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?


Eli Rykoff

In 2005, Billy West, one of the great voiceover talents, gave an interview to the Onion A.V. Club where he bemoans the replacement of talented voiceover actors with big name stars without the skills to "physically escape the sound of their own voice":
http://tinyurl.com/c3gllj
He thinks animated movies suffer, essentially because the perverse incentive to market a movie with big name stars harms the quality of the voice acting.

Of course, he's also bitter that he doesn't get the jobs.

John

I think we are over thinking this a little bit. Maria hit it right on the head. Your 4th point almost gets there but doesn't quite drive it home. These animated movies are huge investments due to the costs associated with developing the content so the "Big Hit" standard has already been met by the time a pen is even put to paper. But the stars of the movie can't "Do Letterman" or Cohost "Regis and Kelly". But Mike Myers and Cameron Diaz can, which ultimately helps with media exposure and as a consquence (at least according to the always dangerous conventional thinking), leads to higher box office numbers.

Dan

#2 took the words right out of my mouth...

Why does State Farm pay LeBron James to hock car insurance if it doesn't make people want to buy that particular insurance. Who would want to tune in to Late Night with David Letterman if the first guess was John Smith, the guy who did the voice for a character in "Meet the Robinson's?"

Even when a bad movie has a big name celebrity with credibility attached to it, it does well enough to make back the expenses and then some.

Will Smith is a great example. He is a great actor and makes great movies...typically. Which is why a movie like Hancock can rake in dough at the box office even though is a terrible film. Lots of marketing + big star = big opening weekend numbers = profit.

laura

I agree with all of the points, esp. #21, there are a few actors who have succeeded in lending their voices to animated films (Pixar characters for the most part, Robin Williams as the Genie, Timon/Pumbaa too), but I think any animated character played by Jennifer Aniston, Angelina Jolie, etc. would be better served by a dedicated voice-actor.

Dan

so I guess to sum up my Will Smith point above, big name actors are like an insurance policy for the movie. The celebrities will hopefully draw in enough people to make a bad movie profitable...

Arvin

Notwithstanding actors' particular talents:

1) You can get the star name for much less; stars can do their work without having to interact with other actors, don't have to do makeup, and just sit in a room and listen to themselves. Meanwhile, you see the name on the poster, and that name recognition is enough to get people to pay attention just a bit more.

2) Something I've heard many actors claim, is that they love the idea of doing a voice in a movie that their kids can enjoy. As you said, kids idolize the movies they love, and what actor wouldn't want their children to fawn over them over and over again on video? Plus they'd be more likely to lend a voice as opposed to doing a silly live action kid's movie.

3) The media automatically seeks out publicity from these actors, which means easy publicity. Far fewer magazines and shows would ask unknown voice actors (or, god help us, the filmmakers themselves) to promote their film.

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Mike

I have to throw my lot in with reason 3. While I may not know whose voice it is, there's a good chance of having heard the voice at one point in time... subconcious recognition, ideally with actors/actressess who have had more pleseant roles in the past makes animated characters more likeable.

East Coast Phil

This is why you are an economist and not a marketer. We live in a celebrity culture. Big names sell tickets.

Manuel

In the case of animated movies, I believe it's a lot more than just voices behind animated characters. Many characters are "based" on the big names' faces. You cited Shrek 2 where it is clear that Mike Myer's and Cameron Diaz's faces were used as models for Shrek and Fiona. So I guess that their paychecks don't just cover their wage as a voice, but as a model too.
I think names behind voices is a huge deal and it is a main reason why modern animated features are so popular, sometimes even more than classic animated features. it gives them a way for people to relate with the characters on screen. I don't agree that people don't recognize the voices they hear. It's hard not to.

I don?t know if you are aware of it, but in Mexico, the adaptation and translation of original scripts has gotten huge and it makes movies more appealing to the general audience (mainly parents)... big names are behind those voices too.

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Bryce

I think your hypothetical options are lacking one consideration, which James brings up. When you get a big name actor, you are not just getting their voice, you are able to create the character to be as much like the actor as possible, adding their mannerisms, physical features, etc. Because of this, to the audience it is more like watching that actor on the screen, even though you aren't. Think Ray Romano in Ice Age. Robin Williams in Aladdin. Chris Rock in Madagascar.

But this theory only works for actors that have very recognizable faces/bodies/mannerisms. I haven't seen Bolt, but from the previews, I have no idea which characters are voiced by John Travolta or Miley Cyrus, partly I believe, because they don't have recognizeable characteristics that could show up in the characters.

And has anyone noticed the influx of famous actors doing voiceovers for commercials lately? Maybe I just didn't notice it 10 years ago, but I feel like a very high percentage of commercials these days use known actors. Think Jeff Bridges for Hyundai, Keifer Sutherland for Bank of America, Gene Hackman for Lowes (a few years ago), Patrick Dempsey for (some car company).

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Nathan Marik

I think it's actually for two reasons. The first is that it becomes much easier to promote a film when you have a big named star that can easily be booked on a talk show.

A potential second reason is to put in something for the adults. Recently, lots of the big animated features try and put in tid bits for adults to enjoy while watching with their children. I think putting in a familiar voice may be along those lines.

