baker was often brought in to stand opposite Kate Winslet as she played through her half of the scene. In some cases, he didn’t make it into the final shot at all, but still had to be on set for those 14-hour days.

7. THESE DAYS, THEY GET A BOOST FROM CGI.

With the help of technology, filmmakers can put their leading actor’s face on a body double’s torso, so they don’t have to limit their body doubles to just back-of-the-head or partial shots. This allows them to seamlessly meld both the main actor and the body double’s performances in post-production. That can allow directors to get exactly the scene they want in shows like Orphan Black, which features Tatiana Maslany playing multiple roles, or in cases where actors don't want to get totally naked on-camera. In rare cases, it can also be used to bring actors back from the dead. When Paul Walker died in a car crash midway through filming Furious 7 (2015), the filmmakers used his brothers and another actor as body doubles, superimposing computer-generated images of Walker’s face on their performances. Around 260 shots featuring Walker’s doubles appeared in the final cut.

8. IF AN ACTOR CAN’T ALTER THEIR WEIGHT FOR A ROLE, A BODY DOUBLE CAN FILL IN.

When Matt Damon was filming The Martian (2015), he wanted to lose 30 to 40 pounds to portray astronaut Mark Watney after he had been surviving on meager rations for years. But the filming schedule made that impossible, so a body double had to be brought in for some shots. “I was going to lose a bunch of weight in the third act of the movie, then put the weight back on,” Damon told Maclean’s. However, as the schedule shook out, they filmed the NASA interiors in Hungary, then immediately went to Jordan, which doubled as the Red Planet for the film’s purposes, and shot all the exterior shots from the beginning, middle, and end of the movie, with no time for Damon to lose a significant amount of weight. The skinny body double isn’t on screen for long. “It was, like, two shots,” Damon describes. (Still, fans noticed.)

9. SOMETIMES THEY NEVER MAKE IT IN FRONT OF THE CAMERA AT ALL.

When it comes to nude scenes, sometimes body doubles are hired but never used. Veteran body double Laura Grady was cast as Robin Wright’s lookalike for State of Play (2009), but didn’t shoot a single scene. “I just sat in my trailer, ready to go, and then at the end, [Wright] decided to do her own scenes,” Grady told Vulture in 2014. “That happens sometimes. Sometimes they just get a body double because they think they might need one, and then all of a sudden the actress is comfortable and she’s like, ‘No, I’ll just do it.’ Or they change a scene and they don’t make it as risqué.” Don’t worry, though—the double still gets paid.

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