As a longtime viewer of documentaries, the past decade has been a fascinating ride as hot-button political documentaries and nature documentaries took on a nature of their own and gave way to a new era of filmmaking. Documentaries have become a cultural staple as they have become more accessible and affordable through digital filmmaking and distribution. Since that time, the public have gotten looks into worlds they otherwise would have been oblivious to, and filmmaking itself has seen the competitive nature of ‘90s documentary filmmaking almost become obsolete.
And yet, for all this time, the fact that there’s been so many documentaries about the entertainment industry yet virtually none about the world of voice acting is somewhat of an enigma. For a side of entertainment that largely remains in shadows, getting glimpses here and there at the occasional convention circuit or social media feed, it took one of the industry’s finest to bring it to light. Voiceover veteran and producer/narrator John DiMaggio, producer Tommy Reid and co-producer/director Lawrence Shapiro have crafted I Know That Voice, the definitive documentary on the wide world of voiceover through the testimonies and perspectives of the people that know it best. DiMaggio, best known to the world as the voice of Bender on Futurama and Jake on Adventure Time, offers a genuine yet hilarious take on the art form from which he’s become an icon, and alongside director Shapiro, spoke to Diabolique about the documentary, the craft of voiceover and keeping up with an ever-growing industry…
DIABOLIQUE: I Know That Voice seems like a very personal project to both of you, and it covers the people who provide the voices we all know and love but rarely get attention outside of DVD bonus features. What inspired you both to develop this particular project?
JOHN DIMAGGIO: Well, Larry and I were in Amsterdam for a project called Jam in the Dam. I was there seeing it and Larry was shooting it, and there were a bunch of jam bands, like Umphrey’s McGee and the Yonder Mountain String Band. So we were there, and I was on stage, and I started doing Bender, and when I whipped out the voice, Larry saw four German tourists lose their mind. They were like, “Oh my God, that’s the guy who does Bender!” except it was more like, [thick German accent] “Oh mein Gott, that is the guy that does the Bender!” So they freaked out and Larry was like, “Dude, this is incredible, man.”
LAWRENCE SHAPIRO: Yeah, they barely spoke English so it wasn’t like they knew a word of what John was saying, but literally through a different language, they recognized John from his voice. John and I went off and were like, “You know, this is a really important subject that everyone clearly cares about across the world that no one has thought to cover, really.”
DIABOLIQUE: Was there any particular reason that you chose to tackle this subject through a documentary format as opposed to a straightforward narrative?
SHAPIRO: I would say the most interesting thing was to get these points of view from all of these people who are all these artists. A narrative would have been something we constructed but I wanted to inform, and you can’t inform better than getting the point-of-view from the people who actually do voice acting.
DIMAGGIO: It was like combining a little bit of education with a little bit of entertainment. I believe KRS called that “edutainment.” I always liked those productions anyways, though I guess I’m showing my age.
DIABOLIQUE: You feature a cavalcade of voice actors in this documentary, some of whom rarely get time in the spotlight when they’re not speaking or putting on a voice. Did you find that these actors approached the project nervously or were maybe intimidated by the prospect of appearing on-camera?
DIMAGGIO: Not at all. Everyone jumped at the chance. The only people who didn’t want to do [the documentary] were Frank Welker, because he’s our God and he doesn’t have to do it, and Tress MacNeille, who agreed to appear in the film but didn’t want to get interviewed. She was like, “I don’t know,” but everyone for the most part were not modest. They’re all willing to talk about the art form [of voice acting.]
They’re all willing to talk about their work, and they don’t have to talk about themselves. They enjoy talking about their part of acting and they don’t need as much coddling and applause as most actors these days do. There’s a camaraderie amongst the voice acting community that you won’t find in other parts of the business. So that was very interesting and that helped word of mouth in terms of trying to get people to appear in the film. Since we started asking people, agents started calling us. “Hey, we heard you were doing a film. Would you like to talk to this person or this person?” So people just came out of the woodwork.
SHAPIRO: Yeah, it really got to a point where we had to start turning people away because we had to start editing the thing. We would have never gotten the film done.
DIMAGGIO: We had 160 hours of footage that we’ve edited down to 95 minutes.
SHAPIRO: Yeah, we had over 150 interviews that were all at least an hour long.
DIMAGGIO: It was at least 160 hours. It was ridiculous and chock full of so much stuff.
DIABOLIQUE: Do you think that the element of mystique surrounding the reputation of a voice actor was something many of these interviewees were hesitant to alter?
DIMAGGIO: Not at all. That did not come into play at all.
SHAPIRO: I think [that mystique] has already been broken through social media and whatnot. These people were just happy to set the record straight in their own words.
