The title characters of Laika’s The Boxtrolls make quite an impression, and a good portion of the reason why is the vocal performances of a stable of voiceover actors who used their gibberish language to lend them distinct characterization and depth. Toonzone leapt at the chance to interview the voiceover actors who brought two of the lead Boxtrolls to life: Dee Bradley Baker (who plays Fish) and Steve Blum (who plays Shoe).
Dee Bradley Baker is well known in the voiceover industry for his astounding ability to make sounds that should not come out of a human being, all in service of bringing babies, animals, fantastic creatures, and other non-human roles to vivid life. Baker has posted an exhaustive biography on his IWantToBeAVoiceActor.com website, and animation fans may know him best for his roles as Appa and Momo on Avatar the Last Airbender, Perry the Platypus on Phineas and Ferb, Klaus the goldfish on American Dad, Tarrlok on The Legend of Korra, and all of the clones in the CGI series Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
We were able to chat with Dee Bradley Baker via telephone about his role as Shoe in The Boxtrolls.
TOONZONE NEWS: I know that you’ve had a long and winding road to get into the voiceover business, but can you remember the first time you did a non-human role in the booth successfully?
DEE BRADLEY BAKER: Being hired as a voice actor to do weird animal and creature sounds gradually started to happen once I came out to Los Angeles about 20 years ago. On a show that I’d be called in on, occasionally they would need maybe a monster or a dog or a bird or an alien, or something odd. I kind of had that kind of skill set because of the amount of improv and standup that I had done, so I was pretty uninhibited about what I did vocally and as an actor. So they’d throw it to me, and I’d try it, and they liked it. I kind of got the idea that, “I need to work these muscles more,” and I did. So I just continued to make weird sounds and be ready to apply them as an actor. Gradually, that just blossomed into much of the work that I do now, which is inhuman vocalizations, but it’s not just sound effects. I don’t think of myself as a sound effects guy. There’s some guys that do that, and they do that great, but that’s not what I’m really hired to do. What I’m hired to do is be an actor that delivers the intent that an acting performance will give to something that’s not human.
TOONZONE NEWS: I was amused that you have about a dozen non-human demo reels on your website, and then after that, “Oh, and here’s my commercial reel.”
DEE BRADLEY BAKER: Yeah, and that’s an old one, too. The spoken stuff is old, and the creature stuff is newer because I’ve just focused on that. It’s the most fun, and the most creative, and it’s just what I like to do the best. On the other front, in recent years, I’ve been asked to do more straight-ahead acting vocal stuff than I ever have as well. Doing the Clones on Star Wars: The Clone Wars, or Tarrlok on The Legend of Korra, that’s straight-ahead acting, and that’s been really rewarding and really fun to do as well, because it’s not what I originally started doing when I came out here (laughs). I was just doing more character-y, funny, wacky stuff, and it’s gone completely in two different directions from that. It’s a great fun variety of stuff that I get to do.
TOONZONE NEWS: How do you audition for those non-human roles, exactly? Do you get scripts, or do people approach you and say, “Hey, Dee, we have a thing here for you?”
DEE BRADLEY BAKER: It really plays out differently on different projects. Some projects come from people that know me or my reputation, or they like what they hear on my website. Maybe we’ve worked together before and they just have a monster or a creature or an animal or a family pet, and they say, “Dee can do it. We know he can do any of these sounds at all and he can adjust it on the fly,” and they just call me and give me the work. Other shows they will hopefully provide at least a script or maybe a rendering of the creature or animal, and if I know something about that show or movie or TV show and the tone that they have, then I can sort of triangulate what I think they can use. When you audition as a voice actor, you pretty much have to deliver a performance that’s right in the pocket that they can just drop in the show they have running in their minds and it’ll work, without them having to say, “You know, this could work but it really needs to be much faster and in a higher register.” Or, “This needs a lot more extra stuff added in other than what we’ve written, but it’s not there so it doesn’t feel right.” Those are all things where I have to apply my knowledge of storytelling and the various modes of that so I can dial that into my audition right up front.
