Half of my work as a voice actor has me vocalizing something outside my own species. I’m occasionally asked about this utterly weird and fun VO niche, so here’s my take on it:
“What is creature voice acting?”
Bringing believable vocal life to animals, monsters and aliens involves everything regular voice acting does, though in many ways it presents unique challenges.
Creature voice acting (I’ll call it CVA) is not a “sound effects” gig. At its core, it is acting, pure and simple. With voicing all creatures great and small, timing, context, intent, tone and subtext are all in play. Vocalizing all those squeaks and roars, chitters and growls, is fundamentally three dimensional acting.
CVA calls for detailed performing that can be quite taxing vocally. A script may provide only spotty guidance for the actor -or none at all- so an active and clear imagination is vital. It’s similar to working with a chainsaw- if you know what you’re doing and understand safety issues, you can do amazing stuff. If not, you can do a lot of damage to yourself quickly.
Sometimes the vocal performance is part of the show’s original record and leads the animator’s work. Other times the animators have already worked their magic and the vocals are performed in post-production “to picture” in A.D.R. to add a finishing sprinkle of seasoning to bring out the full flavor of the scene. If the story were a soup, adding in some CVA can mean the difference between soup with no salt and one with just the right amount to make the taste “pop.” Very little can make all the difference in the world.
At its best, CVA disappears into a scene like a good special effect, which is to say, it draws no attention to an actor’s involvement. It should be so convincing that the actor remains invisible while the character lives.
Sometimes the show creators don’t know exactly what they want. Their vision might call for authenticity of the animal’s sound or not at all. The creature may need to be “anthropomorphized” or be something quite unexpected.
The creature vocalist is a collaborative specialist who arrives with a fountain of malleable vocal ideas, approaching the microphone like a trainer with a fully-directable menagerie.
Above all, CVA calls for an active, clear imagination to deliver a stream of appropriate options to fulfill the story being told.
More than just “sound effects“
Creature VO is not just “making sounds,” in the way regular voice acting is not just “saying words.” The creature character is typically sentient and intelligent. It listens, comprehends and reacts. The range of expression often plays out as a kind of conversation.
Some creature sounds in a cartoon or movie or game don’t require an actor. If a script calls for merely a simple sound- a hawk’s distant cry, for instance- that can probably be covered with a sound effects library file. But if the creature interacts with the other actors, or impacts a scene with blocking and behavior, you need an actor to vocalize it convincingly so the scene won’t feel flat, so it “lives” and doesn’t feel generic.
“Generic” is always an enemy of good storytelling. Mere disconnected animal sound effects can kill the best animator’s artistry. Library sounds are often quite limiting, requiring many hours of finessing. Ultimately, their usefulness is finite.
A sound-effect library roar can deflate a monster’s menace and believability. If it mirrors roars in other projects and without a living connection to the action and tone and physical choreography of a scene, you risk severing the audience’s connection with the characters and the story.
Creature voice acting is problem solving
Creatures vocals often go far beyond what can be scripted or even described. It flows from visuals and the “answer” of what is needed isn’t always obvious. It calls for a great deal of on-the-fly problem solving and inventiveness of a special kind of actor- more so than regular scripted VO.
There are usually no written lines of dialogue and producers may not even know specifically what they want or need. This means more proactive creative “heavy lifting” for the creature voice actor. What starts as an unknown is revealed by the voice actor, like a kind of magic trick, literally pulling a rabbit (or any creature) out of your hat.
The CVA performer’s sensibility for delivering good “A.D.R.” is key. Sometimes the voice actor must spot (i.e. follow along and match) something already animated. Non-human vocals are often delivered “to picture” in A.D.R. to support the pre-produced visuals, so its placement and timing must be precise. There’s no room for error or excess.
How I found it
Creature voice acting found me because it suits my interests and performing capacities. With its weird mix of acting, improv and oddball character exploration, it gradually dawned on me that creature VO might be right for me- that I should focus on it, alongside my more straight-ahead voice acting career.
Why did this odd specialization suit me? For a start, I had already filled up on monster movies and nature documentaries as a kid. I also had many years of exploring acting and improv already under my belt. So in a sense, I was ready to go. Once I realized the need in Hollywood for creature vocals, I focused on mimicking natural sounds, animals and monsters I heard on TV, movies and video games. I sought out animal sound CD’s to play in my car (how quaint!).
Role models: I realized it helps to study pets and pre-lingual children. They may not have words, but they comprehend subtext and their sounds always harbor specific motivation and intent. A baby is saying something specific, as is a dog or an emu, whether you understand it or not. This is a core aspect of creature voice acting.
