From the invention of recorded sound to the “Man of a Thousand Voices,” modern voice over had to start somewhere. What brings voice over work to life, why is it so common now, and what makes a great voice over artist?
Think about the early days of theatre, and you might imagine on-stage “narration,” before the invention of recorded sound. But watching a scene playback on a full-colour screen, as a human voice speaks to you from somewhere behind the action? That’s only as old as its technology.
According to research by voice actor Scott Reyns, it began as early as the 1860s, when a Parisian typesetter and librarian named Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville recorded a woman singing the 18th century folk song “Au Clair de la Lune” using a phono-autograph, the earliest device that recorded sound (it captured sound on one end of a barrel and then traced the actual wave forms on the other side).
Then in 1877, famed American inventor Thomas Alva Edison recorded a song on the phonograph, the first device that would record sound and play it back. Sound was again recorded in a phonograph by tracing the wave forms onto a surface (like writing a “record”), and then retracing them to play the sounds back. The phonograph became the gramophone, and records became the dominant medium for music listening in the 20th century.
In 1893, a French clockmaker and inventor named Henri Lioret unveiled a talking doll (maybe a bit creepy looking, but innovative for the time). Powered with a small phonograph mechanism in the torso, the doll played back 35 words, sang and told stories when pressed in the middle. Someone’s voice had to be on all of these recordings – but no one’s voice took the spotlight.
Finally, there was room for someone like Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian inventor who pushed further to see what was possible with radio technology. In 1900, Fessenden recorded a “test” of himself reporting the weather for the United States Weather Bureau, using Alexander Graham Bell’s genius new device: the telephone.
This brief, intelligible message was transmitted between two stations about a mile apart. He became the first to demonstrate transatlantic wireless telegraphic communication, and then the first well-known voice of local radio, sending out messages over the airways from Boston, heard by ships along the east coast, beginning in 1906. He sang songs like “O Holy Night” and read biblical passages for the holidays. Listeners were delighted and tuned in even for his repeat broadcasts.
Next up on the cultural timeline were the first black and white cartoons, where human voices gave life to animated characters. Walt Disney himself played the voice of Mickey Mouse in “Steamboat Willie” in 1928. (Notably, his first two Mickey Mouse cartoons did not sell, and he only added synchronized sound to the third.)
The “Looney Tunes” series premiered the following year, and Mel Blanc became the “Man of A Thousand Voices” (watch his incredible skill in action), as he was heard portraying many characters on the “Looney” episodes. He was famously heard as Bugs Bunny, Tweety Bird, Porky Pig, the Tasmanian Devil, and many other Warner Bros. cartoon characters. He showed true vocal flexibility and versatility – and viewers were delighted as the animated animals spoke to them and their children.
Mel Blanc also furthered the voice over industry by enabling voice actors to earn their first official “credits” on screen. After working with many companies, it had taken him a year and a half to land an audition with Leon Schlesinger’s company, which worked with Warner Bros, as a cartoon producer. When he asked for a raise on his exclusive contract with them, Schlesinger turned him down. But he at least negotiated for his name to be credited on screen as a compromise.
Thanks to Mel Blanc’s negotiation skills, for the first time, a voice actor was credited on screen (he was labeled as a “Vocal Characterizationist,” a long and fancy word he probably made up himself). This furthered his fame and helped him land other gigs in radio. Finally the public had some idea of whose voice was giving life to their favorite characters.
Another important voice actor, Don LaFontaine began his voice over career in 1962. The style of modern movie trailers took shape because of him. He became the legendary ‘voice of the movies’ after his first gig, when he filled in – launching a career almost “by accident” – for someone else on a radio promo for a movie in 1964. He became one of Hollywood’s biggest and busiest voice talents in the 70s, and continued working for years to come.
His life as “The Voice” of dramatic scenes and trailers worked because his sound was clear, authoritative, and just dramatic enough. When you sit in a movie theater, his is the voice you’re likely to hear. (And if you actually like the previews before your feature, he probably has something to do with it.) He was heard as the voice over narrations for at least 5,000 film trailers, and hundreds of thousands of TV and radio placements.
Nowadays, the public is used to hearing big name celebrities providing the voices of popular cartoons. Robin Williams gave us the hilarious, energetic Genie in Aladdin in 1992- the first “A list” celebrity (rather than an unknown voice actor) to create an iconic voice over character. This casting choice signified a lean toward famous actors rather than lesser-known voice actors. The Genie in Aladdin was like a cartoon version of Williams himself, doing impressions and giant comedic winks left and right – the character will forever be linked to the real-life star.
Ellen DeGeneres gave us another iconic characterization as Dory in Finding Nemo in 2003, following the footsteps of many famous voices taking over Disney casts. Well-known actors are a fan of the genre because it allows them to fully demonstrate character skills while wearing pyjamas and avoiding the work of being on-screen, namely hair, wardrobe and makeup.
In 2017, popular Youtubers are expected to narrate and provide expert voice over for their product demonstrations and “day in the life of” video posts. A good voice over is now a key and familiar aspect of video everywhere. Viewers of everything from Facebook advertising videos to network TV series episodes expect the typical sound of a pleasant, clear voice guiding them forward, as their eyes make sense of the moving pictures.
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