For this movie, my agent, Cynthia Mclean at SBV Talent, had read that Laika was adapting The Boxtrolls. So she just called them up and said, “Look, I’ve got this guy who does these things and really loves this kind of work. Why don’t you work together to come up with something that you like?” And they said, “OK.” I had looked at the original book that it’s based on, and then they gave me a script. From there it was like, “OK, I think I see where this is going, but I need to talk to the guys who are making this, to make sure that this tone is correct, and what these creatures are comes off vocally, so they don’t sound mean or too off-putting or disgusting.” Or how sweet does it have to be, or even how much do you even have to be able to understand words? And all of those are things that I was lucky with because I got to talk to (director) Tony Stacchi and the rest of the creative chiefs on this. This was before I was really hired to do it. We were kind of going back-and-forth and would record stuff that they thought they liked, but do a few different versions of it. Then they’d go away for a month or two and come back and say, “OK, we liked this part and this part, but we want to change this. So let’s go back and try that one scene, but try it THIS way.” And they’d show me a storyboard or an animatic that they had already cut together so I could see essentially the movie that they were shooting for. So gradually, we arrived at something close to what we have in the movie. Then they dropped me in and they actually recorded it and brought in Steve Blum. He and I worked together so it brought more of a connection. Just more humanity to these creatures, because they are conversing with each other. They’re an incredibly social group of critters. So Steve brought in that, because he’s really brilliant and he’s great for doing all those kind of weird creature sounds as well. He and I kind of worked it up from there pared it down with the Laika people to what we have today, which is the final product.
TOONZONE NEWS: So it doesn’t even sound like there was an audition as such. They just kept throwing work at you?
DEE BRADLEY BAKER: It was more of that they brought me on to work with them creatively to come up with a sound that they liked. Assuming that they liked it, and they just kept calling me back to work on it, then eventually I’d probably just get hired to do it. There was an extended creative audition process, I guess.
DEE BRADLEY BAKER: Yeah, the story of Fish and Eggs is right there at the fulcrum of what the whole story is about. It was absolutely vital that it was clear to the audience their relationship and everything they go through had to be absolutely clear and that was where only one of the two was able to speak. (laughs)
TOONZONE NEWS: I know in a lot of your other animation work, you’ll do the sounds more like ADR where you’re working to finished animation. Obviously, it doesn’t sound like you were able to do that here. I don’t even think you could because of the way stop-motion works.
DEE BRADLEY BAKER: Yeah. There might have been a little bit of ADR that we picked up at the end, but they had such a menu of choices in terms of sounds with all the work that we did that there wasn’t a lot of ADR. Unlike, for instance, Avatar or Legend of Korra, where almost everything I do as far as the creature work is post-production looping. I see it right when it’s almost finished, and then I just add my sounds from what I see. But these little guys were such a key part of the conversation whether human or non-human that they had to have that from the very beginning. So that’s why they did it that way. They animated to my voice.
TOONZONE NEWS: What were you working with in the booth? Did you get a script with lines that you were translating into Boxtroll-ese? Or were they more like stage directions?
DEE BRADLEY BAKER: As I remember, it was a script originally that would just describe what the Boxtroll was doing, but no language. No language or utterances written out. And I would just perform essentially the specifics of what happened. The effort of lifting up a manhole cover, quietly looking around whispering to his friend, being surprised by a light — just playing out the sequence of that. Vocally only. Eventually they tried writing up a language with words that were like the actual English word, but not quite, and that turned out to be more convoluted and too confining. Too complicated and it confined the performance of it to a degree that was not helpful. What we would do is: they would tell me a sentence like, “The Boxtroll would be saying: ‘Come on, come on, we’ve got to get out of here!'” Or ‘Put down that manhole cover and take a look at this.'” And then I would make those utterances with that specific intent in mind. So it matched the phrasing and the meaning and the feeling of the sentence, but without the words. We arrived at that, where they would feed me the subtext and we’d try different variations. But it was very specific, and I would make the sounds right along that specific meaning.
