The actors adjust immediately, producing a higher level of henlike shock. It's just one highlight of this particular voiceover session, in which the cast is recording various sections of Back at the Barnyard's latest script. Although animated-series ensembles don't always get to record together, Paulsen, for one, prefers it to knocking out his lines solo. "I have both [kinds of sessions] that I do with great regularity," he says. "As clever and funny as I'd like to think I am on my own, good actors make me better."
Between takes, the actors banter, sometimes in character, though saying things that probably wouldn't make the cut on a family-oriented television show. Paulsen chuckles as he recalls a few of the more off-color remarks. This, he says, is another reason recording as a cast is better than going it alone. "You can tell how much fun we have," he says.
On Barnyard, Paulsen plays Peck, a skittish rooster. At this session, he's also portraying a rather unappealing-sounding human known simply as Snotty Boy, who is usually voiced by Barnyard creator–executive producer Steve Oedekerk. "It's very common for actors to fill in for others who aren't at the recording session, to help the actors who are present keep the flow of the script intact," explains Paulsen. Oedekerk will record his lines later; in the meantime, Paulsen's reads also help the animators with the timing of the episode.
Still, the two voices are night and day. Peck is fast, nervous, and slightly high-pitched. Snotty Boy goes into the deeper register and constantly sounds like he needs to blow his nose. "If you're going to be a voiceover actor, [voicing multiple characters] is a skill you must possess," says voiceover director and casting director Dawn Hershey. "You have to be versatile. The budget of the cartoon depends on your versatility. Nine times out of 10, unless it's a celebrity, we're not going to hire you for one voice; we're going to hire you for three."
Paulsen, an Emmy-winning voiceover veteran, switches back and forth with admirable ease. He broke into the business about 25 years ago when his agent, Rita Vennari of Sutton, Barth & Vennari, landed him a general audition with Hanna-Barbera, and he has been voicing characters on shows like Animaniacs, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius ever since. One thing that helps with the transitions, he notes, is that each character is fully fleshed out, in his head and on the page. "When [I'm] doing Snotty Boy, I have this view in my head of this really disgusting, horrible human—and of course, they've animated him to look pretty disgusting," he says, chuckling. "And then when I'm talking like Peck, I've just got this ingenuous kind of 'Uh, I don't think it's such a good idea' thing. But definitely, what's going on in my brain is completely different. One doesn't overlap the other. It's a real clear delineation."
As Paulsen moves from Peck to Snotty Boy and back again, his physicality changes as well. When he's Peck, he goes all wide-eyed with wonder and neuroses. Moving into Snotty Boy, he becomes more hunched over, emanating boorishness. Though some may labor under the misconception that voice acting is about simply pitching the vocal cords one way or another, watching a session like this would clear that up pretty quickly: The performers throw themselves into their roles, as any good actor does.
"My best actors aren't acting from nose to chin; they're acting from head to toe," says voiceover actor-director-coach Rick Zieff. "Even the physical placement of where the voice comes from—if you've got one deep kind of gargoyle-y guy and your other guy's a nerdy guy and he's placed way up in the nasal passages, you not only have to change your emotional placement of 'What am I thinking, what am I feeling, what am I saying?' but [also] 'Who am I, what do I look like, how big am I?' "
A cold, dimly lit recording booth might not be the most inspiring place, but voiceover actor-director-teacher Susan Blu says you have to use your imagination to fill your environment. "[Actors on stage] have their atmosphere, their props, all of that stuff around them," she says. "But with voice acting, you are in a studio, and you've got a microphone in front of you, and that's basically all you have. You've got to use your body, and you've got to bring the atmospheres. Are you in a castle? Are you in outer space? Are you on a farm? You've got to build your stage in your own mind."
After a few takes of the first sequence in the script, Spingarn says what appear to be the magic words: "Crazy pass." This time, the actors put their own spin on the sequence: an improvised line here, a slightly different character read there. They bounce off one another with ease, their chemistry more than evident. During the crazy pass, notes Spingarn, anything goes: "You can digress from the script or speak Portuguese or say anything you want, basically. We're kind of blessed with a group of actors who are very funny people in their own right. I make sure to get an as-written read always, and then the final take is always the crazy pass. It's usually 90 percent filth and inside jokes, but really almost every crazy pass yields something that I'll end up using—a line or two."
The term crazy pass may be unique to Barnyard, but improv is often a key component of animated voiceover sessions. Says Zieff, "Having improv skills keeps people very open and in the moment, very spontaneous, and those are qualities that are very valuable" in voiceover.
That doesn't mean improv is always welcome. "Some scripts are going to be really tight and cannot go off the page," says voiceover actor and coach Steve Harris. "Now, when they do let you do a little improv, that's a fantastic opportunity to really stand up and show them that you have that ability, to shine and make yourself very attractive to a creative team."
In the case of Barnyard, improv is encouraged. A few of the actors even take the opportunity to pitch jokes or adjustments that improve upon the script. Chris Hardwick, who plays a goofy cow named Otis, proposes a bit that ends up being one of the session's funniest: an impromptu song that goes over a minimontage of Otis and his male barnyard friends when they disguise themselves as human girls ("It's not weird/Okay, maybe just a little bit"). Unfortunately, the engineers inform Spingarn that Hardwick's "p's popped" during the take.
"Essentially [it's] a wind issue, where you would hear the technical glitch of too much wind on the mike, and it would be a distraction watching the show," explains Spingarn. "That's always an interesting quandary, because when you capture lightning in a bottle and then the engineer tells you that it teched, it's pretty rare that you're gonna get the same magic to happen again on cue." Hardwick tries in vain to record the song again, but he can't recall the lyrics he improvised so brilliantly the first time around. Luckily, the engineers come up with a solution: They'll graft a p from another take onto the first hilarious recording.
