Voice-over work is a very specific talent, often working without the nuances and structures of the human face it can be difficult to clearly to express emotions or ideas. With animation there is often the added challenge of reconciling an over-the-top character, perhaps with a comic voice, into clear enunciated words.
Many popular voice artists have the enviable ability to perform multiple voices, the breadth of their talent allowing them to interact as various different characters. The job of a voice artist, can take them from film and television, through to games and TV commercials.
In marketing videos a professional voice-over artist can help articulate a key message, with research indicating that a professional VO can double marketing ROI.*
In this episode we get a great insight into the work of a prolific character voice artist, and discover what actually goes into creating a great character voice.
Our guest also talks about performing an A-list cartoon character live on TV to the world, and how he dealt with it when it all went a bit pear shaped – dealing with it live on-air in character of course.
We also look at the art of the voice-over, and why it’s never a good idea to cram too many words into your script.
Marc Silk is one of the most in-demand voice artists in the business. He’s worked across numerous mediums, spanning cartoons, feature films, TV Shows, computer games and commercials. Some of his highlights include working with George Lucas voicing a member of the Galactic Senate in Star Wars – Episode One, narrating The Pingu Show, performing 30 characters in the new Danger Mouse, as well as being the voice of Scooby-Doo & Shaggy, Johnny Bravo and Bob the Builder in the United States.
I caught up with Marc at his studio in the West Midlands . . .
SCOTT LEDBURY: Thanks for being here today Marc. You’ve obviously been heard all round the world in videos, games, film and TV, when you’re doing a voice record, do you still get physical with hand gestures and movements?
MARC SILK: I guess I do, I’m not really aware of it until someone shows it back to me on video. But I guess if you’re creating a character and you’re doing something special, you end up doing the mannerisms, copying the physicality.
I technically have no training in physical acting, or voice acting for that matter, this is all self-taught. I’m not thinking about the physical side, I’m just doing what I need to do to bring the character to life.
Marc Silk Voice Actor - Showreel
SL: Scooby-Doo, for me, is one of the most iconic voices. There obviously isn’t just one person who does the voice of Scooby-Doo so explain that process to us, and how you managed to get that role?
MS: It started with just one person, Don Messick, in 1969. Don was the voice of many, many cartoons in a variety from Hanna-Barbera. When Don Messick died, they still needed to bring that character to life, so there have been a number of people, myself included, who were brought in to voice the character.
Since my childhood I have had great affection for these shows, and as an adult I have great admiration for the way in which the shows are put together, especially when you look at the technology from that point in history.
It’s the same with the artists who have had to be replaced. For the UK, I’m the guy who has the joy and privilege of doing the voice. For me to get so much enjoyment as a viewer and then to get to be that character is wonderful.
SL: Since doing the voice, do you still love him as much as a character?
MS: Yeah, he’s a great character! There are lots of characters where lots of different people have played them through the years.
When I was in the studio for the first time, working on a Scooby-Doo advert, it was a very cool moment.
SL: You often play more than one role in cartoons, for example Scooby-Doo and Shaggy, and you’re playing 30 roles in the new Danger Mouse, is versatility the key skill for a voice-over artist?
MS: Yes, one thing I have on my side, is a decent ear and ability to perform a lot of character voices, like a good musician who plays a load of instruments. A good character performer, they may not even be able to do that many voices, but they have the ability to bring a character to life.
Every time they perform a role, you forget that it’s them and you believe in the character. Take Tom Hanks, it always sounds like Tom Hanks, but if you listen you end up forgetting that its Tom Hanks but you believe in the character.
SL: You have the added pressure of doing over 30 characters in the same show, do you make 30 distinctions of character?
MS: I think it’s like music, there’s only a very small number of notes and that’s it! How do you make sure all the tunes don’t sound the same, it’s the skill of the composer. I don’t think of it that way, that’s just when you deconstruct it. With the new series of Danger Mouse the first voice you hear is a Brummie (Birmingham) window cleaner, which I thought would be great to put in.
The note, the age, the tune, the style of the voice. In terms of creating a good character voice I don’t know. I like to see the character and then try and bring something funny or engaging to it, in the moment. So versatility is really useful but with performing voice for whatever it may be, you may have one great voice. Look at James Earl Jones, I only ever want to hear him do that one voice.
There’s a guy I work with Tommy Lee Jenkins, on the show Go Jetters and he has a brilliant voice, you probably won’t hear him doing little pixie voices because he has a deep, funky voice and brings a certain character to life perfectly. Some people have one great voice but can play a stack of characters, or they’ll be some people who do lots of different types of characters.
