Posted on Saturday, July 12, 2014
BY: Marjorie Galas, Editor
Maurice LaMarche doesn’t need a stunt double when his character gets thrown from a cliff. Dee Bradley Baker can morph from a person into a chipmunk without a visit to a makeup trailer. Kevin Michael Richardson can run up a hill and belt out a tune through multiple takes without losing his breath. They are members of an elite group of extremely recognizable but seldom identifiable individuals in the production world: the voice over actor.
The cream of the voice over crop has converged for Disney’s latest animated series: “The 7D.” Inspired by the characters that originated in the 1937 Disney hit feature, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” “The 7D” presents weekly adventures that find the dwarves, maintaining order in Jollywood by helping ruler Queen Delightful keeping sibling villains Grim and Hildy Gloom at bay. Under the voice direction of Emmy Award and Humanitas Prize winner for Children’s Animation Kelly Ward, the exceptional cast includes Emmy-nominated Jess Harnell (Grim Gloom), Leigh-Allyn Baker (Queen Delightful), Bill Farmer (Doc), Emmy winner Maurice LaMarche (Grumpy), Emmy nominee Kevin Michael Richardson (Happy), Dee Bradley Baker (Dopey), Scott Menville (Sneezy), Stephen Stanton (Sleepy), Billy West (Bashful) and Paul Rugg (Lord Starchbottom and a “The 7D” series writer). Joining the cast is Kelly Osbourne, making her voice acting debut as Hildy Gloom, and frequent guest voices Jay Leno and Whoopi Goldberg.
At a recent round table held at the Variety offices, Jess Harnell, Bill Farmer, Maurice LaMarche, Kevin Michael Richardson, Scott Menville, Stephen Stanton, Billy West, Paul Rugg and Kelly Ward gathered to discuss life as a voice over artist and creating characters for "The 7D". What follows is the second article in a two part collection highlighting their conversation – in their own words.
Marjorie Galas: These are classic characters that certainly older generations will know well. When you were approached about “The 7D”, what inspired you about the series and what made you want to get involved?
Stephen Stanton: This is a new take on it, and that intrigued me. The idea to retell their story, and do it in a sly, very clever way. And when I heard (executive producer) Tom Ruegger was at the helm, I was in!
Billy West: Well, there is heart. Pre-school stuff is not known for the story or anything. And here I am reading the stuff and snickering at it, and it is pre-school stuff. Normally I would be like, OK, you know, just (shrugs). Parents will watch with their pre-schoolers and laugh because there is stuff in there for them. It’s not “The Simpsons” or “Futurama” style of humor, but it is humor that will still tickle the adults because of the attitude.
Kevin Michael Richardson: It’s the same names but everything else is different. The setting is different, the voices are different. The look is different, the colors are incredibly eye-popping. It’s a lot of fun, it’s very musically filmed.
BW: I can tell you, that when we are doing this show, everybody gets to do a really specialized thing, and you asked what the draw originally was - it’s the challenges that amps you up. That’s what excites you, to see if you can do justice to that character, and if you can invent something or bring something to the table that nobody expected. That is the thrill of a lifetime.
Maurice LaMarche: The audition alone I was very excited about. When I heard it was about the Seven Dwarves, I was like, are you kidding me?
Jess Harnell: Whether or not it was a go it was very exciting.
KMR: Exactly! Just to hear about it was exciting, but to actually be cast as a dwarf, with these amazing guys, I’m blown out in the water. And to…I mean, just look at me, I kind of stand out in the water. It’s just beautiful, it's color blind, the non-traditional casting. We have all different types in here. You have Nancy Cartwright playing Goldielocks, you have Cheri Oteri playing Gingersnaps. We have Jay Leno playing Crystal Ball, and Whoopi Goldberg as Magic Mirror, I mean, it is fantastic!
JH: Another cool thing is that everything you think you know about the dwarves, forget it, because these aren’t your grandparents dwarves. They have been totally re-imagined. They're all taller.
MG: Not true! I know that's not true!
