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

Interview

QUESTIONS I’M OFTEN ASKED & NEVER ASKED

How did you get into voice acting?

I’ve done all kinds of performing since second grade and only arrived at voice overs as a career focus in my early thirties. I started performing where I grew up in Colorado doing plays, musicals, ventriloquism, stand up, children’s theater and improv before spending a few years in Orlando doing shows for Disney World and Universal Studios and local musicals and a lot of improv.

I booked my first television series “Legends of the Hidden Temple” while in Orlando and decided to move to Los Angeles in 1993 to further my acting career, with hopes of becoming a voice actor. I did on-camera commercials and television before settling into voice acting exclusively in the late nineties. My first animated series was “Cow and Chicken” (voicing “Dad”) and my first feature film was “Space Jam,” where I voiced Daffy Duck and the Tasmanian Devil. (For a mostly accurate list of projects I’ve worked on since, click HERE)

What are you working on now? Anything upcoming?

I’m very excited to be featured as the lead boxtroll “Fish” in Laika’s upcoming animated feature “The Boxtrolls,” (for more on that, click HERE). I worked with Laika to develop the boxtroll language.

You will also be able to hear my creature sounds throughout the final installment of “The Hobbit” feature film hitting theaters this holiday season. A new Sponge Bob feature debuts soon thereafter.

You can also catch me and many of my colleagues in the documentary, “I Know That Voice.”

We are currently recording a new season of “American Dad” for TBS. I’m still working on finishing Book IV of “Legend of Korra” for Nickelodeon as well as a couple new pre-school shows for them (yet to be announced). I’m also working on a number of shows for Disney these days, “The Seven D,” “Jake and the Neverland Pirates,” “Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja,” as well as an exciting new series I can’t talk about yet.

“Lego 3: Batman: Beyond Gotham” is a really fun and hilarious game that will be out soon, featuring me as the villainous Braniac, who is trying to take over the universe. They let me be a bad guy who was completely over-the-top and it was a hoot.

With more on the way, it’s been a record busy year!

How do you come up with a creature sound for an audition?

Having a visual reference (a sketch or some character designs) for the creature or character makes it easier for me to be specific with the performance. If there is no actual spoken dialog, then a description of a specific scene or sequence of events is helpful. At very least, I would love some of the creature’s attitudes or emotions to demonstrate (e.g. curious, angry, surprised, resting). Sometimes, all I get is a physical description of the creature and that’s all I have to go from.

Using the description and what I can learn of those involved making it, I try to get a specific lock on the attitude and tone of show as well as the creature. Whatever creature I make must fit into the broader universe of the project. It’s critical, especially when auditioning, to deliver a performance that could pretty much be just dropped into the show “as is.”  

A casting decision-maker may not assume that an imperfect audition can be directed into something that works. If it doesn’t feel right or fit right off the bat, that may be the end of it, and someone else may be considered for the role, or they’ll try to cobble it together using a sounds effects library (which typically yields a more generic performance). So, my goal is to get is right on my first audition.

I may take a couple runs at voicing the creature to give the director/ casting person a couple different choices if I feel I have more than one solution to this problem. I edit it all down to a pace that feels right to me, hit “save” and then email my audition in.

If, after reading the description, I don’t feel I can give a good read, I will tell them that and politely decline the audition. I don’t want to waste anyone’s time with an audition that won’t work.

How do you actually make creature and monster sounds?

It’s hard to describe how I produce the weird sounds I make. Some sounds I make with an exhale and many with an inhale. An inhale sounds tends to be easier on my voice and yet maintain a full range of expression and volume.

In addition to the vocalized sound produced with the muscles in my throat, I’ll sometimes pinch my nose shut or manipulate another part of my face, tongue, lips, soft pallet or throat. There’s a lot going on that I can feel and sort of see in my mind, but it’s hard to describe. I’m shooting for feelings and tone, rather than specific describable physiological targets.

I find my sounds by trial and error, mostly while driving around in my car and occasionally while grocery shopping (I try and be discreet, not sure if I always succeed). If I discover a new sound that has a suitable range of expression (I’m not aiming to collect mere “sound effects”), I practice it long enough to be familiar with it, then I place it up on my mind’s “shelf” for later use.

It feels to me like I’ve collected rows and rows of sounds that I’ve bottled and put on shelves in my mind. It’s like I can see this line up of sound vials, sitting there waiting to be mixed. I know where each is placed in my throat and what I have to do with my various chambers, muscles and skin to produce that sound. Each sits at the ready, like a variable waiting to be added to an equation.

When I visualize from a description of a creature in a script, for instance, I reach up in my mental laboratory and select a couple of these sounds, mix them around and produce a living thing. Maybe sort of like Dr. Moreau. That’s how it feels to me, anyway

What is the favorite show you’ve worked on?

I enjoy different shows for different reasons. Some are more fun because of cast interaction (e.g. Codename: Kids Next Door, Sponge Bob, Ben 10, Handy Manny), some I particularly enjoy because of the world we are creating (e.g. Avatar, Clone Wars, Adventure Time). Some I like what the show is saying (e.g. Handy Manny, Avatar), and some are satisfying because they are so creative or funny (e.g. Phineas and Ferb, Sponge Bob, Adventure Time, American Dad, The Boxtrolls, Phineas and Ferb). Most are a mix of these. It’s really impossible (and kind of silly) to try and pick a favorite.

Do you have a favorite creature sound?

No, but I would say I do particularly enjoy sounds that convey the sweet and soft (Perry the Platypus, Momo, Appa, for instance) or sounds that are utterly disgusting or horrifically disturbing (Doom 3, Left 4 Dead 2, Fright Night, World of Warcraft). It’s particularly fun to explore ugly or monstrous vocalizations, that don’t sound like they could come from a human. Oddly, some of the most horrific sounds actually feel quite good when performed.

Were you a “class clown,” always making crazy noises as a kid? 

I was a fairly straight-laced bookworm theater geek kid who loved monsters and sci-fi and animals. Actually, I’m still that. I wasn’t really a class clown or showoff, though I did like making comedic sketches with friends that were pretty far out to some. We made home movies, multi track audio tapes and even created surreal performance-art floats for our hometown 4th of July Parades. I’d say our heroes were Monty Python, Firesign Theater and SCTV.

One weird sound I learned as a kid was from my Dad. He taught me to whistle like crickets when we went fishing. I did weird characters and some odd vocalizations in my stand up routine in the late 80’s (including baby sounds and “a giant praying mantis who sang Mozart in German”). I’ve personally always gravitated to humor that emanated from character rather than jokes. I remember a day working at an ice cream store after college when I realized that I could “talk and sing in my mouth without moving my lips or opening my mouth” and that people thought that was funny.

Making “crazy noises” or “sound effects” is not actually what I shoot for nor really what I’m hired to do. Sound effects is not what movies, T.V. and games need from me. I’m hired to act, sometimes with non-human or non-word sounds, but my job is fundamentally to be an actor– to bring intelligence and very specific intent to the story being told. I’m brought in when it’s either too difficult or impossible to cobble together a satisfactory non-human sound performance from a sound effects library. This is usually needed when the creature is sentient or anthropomorphized or provides some sort of “conversation” or intent to the story. A prop makes sounds. A creature or animal that acts moves the story forward.

Making odd creature sounds as a voice actor didn’t become a thing for me until I was in my thirties. After moving to Los Angeles in 1993, I was typically cast in mostly comedic and cartoony animated projects (e.g. “Cow and Chicken,” “Powerpuff Girls,” “Johnny Bravo,” “Grim and Mandy”). It was wacky but not weird.

My work in stand up and improv had taught me to be uninhibited and voice directors began asking me to voice a monster here or a dog there and that seemed to click. The “weird stuff” fit with my skill set and personality so I began focusing on expanding my creature sounds repertoire. The work just keep coming as show creators and casting directors gradually became aware of my abilities and as I worked to broaden my range of useable sounds and weave them into my acting. My enthusiasm and focus grew and so did my repertoire and work load.

What draws you to making creature sounds?

My enthusiasm for making creature sounds stems from a number of things leading back to my childhood: First off, I’ve always loved and been fascinated with animals. I had a lot of scaly and slimey pets as a kid– lizards, snakes, tadpoles, frogs, and various insects I could catch, along with dogs and guinea pigs. I probably would have had a baby alligator had my folks had allowed it (that actually was a thing in the early seventies, believe it or not).

I remember watching a lot of nature documentaries with my family (Jaques Cousteau, Wild Kingdom, Nova) and I did a fair amount of fishing and camping also when I was young. Life science classes were some of my favorite college courses (I loved Invertebrate Zoology and Cell Bio, though I ended up majoring in Philosophy and taking a lot of German classes, as well as studying a year in Germany).