John Lewis Christmas Advert
SL: To bring our conversation back to advertising and brands, there has been some obvious examples over the years, but why would you use a character and character voices instead of any other means of presentation?
MS: In the end, you’re trying to tell a story and get people on your side, and it’s finding the most engaging way of doing that. You can play it really straight, but comedy is a brilliant way of bringing people into an idea and getting them on side.
For example, John Lewis at Christmas could have done a factual informative advert, telling them about the offers, classy and straight. But they didn’t do that – they made something magical and created a character, so you have something bigger than a straight commercial.
People feel good about watching this advert, it makes them smile and you connect that feeling with the store. But also, if you have merchandise of the character – you think, I want one of those. They’ve entertained them, they’ve brought the audience in and got them on side. They understand how to connect with the audience and get that message across – and that message is: come and see us. A good while ago, I had a radio script that was fast and overwritten, the man suggesting that the average was 2.2 words per second, so you had to hit a certain target.
As I explained, you can have a thirty second advert and yet only use three words. The sound of waves in the ocean, or silence, or some laughter or a great music track. Then three words at the end; the name of your brand. And because you’re not shouting about your brand like everyone else, it stands out all the more. In the end, people who understand the creative medium, realise how to get the best out of it.
When I started out I did a lot of corporate videos, real world side, straight discussions. It’s great seeing the development in corporate video, people have moved on from talking with corporate-ese and now are talking in a much more real-world language. Having the vocabulary to articulate your thoughts with sincerity, in a succinct way is a fantastic gift. The results can be amazing.
SL: Moving onto the Producer/ Director and Voice Actor relationship. You have a script in front of you, but when do you feel comfortable enough to speak up and try and alter the script to what would work better for the character?
MS: Sometimes you’re in a situation when you understand that it’s not your role to give any notes, or that it would not be well received if you did. It’s up to you to understand your role in the project, sometimes you go in and perform your voice and that’s it.
The majority of projects you work on will have gone through vigorous checking of the script at various levels to make sure that it gets the best of out the opportunity. In bigger productions, you have people in the room who make adjustments as you go.
With animation or character recordings, the best writers are in the room and so as a performer you know what a character might say or do. But usually it’s not needed for you to throw that because the writers will have already done it! Occasionally you’ll throw something in, or accidentally read a word wrong, so a lot of this is communication, dependant on the people in the room.
You need to be able to listen to a room, is this a situation where people want to hear your thoughts? But mostly if people bring you into the room, it’s because they want you for what you bring to that project. For example, if someone’s brought in a musician who is a really good keyboard player, they can bring a little extra colour. Or you may have a very exact idea and you need them to perform it exactly. With voice artists, sometimes you don’t know how the animation is going to work, or what it’s going to be cut together with.
There needs to be a great deal of trust between you and the director. When you’re working on an animation with a really great voice cast and a great director, it’s just golden, you are hearing the show come to life right in front of you.
SL: Speaking of trust, talk us through the time, when as Johnny Bravo you did a ‘take-over TV session’. You had a script structure, but had live interaction to some point.
MS: Johnny Bravo, ended up being the presenter of Cartoon Network twice a year for three years, at the height of his popularity.
I was brought in, to perform him live, there was an incredible CGI computer which took photos from three different angles of a CNN Studio, then created a virtual 3D studio where Johnny Bravo could sit behind a desk and interact with the environment.
So Bravo could be puppeted on demand, to interact naturally with the environment. On top of this we added another piece of software which was basically mouth shapes, listening to the live output from my microphone. It would listen to vowel sounds and shape the cartoon mouth accordingly.
Every time I spoke, his mouth would move live, just as Johnny Bravo’s voice should have moved. When it all came together, it was just magical!
SL: Were you taking live calls from viewers?
MS: Every half an hour we would do a live link. He would do what any other presenter would do, telling you what was on next, take live calls, run competitions.
The script that I would have would be me telling you what you’d just watched, what was up next, then me going to a live call and playing a live game with the viewer. I knew the beginning of the script and I knew what the end was and I knew how long my slot was, but in the middle there was a lot of space with a live caller.
So they put a lot of trust in me to get that right – this was going round the world live from London to South America. I loved it, it was me in my zone. I was there because it’s what I can do well, I’m good at bringing characters to live.
