Why Do Animated Films Use Such Famous Voices?

I took my four children to the movie Coraline this weekend. After the movie, I asked them how they liked it. Their four answers: “great,” “good,” “O.K.,” and “Thank God it is over.”

Coming from my kids, who always say the latest movie is their favorite, those are not very positive reviews.

I have never been in a movie theater full of kids as quiet as it was at Coraline. That quiet, along with the plodding pace of the movie, left plenty of time to ponder things.

First, I couldn’t get over the fact that the name of one of the children in the movie was Whyborn, known as Whybee for short, as in “Why be born?” Whybee didn’t seem to have any parents, although he did have a grandma who would yell for him from time to time. It made me think of the unwanted children/abortion argument in Freakonomics.

Second, two of the voices in this animated film were done by Dakota Fanning and Teri Hatcher. The last movie I saw was Bolt, with voices by Miley Cyrus and John Travolta. The list of stars who have lent their voices to animated movies goes on and on: Eddie Murphy, Dustin Hoffman, Cameron Diaz, John Goodman, etc.

Why do big-name stars so dominate the voices in animated films?

One hypothesis is that they are better than other people at doing the voices. I’m almost certain that is not correct. I have to believe that there are a group of voice actors and books-on-tape readers who don’t have the faces to be movie stars but have great voices.

A second hypothesis is that the big stars don’t charge much for their voices. Doing the voice for an animated film doesn’t take much time or effort, at least according to this New York Times article. If that is the case, then maybe the cost of the actors’ voices is just a small part of the total cost of the movie; but I don’t think that is the case, at least not always. One source online reported that Cameron Diaz and Mike Myers each got paid $10 million for their parts in Shrek 2.

A third explanation is that people really like to hear the voices of the stars. I tend to doubt that story as well. With a few notable exceptions, my guess is that audiences couldn’t even identify the voices of the stars if they didn’t see the credits.

A fourth hypothesis is one that sounds odd, but will be familiar to economists. Under this hypothesis, it isn’t that famous actors are better at doing voices, or even that moviegoers like to hear their voices, or that stars are cheap. Rather, big-time actors are hired to read these parts precisely because they are expensive.

In order to be willing and able to give multi-million dollar deals to stars to do voices that a no-name could do for $50,000, a producer must be confident that the movie will be a big hit. Thus, the big star is hired solely to give a credible signal to outsiders that the producer thinks the movie will be a blockbuster.

Ultimately, I’m not sure any of these hypotheses really feel right to me.

Any ideas?


Caliphilosopher

You honestly think that fanatics couldn't know the voices of the people they idolize?

Marla

Just a guess, but I think that big names are probably hired for publicity purposes. For the last couple of years, animated movies have been publicized in much the same way as regular movies, with stars appearing on talk shows, the red carpet, etc. Excellent but unknown voice actors wouldn't garner as much press.

Jeff #3

I think it's mostly because of the draw that having a star do your voices can bring. Granted that Diaz and Myers did a great job in their work on Shrek; being able to put their names in the movie posters and credits probably did a lot to draw people then if they had equally skilled voice actors wouldn't have drawn nearly as many people.

Personally I prefer not having big name movie stars lending their voices to movies due to the effect it has on the characters they portray. Often the case is that they wind up playing a caricature of themselves insted of an actual character in the movie. Toy Story did a good job avoiding this, Ants and many other movies do not.

Kevin

Another reason is that the big name stars are going to be out promoting the movies and attending the premier. Thus you need to have the "faces" to go with the voices.

revpjack

Personally, I like to hear the voices of star I enjoy, John Hodgman in Coraline for example, and I enjoy it more when I'm not expecting it and figure out who it is on my own. That being said it's not what would draw me into the theater to see the movie.

David

All your hypotheses seem credible, but you left one out: that big names may draw a bigger audience.

dirahadi

Here's my guess: Branding.

Big-name actors might not be the best voice actors, but they already have a well-established reputation. It's a promise of reliability. Big-name actors don't usually act in horrible movies. That kind of reliability brings in the customers. (Well, so does marketing, promotion, and the promotion that comes with hiring the big names) Sorta like buying the reliable crap at McDonalds instead of the unknown-but-possibly-better-value-for-money food elsewhere.

William

Your third explanation is right. People like to hear the voices of the stars. Even when they cannot identify the voice, they recognize it. Then the look at the credits to see who that voice was "sounded familiar." Or if the voice is Cameron Diaz/Mike Myers caliber, they go because of the voices--yes, these people may make 10M a film, but I doubt that's a large portion of the cost of the film, or anywhere close to the amount that the movie gained by having the stars' names on it.

opusuno

I think you are correct in assuming they hired expensive voice talent in the beginning thinking it was going to be a hit, however, I think they compromised this notion as the process unfolded.

Liaka ie: Coraline went way over-budget, way past schedule, and had all kinds of problems with distribution. In fact, they had to layoff the entire Coraline staff before the movie hit the theaters.

From what I heard, they had conceded that this movie was going to fall into the cult-flick category at best.. Their Academy Award aspirations fell off the table when they missed theaters last year.

Perhaps they should have hired less expensive voice talent? I don't think it would've made any difference. Stop-mo is time consuming endeavor thus super expensive any way you slice it.

That all said, their opening weekend was on par (throw out Pixar) with other animated flicks of it's kind. You yourself bought 5-6 tix this weekend..