DEE BRADLEY BAKER: Well, it’s very freeing, because I’m not confined by the words that I say. There’s an improv game where you do an entire scene in gibberish, but it’s very clear what the scene is about and what’s being said and what’s happening. It’s essentially that improv game that I kind of dialed up in my mind. It’s just very loose. Normally you have to kind of adhere to the script, depending on the project, but here I didn’t have to worry about that. All I had to worry about was the intent. And that’s all just acting. It’s just pure acting, plain and simple. That’s all it is. So in a way, it’s easier (laughs).
TOONZONE NEWS: You’re not trying to make the words work for you, or looking at something and saying, “I don’t know how to make that sentence sound natural.”
DEE BRADLEY BAKER: Right. You don’t have to worry about enunciation or anything. It’s just getting the intent clear, with the right pace and the right tone to it. That’s the only thing that matters. That’s all you’ve got to worry about, and that’s just acting. That’s just pure and simple acting.
TOONZONE NEWS: You mentioned that when you were starting on this that you had read the original book, and it certainly sounds like there was a lot of evolution from the beginning to the end. What would you say was different between when you started vs. when you were doing the later records?
DEE BRADLEY BAKER: It’s interesting as I think about the renderings that are in the original book, because the Boxtrolls in the movie are a little bit softer and a little bit sweeter. There’s kind of a primitive simplicity to the renderings in the book, as I remember, and the main thing that we really had to get was to not end up with something that sounds harsh and mean. It has to be something that you could say, “Yeah, I can see how people would be afraid of it and want to get away from it and not like it,” but it’s got to still seem like it’s a child, almost. It’s almost like a toddler that is pre-lingual, and it can’t talk yet, but there’s actually a sweetness and in intelligence there that I like. There’s a simplicity to it that ultimately puts you on their side and wins you over., That’s the part that we had to work and really dial that in. I think they did a really great job of it to make these guys odd and a little off-putting at first, but ultimately very sweet and very funny, so you’re like, “Man, I’d love to hang out with these guys and camp out in their boxes,” and have that big group sleepover thing that they do. It looks like fun.
DEE BRADLEY BAKER: Nika Futterman, I believe, was Oilcan. And I worked with her on Clone Wars. She was Asajj Ventress. (laughs) There’s a great example of just the range that a really brilliant voice actor gets to go through. Nika Futterman is both Ventress and Oilcan (laughter).
TOONZONE NEWS: I’m trying to remember who she was in Avatar, too. I think she was Smellerbee. That’s where I got familiar with her name.
DEE BRADLEY BAKER: Yeah. I worked with her on Handy Manny. I mean, she can do sweet and small, and big and evil, and everything in between. She’s really brilliant. There’s a lot of other folks in there. I know Pat Fraley did some work on it. I saw him in there briefly once, but they were recording him separately. I don’t know who else they used for the voices. I worked one day with the loop troop group, but that was just kind of filling in along the edges, not some of the other principal ones, so I can’t remember who else they brought in for the other Trolls.
TOONZONE NEWS: It’s funny how the on-camera talents in the movie end up on the movie poster, and there’s the bunch of names I recognize because I’m a voiceover geek but they’re the title characters.
DEE BRADLEY BAKER: Well, that’s show business marketing for you. I’ve been used to that for a long time. I’m just really gratified, and I think it’s because you have such creative people in the cockpit steering the machine that they went with workaday voice actors to do the creatures and the critter stuff rather than trying to shoehorn in famous people to do the creature work as well (laughs). Which fortunately for me, they don’t normally do.
TOONZONE NEWS: Or pull in a sound library and try to do something like R2-D2.
DEE BRADLEY BAKER: Right. Well that is an option, and you’ve got to have a really brilliant sound engineer who’s able to build a really clear specific vocal performance, and that’s a really hard thing to do, especially with these little guys. They’re talking back and forth. It’s one thing to put together a few Wookie reactions, but it’s a whole other thing to have a whole room full of these creatures talking back and forth. To try and build that into a specific, real conversation is incredibly difficult to do that from a sound library. But it’s very very easy and quick if you just hire some good voice actors to do it.
