(L to R: Tom Kane, Dee Bradley Baker, James Arnold Taylor, Dave Filoni)
At San Diego Comic-Con International, Lucasfilm Director of Fan Relations Steve Sansweet chats with Star Wars: The Clone Wars voice actors James Arnold Taylor (Obi-Wan Kenobi and Plo Koon), Dee Bradley Baker (all the clone troopers), and Tom Kane (Yoda, Clone Wars announcer) — as well as supervising director Dave Filoni — about their process, character building and why it’s so much to act like more than two characters at once. The cast also talks a little about their support of the original voice cast of Futurama reprising their roles during salary disputes.
How important is it to cast the right voice for an animated series?
Dave Filoni: At the end of the day we need actors to bring the characters to life with dimension and emotion. We’re not trying to mimic previous actors, but instead take nice notes of things from Ewan McGregor or Alec Guinness, but ultimately you have to be Obi-Wan Kenobi. For Dee with the clones, he had to invent how you do that kind of role and not just mimic a certain sound or tone.
What’s harder to do — voicing an established character like Obi-Wan Kenobi or coming up with a voice for a character that’s never spoken before like Plo Koon?
James Arnold Taylor: Well, there’s more pressure because you’re doing Ewan McGregor and Alec Guinness and you combine them both and hopefully get something that the fans like. And if I’m doing it right, you’re not hearing me, or Ewan or Alec, you’re hearing Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Plo Koon was great though because it’s Dave Filoni’s favorite, and he was great to do the voice for. And I have to give Matt Wood a lot of credit too because he takes it and turns it into this whole other thing. There’s also more freedom in playing Plo Koon.
Dee, your clone voices are all alike and yet they’re not alike. You have to come up with individual personalities. An excellent example of this is in the season one episode “Rookies.” How do you make all of these characters seem different?
Dee Bradley Baker: It was very important for us to try and maintain distinct personalities and feel for each of the clones — which is something we try to do in all of the episodes. So we recorded each of the clones, straight through on their own — giving them different status, different ages, personality quirks. Giving them slight adjustments from the basic voice — a little younger, or a little gruffer. Then when you piece them all together they feel like they are distinct humans — which adds humanity to these heroic soldiers.
James Arnold Taylor: I always wonder if the clones sit around and do imitations of each other. Or have them talk to each others’ girlfriends. (laughs)
Tom, did you do the Yoda voice before The Clone Wars?
Tom Kane: I started doing stuff for LucasArts games whenever they started. I did voices for them on one of the very first video games they did. That led to them just using me for Star Wars titles as smaller side characters. Just as we all do, when we have a script in front of us, we try to do everything. We’re all complete copy pigs. This happens every time we record stuff. I try to do my best Captain Rex and James will try to do his best Yoda. Everyone tries to do each others’ voices out of fun and show off in front of each other.
And I was just doing that one day and I just read some Yoda lines not realizing my mic was live, and was asked to do that again by the director I was working with. And they recorded it and took it to George Lucas to listen to. Frank Oz at the time had become a successful movie director and was gone a lot so he didn’t have time to do Yoda’s voice for projects. So suddenly I found myself doing Yoda’s voice for games.
Interestingly, Yoda’s voice has changed so much over the years. When you first meet him, he sounds much cartoonier on purpose. And then you see that change again when he first reveals his Jedi Master past to Luke. Yoda’s voice changes in the Prequels and then in The Clone Wars. Yoda has said more in The Clone Wars then he’s ever said in the movies put together. So Dave and I try to figure out the right “Yoda-ese” for each line.
Do you all study the movies and see how the voices were originally presented?
James Arnold Taylor: I have an iPod that has all of Ewan McGregor’s lines from the movies. And I listen and refer back to that. But we also have fun changing it around too. Obi-Wan has two different levels. He’s very calm most of the time but he also has a screaming voice from Episode III. But we don’t do the screaming voice because we’re not telling that story.
Dee, you said when you record the clones you do each one separately, but on some of the other recordings when a clone talks to another clone, how do you make them sound unique?
Dee Bradley Baker: When we start recording, we agree on the basic setting of each of the clones we’re talking about. Some are more generic, but some have a specific character trait which can maybe be described in an adjective. And then I will go through the script and write that adjective down next to each clone’s name so I can remember what the heck I’m doing. And then we just go through and that’s all I need. I can switch it up so you can have a conversation of clones together but still maintain their distinctiveness.
Dave Filoni: With the clones one thing we did do — we temp all the voices up where I work at Lucasfilm Animation with really bad actors who work on the show who have no voice talent whatsoever. But when I have the guys come in and do the clones we use different people in the studio. So a lot of times I’ll actually let the particular artists do the bad temp drive it, and in one particularly awesome case I got artist Killian Plunkett to do it, and he’s Irish. So in “Rookies” he’s the clone that gets eaten by the giant space slug thing and you can hear a slight accent. A lot of the clones now have no idea who Jango Fett was, so we figured over time that accent is kind of faded out and gotten a little bit more generic over time. So the clones have different accents even.
