The 1 Trait Great Voice Actors Need According to This ‘BoJack Horseman’ Designer

Photo Source: Courtesy of Netflix

Though an animated series, Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman” tackles painfully adult issues, examining depression and mental health through a wry sense of humor and an at once playful and grim aesthetic. The Will Arnett and Aaron Paul starrer has producer and production designer Lisa Hanawalt to thank for its singular style. But Hanawalt, surprisingly, had never worked in animation prior to getting hired on “BoJack.” Here, she speaks with Backstage about learning on the job, how actors can shift her creative direction, and the one characteristic that all great voice actors possess.

What does a production designer on an animated series actually do?
It’s kind of a weird title. Basically, I design the characters of the show. All the main characters are ones that I’ve drawn, and then character designers flesh them out and draw more poses. And I art direct the whole series, so I’m responsible for the whole look of the show, and the look of the show is based on my personal work and my comics.

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Did you always want to be an animator?
I never set out to be an animator; I was a cartoonist. I went to art school at UCLA for fine art, and I thought I was going to be a gallery painter. Then I started making web comics and zines and doing illustration. I did a children’s book. I kind of bopped around all over the place. I was really good friends with Raphael [Bob-Waksberg], the creator of the show. We went to high school together. I used to draw a lot of animals dressed up as people—in fact, I’ve drawn them my whole life. He brought them in with him when he was pitching the show, so from the beginning, I was thought of as being attached to it.

Since you aren’t a traditional animator, was there a lot of learning on the job?
When I started on “BoJack,” I didn’t know anything about animation. I was doing all the character designs with watercolors because I didn’t even know how to draw on a computer yet. I was totally unprepared for the job. But as I’ve learned, you don’t actually need to know everything in order to do a job. You can learn a lot while you’re doing it, and other people will help you and teach you. But I like to think my outside perspective added something interesting to the design. I learned bit by bit. I’m still learning.

As an animator, are there things that make a voice performance really stand out to you?
The best kind of voice actor can give you a lot of different options. Someone who’s less experienced might say the line one way and then repeat it the same way over and over again. But once you’ve got it one way, you have it forever, and you just want a lot of variation because when you’re editing the scene, you might change your mind about how you want it to sound: “Oh, actually, this scene is really serious, can we get a take that’s a little more angry or less playful?” You want lots of options, so you want people who think fast on their feet and improvise a little bit and can change their emotion very quickly.

Do you always know the voice actor whom you’re drawing for?
No. Often it gets cast after I’ve drawn the character. Occasionally I will adjust the drawing of the character to better match the actor’s voice. Stanley Tucci’s character, Herb Kazzaz, we definitely adjusted to make look a little bit more sophisticated because Stanley Tucci obviously has a very sophisticated, educated-sounding voice. Todd we adjusted a little because Aaron Paul has such a gravelly voice, so we made him a little bit cuter and more cartoon-y to balance out how real Aaron’s voice is. It’s fun to play against what the natural sound is. You can either really lean into it and match the voice, or you can do the opposite.

Do you have any advice for someone trying to be an animator?
Just draw a lot. Make a lot of work that you think is fun, not necessarily work that you think makes you marketable, because that can be a little bit boring. I think making work that’s personal appeals to me, as someone who’s hiring animators. If I see someone with a strong point of view, who uses a very particular palette where I can see what they’re personal interests are as a person and as an artist, those are the people I seek out the most.

Want to break into voice acting? Check out Backstage’s voice audition listings!