Bill Farmer: For me, I am the current voice of the original Sleepy, and then this audition comes up for Doc, and yeah, it was a totally different take on it.
MG: That was something that I wanted to ask, did you go back and did you look at the original Seven Dwarves?
(Full group begin stating they haven't seen the dwarves in years.)
BF: No, not for this. I threw everything out of the original from my head because it was a different take. I wanted to start fresh and from ground zero.
ML: You know, I have never actually seen the original from start to finish, so I came on with almost a completely clean slate because I didn’t really know the dwarves.
MG: OK. So you have the part, you know your character. Do you approach your character the same way you would a more traditional actor that’s on camera; understanding the character’s background and building the character up in your mind?
Kelly Ward: It’s a bigger challenge for the seven dwarves because you approach those roles by their names and you fall into a trap. It’s easy to go, "OK, Sleepy" and that is the sole extent of his character. I think the biggest challenge is for the actors to bring a dimension to these characters, and find other ancillary aspects to them and dimensions to give it story possibilities.
JH: Stephen had to come up with fifty different ways to snore. And they are all hook, every one of them is a hook.
BW: That’s the other thing, we have to up our own spin on stuff and hopefully you can have a bunch of little hooks that will tickle people.
Scott Menville: And the work of these phenomenally talented animators can make this work, the chemistry is just nice because we have our voices and characters and what they make us do that we cannot do in reality, I mean, we can not jump off a cliff and survive.
BF: They do just a great job of taking the pieces that we provide and then create a whole show, and now we are just starting to see, during ADF, little snippets of it. I don’t’ think anyone has seen a full show. Kelly, I think maybe you have , but it is such a thrill to finally see it put together and say, "Oh, that’s what they meant."
SM: I, for one, am always impressed by the songs that are in this. We don’t really hear the songs while we are recording it, the music is such a consistent. Such great songs.
MG: As you are developing the characters, and especially knowing that you are not always recording together, do you sit down, do you do script reads to work off each other and develop a dynamic before you actually develop the sounds that you are trying to achieve within the character?
KMR: Only if we record ensemble, basically.
ML: We have pretty much done our homework by the time we’ve come in, basically. We don’t really rehearse.
BF: Yeah, we get the script ahead of time, we go over it, and go "OK, this is what’s going on."
SS: Now there will be times where someone will be there in the morning and I’m coming in in the afternoon, and they have a line before mine and I’m not quite sure how to deliver something after it. Kelly will play the circle take, the one they are going to use, so it is like having, say, Moe in the room for that moment, and I go, "OK, I can hit it that way."
KMR: I have to give credit to Kelly because if one of us is missing during the record, Kelly will just fill in with the voice to give the actual line so we know where to feed off of.
SS: And you actually do all of us pretty well.
(The entire group laughs and agrees.)
KW: Something about the process is that we do a lot of writing in the room with the help of the actors because they are collaborators in the process. And Paul is a terrific writer. But each and every one of these actors is an improv artist, and so there is a lot of writing that is done on mike, and there is re-writing that is being done in the control room, so that it becomes something totally different. And Kelly Osbourne improvs and rewrites her own stuff and she is becoming a seasoned pro.
BW: Paul Rugg not only plays Lord Starchbottom, he is also one of the writers for the show, and he’s one of the best animation writers ever.
Paul Rugg: Why thank you. I have some money for you.
JH: I’ve said it for years, I was excited to see that Paul was attached as one of the writers to this show, because, my first big show that I ever did was "Animaniacs" and that is a hell of a way to start a career, but a lot of the people from that team were reassembled for "The 7D." When I found out Paul was involved both as a writer and as a voice talent I couldn’t have been happier because he is honestly one of the best cartoon writers I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading his stuff in my whole life.
MG: Paul, may I ask, since you do some of the writing for the show, do you write to the talents of the actors?
PR: Yes. Yeah, I mean, once I knew who everybody was, you have to to know everybody’s wheelhouse and what they can do, so yeah, you basically write for your cast.
JH: Well, with acting a lot of times they are basically hiring an actor based on physical appearance to some extent. I can just be me, I can just read the copy as myself and do Jess, right? But something like this we have to create these voices that may have nothing to do with our real voices all the time. You know, my Grim voice is nothing like what I really sound like, his is this tough guy speaking deep in his chest.
KMR: I was really shocked to be cast as Happy, because I really wanted to be Grumpy. So when they said I was Happy, I was a little confused because I thought I was a good Grumpy. I guess I saw a lot of myself in that character but somebody else saw something in that character that I guess…well, I don’t know what I am trying to say.
BW: Your relentless cheerfulness in that character is hilarious.
MG: I did notice that Grumpy has a bit of a New York-ish accent.
ML: Well, he spent a lot of his younger life in the Bronx before moving back to Jollywood.
MG: Yes! When do you make a decision like that, when do you deside to add something like a colloquialism into the mix to make it work?
ML: For the Grumpster, as I like to call him, I looked at the model sheet. I look at the picture, and this sounds almost psychotic, but I wait to hear what is coming out of his mouth. And he just looked like he would be like “What are you looking at?” So that was there, that thing which is sort of half Luie De Palma from "Taxi" - half Danny Devito, and there is also a bit of a Jason Alexander/George Costanza thing there, and there is another thing, it’s my best pal, Kenny Longino. That all just kind of came out at me, all those vocal tensions and attitudes. And you know, it informed the character for me, and I just spoke for him.
BW: What Moe just said is a dead on example of how to build a vehicle. You need something to take you from here across the world. Some of it’s from the sun, your own psyche, and some of it is a little bit of this, and a little bit of that. And it builds a vehicle that you can hop into and know you are safe, you can’t do anything wrong because you have built it.
MG: Kelly, as a voice director, do you sometimes hear the voices before they start recording and say "Tweak this, change that"?
KW: Sometimes, but not too often. This group is pretty much bullseyes most of the time. One of my favorite moments came from one of these auxiliary characters called Lad who had this smallest moment; he planted a sugar cube and thought it would grow into a sugar tree. And Scott just opened up with a line and we stopped the recording for about ten minutes. Everybody was laughing so hard!
PR: In that moment it was determined that Lad was going to have his own episode. He’s gotta have his own episode.
SM: I want to give props to the writers, because the scripts are so tight. Yet, I think it takes a very secure writer to be willing to say "Yeah, this line is good, but let’s see if you guys can make it better."
KW: We should give credit to Sherri Stoner and Nancy Kanter and all the network guidance at Disney. We’ve been given great latitude to craft a very madcap, funny show.
BW: Plus it feels good because they let us in on their discussions. "Billy, we’re having a little discussion in here about this, and we were wondering if …" and they will make some really great suggestions and its like St. Elmo's Fire, it just burns up the whole room and suddenly you're in it as much as they are, trying to figure it out and let’s do it the best way.
SS: (talking to Billy West) I remember one scene you said the words "Turkish delight" and you were playing off that with all the differnet foods that were being talked about and it just turned into this maelstrom. With this type of group of people, a lot of times you go into a session and there is a lot of cutting up and so on, and there is a little bit of that here today, but I think most of the time we are laughing because the scripts are so funny.
PR: The other thing too is that because Tom Ruegger is always in the room, and I’ve been working with him since , well a long time, like 1924. But Tom will be like this (sits with a frozen expression). But if you do something really funny that is on and unexpected, you will get (smiles), and what you want to do in every recording is get him to make that face. That is always the funniest, when it just goes off the wall. He loves you to just be nuts.
JH: It’s like your dad giving you one of these (smiles, holding a thumb up.)
KW: Taking nothing away from the writers, but occasionally we’ll have a line in the script that wouldn’t be as sharp as Tom would want, and virtually every one of these guys has gotten his vote. Moe will fix that, or Bill will fix that, or Stephen will fix that. Or "I don’t like this line," and we'll come up with something. Usually,
BW: It’s like making your buddies laugh, you know, when you are playing sports together and everything.
KW: That cuts back to an early conversations, what voice over actors have to bring to their work. It comes from either having a really hyperactive imagination, or having literally jumped out of airplanes or done scuba diving or gone motorcycle riding or what ever it is that they do, but they bring that into the room, because you don’t have the on camera actors bag of tricks. You don’t have that Jack Nicholson raised eyebrow, you don’t have that Michael J. Fox cute little wiggle to the camera. All that is gone. You have to put it all here (points to throat) and every one of these guys is a technician and knows how to do that. On a sliding scale, that amplifies and crescendos and it is like music. It’s a composition.
ML: What you are talking about. That’s where a terrific voice director does come in for me, because I need to have more than just the Grumpy attitude, that’s where Kelly will come in and tell me, OK, your going up the hill, and you are exhausted, and Happy is really getting on your nerves with the song, and so I take my hat off to Kelly, because what' s in the setting, and what's going on, and what's in your attitude, that's where I need him, big time.
SS: Kelly is one of the best directors I have worked with in the business ever. Really.
MG: I’m thinking the answer to this next one may be no, but I want to ask the question all the same. Have you ever been able to either speak with the writers or pass on notes to the animators about something you would like to see your character do, or a trait you’d like to add to your character?
KMR: They don’t return my notes.
BW: Animators can see that, if you do a breath, you go, (takes inhale) the animators already have that in frame in their mind as a part of the performance. They can take a breath and do something with it. So they watch expressions and they have been translated into the physical.
KMR: No, absolutely, in "Lilo in Stitch" I had a very bad headache. I could barely show up to the gig, I was naucious and I was doing this a lot (puts a hand to his head) and sure enough, in the film they had the character go like this a lot (puts hand to head). I was like "Oh my God" - I remembered the exact moment as soon as I saw it. He is absolutely right, stuff that you don’t know you are doing, they watch for every little thing.
SS: When I was working on "Clone Wars," whenever we would do a new character, they would put a camera up for the first session or two. They wanted to film you just to get an idea of what you were doing physically and with the expressions you made when you delivered your lines, and then you see all that stuff turning up in the program once it was done. I don’t know anybody who is a voice over actor who doesn't get very physical while they are working, you kind of have to do it to get the voice to do certain things, and it wasn’t like they were rotoscoping or anything like that, they were just using it like a baseline saying, this is what he does with the character, so when he says this line…
KW: To directly answer your question, nobody needs to actually go to the writers and have their character further developed because there is so much that is left on the editing floor after we record, that there is surplus of information that they can take back and fit through. Those things can become scenes for the stories. I am sure, Paul had come away from sessions and thought "I can turn that into a premise and that can become an outline" and that happens a lot.
JH: A cartoon is like a really great rock band. You know, it’s like Chicago with more horns. You have so many people collaborating, if everybody does there part then you get a hit record out of it. The cool thing is, sometimes stuff happens by accident. With my character, a lot of screaming is involved, and somewhere along the line I just started screaming like a girl. We just fell down laughing, and that became the character's fingerprint. And I just did it accidentally. You just throw it at the wall and they say "That’s great, we are keeping it." Their minds and their eyes are open to good stuff.
BW: So whenever you want to be accepted, scream like a girl.
JH: It worked in high school!
BF: I always find the shows have evolved over time, the first one is a little rough around the edges, and as you get on your feet and the more episodes you do the characters become more defined. It’s a work in progress.
MG: I wanted to ask about singing. With the songs that are part of the show, are you all singing in your natural voices, or in your character's voices?
(The full group begins singing in character.)
KW: At a certain point in the series, everybody here sings. Dopey whistles. Obviously. Everybody has a song or components of a song. Some sing more than others.
MG: That seems like it might be uncomfortable to do that, singing in character. Is it challenging to do that?
JH: It’s the same thing, it’s like talking in the voice, it is the same principle.
BW: We do have to figure out how to laugh as that character, and cry as their character. You can’t laugh like yourself.
ML: I have a problem with that. Yelling in this voice is not a problem for Grumpy, but singing in this voice is not easy, I will tell you that right now, so I kind of do more like what Rex Harrison use to do. I talk sing my songs. Because, this is not an easy voice to hit high C in, so…
BW: But you do it, you walk that fine line. You look at it and you deicide that is what the character would do, and then I just join the melody, so there.
SM: Our composer Parry Gripp creates some great songs. They are going to be viral, and people will be singing them for a long, long time.
MG: Thanks so much, guys. So, here's one last question, because I know I can’t have you all day....
JH: You can have us all night if you want.
(Group erupts into jokes)
MG: Oh no, I've lost my train of thought.
ML: If you play with your hair you will look like a young girl in love. This is exactly why the don’t let us record together, we would get nothing done.
MG: Ok, so, the show is about to come out and you have developed your characters. How do you keep it fresh for yourself as you go from one season to the next? Many of your shows have had great longevity, so how do you keep your characters vital to yourself?
KMR: That is a great problem to have.
KW: The writers keep it vital.
PR: You don’t want to report yourself, you want to keep it new, and I know they are talking about second season stuff now, so you have to start fresh, tell new stories and make sure it isn’t getting repetitive. We are always mindful of it.
BF: The cool thing is if we have done our jobs and created something that is fun, it wil be fun for a long time, it will stand the test of time.
BW: And t0 keep it fresh and to keep the enthusiasm there is just natural. I don’t have to go to work, I get to go to work.
KW: And I think the writers do a really good job of creating wonderful moments or entire episodes devoted to each character, so somewhere during the session there is going to be a wonderful little gift package for that actor to open, and for them to bring to life and for us to enjoy behind the glass and to go, "Oh My God this is better than I could have imagined!" One of these stories will be with Sneezy, and one with Bashful - all of these charcters get featured. That is what is terrific. We have incredible actors that bring the characters to life, beyond our wildest imagination.
PR: When you think about it, this is really hard in the writing, you are writing for eleven characters at once, and we are all used to writing, well, I’m used to writing for three characters. To have eleven characters at once, you have to keep track of everybodies motivation throughout a script, that has been really tough.
JH: I wondered if that was …
PR: Yeah, and you got to serve each one. You could literally have fifteen people in one episode, so you have to constantly be mindful. I think the audience can smell when you are just serving that one character. You have to make it all matter.
SS: The fans will let you know. It’s not just little pre-school kids that are going to write in - it’ll be adults.
BW: Most of the stuff that we do has been for children. Any of us could say we’ve been speaking to a younger generation for many generations. How about the 30 year old guy who comes up with the biker chains and stuff and is like “Hey brother, I used to watch ‘Animaniacs’ - it shaped my whole world.“
ML: You get to hear a lot of those stories at Comic-Con and the many fan and comic book conventions around the country. That’s the effects that these kinds of shows have on people. I probably hear, more often than I can even count, that shows like ours get people through some really tough times. And it’s lovely. There’s 87 people animating, and doing music and all that, we’re just a small part of that, but to know we played a part in helping people through a tough teenage turmoil. (Everyone voices agreement.) That’s an incredibly rewarding part of this job, and you get to find out years later when those people grow up and come up to your table at Comic-Con or Dragon Con, and say, “You know, you really helped me.”
JH: You know, one of the best parts of being a voice actor and doing animation is that you get to be part of popular culture for a minute and these things have an effect on people, right? What’s beautiful is, when you are an on camera actor lucky enough to be involved in one show that you become identified with and people remember fondly, that’s a huge achievement. With animation, this room has been involved with hundreds of these shows, like literally, hundreds of them, and the really cool thing is, we’ll make appearances at Comic-Con and because we were in “Animaniacs” and “Pinky and the Brain" – shows from twenty years ago, people still talk about this huge impact. In twenty years people are going to show up who fell in love with “The 7D.” The process just keeps cycling and repeating and you get to influence a whole new generation of people.
To learn more about Disney's "The 7D" please visit:
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