I was always fascinated with monsters and aliens I found in sci-fi and fantasy books, television shows and movies. I loved Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, Godzilla, and Star Wars. I’d see every horror/sci-fi movie I could on screens big or small. If I couldn’t, I’d try at least to catch the nickel version of it in Famous Monsters or Mad Magazine. My favorite authors were Clark, Asimov, Tolkien, Heinlein and Bradbury. Monster model kits, Rick Baker, Rob Botin and Ray Harryhausen were all on my radar. How I envy kids these days with their DVD extras, fan conventions and internet access!

Because I’ve always been attracted to animals, creatures and fantasy, creating non-human vocalizations feels in harmony with where my mind has always been.

What is your favorite thing about your voice acting career?

A few things: Creature vocalizations are particularly satisfying for me because it’s fun conjuring a living thing with my voice. I see the critter in my mind, almost like I’m watching it in the show, and out it pops. Acting is fun and making creatures is even more fun!

I also enjoy the collaborative aspect of making a show. That this art form is done cooperatively gives me a sense of connection that harkens back to what drew me to originally to stage acting.

I should also say that I’ve come to appreciate how deeply people enjoy movies, t.v. shows and games. Some shows build complex mythologies that deeply resonate with many, many people (e.g. Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The Last Airbender). These heroes and roll models are very important to many! Even a one-off video game can be a a very important reference in a person’s life. I’ve learned from attending a conventions lately that the impact of what we in the “Entertainment Industry” create can have quite a profound impact on many. That has surprised me. 

Not to oversell the point, but it feels good to be creating things that matter to people, that makes their lives more fun, interesting, and more meaningful. It’s also cool to see how this shared enthusiasm brings people together in an inclusive and creative community. 

Finally, voice acting is a really great form of acting. It offers a much greater variety of work than on-camera and typically a longer career lifespan. It is also a quicker gig than on-camera, plus it’s air conditioned, there are no lines to memorize and there’s not as much driving around. More time with family. It’s always a fun group to work with and you don’t have to suffer with fame. 

Do you drive your family crazy making weird sounds at home?

I keep weird sounds to a minimum at home. Odd voices are often mortifying to my teenage daughter, I’ve found (though that can be fun). No one in my family particularly wants to hear daddy walking around screeching and roaring and clicking and growling. I spend more time making up weird sounds and characters driving around.

Are you a singer?

Yes, I’m what is called a “stretch baritone,” essentially singing anywhere from “bass” to “tenor 2”. I was once cast in Tony in “West Side Story,” if you can believe it. I love singing and helped form a number of singing groups in high school and college– barbershop, vocal jazz, that kind of stuff. I was the lead bass singer in a number of my college’s choir performances as well as various musicals. I miss all that group singing very much.

What are your secrets for maintaining your voice?

My view is that, to begin with, a performer learns how to protect their voice from years of using it, especially in a live setting. Vocal tension and fatigue lead to you working against yourself in a downward spiral. They combine to deflate your power to deliver with your voice. The more you push, the more fatigued the voice gets until there is nothing left vocally. At worst, you can seriously damage your voice, and this can happen very quickly (by screaming or yelling a lot, for instance). 

A good vocal teacher can be invaluable in avoiding this. I learned good vocal maintenance from my singing teacher in Orlando, Manny Lujan. Manny is a classically trained opera singer and knows how to build up as well as rehabilitate the voice. He taught me how to strengthen my upper and lower registers separately and how to “reset” them after stressful work. He taught me where to place a tone so it is powerful and not self-destructive. His training was invaluable to me.

My vocal warm up and warm down usually just consists of very soft, relaxed ascending and descending falsetto arpeggios using a breathy and relaxed “ooh” vowel and some base range arpeggios to activate and separate my head and chest range muscles. I don’t otherwise have any lozenges or drinks I use or avoid for vocal prep or vocal health maintenance.

Much of what I’ve learned about not damaging my voice while “delivering the goods” comes from my many years of live performing– I don’t think it could be learned otherwise. You learn how to not exert yourself unnecessarily, which is what a less experienced performer typically does. Experience yields an economy of effort, so you work less to get as much or more result.

In live performing, it is a matter of self-preservation that you learn how to be more relaxed physically and vocally. You learn to use only what is required in your acting so as not to waste or degrade your voice with unnecessary effort or too much effort. Experience teaches you to do more with less, delivering “the goods” with more power and control with less work. 

You also get quicker at getting a lock on a clear idea of what you want to do as an actor. This also makes vocal production more efficient (as well as a session more efficient). Your clarity of idea saves your voice as it improves your acting. Generally, a more seasoned performer knows “the game” and knows his/her abilities and can quickly dial this up. A novice will take longer to find it.

A novice performer will often put out far more effort and strain than is needed and thereby quickly use up the finite capacity of the voice (I like to say “There is only so much gas in the tank.”) Pushing a stressed out voice translates to even more misplaced vocal effort, and usually results in a quick session end with a blown-out voice.

What’s it like working on Star Wars projects?

Working in the Star War’s universe is a kind of dream come true for me. I was quite into Star Wars as a kid. I remember reading the novelization and the big Time Magazine feature before “A New Hope” hit theaters in the summer of 1977. I saw the movie probably four or five times that summer. I purchased John Williams double album and noticed that the musical pieces were not in the correct order. So, I marked out the correct chronological sequence in the liner notes so it matched the sequence in the movie. I think I then re-recorded it on a cassette to it was in the proper order. My folks made me a killer jawa costume for Halloween of ’77. I spent the summer of ’78 (when they re-released Star Wars) dressed in my home made jawa costume working at the local cinema, where I re-watched it all summer long. (My Mom made the costume and my Dad made the glowing eyes.) So, yes, I am very, very happy to be working in that universe.

In the television series “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” how did you make the clones distinct?

Showing the individual humanity of the clones was key to portraying the clones in George Lucas’ “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.” In contrast to the feature films, the “Clone Wars” clones appeared as individual humans, at times at odds with their surrounding, their superiors and even each other. These clones became more heroic– humans you could relate to and cheer for, good soldiers trapped in a diabolical political-military tragedy they were unaware of until it was too late. This added character complexity gave audiences a personal connection to these good soldiers and significantly upped the stakes of the war they were fighting.

Rendering this vast band of brothers as distinct individuals was perhaps the biggest acting challenge I’ve ever had. Not only were these clone soldiers straight-ahead warriors (not the kind of roll I was used to playing at the time) but they all had to come off as individual humans to contrast them with the robot army they were pitted against. They looked the same, but weren’t the same. They all had to sound subtly different, yet similar. As we started recording the Clone Wars series, it wasn’t even clear if this would even work.

The separation of these clones was first established with the brilliant writing of that series, which clearly set out the basic tone for each principle clone. Our director Dave Filoni also had a very specific idea of who these soldiers were, their differences in status, age and personality traits. From that, I would work with Dave to assign each clone’s vocal placement using a triangular grid to place each clone’s attitude and tone. I’d then distill that down to an adjective or two and notate that in the script (lower/gruff, med/wiseguy, center/by-the-book, gravel/gung-ho, younger/unsure, etcetera). It was like I could see each clone in my mind at this point.

In the first seasons, I would record each principle clone separately straight through the script, then go back to the beginning the record the next clone, and so on. As I got more comfortable with this, we’d just record the entire script straight through and I’d jump from clone to clone like we were doing a radio play. Some of the best clone scenes in the final seasons of The Clone Wars were literally just me talking to myself. A good showcase of this would be the Umbara arc in season 5 and the Fives arc in season 6. I’m particularly proud of my work on those story lines involving the members of “Domino Squad.”

The Clone Wars was and still is a show unlike anything else on television. It set the bar so high for story telling and visuals that there really isn’t anything to compare it with, animated or live action. The voice cast was incredible and the entire production crew labored so hard and long to make something far beyond anything the small screen has ever seen. And of course, it never would have been made or sustained if it weren’t for George Lucas’ direct involvement.

I’m so very proud to have been part of the army that labored to make “The Clone Wars” a show like no other.

What do you think of fan conventions, like ComiCon?

I think fan conventions like ComiCon are awesome. I love how eclectic and open and accepting everybody is of whatever creative world or mythology that you are into. All enthusiasm is welcome and all difference is encouraged and celebrated. Artistry is celebrated in so many forms. People make incredible things to display or sell. It is a market place, a showcase, a social event, a creative coming together. 

And everyone’s in. Whether you’re a little kid or some dude who’s ninety-five; whether you spent two years building this awesome cosplay outfit that’s perfectly accurate or you just picked something up at the Walgreens, it’s all welcome. There is no judging of whatever thing you’re into, everyone’s included; everyone’s dressing the way they feel, the way they want to be. There are cosplay weapons everywhere, but not a hint of violence or war or anger. No one’s defensive about themselves or what they are into. No on seems threatened by another’s difference or the world the other inhabits. A con is as peaceful a gathering of different types as I can imagine. And all these disparate worlds thrive and coexist under one roof. It’s a model for how humans should behave and how we should be spending our energies, to my mind.