"Every now and then, something comes out [of improvising during a session], and the end result is you've got a great bit in the show or even a better show all the way around," says Paulsen.
As Paulsen dives into a particularly heinous Snotty Boy passage, Spingarn offers a few adjustments: "Make it a little more insulting." "More disgusting!" "Ruder." Paulsen clenches his voice, screws his face into a snarl, and enunciates his lines more clearly, his cadences dripping with condescension. Once the take is in the can, he starts chuckling. "Snotty, when he gets mad, sounds like Al Pacino," he says.
Throughout the session, Spingarn offers the actors various redirects such as these, suggesting the occasional mood change or tone shift. For the most part, they respond immediately, giving him exactly what he wants. "I find that voice actors, the good ones, are very, I say, 'dialable,' " he says. "You can give them a very nuanced suggestion or try to change a small nuance in what they're doing, and they know exactly what you're talking about and are able to accommodate it."
Paulsen, who is especially good at subtle adjustments, says taking redirection successfully is mostly a matter of listening. "I don't think there's any magic bullet," he says. "I think it's just a question of listening to what Jed says, and actors are supposed to be trained to listen anyway. You're supposed to pay attention to what's being said."
This is also an area in which voiceover training—which many pros consider essential if you want to make a career of it—may come in handy. "There's no substitute for training," says Harris. "That's one of the hardest aspects of voiceovers: going in, reading something, and then having a director redirect you and then saying, 'Oh yeah, sure,' and trying it. Often what happens early on in careers is the person says, 'Not a problem,' just out of fear, and then they do another take, and it's exactly the same. It might be slightly faster, it might be slightly slower, [but] it's usually the same attitude, same intention, same inflection, because they just don't get that change. The craft, the skill, is in being able to forget what you just did and hear in your head a completely different melodic, rhythmic intention that you can execute."
Zieff notes two types of redirection a voice actor might receive: a simple line reading ("Say it this way") or a description of the character's "emotional truth." He prefers the latter. "First and foremost, I'm an actor," he says. "Whether I'm playing a chicken or an armadillo or a robot or just a dad, I have a truth. If you tell me what that truth is, then I will organically be able to react and respond and live that moment. If you direct me in that way—'Oh, this person is very excited about this' or 'They're very nervous about what's about to happen'—then the line is liable to come out more truthfully." This is also the style Spingarn prefers to use as a director: "If all else fails, I don't think it's a sin to [give a line reading] if there's mutual respect between the actor and director. But it's definitely the last resort for me."
As the actors near the end of their scripts, a few smaller characters pop up: waiters and announcers and the like, bit parts with a handful of lines each. Spingarn casts these on the spot, choosing from his available actors. "Half the calculation is who you think fits that role best, and the other half is more of a production consideration, because after an actor does two voices, they can start charging more for the third voice and then exponentially more for a fourth voice," he notes. "So if someone is at three voices already in the show, I usually will avoid using them again. But that's why we hire actors who do multiple voices—like Rob, for example. So when you have a waiter voice and it's just a little walk-on part, you can say, 'Oh, Rob does Hervé Villechaize,' and you can have him do the waiter as Hervé Villechaize, and suddenly a part that was a nonentity, practically, is, like, a highlight of the show."
In one of the script's final sequences, Paulsen is cast as a snack vendor at a wrestling match. He instantly pulls out a pitch-perfect character—a kindly, old-fashioned seller of popcorn and slushies—and nails it. "Little things like that, I have [ideas] that pop into my head," says Paulsen. "I don't have a picture to look at, so I don't know exactly what the guy looks like. Sometimes I like to throw a curve in there. Every now and then, I try to throw in an impression of an actor that might be fun or something that's completely unexpected."
In such instances, says Paulsen, it's important for actors to be fearless. You can't hesitate when given this sort of opportunity; you have to trust your instincts. "The thing that's not good and that happens every now and then is, if someone is not confident in their ability, the director will say, 'Hey, we got a vendor here on Page 3; he's got three lines. Would you go ahead and do that?' And you can see the actor go, 'What do you want me to do?' " he says. "They're losing an opportunity to shine, to do something right there, right on the spur of the moment. Whatever pops into your head, try it. The worst thing [the director] is going to say is, 'What else you got?' "
That general sense of creativity and spontaneity is key during the Barnyard session. The actors remain in good spirits throughout, and their energy is infectious, making for an atmosphere that's highly collaborative. "Animation is a really fun and gracious group of people," says Zieff. "Sometimes people get rambunctious, and I think that sort of fun, comic energy actually suits the environment, because you've got people, human beings, adults, acting like a weird assortment of things."
The recording process, notes Spingarn, also moves a lot faster than it does in on-camera work. "An 11-minute show might take two hours to get," he says. "[The actors] definitely have to be accommodating to other actors, because you're in a very small room with five or six other people, potentially. And especially in the animation world, it's a machine. You go in and you get it done. There's no craft services. There's no makeup table. You go in and you do your craft."
And really, says Paulsen, that's the fun of it: the craft. Changing on a dime from voice to voice during a session, using his creativity as an actor—these are the things he cherishes about the profession. "Being an average-looking guy with a SAG card, I'm not limited by the fact that I'm an average-looking white guy with a SAG card," he says. "No one cares that I'm tall, thin, short, fat, white, black, orange, green. They just care that I can deliver and come up with different characters."