Dee Bradley Baker's "All to Know About Going Pro in V.O."

Fame & Finance

I recently was interviewed by a student who was seeking my take on celebrities who get cast in voice-over projects over career voice actors. I ended up spinning off into observations on finance and celebrity and some other things. Since some of this is new, I thought I’d share my responses: 

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1: You’ve been in quite a few films such as “Astro Boy” and “Happy Feet” that had celebrities voice other characters, have you ever auditioned for a role but it got cast to a celebrity? If so, how did you feel about that?

Ever since Robin Williams’ brilliant performance as the genie in Disney’s “Aladdin,” feature animation has increasingly focused on hiring prominent celebrities and using their names and star power in the marketing of their movies and even television shows. There are good reasons why the movie “Aladdin” was a mega-hit, and the vocal performance of a mega-star as the genie was certainly an important part of that. 

The logic of modern feature animation casting goes something like this: Fame brings not only a “star performance” but also puts butts in theater seats, brings ratings and sells downloads and DVDs. In a culture that is increasingly fascinated with fame, this angle may have merit, at least financially speaking. 

But many don’t understand that voice acting is a specialized kind of acting. Not all movie stars or stand ups or pop stars could record a convincing performance in a cartoon (or visa versa for that matter). Some non-voice actors are brilliantly able to make the switch, others not so much. The ability to act in a sit-com or a dramatic feature doesn’t necessarily translate to acting in a Broadway musical or a crime procedural television series— or to voice acting in a cartoon. 

Some decision makers in animation don’t grasp this. First, some may see voice acting as not really acting or even a craft, it’s merely something that looks fun and easy that anyone can do (actually anything done by a pro looks fun and easy to do, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for anyone to do it!). This disregard for the craft and skill of voice acting might partially come from the frequency of casting celebrities to perform as themselves- they just walk in, do what they do with little or no direction and that’s it. Easy, right?

Even a lot of on-camera actors may not think of voice actors as actors or as possessing a particular skill. Is there an award category for voice acting at the SAG-AFTRA Awards? Nope. Who’s getting nominated and awarded again and again? Mostly the same stars. 

Also, some show creators may see acting more as a generically applicable skill– If you can perform on this stage, you can perform on that one. Show creators may hire a performer who kills in their own realm but who comes up a bit wanting behind a mic. This may require an eventual recast, or it may be a brilliant, unexpected choice that actually works. That is a judgement call that is the business of show creators, the studio/network and the show’s audiences to make.

To be clear, the majority of show creators understand and value what voice actors bring to the process, but you occasionally run into one that doesn’t quite get it yet. 

It’s not an individual actor’s job to worry about the qualification of other actors for a roll, really. My only concern as an actor is to focus on my qualification for that role.

In terms of auditioning against a celebrity, only occasionally will a non-celebrity audition for a role that is already set aside for a celebrity. More often, a voice actor may audition or possibly just be asked to “temp” or “scratch” record a role in an animated project with the understanding up front that it will eventually go to a celebrity. This “temp read” may be used as a kind of place holder to begin animating or figuring out how a scene or character will eventually play out.

Celebrities often don’t have the time, skill or interest to do this often exploratory work. And paying a celebrity for their precious time to “explore” what may not end up being used can be expensive. A “temp” voice actor is often paid to perform this, understanding up front that s/he almost certainly won’t get that role, but often the voice actor will get a crack at other smaller roles in that same project. Sometimes the temp read is so good that the creators decide to keep it and you get the role. You can look at this as a paid audition with good odds of your work being in the movie somehow. Otherwise, it’s just a session fee gig. 

How might a voice actor feel about all this? Well, some may choose to do it for the fun and opportunity and some may choose not to do the ground work on developing a character that is later just handed to another famous and better paid performer to attempt to mimic. It’s up to the individual voice actor.. Most, I’d guess, would be happy to do the work and take a shot at some eventual role on the project, with no sour grapes. It’s a paid gig working early in the creative process with the creative higher ups on the project that can lead to more work and residuals, or even future opportunity.

Let’s step back: The big picture is that actors constantly audition and are thus constantly not getting the gig- no matter who is up for the role. All actors- famous or not- are in a perpetual state of being rejected for all sorts of reasons. Some may grumble about this, but most don’t. Rejection is a key characteristic of the career of acting.

The way I see it: The only thing I have control over is giving it my best as a performer. Any concern spent on how the rest of the process plays out is wasted energy. If I am so desperate for a gig that I am bugged by someone else getting it, that energy will almost certainly translate into my auditions and work and will work against me.

The films mentioned in the original question, BTW, had a good number of regular voice actors in the credits, as do most animated features, just not top billing. “Top billing” isn’t really an interest for me, or I’d think most voice actors. We’d prefer to not have people think of us personally when an audience hears our work at all! We want an audience to only think about the characters and the story- not the face or name or career of the actor voicing the character.

We voice actors want to put the audience in the story with our performance, not take them out of it! (As an audience member, I personally often find celebrity voice casting distracting, and I’m not sure how much kids care about imagining a celebrity while watching a cartoon).

Finally, I’d point out, there are only a few feature animated films that hit theaters each year whose principal voices are often celebrities. Television animation occasionally features celebrity voices. But there are hundreds of television cartoons voiced by mostly “voice actors” on television.

2: How many roles in a year do you have to go through to where you’re content with your income?

The “how much do you need to earn?” question is different for everyone. Most working actors earn their living with a combination of session fees and residuals, plus maybe a fallback job like office temping or waiting tables. It’s different for every working actor. Other variables are also different- do you have a family to support or are you solo, what is your “overhead,” what are your fixed expenses, what are your “discretionary expenses,” how much do you need to reinvest in new marketing materials or study, etc.

What’s “enough?” I still remember scrambling to pay bills! To me, as an actor, just paying the bills feels fantastic. To earn your living as a performer in this country is not an easy thing to achieve or maintain! But it’s not just about income or session fees for me. More than paying the bills, it’s about building towards long term financial goals and living within my means while growing new opportunity. Grown-up stuff. I never got into acting or voice overs for the money, but thankfully I’ve enough work and residuals to have a good life. For that I can take some credit, but also must thank my family, my agent and my union. It’s a team effort.

2a: How does an actor make money? How are they paid?

Most union actors don’t get enough acting work to earn their living as actors. Work is usually intermittent at best for actors (voice actors are actors, BTW).

Your acting income is a combination of session fees and residuals. Early in an actor’s career, earning a living is all about amassing as many session fees as possible (a “session fee” is the one-time amount you are paid to work a gig). It takes a while for residuals to begin kicking in. With animation, it may take a year or more before seeing any residuals from an animation v.o. session.

“Residuals” are what you get paid (assuming the the studio accounting is honest) each time the show is aired or sells, depending on the terms of contract you are working (some contracts have no residuals— video games, for instance). Sometimes residuals are bundled or triggered in unusual ways. This “residual” is usually some fraction of the original session fee that decreases gradually over time, leveling off at a flat amount eventually. 

In this way, residuals pay out roughly like life insurance policies to an insurance salesman, where the salesman accumulates a pipeline of future revenue by accruing new clients. He then earns money constantly over the life of the contracts he sold. This is how actors and their unions have structured many of their contracts to compensate for a work schedule that is intermittent at best, with many dry spells.

Residuals can end up being a sizable chunk of an actor’s income, or during a dry spell, all of it. A residual check can be for thousands of dollars or for one cent and you don’t know when or how many will arrive, although you can roughly track them as they approach on the SAG-AFTRA website, maybe a couple weeks out. 

Your agent (and/or possibly manager or lawyer) may also be due a slice of each residual check, as well as Uncle Sam. That big, fat residual check may well get shaved down to less than half before it’s deposited in your bank account!

Early in an actor’s career, you can spend years and a ton of money before you begin earning any money as an actor. Later, even after you find some success, you may well encounter no work for months or years. So, it is possible later in an actor’s career to at least pay the bills plus earn health insurance just from residuals of past work, assuming you’ve enough shows in the “pipeline” that are still airing and selling. Most union actors probably never attain this kind of self-sufficiency through just residuals, though. That’s just the lucky few!

3: According to TheRichest.com, Owen Wilson made $2.5 mil off of Cars 2 for playing Lightning McQueen, what’s the most you have EVER made on the job?

Best payday ever for me was my wife– I met her doing a show long ago!

Now, regarding Mr. Wilson’s payday: If he can make $2.5 million (I’ll assume accuracy and that this a gross amount) off a movie he stars in and helps promote that grosses $560 million worldwide (so far), well, good for him. Remember a “star” has spent usually many years growing a career and is entitled to what he or she can negotiate for his or her acting and star power. Just like in sports, you get what you can while you can.

After taxes and paying his agent and lawyer he will probably have less than half of all that, though. An agent gets typically 10%, a manger can get 15%, then there are lawyers, business managers and money mangers shaving off their own percentages as well- maybe 30% or more of the gross. Uncle Sam will take around 50% at that income level, in addition. So, I’m gonna take a wild guess that of a supposed 2.5 million payday, Mr. Wilson finally gets 20% to 30% of that gross to spend on groceries and a gold-plated swimming pool, or whatever. 

30% of 2.5 million is $750,000. Which ain’t chump change. But it ain’t 2.5 million.

It could be that Mr. Wilson made much of that huge sum on the “back end” of the process, having negotiated that into his contract. The “back end” means the money made once the show begins airing and selling, residuals and, if you’re powerful enough a star, maybe a percentage of box-office returns, if you can negotiate that and if the studio is honest in its accounting. If the movie does well a profit beyond a certain threshold a profit sharing or “bonus” can kick in as well, if negotiated by the star’s lawyer or agent.

In any case, for a star, this will be a good deal more money than any residuals a voice actor will typically make, even on a successful project. 

I read that many stars are paid “scale” to voice a Pixar movie (“scale” is the minimum the union contract allows for a particular type of work, essentially, the least amount possible or “minimum”), but they make the real money when the movie begins running in theaters and selling in DVDs and video on demand, especially the stars. Some other projects, such as some video games, shell out a ton of money up front to have a star vocal performance (probably a buy out).

Once a movie “breaks even” (whatever that means, in the eyes of the studio’s accountants doing the math), slices of the profit can be divvied up to various creatives, like the director, producers and actors, each depending on his or her contract, again, thanks to their respective unions. (Non-union work typically has no residuals, it’s all a one time “buy out.”)

3a: The challenge of getting paid what you are owed:

It is interesting to note how top level creatives often end up suing their studio to get the “back end” money they believe they are due (e.g. Peter Jackson vs. New Line for his money from “Lord of the Rings,” lots of examples). They have to pay expensive lawyers to fight major legal battles that can drag on for years. Stars and directors are often rich and powerful enough to have this as an option. Most creatives don’t have the resources to sustain this and the studios’ lawyers know this.

The financial specifics of the entertainment corporations that calculate who is owed what on the “back end” are opaque and considered private and proprietary by the studios. Most actors (including voice actors) don’t have the financial resources to go after any perceived money owed (let alone track what is airing and selling), and must rely on the honesty of the animation studio to pay out what is owed in a timely manner, with occasional assistance from their union if there is a dispute.

4: You stated on your website “I want to be a voice actor” that “famous people may not want to work with you”, has that happened to you before?

I’ve no idea.

5: Have you ever come across voice over artists who were deterred from film roles because of celebrity casting?

Sometimes, but the voice actor often gets another role (or other roles) in the same project, and, again, not getting a gig is a constant feature of an acting career. You’d better be okay with that. I’ve learned early on in my life as an L.A. actor not to get hung up on that kind of thing and I don’t think most voice actors are. If you get bugged by the on-going challenges you face as a day-to-day freelance actor, you probably won’t be an actor for long. There’s probably always something to get miffed at in a career (or life, for that matter), but what’s the point of that? Water off a duck’s back is my view on all that.

Sometimes a famous person gets the gig, but being well-known doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t voice act. If a famous person’s performance is lacking, why is it my concern? It’s not my project, not my money and I’ve got other auditions and shows to focus on, anyway. My only concern is doing the best I can as a voice actor. If a casting is not quite right or I don’t get the gig, ah well, maybe next time.

And let’s be grown ups here: A famous person signing on to a project may be what makes the project able to get financing. Voice actors are usually hired for their talent, not looks or fame, but there can be other factors in casting that do make financial sense (e.g. multi-platform marketing that a “famous person” can bring). And frankly, looking fantastic, exuding “star power,” and cultivating a powerful brand are also hard-earned skills that can benefit a show’s launch and popularity. I think it’s naive to dismiss that out of hand.

Professional entertainment involves sales and marketing which necessitate considering more than talent in casting sometimes, and that’s just business. One has to remember this isn’t just creativity happening in a vacuum. It is as much “show” as “business.” Without both, you don’t have a show, a gig or a paycheck. Casting a famous person may in fact lead to a more successful run (e.g., maybe it’s a pop star who actually can voice act who sells some albums, books, and on-camera movies along with bringing his/her fan-base to watch the animated series). This may lead to sequels or spin offs, which leads to more work for everyone— including other voice actors.

Look, it may sometimes be disappointing to not book a gig, or maybe you don’t think the person who booked it does it as well as you could, but worrying about this isn’t really part of your job as an actor. Your job is to diagnose scripts, create irresistible, memorable auditions, serve the show and director well and hopefully sow the seeds for more work in the process. That is what an actor has some control over. That is where I focus. Feeling bad about who else books a gig isn’t in my job description.

6: You are in more television roles than you are animated films, do you like those roles better and if so, why?

Voicing both t.v and movies can be great fun, I’m not sure I have a preference. Each is a different creature. It depends on the studio and the show creators and what kind of creative food chain is in place and who you get to work with in the process. If you are directed by the creative decision makers it can be the most rewarding. If the real decider is absent and you are being directed by someone further down the power chain, the process may be guided more by fear and insecurity, which is less fun and probably less effective in best serving the story. Either of these scenarios can be found in movies or television. Generally speaking, working in television animation is leaner and quicker (though that process can be about a year total), while feature animation is a more involved process that may last years from start to finish.

7: Most celebrities don’t have to alter their voice to get a role unlike you who alters your voice for several different roles and even sound effects, why do you think that they don’t usually have to alter their voice?

Celebrities are typically hired to do only “The One Thing Everyone Thinks They Can Do,” which may be less than they are capable of. A celebrity’s “brand” or star-power is also part of what is hired and then added to the press release or other advertising that helps sell the show or game.

Voice alteration is a skill, a specialization. This can be an ability to do impressions or a range of characters, age, accents or weird stuff, like I often do. A good actor (on-camera or voice overs) may not have versatility in their tool belt, but some don’t seem to need it. Many celebrities can’t alter their basic core voice, perhaps because they’ve never really tried it much. They’ve never been asked to or been paid to do that. They’ve no incentive to. But lack of versatility doesn’t necessarily imply a lack of acting skill. Most in on-camera don’t spend their careers deviating wildly from what they they have established in the career they have built. They’ve built a career that works, so why fix what isn’t broken?

As a side note, some on-camera performers can become essentially trapped by that one thing they are known for (or the cast-able physical type they fit that is in-style) and they have to fight like hell to branch into more variety rolls, more challenge, more fulfilling exploration.

Someone like Peter Sellers or Meryl Streep made their brilliant character versatility their trademark. They are on-camera equivalents of what many animation voice actors are— actor chameleons. Some like Michael Keaton or Tom Hanks pushed successfully to show they had more to offer than anyone originally thought. But that takes guts, persistence and a willingness to risk money, “brand” and hard-earned career momentum to pull off, in addition to the required talent. Some on-camera actors just get a lock on one a kind of roll they do well and just keep doing that (e.g. action hero, wacky physical comedian, single Mom, benevolent authority figure, etc.)— and may be quite happy with maintaining that until the wheels fall off the bus. Some become miserable with their “one hit wonder” status, for some reason.

Voice acting is different: I think of voice actors as I do session musicians (so marvelously portrayed in the new documentary, “The Wrecking Crew”). We are very good at what we do, we are all good actors, Each with their own strength, weaknesses and bag of tricks. We are mostly very versatile and work steadily because of all this.

Career voice actors are mostly invisible and don’t seem to mind that. We are in it for the fun of the work, not the red carpets or crazy famous person lifestyle and mega bucks. We have a shot at a wide variety of work, much of which pays residuals thanks to our union contract which gives us a shot at earning a living and health benefits for our families. We get to perform in a wide variety of genres and styles and grow our acting ability in a way on-camera actors could only dream of. A voice actor can work for decades, in contrast to on-camera careers which are typically much shorter. Because a voice actor is not making ten million dollars a week, s/he actually has a shot at a normal life with normal relationships. You are less likely to become some notorious kook whose life falls apart and lands you on TMZ. You are free to work as many shows as you are able to book at a time (unlike on-camera, where you are generally contractually obligated to work one show at a time). I could go on. No, you may not find your name on the top billing on the marquee, but you can have a fantastic long career as an actor.

8: I read in an article with Henry Corden (Fred Flinstone) published in 1999 that he stated celebrity voice casting brings in the crowd and he knows a lot of voice actors who have not gotten roles due to that. Obviously this problem has been going on for a while, do you think there’s any hope of veterans getting more film roles in the future?

Like any fast moving market, the entertainment industry is a Darwinian arena. It is constantly changing, the competition is stiff and survival can be rough. Each market selects for a certain type of organism to thrive. If you can’t adapt and thrive in that environment, you are selected out. That’s showbiz!

It is an actor’s job to change our tactics, use adversity to our advantage and find a way to thrive and survive. The scenario is the same for the session musicians who back up the pop soloist or boy band and make them sound way better than they would alone. The soloist may lack the musical skills of the back up players, but at least they were smart enough and had the resources to hire them! There is a reason the session players are hired in addition to the star, and while the star’s spotlight may shine only briefly, the session player may enjoy a much longer and more varied career- if s/he has the talent and temperament for it.

There is also an element of luck in all this, too. An actor moves to a place like Los Angeles to be exposed to a greater concentration of luck— it ups your odds, if you are ready for it. A freelance actor’s job is to be ready to take advantage of luck.

As voice actors, our job is not to be famous, but rather to be so invaluable, so interesting, so dependable, so surprising, so creative as voice actors that we will be hired again and again, no matter the road blocks or adversity.

9: What do you recommend for people to do in order to get more veterans in animated films released to theatre?

I have no idea how to change elephants into giraffes, but when it occurs to me I’ll let you know. And again, check the credits on any animated feature and you’ll probably find a number of steadily working voice actors in supporting roles on down to walla. Sometimes even lead roles as well. But we are there, got paid, and will also enjoy residuals from that movie in perpetuity.

10: Finally, how has your day been?

I wish I could remember.

1 Response »

  1. HOLY SMOKES!!!!!!!!!!!! This is AWESOME! I’m so glad this has made it onto your site!! Thanks again for all the information! 😀

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