I worked in radio for a few years, so that live radio was great experience because if something went wrong you could work it into your programme and sometimes even make it better, there’s an energy when something is live. You don’t get that with pre-recorded.
On the Johnny Bravo Live programme, we were all set to do a call in and someone came in and just knocked the phone cable out of the wall. So we were all ready to go and there was no child on the line to play the interactive game.
I could hear them panicking in my headphones but I just had to improvise, so in character as Johnny Bravo I said ‘I’m going to show you how this game should be played!’ and I won the game in character as Johnny, which they loved. It was natural and funny and worked really well.
Chicken Run Teaser
SL: On your website you claim to offer vocal effects, what does that entail?
MS: Vocal effects are quite simply sound effects created with your voice. It could be a cartoon character that doesn’t speak, reaction and thinking noises. For example, for Disney I ended up doing the vocal effects for a series of paint splats onto a page.
They could have used stock sound effects, but this was a truly unique sound that stood above and beyond what other people were doing. As I was started out, I was hired by Nick Park and Peter Lord to be a extra clucker for Chicken Run. I really love what I do, and I love the work of Aardman, it’s brilliant entertainment.
SL: Give us an insight into your experience as a ‘clucker’ on Chicken Run.
MS: Well, first I had to actually get the job. Aardman are looking for people that can do Chicken noises, for their new film – so can you record some examples of this. I had to think, how could I get this job, how can I stand out? So I thought, I’d give them a variety of different voices – chickens in different scenarios. I gave a selection of chicken noises that would be useful to them, thinking through the character of this. It isn’t just silly voices, you’re creating characters and telling stories.
Then, I got hold of an instrumental of Frank Sinatra’s big band playing ‘New York, New York’, and recorded over it a five part chicken clucking singing the song. So I got the job! In the recording session there were scenes where there was a line up of chickens and they needed a selection of reaction noises. So you watched the clip and then made appropriate noises, to show fear for example. You perform those character elements to fit the mouth movements.
It’s called ADR (Additional Dialogue Recording) or looping, the same process as used in movies to add additional sound elements. Generally with recording animation, you record the voice first and then animate to that as it’s an easier process – as a performer you’re free to give the best performance you can, uninhibited by someone’s opinion of the timing of it. It does happen sometimes when you’re changing the dialogue for various regions, or recording the dialogue in a different language.
Or even for America. I was the voice of Bob the Builder in America for about a decade. The animation was done to the UK casts voice recording, but I was brought in to dub in Bob with an American voice. It’s amazing the popularity of it, you often don’t realise based in the UK what a big deal that is. People in America would find it weird to hear Bob with an English accent.
SL: You originally wanted to be a sound designer, is this the best of both worlds for you now?
MS: It’s just an extension of that world. I originally started off as a Producer/ Director, basically the button guy at a radio station and then grew my interest as a producer, loving the idea of sound design and creating worlds from scratch.
A great hero of mine is Ben Burtt, who created the sound of the lightsabers, who made Star Wars sound the way it does. He created these other worlds from scratch which I found fascinating.
When I started out I created sound effects for radio jingles and music, and doing sound design vocally is just an extension of that. Having a fascination in that area, merely helps you to be better, reflected in the quality of what you do.
SL: You’re also a voice director, what does that involve from your end?
MS: It involves getting the best out of whoever you’re working with. With CITV, I’ve been brought in to be the voice director for a special project called ‘Share a Story’, which could potentially be a tricky job, as it involved children that have won a competition to create an idea for their own cartoon.
But these are children who have a great deal of talent but have never done a voice record before. So as voice director, I’m there in the studio to help them feel at home and relax and to understand that person’s ability and work out the best way to help them to achieve their best.
Coming from a production background, and now being involved in the production side, combining that experience from both sides of the glass puts me in a great position. You understand what you would want to hear in that scenario.
So much of this is working with people, when I first started out I worked with people who could be incredibly demoralising. I got brought in a lot when I was younger because I was the ‘cool, young funky guy’, but I was still very inexperienced in the industry.
I remember one day when I was just starting out, and I wasn’t feeling very good about myself – and the guy at the end said ‘Well, we can probably cobble something together from that!’ and you don’t want to hear that, you walk away feeling awful. As a director you don’t want to do that to somebody, if people feel good about what they are doing it all goes towards getting the best out of that person.
In the end it is all about people, it’s about communication. From telling the story in the end that you want them to hear to actually working with the people to get there.
SL: Thank you Marc – the time has flown by, it’s been absolutely fantastic.