Along with my lifelong acting experience and affinity with creatures both weird and familiar, I was also drawn to the uninhibited exhibition of oddball characters and weird sounds as a performer. I wasn’t shy about doing nutty vocals and physical characterizations when I did stand up or open mic performances. The ”weird stuff” suited me and audiences seemed to agree.
This is all stuff I messed around with for fun, rarely for money and not with any aspirations for a career. I just liked doing it so I did it. A lot.
In my later twenties, I augmented my theater and improv experience with some singing training to allow me to push my vocal boundaries even further. My singing teacher taught me to produce a broader range of sound with a “relaxed energy.” By learning where to place vocal effort for a more efficient and powerful sound, I found I could do more with less effort. I could reach further, pushing my voice past previous limits, but without injury. Also, I could recover faster from strain.
Once I was on the hunt for creature vocals, I spent a lot of time practicing mimicking authentic animal sound recordings, driving around in my car. Anything I found I could do that didn’t hurt my voice and that allowed me a range of expression, I noted and kept exploring it until I was comfortable with it. I kept practicing it until I was familiar with it and felt I had it ready to wield. I possessed a kind of psycho-physical memory of where the sound resided in my throat and what it could do. Then I had it at the ready to use in VO!
I continued discovering and collecting until I acquired a sizable arsenal of vocal possibilities, an easy-access orchestra of vocalizations I could mix and match on the fly when working with a voice director.
How you find it
So how does one find their way to “creature voice acting?”
If you can make some weird sounds, that’s a great start, but it calls for more than mimicry of sounds. You must become a specialized voice actor- one who brings an entire trained and direct-able animal with you to the session!
Without good acting and improvisational skills, an arsenal of creature vocal sounds are worthless. You will also need a keen sense of story telling that approaches the sensitivity of a good director or an editor. With that, you channel your ever-growing cache of non-human vocalizations to help tell stories, to help fulfill the creator’s vision of the story.
You need to be able to deliver the vocal goods without self-injury.
From whisper to shriek, creature vocals often call for a lot of heavy lifting vocally. It’s an athletic feat. Realize that an athlete needs good training and experience to make the amazing look easy and effortless. As with word-speech, a creature vocalizer will need to be able to control and regulate the effort.
Singing training helped me with this immensely. Such training reveals how you can produce more expressive, powerful and varied vocals with better control and an economy of effort.
Without tapping into one’s vocal-emotional power and training the instincts for vocal placement, a beginner ends up working too hard to produce too little. Over-extending with a violent monster roar can be a quick and debilitating wipeout. It can cut a session short leaving work unfinished.
Without good placement, without an instinct for what to go for and what to avoid with your voice, you tire more quickly, or even worse, self-injure when reaching for vocal extremes.
(For a discussion of managing a taxing VO session CLICK HERE.)
Imagine a translated sentence
In a session, staring at your script of vague creature cues, it is helpful to have in mind a specific sentence to guide the creature’s utterances. This might be nailed down in collaboration with the show creator before the growling or squawking commences. The actor may take the lead, but is never alone. This is a collaboration!
Especially when interacting with other characters in the scene (whether in the session or not), every line of creature utterance should probably have its own “translated subtext.” For example: “Let’s play!” or “I’m tired,” ”Huh?,” “What the heck is that?” “How dare you?” or “You’re going down!!” When performing multiple takes for choice (probably three at a time, as with spoken vocals) switch up the intent of the subtext sentence with each take. This is where improv experience comes in handy!
Any action specifics in the scene is also part of the vocal performance. If there’s a tug of war going on- are the efforts escalating to a breaking point? Are they steady and quick? How will this play out in animation? Or if a dog falls off the kitchen table- does this start with an unsteady effort, then impact? How far is the fall? Does he shake it off? Frustrated afterwards? Oblivious? You paint a specific scene and often your job is to paint variations for the director to choose from as the animators’ jumping off point for their work.
You are making a smorgasbord of choices, appropriate to the creator’s vision.
Remember, with your acting you are delivering choices of behavior and often part of a conversation for the animators to work their magic with, not just random sounds.
Exploring the possibilities: Breathe in & breathe out!
How should you start? I recommend a multi pronged approach. Start with your acting and improv capacities, for this is what is most important. (Refer to my “Learning to Act” drop down menu above)
Anyone interested in creature vocals should get live performing experience and vocal training while actively exploring and pushing the boundaries of what your voice can do.
Creature vocals isn’t a gig that requires obedience. It requires an actor’s active offers and a keen eye for story timing.
Hunt for sounds to collect that might be useful in a conversation or other interactions, not “sound effects.” You may be able to realistically mimic a helicopter, but unless you can converse using that chopper sound, it’s usually useless in voice acting. A single kitty “meow” is also useless, unless you are also able to express other typical feline sounds that read as curiosity, boredom, growls, eating, agitation, fighting, fear, etc.