TOONZONE NEWS: What kinds of adjustments do you end up getting for a role like this? Can you think of anything where you got a direction and were trying to process that in your head and went, “…OK…I’m kind of not sure where to take that.”
DEE BRADLEY BAKER: Actually, it’s much simpler on my end as a voice actor when the creative people know exactly what they’re going for and exactly what they want. Even if they’re taking different runs at it and trying different things, if they’re very specific about what they want at each little run at it, then you’re OK. If it’s somebody who doesn’t really know what they want, and you’re just kind of flailing around, that usually doesn’t feel good to anybody. But fortunately, we weren’t just married to the script, and only doing the actions that were laid out in the script. They would be coming up with little ideas from things that we would do, from a reaction or a hesitation or a sudden burst of excitement that was not in the script, but that we would come up with improvisationally on the fly as we’re taking a run at a scene. They’d say, “Oh, oh yeah! Let’s try it that way, but this time at the end, just kind of look up, and he’s looking at his friend about four feet away, and he just kind of raises his eyebrow. And then he’s a little whimper before he’s pulled away by the red cap guys.” And that little idea…that little gag didn’t exist until we started playing around with it. They were very open to trying new little bits like that which would ignite in their mind, and we’d try it back and forth until we had a few things that they liked a lot. Then they’d take it back up to Laika and sift through them, just like Boxtrolls would, and just sort of pick out the shiny ones that they liked the best, and attach them to the superstructure that they were building, in their very Boxtroll kind of way. Working for Laika is like working for Boxtrolls. It really is (laughter). They’re really funny, creative little critters who just have all these really fun little tinker-y ideas of putting things together in this really odd, interesting way. It’s great fun, it’s very delightful.
TOONZONE NEWS: I really hope they put that on the DVD. If they recorded that, like five minutes of you and Steve Blum in the booth having a conversation as Boxtrolls.
DEE BRADLEY BAKER: Yeah. They did a couple of sessions, there was one a couple of weeks ago where they brought me and Steve in just to interview us and show us doing Boxtrolls together. If they don’t release it on the web…in fact, they did say that would be on the DVD. They’ll have a lot of extras on this DVD. I’m pretty certain of that.
TOONZONE NEWS: Outstanding. (Ed’s note: it came out on the web after all:)
DEE BRADLEY BAKER: The creative process of making of this movie is a lot of what is interesting about it. It’s not just the final result, but it’s “look at how they did this.” Look at this fascinating process of putting all these little pieces together in this hand-made, hand-crafted kind of way. You are allied with something that is just this elaborate, gloriously intricate, unexpected, really surprising jewel of a creation, and you want to know how you did that. They’re very proud of that. They even put together trailers that show them making it. They’re very proud of how they make this, and people will be very interested to see how they go about it, because it’s a fascinating process. It’s really like no other show I’ve ever been on or seen. Animation, figure animation, computer animation, this is not this is a whole another level of that, and it’s really something that people will be very thrilled to see, I think.
DEE BRADLEY BAKER: I’ve got two things to plug that are earning me no money (laughs). One thing I’d plug is that if anybody is interested in voice acting, I made a site for people interested in voice acting called IWantToBeAVoiceActor.com. That has all of my advice and all that I’ve learned about being a voice actor. It’s for free and it’s for anybody who wants it. I hope it’s helpful. I didn’t do it for any other reason than I thought it would help people. I’m often asked the question, and I don’t have the time to give a full answer, usually, so I thought, “Why don’t I just put this on the web and anybody can go to it and just see my take.” It’s not the only take, but this is actually everything I’ve learned that I can think of. And I keep adding to it, too.
The other thing is I have a photography site where I take little pictures of bugs and flowers at deebakerphotography.com. And again, I don’t get any money from any of it, but it’s just something I love to do.