John

A good question is whether the filmmakers use the voice or the character. jonathan mentions Louis Prima from the Jungle Book - he did not just provide the voice - an animated character was created from Prima's persona - the same is true of Phil Harris as Baloo in the same film. I believe that Jungle Book was the first film to 'copy' the actor in this way.

Think of the genie in Aladin, or Donkey in Shrek. Is it only the voice that Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy provided? Not at all. Williams needed Eric Goldberg (the genie's lead animator) to 'keep up with him' as he delivered his frenetic comedy.

As for cases where the film actor doesn't provide a character or much of a voice for that matter? I'd go with the marketing angle.

Mike

I'd like to add that the name voices are usually associated with the type of characters they normally play (i.e. other characteristics of the actor matches the animated character in some way).

For example, John Goodman is a "big" guy. Larry the cable guy is a comedian who often plays dumb - played the tow truck in "Cars".

Using name voices when associated with animated characters of similar characteristics gives the characters more instant credibility (for lack of a better word) assuming you're familiar with these voices.

So in some sense, I'm saying that some of the reasons for using famous actors in movies also applies to animated movies.

EAS

It's all about name recognition, presumably for the parents -- an A-list star gives an air of legitimacy to a "kids' movie." An 8-year-old isn't likely to recognize John Travolta's face, much less "idolize" him as #1 suggests, but the parents will.

Sadly, the fact is that many of these actors, while competent, just don't have distinctive voices and sound very flat in a cartoon world. Listen to a cartoon with professional voice actors (and not professional actors who happen to do voice) -- even one as somber as, say, the '90s Batman series. Try to imagine those voices coming out of a normal human -- it doesn't fit. The voices are intentionally 'jazzed up,' livelier, more expressive and rich with character.

It's a skill that can't be taught to just any random person (even a celebrity), and I doubt they even try. Ultimately, opening weekend numbers are more important to moviemakers than creating something that will endure the test of time. A-list stars are lazy pop culture references in a medium that used to pride itself on being timeless.

Oh, but evil internet pirates -- terrorists! -- are killing the movie industry, as they never fail to remind us before the show. Nevermind, carry on doing what you're doing, Hollywood.

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Erin

When I think back on the Disney animated films from the 40's on up, I believe they were mostly using voice actors that had studio contracts. I remember that Peggy Lee supplied the singing voice of Lady in Lady and the Tramp, but I don't know if that was viewed as a selling point since I wasn't around then. In the 60's and 70's more famous actors began doing voices in cartoons, but I don't remember famous names being included in the promotions for those films. (Granted I was born in the 70's so it's possible I just don't remember.)

I do recall seeing more promotion of celebrities associated with animated movies starting in the late 80's and early 90's, first with Oliver and Company and then with Aladdin. Robin William's role in Aladdin was one of the first ones I remember having the experience of going into the theater and knowing he would be the voice of the Genie. Since then, I think most of the famous actors supplying voices for animated characters have become a key part of the promotion for many animated films.

So perhaps the famous actor requirement has simply evolved into existence over time?

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Cy

I have to agree strongly with commenter Laura above. There are few top comedians who are lending much more than their voice to the parts - certainly Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers, and Whoopie Goldberg fall into that category. Actors that are experts and playing many different characters and at the comedic talent of delivering a punchline.

However, there are others, that I just don't get the need to spend the money - many of these tend to be attractive women who at least in part owe their careers to their look - which of course is irrelevant to animation. I'd put Cameron Diaz and Angelina Jolie in that category. Though I will grant they are talented at their craft, a lot of their talent is communicated through their facial expressions which again doesn't matter in this medium.

The one case where I can see spending the money on non-comedians for the voice is Arvin's 3rd point, the studio plans to leverage their celebrity to promote the film. It's not that they are getting paid so much because paying them so much promotes the film, it's that they are getting paid so much because their celebrity is part of the promotion of the film.

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Tony

It's a method of marketing movies... Why pay $3M for TV ads when you can just put people's names in the trailer and get sold-out audiences.

That's why "He's Just Not That Into You" has done so well in the box office despite being a horrendous movie - because it has all these stars that people go see the movie.

Laura

For the same reason that big movie stars keep appearing on Broadway (often to less than flattering reviews). Because the public will pay for it if it has a star's name attached to it. How many people went to see "All My Sons" on Broadway because they loved the play vs. because they wanted to see Katie Holmes. A big star's name does a great deal of your marketing for you. Celebrities are even taking over the voice over roles in many commercials these days where they're also not seen on screen. I'm sure they're still getting paid the big bucks. As a result, production budgets get larger, and the number of available roles for the working-class actor shrinks. We've become a society where celebrity is FAR more important than content.

Matt

My guess is that big name actors can stand in a studio, read through the script a couple times and make easy money...much quicker than the months it takes to film a movie. I would look at the wage/time ratio, and my hypothesis is that the hourly wage for animated films is higher than for the same actor in a traditional films. And on the producers side it is an insurance policy or a way to get parents into the theatre.

Phil

Big time actors want to be in the movies because:
1) it is easier to do a movie without the concerns of makeup, costumes etc One thing alone to focus upon--pure emotion in the voice.

2) Many actors want to do films their young children can watch.

Studios want big time actors in the movie for one reason: A big time name to use in advertising.