How does the whole process work for recording the voices for The Clone Wars?
Dave Filoni: We usually shoot the whole episode before they do the voices. So I know all the camera angles, where all the characters are standing and so on. So that’s why I can describe to the actors if the characters are running, jumping or sitting as they’re talking. It allows me to give them a very good description of the scene. And then they record the line and we cut it all back into the episode.
Of course, what you’re experiencing here on the panel is all the different voices they can do. At any given time I’ll have Marty McFly talking to Morgan Freeman talking to Daffy Duck. You’re tempted to just sit there listening to them reading the lines from the episode and you tend to want to let it go, but we have limited time to get this all done. But it’s like a crazy place.
James Arnold Taylor: By the way, I have to say this. Season 2 of The Clone Wars is amazing! This is everything you’ve ever wanted. I’m so excited about it. To people who are skeptical — this is the day in and day out of these characters we’ve always wanted to see. And that’s much to the credit of Dave Filoni. He’s as much a fan as all of us in this room are. Know that you are in good hands with this man.
What characteristics do good voice actors share?
James Arnold Taylor: I think most every good voice actor has professional live performance experience of some kind — either as stand-up, or a stage actor, or a musician, or radio.
Tom Kane: You’ve got to be a great listener. A good portion of my work is doubling celebrities. You listen to every little thing. A lot of what we do is very tough work, but we also realize we’re some of the luckiest people in the world because we get to have a lot of fun for a living. So you have to be very grateful. You’ve got to walk in that room ready to please those people because you know that you’re doing something that so few people get to do. And you get to be all these different people, so know one knows you exist. But at times it’s a thankless job, so you also have to be prepared for that. You have to be ready to perform.
I get a little offended at time when people just call it voice over, and that it’s just funny cartoon noises and voices. It’s voice acting. Because I don’t know many on-camera actors that can go in and be anywhere from an 11-year-old or an 83-year-old and have a conversation between each other, than most of the voice actors I know. They pull it off without anyone knowing it’s the same person. That requires some acting.
I suggest people who want to go into voice acting to study other voice actors. Read books and comic books out loud. Get used to hearing your own voice. Get on a microphone and hear yourself. Get out there and know what you can do with your voice. Don’t try to be 100 voices at once; try to be your voice.
Dee Bradley Baker: Try reading Lord of the Rings out loud! (laughs)
Tom Kane: You also have to be fearless. One of the things I’ve done at a very young age to this day that embarrasses my kids is that I talk to myself in public, and people think I’m a crazy person. But it’s part of what I do for a living. I can’t tell you how many times I would walk up and down the grocery store aisles as a kid and talk to the cereal boxes. Because I would see the commercials and I would want to imitate the character voices. We all do these things. You have to be able to not be embarrassed in front of a bunch of strangers.
Dee Bradley Baker: People hire confidence, they don’t hire a resume. You have to have confidence to give people something that’s very odd. When I auditioned for Klaus on American Dad that role was written as a sexy French fish. And I speak German, and I think a sexy German fish is much funnier. And so I read it with a German accent and they hired that.
What are your thoughts about the recent news that Futurama may return to TV without its original voice actors because of salary disputes, and that they are looking for other voice actors to replace them on the cast?
Tom Kane: Three times already I’ve said, “Thank you, but I won’t be auditioning.” Those are our friends.
James Arnold Taylor: We don’t crap where we eat. How you could replace Billy West with one person on that show would be impossible. He’s such an amazing voice talent.
Can you talk a little about how your direction shapes a character?
Dave Filoni: Ahsoka’s character was originally supposed to be a bit of a brat. I hate to use the word annoying but she really oversteps her bounds on a classic, important character in the Star Wars universe. So you’re initially taken back about how she talks to Anakin. But it is part of her building character. And I’ve worked very hard with Ashley Eckstein to reign that in.
If you talk to Ashley, she’s an exceedingly positive human being so when we cast Ahsoka we wanted someone who was naturally super, super, super kind; because you can’t fake that. She just is really nice and it’s going to come through her voice. Now I spend most of Season 2 trying to crush that. (laughs) Because her character is going through a lot.
Sometimes when we have a story arc, I will sit down with the actors and tell them where their character is emotionally and where we plan to take them, so they keep that in mind as we build on it over a certain period of time. That’s my favorite part. Before every episode, I sit down with the script and go over the whole thing and figure out why we’re telling the story we’re telling. And you have to know, otherwise there’s no point.