Other than that, I’m very proud of the Batman 3 LEGO game that is coming out. I play Brainiac in that, and it’s hilarious. It’s really smart and funny and really fun. I’m very proud of that silly, fun game. I’m very excited about The Boxtrolls. Other than that, I can go on about other shows that I love and and am excited about, but I don’t know that anybody wants to hear an actor talk about all that (laughs).
Another veteran of the voiceover industry, Steve Blum is probably best known to animation fans for his roles as Spike Spiegel in the renowned anime Cowboy Bebop, as the mutant Wolverine in numerous Marvel Animation projects, and as TOM, the robotic host of Cartoon Network and Adult Swim’s Toonami programming block. Other prominent roles in his 20+ career include the Green Goblin in The Spectacular Spider-Man, Amon in The Legend of Korra, Vilgax and numerous other aliens in the Ben 10 franchise, Starscream in Transformers: Prime, and Heatwave in Transformers: Rescue Bots. Blum was also inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records in 2012 as the most prolific voice actor in video games, with more than 300 titles under his belt (including Tank Dempsey in Call of Duty, Oghren in Dragon Age: Origins, Killer Croc in Batman: Arkham Asylum, Zoltan Kulle in Diablo 3, and Vincent Valentine in Final Fantasy VII.
We were able to interview Steve Blum via e-mail about his role as Shoe in The Boxtrolls.
TOONZONE NEWS: How did you get the role of Shoe in The Boxtrolls? Was it just a normal audition process? And what kinds of materials did they send you to audition with?
STEVE BLUM: As I recall, it came through the normal channels. Basically a bunch of contextual instructions with descriptions of emotions, conversation, efforts, and reactions – all to be conveyed in gibberish. My agent sent me the sides and I recorded the auditions in my home studio and uploaded them back to her in emails. I just looked back into my records: I did these auditions in May 2012! I was brought into the studio for callbacks, ran through some paces, and ultimately hired.
TOONZONE NEWS: It’s interesting that your path into VO as a career started with doing monster sounds in The Guyver, and now you’re a Boxtroll. You’re not generally known for doing the kind of non-human characters that actors like Dee and Frank Welker are, though. Do you do those sorts of roles often?
STEVE BLUM: I’ve been doing creature work for over 20 years in hundreds of projects. Dee and Frank are just better at it – and work on higher profile roles! I’m a huge fan of both of them – as humans and actors. Great men and insanely talented. I’m thrilled to finally get to do some creature stuff on this level.
TOONZONE NEWS: Dee Bradley Baker mentioned that he had done a bit of development with the crew at Laika before he was cast as Fish in The Boxtrolls. Were you involved in any of that development work?
STEVE BLUM: First of all, Dee is a genius and one of the great heroes of this business. To work on anything with him is a joy and a master class. He did work with the creators of the film to set the tone and overall flavor of Boxtroll speech, I believe several months prior to me coming on board. I came in later, but was fortunate enough to help him refine the language and interaction of Boxtroll society in studio. I’ve known Dee for many years. I consider him a dear friend. We worked very closely on the first season of The Legend of Korra, so it was wonderful to work with “family” on such an incredible project.
TOONZONE NEWS: How often did you get to work with Dee Bradley Baker in the studio?
STEVE BLUM: Fairly often, I’m happy to say. And yet, not as often as I’d like. Though he’s best known for his creature work, he has played some of the funniest, most heartwarming and amazing speaking characters too. I hope this film finally gives him the recognition he deserves.
TOONZONE NEWS: You’ve mentioned in past interviews how physicality of the performance is important to you in getting in character. What kind of physical things were you doing in the booth to get in character as Shoe?
STEVE BLUM: I’m not afraid to get ugly. It as simple as that. I do whatever it takes to get the sounds out and into the microphone. Shoe required some facial and body contortions, even some spit and drool. I tended to slouch and raise the shoulders, manipulate the throat, tongue, and occasionally even the sinuses (yes, the sinuses – a Dee Bradley Baker technique!) to embody the short stature and bratty nature of the little guy. Arms flail, sweat pours. It’s not a pretty sight, but it gets the job done.
