Toon Times: The voices of imagination in animation


    Mel Blanc created the voices for many Looney Tunes characters. Photo courtesy of Frank Van Calster on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.

    From Rugrats to The Simpsons, at some point in our lives we’ve devoted time to watching cartoons. Whether you have been depriving your inner child of animation for who-knows-how long or are an active Disney/Nickelodeon/comic strip-phile like I am, this is an inside look into something you may not know about animation. Enjoy this free issue of the Toon Times.

    Whether we know their names or not, the most iconic voices of our time live on through the years in our hearts and minds. Decades of animation have brought about a new form of art — voice-over. But what makes a good voice-over artist? The answer is the same thing we, as the audience, need to appreciate animation: imagination.

    From Whistles to “Hot Dog!”

    Steamboat Willie poster. Photo courtesy of sbwoodside on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.

    In 1928, Walt Disney voiced the character that would make him the most famous animator of all time. His earlier Mickey works such as Steamboat Willie would have the pants-clad mouse performing in squeaks and whistles.

    Eventually the squeaks would turn into full words. In 1929, Mickey Mouse made his first spoken language debut in The Karnival Kid. Walt, voiced the character with a falsetto that would in turn affect the voice of Mickey for decades to come in numerous reincarnations of the Disney dynasty symbol.

    Not only did the Disney voice dictate the sound of Mickey’s, but the first line he spoke (“Hot dogs! Hot dogs!”) would become a sort of catchphrase for the character. In one of Mickey’s most recent incarnations, the phrase is incorporated into a song that Mickey and other members of the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse sing.

    Even decades later, the value of this historic character and his creator is based on one notion: imagination. Any character can be voiced by an actor, but a character that stands the test of time has energy and creativity, something Walt Disney did not lack.

    A Man Gave Voices to all the Characters

    Mel Blanc, “The Man of a Thousand Voices.” Photo courtesy of Alan Light on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.

    In creativity, Walt Disney may have been king, but one man stands above others as a contributor of voices to a generation of forever famous characters: Mel Blanc.

    The man behind “What’s Up, Doc?” and “You’re despicable” devised dozens of character voices. Blanc was nicknamed “The Man of a Thousand Voices,” a title which would carry on throughout his life and in his legacy. His grave site marker showcases the quote, “That’s All Folks!” as a testament to the man’s legacy and sense of humor.

    Blanc was not only an inventor of voices, but an innovator in his own right. His voices ranged from the innocent Tweety Bird to the gruff Elmer Fudd. However, his most memorable characters are Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.

    So where did he get these voices? Was it simply divine inspiration?

    In a clip of an interview with Blanc, the voice-over extraordinaire spoke about the way he came to form his various characters. For Bugs Bunny he said, “Well they told me that Bugs was a tough little stinker, and I thought what kind of a voice can I give him — the tough character — maybe Brooklyn or the Bronx.” He breaks into the Bugs voice, “So I put the two of ‘em together and that’s how I got the voice for Bugs.”

    The most amazing aspect of Blanc’s work may be his inventiveness, but also in the fantastical flexibility of his voice. Somehow, in the minds of children and probably adults as well, the voices of the Looney Tunes did not blend due to sameness. Each person or animal portrayed was its own character, not just another voice. And the transitions were seamless.

    Blanc’s voices have not only stood the test of uniqueness, but also the test of time. His vocal versatility was a precursor to some of the great voice actors of our time, actors like Dan Castellaneta of The Simpsons and Rob Paulsen of Animaniacs, Pinky & the Brain and many others.

    A Thousand Voices Decades Later

    Homer Simpson. Photo courtesy of besos y flores on Flickre, licensed under Creative Commons.

    Among the greatest examples of versatile voices outside of the Looney Tunes era is The Simpsons, a show with hundreds of characters and only a few chief voice actors.

    Castellaneta is best known for “D’oh,” Homer Simpson’s catchphrase, but he also does the voice of Abraham “Grandpa” Simpson, Krusty the Clown and several other characters.

    Each actor from this main cast has a voice specialty. Looking back at the characteristics of Mel Blanc, this is an interesting progression. From one actor taking the responsibility to cater his voice to individual and unique characters to several actors portraying particular styles, it’s clear that voice acting has branched out to recognize the value of actors performing based on their own personal talents, utilizing their animated specialties to create imaginative characters.

    Castellaneta does many adult voices on the show, Nancy Cartwright (Bart Simpson) performs as many child characters, Hank Azaria (Moe, the resident bartender and tavern proprietor) is many male adult characters in the show and Julie Kavner (Marge Simpson) performs some older women characters such as Marge’s own sisters with their comically raspy voices.

    Tress spoke about how she developed her animated voice in an interview with Nancy Cartwright for Animation World Network, “Creating characters and doing impressions is an ability that may have to come naturally, I think. Kind of a predisposition, perhaps. The characters that I do all come from people in my own life — as well as the material I’ve stolen from my friends!”

    As many characters as The Simpsons has, its number of principal voices has remained. And somehow, despite a growing knowledge that voice actors are not a dime a dozen, we as an audience — like the actors as performers — can enjoy the show with the necessary imagination to appreciate it fully.

    Keeping Imagination Intact

    With knowledge of how few people create hundreds of voices for our favorite animated characters comes one responsibility for viewers: to forget.

    It is easy enough to watch a show on television and get caught up in your recognition of a voice you’ve already heard. For those who’ve watched Rocky and Bullwinkle and later realized that the voice of the little squirrel was actually one of June Foray’s many parts, including Cindy Lou Who in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, or those who watched Animaniacs and discovered the voice of Dot (Tress MacNeille) was also the voice of Principal Skinner’s mother, Agnes, in The Simpsons, these crossovers will and do happen.

    As viewers and as dreamers who keep the integrity of animation intact, our responsibility is to never remember that the voices heard in one place are also in another. For all we know, Ariel (Jodi Benson) in The Little Mermaid was not the same woman who voiced Barbie in the Toy Storysequels or the title character in Thumbelina.

    The magic of animation resides in many different facets, but one of the most important is in its ability to transport you to another reality and make you forget that the characters are imaginary and the people voicing them are actually humans just like you and me.

    Imagination must not only exist in the voices behind the characters, but in every one of us.


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