Pixar has a reputation for casting actors that work for its characters, rather than simply searching for celebrities to fill its roles. The studio has understood, from its first feature film, that a strong story and memorable characters are necessary to make a great film, and that those characters need to connect with the audience. Although you may recall the voices of veterans like Tom Hanks (Toy Story) and Albert Brooks (Finding Nemo), there are many other voices that are essential in bringing the story to life. Learn more about these other voices and the talented group that provides them after the break!
In order to find voices for its characters that are not the headliners of the film, Pixar works with a loop group, a collection of voice actors that are hired to provide voices for smaller roles as well as background characters in crowds. The lines for these characters typically range from a few words to several lines. This week, I had the chance to speak with four members of the loop group that the animation studio worked with for Monsters University, and it is not difficult to see how much they love working with Pixar.
Big Red (voiced by John Cygan): “Did you see him catch that pig?! You are Jaws Theta Chi material, freshman.”
John Cygan started out writing commercials and voicing characters in them before he arrived in the entertainment industry. Best remembered at Pixar for voicing Twitch in Toy Story 3, the actor has voiced characters in many of the studio’s films, including Cars, WALL-E, and Up. He recalls that he saw Luxo, Jr., the first short from the studio, and thought the filmmaking team was innovative. Viewing Toy Story three times in the theater, he had a feeling that Pixar would change everything. He recalls a storytelling class that he once took after Pixar’s first feature arrived in theaters, where two entire rows were dedicated to Pixar crew members that the studio had sent to brush up on how to tell a great story. Cygan was surprised to see that many employees of the animation house there, and expressed appreciation for his chance at working with a film studio that cared so much about the quality of its films.
Emmet (voiced by Mona Marshall): “Mrs. Graves, Michael stepped over the line.”
Mona Marshall, who has voiced characters in many animes in addition to animated films, believes that Pixar is unique because of the respect that the group of actors is shown. After working with the studio on Monsters Inc. and other projects, she has consistently felt that she was part of the creative process of bringing these films to life. Additionally, she explains that she was given more creative latitude to voice her characters than she has experienced at any other studio. That respect to bring her talent has what has kept her coming back to do voices for more Pixar films.
Cygan explains that the loop group’s work is done when the film is almost complete and a few incidental characters and lines need to be added. They are brought in, usually to the Walt Disney recording studio, to read a variety of lines. The actors do not know if their voice will land in the film until they see the completed product after the film’s release. One would think that this would inspire competition between the actors in the loop group, but as Marshall describes, they are incredibly supportive of one another. There are no cries of “I’m gonna get this role,” instead replaced with a dedication to bring the best voice that supports the story. This is in strong contrast to what we hear often from the audition process for many other studios’ films, demonstrating the loop group’s tight bond interacting with Pixar’s collaborative environment.
Bus Driver (voiced by Lori Alan): “I’m welling up with tears, now get off.”
Lori Alan knew that heading into the acting business was inevitable for her because her parents were both drama majors and all members of her family were creative. Starting out as an on-camera actress, she has gone on to guest star in numerous well-regarded TV shows. Known best in the world of Pixar as the voice of Bonnie’s mother in Toy Story 3 and the Toy Story Toons that have followed, she holds that voice work is the purest form of acting. Although there are instances where they see character’s sketches or even scenes, they do not always have the opportunity to see the character before voicing them. Additionally, since the audience solely hears the voice of these actors, the acting is wholly dependant upon the vocals, rather than the actors’ physical makeup. Adding to Marshall’s view on the loop group, Alan is thankful that they have the chance to help tell the story.
Fraternity Brother: “Oh no, he’s an Omega Howl guy.”
Jess Harnell is another veteran to voice acting, having started out by providing vocals for Br’er Rabbit (and several other characters) in the Splash Mountain ride at Disney Parks. In addition to work in animated TV shows, he worked on many Pixar films including the Toy Story trilogy, Finding Nemo, WALL-E, and Up. Like his fellow loop group members, he is humble and values that characteristic in Pixar’s employees, noting that even though the studio is praised often, the crew remains generous. Understanding that he is participating in films that resonate with the audience, he comments that Pixar films will outlive them all. According to Harnell, who has also worked on many shorts from the Emeryville-based studio, there is an attention to quality no matter how big or small the size of the project.
Speaking with the four actors, it was challenging not to hear the admiration they have for each other. It is a camaraderie that many of us search for in our line of work but do not always succeed in attaining. There are no strong egos in the bunch, a concept that Alan delivers with the comment that the work they do is always for the good of the story. Harnell adds by stating that many misunderstand voice acting ability as consisting of a talent to provide an entire range of unique voices. “You just have to bring one great one.” Each character is different, so they understand they may or may not land each role they try. Like Pixar, they collaborate to ensure that they arrive at a great story with memorable characters.