I wish this spirit weren’t confined to a convention center. Why can’t the world we build for ourselves be more like this? Why can’t a person wear a cape and save people? Why can’t a kid have a tail or antennae? Why can’t a gal jump off of buildings and fly, or at least pretend to? Why can’t an old man go to other worlds, or create them and try to make them real? Why do I have to look like this? Why can’t I design and build my own wardrobe, my own look? Why do any of us have to always wear this uniform or these expectations and habits that are given to us by our society? Why can’t we choose the most awesome version of life for ourselves?

Some look at a convention and see a world of weirdos and outsiders. They dismiss the wandering aliens, superheroes and creatures as frivolous and merely odd. But what I see is a vision of a more human world, a more humane world.  Why shouldn’t we be able to create a more awesome world with friends, with strangers, and make this our world, not just one handed to us and passively accepted? Why can’t we make and celebrate a world that is more awesome, more creative and more inclusive? A fan convention like comicon is a better run at society than much of the rest of the planet is apparently able to achieve.  

That’s what a comic-con is to me; that’s what I love about conventions.

Do you teach?

I have taught a few times, and I do enjoy teaching, but it’s not how I want to earn my living (at least for now) and I just don’t have the time. I think I can help a lot more people with my free website, anyway.

There are a lot of acting classes which seem to imply that you are paying for some kind of magical key from an all-knowing expert that will unlock all doors for anyone who takes the class. That’s something I can’t really promise anyone, because most aren’t really right for this line of work to begin with. The few who are right for this I might have some helpful ideas, but I don’t particularly want to be paid to help a fellow actor. I’d rather be paid to act.

And besides, the best classroom for me has always been on stage in front of an audience. That’s where an acting student should be. I’ve always learned by working with others who are more talented and experienced than I am (as I still do). I did have an excellent on-camera acting teacher for a couple years when I first moved to L.A. (Stuart K. Robinson), but that was useful to me after many years of performing experience. I was ready to learn and apply the tools.

I recommend learning the essentials of what a voice actor needs to know by working with other actors who are better than you. For me this has always meant a lot of “live performing,” with maybe a sprinkling of paid “training.”

Is this the only way? No. It is the way I know that worked for me.

Why did you put your voiceover advice into a free website (iwanttobeavoiceactor.com), instead of making it into a book?

It is pretty irregular for someone at the top of their game in their career to make a free how-to manual about how to approach his career. But, it felt like a good project, especially in light of how often I’m asked “How do I get into voice overs?” I want to answer that question each time I hear it, but rarely have the time or voice to give a full answer. So, I made my website.

Having recently read Andreesen’s fascinating e-book “Free” (which he gave away for free), I felt a free website with dynamic and expanding content was the best way I could educate the seriously interested and deflect the not so seriously interested, in the most time efficient manner. A website simply seemed the best way to help the most people, as it is instantly accessible planet-wide for free by anyone. There would be nothing in the way between the curious and the good information, and I could continually add and polish content, which is fun for me.

Putting what I had to say into a book offered many disadvantages. I can’t revise a book or add to it (I’m always coming up with new ideas and am trying to say what I have to say more concisely and clearly). Also, I’ve no interest in dealing with a publisher and I have no desire to supplement my income with a new career as a voice-expert. A book must be hunted down and paid for (not every curious aspiring actor should have to buy a book and not all aspiring actors have cash).

Finally, I’m always suspicious of gurus and experts who are selling me some cure all or Golden Key. Maybe it’s worth it, maybe not. But if someone has something so good they want to share it for free, you have my attention. So, no to making a book.

What would you be doing if you couldn’t be a voice actor?

I always felt I could have gone into special effects makeup. I could also have possibly gone into computer animation, probably due to my interest in computer technology, cartoons and PBS CGI music videos.  I’ve also realized recently that I could be one of those people who design and build Halloween haunted houses, props and effects year ’round. I also like music and photography enough to have pursued something along those lines, as well.

Is voice acting the best job in the world?

Earning a living doing something you love that you are good at is the best job in the world. So, for me, yes.

What do you imagine you will be doing in ten or twenty years?

I’ve never been one to imagine the future too specifically, because it never turns out that way. In fact, it’s usually way better than I had imagined! But also vastly different. I don’t think I could have possibly imagined my current life twenty years ago! As a kid or even in college, I had no specific aspirations at all.

I don’t get too hung up on trying to steer my life into a particular result. My time horizon is more limited, though I do set goals and try to follow through.

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© Dee Bradley Baker 2017
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