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Caliban Darklock

My understanding is that voice-over work is billed at standard rates which remain largely unchanged by the star's popularity. So hiring a no-name actor costs every bit as much as hiring a big-name actor, but the big-name actor still acts as a box office draw - a benefit which the film essentially gets for free. Those actors who intelligently recognise this effect and want to charge for it do so in back-end deals, which only pay off if the film is a success, and that's a smarter bet than an up-front fee paid directly to the actor.

On the artistic side, voice acting is still ACTING! Having a great voice is not enough; you have to be a good ACTOR, and the best actors tend to be big names. Those voice actors who don't have separate live-action roles tend to be heavily overbooked, because the community is small and the skills are difficult to acquire. Voice acting is every bit as hard to do well as live acting, and there are a LOT fewer people trying to enter the field.

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MikeM

I don't think your analysis for possibility #1 is totally on point. Great performers with a lot of talent and great delivery, but without "movie-star looks" don't become voice actors. They become character actors and get supporting roles. That's much better work that voice work. Unless it's blockbuster animations, in which case the pool isn't the lowly voice actors, but the great performers.

I mean, how many times have we seen Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers behind a ton of makeup playing crazy roles where their faces are inconsequential? I love the way Eddie Murphy can deliver a joke, whether he's playing a man, woman, or donkey. Even more so for Will Arnett, who voices a lot of animations.

Eric

Using big name stars puts the movie at the front of Hollywood's attention. The stars can give it that glit and glammer that attracts movie goers. They are also more welcome in the talk show and late night circuits.

Also, it takes little work for the stars, they make a boat load, everyone will forget it if it fails, and everyone gives them credit for a hit.

It is an easy way for stars to grow there bank account so they can continue to prop up the demecratic party and whatever other bs they support.

Nick

I think the salary for Shrek 2 was more of a product of the popularity of the first Shrek movie. They wanted to keep the familiarity via the voices of the main characters. Toy Story was the first animated movie I can think of that had huge stars in it. It seemed at the start of the animated films stars were aprehensive. As the success of the animated movies grew, more stars were willing to lend there voices because basically anything Pixar touched turned to gold. It's a two way street with a movie star doing a voice for an animated film; The film benefits from the stars name value, and if the film is successful (which most animated films are) the star gains notoriety for being apart of the successful film, which, in turn translates into a better looking resume and more calls for rolls they may not have been offered previously. I would also imagine that stars realize the value of getting a voice roll in one of these animated films. They might settle for smaller pay day now, knowing that they can use the rising value of there name to negotiate a larger payday for a future roll.

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Charlottesville

I don't care about big name stars in animation. My real concern here is:

You took kids to see Coraline??

Animated: yes
Made for kids: no
Marketed to kids: unfortunately yes

Unless your kids are at least 12 they're gonna get nightmares... I'm an adult and I couldn't get past the second chapter of the book. Button eyes? Way too creepy. The real world is scary enough for me, thanks!

PS: Do I like to use rhetorical questions and colons: Yes

jonathan

Is it a slightly different argument to say the marketing of the film determines the casting? People in film marketing - see The New Yorker's last two issues - say the difference now is that marketing is now part of development while before they were given products and told to sell them. If you have an expensive cgi movie with a big ad budget then marketing says hire expensive stars.

In the old days, the idea was to make a quality film first. As in, who was the voice of Snow White? Look up the classics like Pinocchio - you'll see the names aren't well known and were generally uncredited. Later Disney musicals used name singers like Louie Prima and Phil Harris, but they fit the roles for singing and acting.

Edison - Brazil

Answers 3 and 4 combined are probably right.
Just to add something to your text, I'd like to inform that this fact also happens here in Brazil when they put voices to play the caracter they also chose famous brazilian actors - but that just happens when the original voice comes from an US famous actor too. Interesting, isn't it? It is probably part of the contract, which makes me feel that your 4th answer is stronger than 3rd.

James

Maybe it's like using character actors -- you can save a lot of exposition by recycling characters/voices people are familiar with. James Earl Jones is serious/wise, Jack Black is a lovable oaf, Tom Hanks is trustworthy, Ben Stiller is neuotic, chris rock is hip, sacha baron cohen is zany, Samuel L Jackson is the epitome of cool, etc. (Maybe this has something to do with comedians and their delivery styles?)

Also, some animated characters are designed to look like the actors who voice them. Fred Willard in Wall-e and most characters in Beowulf (particularly John Malkovich) come to mind. Not sure what to make of this, but it's another aspect to think about.

Ken B

The stars are hired in keeping with Hollywood Rule #2: why hire someone good when you can hire someone famous? The only notable exception to this rule is "The Simpsons," with the predictable result that their voices are infinitely better than those in most animated feature films. (Hollywood Rule #1? Kill Homer Simpson. At least according to Robert Evans in his guest appearance on "The Simpsons.")

aquaricat

People do like to hear their favorite (manufactured) stars in the movies, but as others have said, it's mainly motivated by the simple fact that big name stars means big name exposure.

As for the kids not being particularly interested - Coraline might have been marketed to kids, but it really was not a children's movie. It's a horror movie with a bit of sugar and spice coating the ginger bread house.

Kerk

With regard to the first argument. Two of the most popular characters in "The Lion King" were Timon and Pumba, voiced by a pari of relatively unknown Broadway actors. They did just as good, or arguably, a better job than the high-priced talent in the film.