Start by seeking sound/characters that are broadly used and branch out from that. Dogs, cats, monkeys and apes, parrots, rodents, monsters- these are creatures commonly found in TV, movies and games. Also anything found wandering around a barnyard. Find the vocalizations that capture what these creatures do, that enables a sense of conversation or clearly readable intent.
What are the typical sounds a creature would make? For instance- an adversarial monster: menace, pain, attack roar, charging, attack efforts, frustration, alert, anger, anguish, sleeping, defensive dodge, anticipatory delight, etc. Even with an attacking monster, there is often need for variation in pitch and action. A usable performance is not just screaming roars, just as a believable dog isn’t just about a single bark.
Finding a reference animal:
Many creatures in children’s shows essentially function as a dog that doesn’t sound like a dog. (E.g., an alligator or little friendly dragon that pants and whines and wants its tummy scratched like a puppy.) The acting beats are fundamentally that of a pack animal- a canine companion. A dog is a good basic reference for many companion creatures in animation.
In fantasy projects, the creature’s vocals may be a combination of animal sounds (e.g., a snake/bat or a platypus/bear). Monsters may be a combination of various voices (e.g., attacks are low and loud, taking damage may be a shrill screetch, each a very different vocal placement). Often there is an active sentient intelligence at work, that is beyond what any realistic creature would make.
They often don’t want “realistic” or “accurate!”
What matters most is fulfilling the show creator’s vision of story, not matching an authentic animal.
Don’t get hung up on authenticity when it works against the story.
A show creator ultimately wants something that “reads,” that feels right to them and the audience. The audience must buy into it and intuitively connect with the story flow. Sometimes an accurate sound can work against that.
A lot of super-realistic animals vocals would sound off to the average viewer and distract from the story being told. And many real-world animals don’t make much (or any) sound- a lizard, turtle or bunny, for instance (except in extreme instances). But the story calls for some kind of vocal presence to deliver the right story tone, to sell the character’s behavior or blocking, sometimes just to keep the creature’s ambient presence alive in the scene. A creature vocalizer must adjust for this.
As performed, the cat may be chatty for a real cat, but it may be just right for that animated show.
Also, sometimes an authentic animal sound would be jarringly unfamiliar, as the audience may have no reference point for an exotic creature’s actual sounds. Another vocal choice will need to be substituted. The performed sound that works may be way off from ”authentic.” Do show producers really want a realistic dolphin or elk? Often, not. (Interesting side note: even nature documentaries often manufacture their animal sounds!)
Also, sometimes (usually in a pre-school show) they literally want a dog vocalization (for instance) to be variations of the actual word “woof.” The actor can’t impede their delivering the goods with the unhelpful expectation that they need to provide a “realistic” sound. Selling the particular story for the intended audience is what is most important.
BTW: It always helps to know what the realistic animal sounds are and be familiar with as many animals as possible! The more you know, the more show runners will (rightfully) trust your instincts, input and expertise.
Hunting for vocals
You can start by exploring inhale and exhale sounds. A pig sound, for instance, is often produced with an inhale. Start exploring it: That tone can then be modified by placing it lower in the throat or chest or moving it up into the sinuses. Change your mouth shape and see what that does. You may find it can be extended or warped into other sounds as well.
Don’t limit your exploration to just your voice. Some sounds are vocalized (made with the two sets of muscles of the “voice box,” mixing combinations of your “head voice” and “chest voice”) but you can also use the flesh of your throat or soft palette to combine with vocalizations or even do much of the effort’s “heavy lifting” to save the finite capacity of the voice muscles. A growl, for instance, can sound much more animalistic or threatening (and is easier to produce) by using the soft palette’s fluttering against the back of the tongue or the loose flesh in the throat and cheeks.
And sound doesn’t have to exit through your mouth. It can also be directed out the nose or the side of the mouth after you’ve set it’s location in your head. Some sounds you can make usefully with your mouth fully closed.
What’s made with an inhale can also be made with an exhale (though it will change the character of the sound and may cost you more voice). Try talking with an inhale. Try screaming (don’t hurt your voice!).
Try moving that up into your sinuses or down into your chest. You have flexible resonance chambers to explore above in your sinuses as well as below in your throat and chest!
You can also modify your face to change the sound chamber in your head by pinching your cheek, lips or blocking your nose, to vary the resonance of the sound cavity. I find roars are more impressive and massive sounding with my nostrils blocked (inhale or exhale).
Explore trills, not just in the front of the mouth (tip of tongue against front teeth) but also in back of the throat. There’s gold there. Inhale and exhale! You can find ways to place sounds in different areas of your sinus cavity for differing effect.
It’s an endless playground to explore! I can’t fully explain it- you’ll have to mess around with it!
Remember: Always avoid self-injury. If it hurts, back off. Never push your voice to failure or scream or yell to the point of tasting blood (it can happen). Voice muscles can be overworked or blown out like a hamstring muscle. Recovery from serious injury can take a long time. “Vocal nodes” are an extreme example of a misused and overworked voice that can take a vocalist off-line for months or even do permanent damage. Oh, and try to not give yourself an aneurism (forcing too much energy that you can’t control, overstepping your physical limits).
It’s best when you can produce a great range of effort from a relaxed energy, so there’s an economy of physical impact, even with loud or aggressive sounds. Singing training from a good vocal coach helped me with this (my trainer was an opera singer- the super athletes of voice!).
In a nutshell:
Start by exploring and collecting sounds you can safely produce in a controlled and conversational manner. Fill your internal database with animals and monsters from TV, movies, games and documentaries. Watch a lot of cartoons. Study animals and children. Feed yourself all forms of stories to sharpen your story teller’s intuition and insight. Meanwhile, keep strengthening your foundation- your acting and improv chops.
You will need all this when you are called to bring that creature to life.
What about a creature vocals demo?
I view a “demo reel” of creature sounds the same as a regular animation demo (see drop down menu above): It must showcase good acting, characters with a range of expression, and it is best created with specific projects, shows or networks in mind. A good demo is created to appeal to a specific workspace and a specific audience. This should guide the tone of your demo and your character performance.
You want to showcase only what vocal characters you do well (e.g. an accurate dog or bird or monster) for projects now being produced. Each character should demonstrate your acting– with reaction beats and behavior such as you would typically find in a TV show, movie or game that you want to be cast in. It is alive, after all! You’re not making a ”sound,” but rather, a living scene and often not alone!
Let’s say you want to create a “dog” segment. What are the acting beats of a family dog in a typical animated show? (Do some research!) Time and again on screens big and small you will encounter a dog or puppy that is: happy, excited, panting, playing, fearful, getting tummy rubbed, suspicious, whimpering, eating, licking, menacing, yelping with surprise, confused, etc. Each beat is very brief and specific- a reaction to what is playing out. If you’ve a variety of dog sizes and ages, you can show that too. Authenticity is not a bad thing with a dog, as it is the most familiar pet to the audience.
Remember- you are performing a character living! These are never sounds ”in a vacuum.” A scene is playing out! You want to feature the most repeated and useful acting beats for each creature you are displaying. If you can only do one “bark” but can’t provide the “whole dog” character options, I wouldn’t make a demo segment for it.
Nobody hires a “woof!” They hiring a complete dog (and a versatile one at that)! They hire a dog that can say, “Hi Master!!” and “I’m tired” and “Yikes!” and “Back off!” and “I’m disappointed” and who knows what else. The pup you bring must be fully direct-able! Want ideas? Watch some scripted dog movies or documentaries. Have it clear in your mind so you can see and hear it!
Maybe you want to showcase your monster sounds, as in a superhero show or video game. What is the creature’s life, what story is it experiencing? Well, what happens in these kinds of shows/stories? Which shows? Which movies? Which games?
A monster’s vocalized acting beats might typically include: ambient lurking, alert, challenge, attacking, taking damage, menacing, roars, fighting, frustration, bites, running, sleeping, pain, struggling before death and dying. These are the typical acting beats you would expect to find in many shows and games, that could be broadly useful for many projects.
Remember, your demo’s audience- the show maker! What do they make? What are they looking for? Who is viewing it? Could your creature demo performance be lifted into a show or game? Can you envision the monster you’re performing and what it’s doing? If you cannot, the listener certainly won’t be able to either!
Imagine the scene playing out with your vocalized character doing its thing!
Stack a disparate sequence of a few typical emotes from each creature’s back to back before you move on another creature.
Remember- time is money. Myself, I post each of my creature demo sound files separately on my promotional website, so the casting director or producer can just click on the creature of interest, without having to endure a whole group of sounds that are of no use to get to it.
Since each project is unique, hopefully the demo sample is close enough to what they want, or at least demonstrates your versatility and good acting instincts to convince them that they can work with to get exactly what they need.
As with a regular VO demo, a creature demo should only feature what you are good at. Poor or mediocre performance will bring down the impression one gets of the rest of the demo. A demo is as good as its weakest performance. And a bad demo is hard to forget. It’s a counter productive calling card. Range is great- but only if you have it. Don’t display more creatures than your best.