It’s the story’s emotional turning point, the seconds in which the two brothers’ relationship – and the fates of their respective peoples – are reshaped forever. Pharaoh’s voice is quiet, his tone transitioning from realization to regret to resignation. “Yes…” he all but whispers. “I had hoped…that…” The last word is barely audible as the rest of the sentence drifts away in the air, lost to any means of verbal expression. No matter. The subtle fluctuations in Ralph Fiennes’ voice tell us more about the weight of this moment than the words themselves ever could.
Best-remembered as the highpoint of Dreamworks Animation’s hand-drawn phase before Shrek inaugurated a new era of fully CGI comedies and sequels, The Prince Of Egypt boasts an all-star voice cast the likes of which has now become fairly common. But even amidst capital work from Val Kilmer, Patrick Stewart, Sandra Bullock and many others, Ralph Fiennes’ performance as Rameses stands out as an exceptionally organic and fully-realized creation. His is an uncommonly balanced voice, whose naturally resonant timbre is countered by a soft edge that becomes more pronounced in the deep notes. It translates Rameses’ psychosocial ambivalence effortlessly, almost subconsciously: Whether he’s proclaiming the doubling of the Hebrew slaves’ workload or declaring his intent to “finish the job” his father started, the harsh texture of his intonations is contradicted by a nigh-imperceptible waver at the back of his voice. Every syllable communicates a power struggle between man and monarch.
So goes one of the finest performances of Fiennes’ career and indeed of the entire year 1998. Yet it remains curiously underappreciated among both critics and admirers of the thespian’s work. This is true of many respected actors’ vocal performances in animated films, TV series and video games; think of the dulcet musicality with which Claudia Black gradually unravelled Morrigan’s devil-may-care mystique in Dragon Age: Origins or the latent desperateness with which Ellen DeGeneres underscored Dory’s happy-go-lucky impulses in Finding Nemo.
These performances have all received their rightful share of plaudits from fans and bloggers but few professional reviews linger on their richness and all major award ceremonies have ignored them. Occasionally, someone like the late great Robin Williams may come along and make critics marvel at how perfectly his voice and energy lend themselves to animation, but such an exception only proves what little attention we pay to those who bring beloved characters to life. Exceptional voice acting in audiovisual media has existed for almost as long as the medium itself. Unfortunately, aside from Mel Blanc’s ground-breaking work in the classic Looney Tunes shorts, most of it has gone virtually unnoticed by the general public. Remember how Snow White’s wicked queen frightened you as a child? You can credit Lucille LaVerne and her ability to make her every utterance feel like a poisonous stream of iced water being poured directly into your soul. Or how about the tears you shed upon watching Watership Down and The Plague Dogs? The hushed vulnerability of John Hurt’s voice almost certainly contributed to them. Aware though we may be that an animated character’s voice is the only part of its body that exists in the three-dimensional realm, our visual culture teaches us from childhood never to separate what we see from what we hear, and thus we often take vocal performances for granted.
Thankfully, with western animation and video games now far away from the “kids’ stuff” ghetto they have been consigned to for so long, our blind spot for voice acting is drawing closer to its end. As with animation and gaming themselves, there’s a wide array of methods and styles of voice acting that are not immediately obvious to the untrained ear. These differences vary according to character, genre and training: Pick a Disney classic like The Lion King or Beauty And The Beast, then try watching it back-to-back with any DC animated movie and observe the differences in acting style. Notice how Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks tend to cast actors with established stage or stand-up comedy backgrounds. This isn’t just because their names are more likely to attract crowds; their voices are used to take everyday feelings and expand them to a form of stylized realism.
Casts of animated series, direct-to-DVD films and video games, on the other hand, are mainly composed of professional voice actors, many of whom spend their entire careers in the confines of a recording booth. Out of the camera’s sight, they hone their vocal cords to convey feelings and information most “full-bodied” actors would express through body language and facial expressions. Because of these conditions as well as the multitude of genres they work with, from cartoon comedies to AAA video games, they often approximate the kind of tones and inflections we use in everyday life but rarely match them 100%.
In contemporary pop culture, there is perhaps no more illustrious example of such acting than Mark Hamill’s genre-defining performances as the Joker in the classic DC Animated Universe series, films and Arkham games. Amidst the rich variety of interpretations the Joker has inspired in over half-a-century’s worth of audiovisual media, Mark Hamill’s stands out for a very good reason: It essentializes comic book villainy like no other before or since. Unencumbered by corporal restrictions, his voice captures every aggrandized, simplified and distilled thought and emotion that comic book characters are made of, and turns them into an elastic symphony of anthropomorphic onomatopoeias. Performances like this are a godsend to animators because they open up possibilities no camera on Earth can capture.
On a more subtle level, you have performances like Courtenay Taylor in Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic. As troubled Jedi companion Juhani, Taylor delivers her lines with a purring Russian accent and a deliberate pace that, all while presenting some perceptible differences with what the listener may be accustomed to hearing from real people, enable her to track down her character’s conflicted emotions with remarkable precision: Her struggle to understand and control the anger in her heart, the resentment, self-blame and internalized sense of inadequacy caused by years of racial injustice… Without Taylor’s knack for conveying these battles exactly when she needs to, Juhani would only be a conceptually interesting character at best.
Great voice acting, like all variants of performing arts, comes in different shapes and sizes. It can sneak past our detection and let our memories of the character linger in our minds until we wonder who we have to thank for them. Other times, it takes the form of immediate and indelible impacts that stretch our definition of what constitutes a good performance. If we wish to further the progress of audiovisual arts and our understanding thereof, it would behove us to treat voice actors at least as seriously as we do movie stars. Let us open our ears and listen to them attentively.
We ain’t heard nothing yet.