TOONZONE NEWS: This almost feels like the year of interesting limits on a voiceover role leading to strong performances, like Vin Diesel saying the same line over and over in different ways in Guardians of the Galaxy, and now you and Dee crafting two distinctive characters who only speak in gibberish. Is there something about that challenge that you think pushes you to do more or better work? How did you approach that particular acting challenge?
STEVE BLUM: Honestly, it’s no different than the type of work Dee and I have been doing for decades in TV, video games, and other media. We’re simply getting noticed now because it’s such a big, beautiful film with great marketing. I’m just grateful that they asked me to come play.
TOONZONE NEWS: What was the hardest thing for you about this role? What were the surprises for you?
STEVE BLUM: The hardest thing was differentiating the voices for the characters enough to recognize them individually without visuals. My natural speaking range is very low, yet Shoe often would need to be pitched much higher than Dee’s Fish, so the animators would know who’s mouth should be moving! I was a little surprised how few English words we were ultimately allowed to use in the final recordings. It made it a bit more challenging to find emotionally consistent vocalizations to capture moments, when the easy route would have been to drop in a few intelligible hints. By doing that, it shifted the responsibility of clarifying the intention of the scene much more towards the animators. I think it was a great choice, especially since the animation team was beyond brilliant. The biggest surprise came in seeing how every nuance we gave them was used to the greatest potential by the gifted craftsfolk at Laika. That is rarely possible in most animation. I’m in awe of the massive talent at that studio – on every level.
TOONZONE NEWS: Union rules say the producers can get up to 3 roles out of a voiceover actor at the same rate, and I know you and Dee played other Boxtrolls in this movie. What were the challenges in characterizing some of the other Boxtrolls other than Shoe? Did you ever catch yourself speaking as the wrong Boxtroll?
STEVE BLUM: I played Sparky with a much deeper voice, and slightly slower speech pattern than Shoe, so it wasn’t too much of a problem. There was another character, “Show,” who fell somewhere between the two. He was a highly theatrical guy who sadly didn’t make it into the film. It was interesting finding different placement for Show that didn’t overlap the two other voices. He was actually the most vocally broad and bombastic of the three, so I really had to stretch sometimes. I hope if there’s a sequel, Show will make the cut. And yes, especially when we don’t have the benefit of words, it was easy to find myself in the mouth of the wrong Boxtroll.
TOONZONE NEWS: Is there anything else coming up that fans can expect to hear you in, or anything else you want to plug?
STEVE BLUM: Yes! Star Wars Rebels on Disney XD!!! I play Zeb, the cranky, bulky, purple warrior Lasat (a new species to the Star Wars universe!), who’s a crewmember of our little rebel ship The Ghost, as we tell our part of the story of how the Rebellion began. It takes place a little before A New Hope, the original Star Wars film, and is voice directed by Dave Filoni from Star Wars: The Clone Wars. As a fan since 1977 (yes, I was there on opening weekend!), it’s a thrill to be part of the Star Wars family. Also, I’ll be appearing in many more upcoming episodes of Regular Show, Doc McStuffins, Toonami, Transformers Rescue Bots, and lots of other TV shows, video games and live convention appearances. I update regularly on my website – steveblumvoices.com – and am on Twitter @blumspew almost daily. I’m grateful for all the fan support. Without you guys, I wouldn’t have a job, and I never take that for granted. And a giant, heartfelt thank you to everyone at Laika for trusting me with these wonderful characters! Dare to be Square!!
Toonzone would like to thank Dee Bradley Baker and Steve Blum for taking the time to talk with us about their roles in The Boxtrolls, and to Fumi Kitahara and the PR team at Laika for arranging the interview time. Visit Dee Bradley Baker’s official website (along with IWantToBeAVoiceActor.com and DeeBakerPhotography.com) for more; catch up with Steve Blum on SteveBlumVoices.com and via his Twitter account.
The Boxtrolls opens in the US on September 26, 2014. For more details, check out Toonzone’s earlier coverage here, and hit The Boxtrolls on social media at: