How I Became a Voice Actor
I’m often asked how I got into voice acting and how I came to do creature sounds. Here’s the story of how it came together for me:
Performing is a lifetime habit for me:
My career is the sum of so many life threads– things I tried on a whim, what I loved and pursued, seemingly random influences, and the habits that accumulated from years of just doing what felt right for me. My becoming a voice actor wasn’t a linear process, nor was it an obvious destination for my life.
Performing was in my sights from very early on. I was cast as the title role in the musical “Oliver” at my school in second grade. I had a good singing voice and continued doing plays and musicals at my school, the local university and at the local dinner theater up through high school. I liked being in front of an audience and I learned a great deal from working with performers of different ages.
I also liked making audio sketches on my cassette tape recorder and even spent a couple years doing ventriloquism, with a dummy from JC Penny my Dad modified so its head would rotate. My musical sensability was helped by my Dad being a music educator who was also a bit of a showoff. He did magic for us kids and arranged Christmas carols for my family to sing in five part harmony one year. Sort of a Von Trapp Family vibe.
I learned to love being on a stage thanks in no small part to the influence of my school’s drama teacher. He had us performing Shakespeare, musicals, dramas and more avante guard stuff as well, even making a movie.
Reading lots of sci-fi, fantasy and horror:
My enthusiasm for making weird sounds stems in part from my reading interests as a kid: My first chapter book was Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” which I read in fourth grade. This was followed by a lot of classic sci-fi/fantasy authors, including Clarke, Asimov, Wells, Heinlein, Bradbury, Vonnegut, Burroughs and Tolkien.
Loving sci-fi and fantasy TV, movies and cartoons:
My eventual specialization in creature sounds benefitted from me having seen a lot of fantastical television and movies as a kid: ”H.R. Puffinstuff” and “Land of the Lost,” for starters. Later, I got into “The Night Gallery,” “Star Trek,” “The Outer Limits,” “The Twilight Zone” and “The Night Stalker” television series. Lots of “Planet of the Apes” and Godzilla movies– pretty much anything with a creature or alien in it. My favorite television series of all in high school was “The Prisoner.” I remember closely following anything Jim Henson created, especially his Creature Shop work in films like “Dark Crystal” and “Dream Child.”
I watched a lot of Saturday morning cartoons, my favorite being Looney Tunes. I was also drawn to the illustrations of Edward Gorey, Kliban and Bruce McCall. My magazines of choice were ”Mad Magazine,” “Famous Monsters,” “Creepy,” “Eerie,” and “Heavy Metal,” and especially the sci-fi mag “Omni.”
Performing with friends:
I was always making something to perform: One summer I made a 40 minute surreal sketch video movie with friends that aired on local PBS for years. It was some of the most fun I’d ever had. We would also make comedy sketches for school talent shows and home town parades. We also produced multi-track comedic audio recordings, probably inspired by Monty Python and Firesign Theater.
Getting inspired by summer movies:
I was lucky to be a kid with some pocket change when “summer movies” were invented in the 70′s by Lucas and Spielberg. Naturally, I saw “Star Wars” again and again. My parents made me an awesome jawa costume the Halloween after “Star Wars” was released. I was hired the following summer (1978) when “Star Wars” was re-released to dress up as a jawa and make jawa sounds all summer long. They paid me in movie passes, which was ideal.
“Star Wars” was probably the first thing I ever saw that made me say “I want to make things like that.” I began reading books about special effects and “making of” accounts of fantasy movies and t.v. shows. I drew a lot of aliens and dreamed of helping create seedy bars full of creatures. The movies dealing with monsters, aliens, werewolves, etc. that were to follow by Spielberg, Zemeckis, Miller, Carpenter, Scott, Kubrick, Cronenberg, Zemeckis, Dante and Landis were as important to me as my books.
On the look out for flying saucers and monsters:
There were a number of odd sightings reported around my home town in the 70′s regarding UFOs, “black helicopters” and cattle mutilations. I tried unsuccessfully with my telescope to view UFOs that were often seen hovering near a local nuclear power plant. I was fascinated with the possibility of real monster and alien sightings. I still have some of the newspaper clippings in my studio.
I remember hoping to read of some conclusive evidence proving monsters and aliens to be real. I’d clip any article or watch any “documentary” offering proof of the weird or otherworldly. I can’t help but think this contributed to my eventual interest in voicing monsters.
I loved biology, astronomy and animals (and still do):
Why am I interested in voicing animals? I always liked catching and bringing home lizards, tadpoles, snakes and salamanders, which my folks usually seemed okay with. I always liked animals.
I got interested in biology and considered pursuing it as a career. My school always had good biology teachers and I attended a science camp my junior year in high school. I was quite interested in documentary television specials featuring Jacques Cousteau, “Wild Kingdom,” as well as the PBS series “Nature” and especially “Cosmos.” Cousteau and Sagan were and are my heroes. I think this plays into why I love giving accurate voice to animals.
I keep my love of animals alive these days not only with my voice acting, but with a site I created where I post pictures I take of plants and bugs at: http://www.deebakerphotography.com.
Making good use of my teen years:
Being a generally happy kid, I didn’t feel much need to rebel during my teens. I made pretty good use of time and school. I couldn’t have cared less about sports or the stereotypical teenage social life. What I most wanted was to read, act and watch PBS and sci-fi/monster movies.
I processed much of my growing up by writing in a diary, which I did daily from second grade to well into my thirties. It still write in a journal, but not as frequently. I think this habit of digesting my day’s events and listening to my inner self probably helped me be a better actor.
Having no particular aspirations or expectations to hem me in at a young age:
I always did very well academically, but I never had any particular career in mind. As a little kid, I thought I might be a paleontologist. Beyond that, I don’t think I ever seriously entertained any specific career goals until well after college.
I would have liked to explore a career in special effects makeup or creature design, I just had no idea how to go about that. I was fascinated with the work of creature creators Rob Bottin and Rick Baker in the 80′s. I thought of acting more as a hobby. I had no idea voice acting existed as a career until I was in my late twenties.
Pursuing what I liked in college, not what I thought would bring me money:
I attended a small liberal arts college (The Colorado College), majoring in Philosophy. I spent a year studying the German language in Germany on a language scholarship. My favorite classes, aside from my major, were Invertebrate Zoology, Cell Bio and Art classes. I was pretty much a poster child for liberal arts.
I took only one acting class while at college but performed in lots of plays, musicals, choirs, open mics, and did more audio tapes, improv and sketch comedy. I co-wrote a musical with a buddy under a college grant (oddly, from an English department grant!), which we performed main stage at our college. I didn’t want to be a career stage actor or a teacher or director so I didn’t study “Acting.” Acting for me was always something you did, not something you “studied” or wrote about. Luckily, the head of my college’s drama department was very supportive and welcomed giving non-drama majors stage time and opportunity.
I studied things in college because I liked them, not because I was necessarily good at them, or thought I would one day earn money doing them. Luckily, my parents supported my seemingly impractical attitude towards learning. It turned out, much of what seemed either impractical or incidental in my college education ended up eventually feeding directly back into my career.
Performing after college:
I graduated college with no career aspirations or plan whatsoever. My liberal arts schooling had taught me to listen to myself and pursue what I loved. I kept doing just that. After graduating, I continued performing any way I could, doing stand up, singing telegrams, improv, children’s theater, caroling, summer Shakespeare and even a stint as a mall Santa.
I spent a few years doing stand up as a duo with a good buddy from college. My half of the act tended to be more making weird sounds and odd physical characterizations. It’s just what amused me and what I liked doing. Stand up was exciting and creative but paid very little (usually nothing) and led to what struck me as a repetitive and lonely on-the-road existence which didn’t appeal to me. I made wacky performance-art sketches for local radio and stage with two other buddies I met doing children’s theater, which was also great fun, but no dough.
Children’s theater was creative, involved improv and the audiences were great. It was also the first decent paying stage work I did after college. I spent a few years with a children’s theater company in Colorado Springs performing their Winter shows at a theater and summer shows in various parks around the city. The shows were fun, the camaraderie was terrific and it actually paid. I also met the girl who was to be my wife there.
I liked the social interaction and artistry of “serious” stage acting as well, but all the memorizing, rehearsing and performing was a big time commitment that usually paid nothing, which struck me more as a hobby. One show I was in was cancelled after weeks of rehearsing when a couple cast members couldn’t make all the rehearsals. In addition, some “pros” I got to work with in a Shakespeare play came off to me as prima donnas who weren’t all that nice– and they were the few in the cast that were paid to perform! One “pro” advised me the only way I could become an actor was to study at a conservatory. Well, becoming what he was didn’t appeal to me, so I ignored that advice. It just didn’t feel right for me.
I just kept performing, doing a year in an educational puppet musical for Kaiser Permanente that played in Denver schools, along with more stand up, improvised audio tapes, sketch comedy and a stint performing Dr. Seuss stories for kids at the Denver Kids Museum. All was fun, and I was earning a living as a performer.
Putting it together:
In the back of my mind, I can remember pragmatically assessing each kind of performing I tried– Do I like the kind of people I am working with? Do I like where this kind of work leads? Is this fun? Is it fulfilling? What does this demand of my time? Does it make me feel good doing this? How can I make this work financially? Am I any good at this? Can I get good enough at this to sustain a life I’d like to live? What is the “lifestyle” this kind of performing offers? Do I enjoy the process of gaining experience and getting better at this? What would this look like for me doing this in five, ten, twenty years?
I wasn’t in any particular hurry, which I think is part of why I tried so many kinds of performing. Each new performance experience was a kind of experiment to help me select where to step next and what to avoid. I was beginning to view my performing as a kind of career moving towards a more specific future.
Moving to a bigger market (Orlando) and learning even more:
I was always happy to try something new. After booking an open call audition for comedians in Denver, I moved to Orlando to open a sketch/improv show at Disney World’s EPCOT Center in the Fall of 1989. I was also hired the next year to be the first walk-around Beetlejuice look-alike at the newly opened Universal Studios, Florida. Meanwhile, I began performing in stage productions at the Orlando Civic Theater and varsity improv shows with SAK Theater (some of the most fun I’ve ever had on stage was with that gang!). Good improv training was invaluable to my career and my life in so many ways!
Also important– I studied singing while in Orlando with Manny Lujan for a couple years and began booking occasional voice over gigs. My voice and stage confidence continued to strengthen and stretch.
Voice overs only gradually emerged as a career goal around this time as I moved past my twenties. I think my Mom held out hope that I’d come to my senses and become a lawyer. Fortunately this never happened.
Things were going very well in Orlando, with lots of fun ways for a performer to earn a decent, steady living along with health insurance, which was rather rare for an actor. I began to see it was as good as it was going to get for me in Florida, which was very good. But I didn’t feel it was good enough.
One of my very best decisions: marrying my wife:
Getting married not only made me happier, it also added a stability and foundation to my life that sustained and inspired me through the ups and downs of a freelance acting career. I don’t think I’d be half as far as I am now without my wonderful wife.
A freelance career such as acting offers no certainty– you’re rarely under the guarantee of a contract for more than a day. Even my contract working at Disney World was for a limited time and could have ended with a couple weeks’ notice at any time. It always felt to me a bit like walking the plank– you never know when or if your next opportunity or gig will appear. Success only lengthens the plank, but it’s still a plank. By now, I’m quite used to this feeling of uncertainty that accompanies an acting career. But it is so much easier having love, support and help backing me up. I was very lucky to have found such a terrific life partner.
Finally taking the calculated risk of moving to the biggest market– Los Angeles:
In the early 90′s, I landed my first television series in Orlando, with the Nickelodeon gameshow, “Legends of the Hidden Temple” (voicing “Olmec” and various characters in the legends as well as reading prize copy). Getting paid the best money I’d ever made to have fun as a voice actor in a live recording was a revelation for me. I took the advice of the show’s host, Kirk Fogg, to check out Los Angeles as a next step in my career. After one visit, I sensed the blue sky opportunity I craved in a city that offered the kind of work I was ready to do. So, I handed in my resignation at Disney World and headed out to L.A. with my wife in late 1993. We never looked back.
While my wife supported us doing temp work, it took me about a year to earn a sustainable living as an actor so she could quit. I was employing my improv and stand up skills to book a fair number of on-camera commercials, as well as a gig as Beetlejuice at a rock-n-roll review at Universal Studios, Los Angeles. I got cast in a couple student films and studied on-camera acting with Stuart Robinson for a few years and found his pragmatic insight and guidance very helpful. The next few years in L.A. I spent trying out on-camera television acting (including a fun recurring role on Nickelodeon’s scripted series, “The Journey of Allen Strange”) while also beginning to book animation voice over work. It was all fun to me, but I liked voice acting the best.
My first animated series was “Cow and Chicken” (as “Dad”) and I learned a huge amount from working with the incredible cast and creators of that show. My first major film role was Daffy Duck and Taz in “Space Jam,” which allowed me to flex my vocal as well as improv muscles. I proceeded to book work on other great shows– “Sponge Bob: Squarepants” and “Fairly Oddparents” at Nickelodeon as well as “Power Puff Girls,” “Johnny Bravo,” and “Billy and Mandy,” at what was to become Cartoon Network. With this work, I established myself as a strong “utility” player in mostly comedic animation.
Focusing on voice overs and specializing in creature sounds:
As my voice over career picked up steam, I decided to stop my on-camera efforts and focus exclusively on voice overs, since it became clear that I couldn’t effectively pursue success in both and voice overs was the most fun for me. On-camera auditioning took a lot of time and when you booked a gig, they had you exclusively– unlike voice-overs, which was quicker and provided more freedom and variety. With experience, I began expanding beyond my default comedic “comfort zone” to include animal and monster sounds– something that resonated for me from my youth and my days in stand up. Having done a good amount of children’s theater, stand up and improv, I had no issues of modesty or shyness when experimenting with making new odd or hideous sounds while driving around L.A. I looked ridiculous but I loved it. My menagerie of sounds expanded.
The more I focused on expanding my non-human sound repetoire, the more I worked in that area and the more I enjoyed it. I did a number of creatures for WB’s “Teen Titans,” and then for Nickelodeon’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” series, one of my very favorite shows ever. I also began booking video games doing inhuman sounds for titles like “Doom 3,” “Gears of War,” “Left for Dead 2,” the “Halo” series and later “Portal 2, “World of Warcraft,” and “Diablo 3.” It helped that I also happened to be a tech-head and loved gaming.
I had learned not to be afraid and not to impose limits on myself:
One of the things I had learned in acting, stand up and improv was that mere obedience didn’t “book the gig.” A great example of this: I had the opportunity to audition for a new Fox animated series called “American Dad” which needed a French talking goldfish. I knew other voice actors who could give a great French read, but I chose to go with with a German accent instead. It wasn’t what they asked for, but I felt this version would give them my best take on this character. The audacious audition choice seemed to fit the tone I sensed from the network and the show creators. I stuck with the German read, even when they considered recasting the show’s pilot and never offered a French fish, even though they were still considering it. I booked the role that was to be renamed “Klaus.” We are now lucky to be recording an eighth season of that show.
Finally, I began booking more “straight ahead” dramatic roles as well– roles I would never have considered myself right for in earlier days– most notably, the clone soldiers in “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” series, which earned me an Annie nomination. Voicing the subtle variations of the clone soldiers was one of the most challenging and satisfying projects ever, bringing me back around to a creative universe that was so exciting to me as a kid. I then also provided a villainous character, Tarrlok, in “The Legend of Korra” series, of which I was particularly proud.
I feel so very lucky to continue to work and live in Los Angeles with my incredible wife of 23 years and my two daughters.
Click for: Dee’s IMDB credits, Dee’s demos, Twitter: @deebradleybaker