DIABOLIQUE: Aside from many actors who are known reputably as voice actors, you also feature many voice actors who have had prolific on-screen careers, such as Mark Hamill, Hank Azaria, Stephen Root and Tom Kenny. While preparing this documentary, was there ever a concern that you might alienate the less prolific voice actors by featuring these talents or is the voice acting community more ingratiated and understanding in that regards?
DIMAGGIO: [Those actors] are a part of the community. They’re a part of us. They know how great this line of work is. Clancy Brown, too! You forgot to mention Clancy Brown. But that didn’t matter.
SHAPIRO: We got Ed Asner!
DIMAGGIO: Yeah, we got Ed Asner for crying out loud! The guy is a legend. There are people in the voiceover industry are so tight that if somebody does on-screen work, it’s great! Everybody cheers them on. Nobody is like, “GOD, I WISH I HAD THAT! WAAAAH!” If they are, they don’t show it. I don’t think having on-screen talent had any negative effect on the project. Once you’re a part of the community, you’re a part of what we do.
SHAPIRO: I would add to that that basically one of the things we realized when we made this film was that you can call them voice actors, but they really are some of the best character actors you’ve ever seen in your life and they just happen to use their voice. It’s worth mentioning that even though they fall into this category as well, they are still major character actors.
DIABOLIQUE: Do you think that this project may help some of the less on-camera voice talents become more comfortable in pursuing live action projects?
DIMAGGIO: I don’t think it’s a matter of comfort. People do what they do by choice, so I don’t really know it’s a matter of people being comfortable in front of the camera. I think it’s a matter of doing the work that’s available to you and then striving in it. If you realized how hard it is to get a job in the entertainment industry, and you were working prolifically in voice over and you can work doing on camera stuff here and there, it has nothing to do with being worried about how you look on camera. It’s about the work and you do the work that is available to you. These actors are that good that they’re able to do the voiceover stuff. It’s hard.
A lot of people think that it’s easy to just go and talk in front of a microphone and that’s not the case. You’re not just talking, you’re acting. You’re acting in front of a microphone as opposed to a camera. It’s a lot more specific of a technique than most people think. It’s not, “Oh, do a silly voice!” Try doing a silly voice for four hours, then take a lunch break, and then do another silly voice for four hours. It’s not easy, especially because it’s about the acting. So I think that mindset is a little off.
SHAPIRO: I would add that it’s not just acting but it’s acting with one hand tied behind their back because they ONLY have their voice.
DIMAGGIO: That’s totally accurate, Larry.
DIABOLIQUE: Voice acting over the years has become a very in-demand art form over the past two decades, especially with the prominent world of video gaming and digital animation. When making this documentary, did you aim to tell a more intimate story about these voice actors or were you more interested in showing the world of voice acting at large?
SHAPIRO: Basically the latter. We pretty much wanted to cover the world at large of voice acting and show it as a whole so you can get an idea of what this unknown universe is all about.
DIABOLIQUE: Do you think the world of voice acting may grow even larger in this expanded world of digital distribution and online web series?
DIMAGGIO: It’s growing every day. It’s growing every single day and there’s more people trying to get into it because if you can get your foot in that door, it can be lucrative. It’s not multi-millions of dollars lucrative, but it’s a fine living lucrative. It’s a comfortable and good living, so once you get one voice acting job, you don’t want to stop. So there’s always people finding out about voiceover every day and how amazing it is, how much fun it can be, and how it satiates your desire for crafting a character as an actor.
SHAPIRO: I would also say that the outlets of changed with web series and video games and whatnot, the craft itself goes to radio and before so it’s a timeless art form with more than two ways of expressing it.
DIABOLIQUE: Lawrence, this is second directorial documentary project, following Jam in the Dam. What do you think it is about documentary filmmaking that matches your sensibilities as a storyteller?
SHAPIRO: Well, I really got my start doing a lot of music related documentaries and I wanted do go more towards a storytelling route. There’s such a beautiful audio quality for this whole art form so it seemed like such a natural progression to go into a subgenre like voiceover. Plus, knowing somebody who is as amazingly talented as John really helps motivate you to try to cover such a subject.
DIMAGGIO: Yay! [laughs]
DIABOLIQUE: John, you’ve been a voice actor for almost 20 years now, and many of your personal friends and colleagues appear in this project. As the executive producer, was it important for you to remain objective to the subjects of the documentary, even including yourself?
DIMAGGIO: Yes, definitely. I really wanted to show, in this documentary, my peers and show how really amazing they are and I think they pulled that off. I think some of my peers stole the movie right out from underneath me, which is fine by me because that’s what they do in the booth on a daily basis. We wanted to have fun and the whole point was to show how talented these folks are. I Know That Voice is my valentine to them.
DIABOLIQUE: Do you think it was a tool to be working with such lighthearted talents to keep this film grounded with a human element to it?
SHAPIRO: For sure, every interview has that. Every person was a master class interview, really. All we did was distill the best nuggets, but when you walk away from the film, you pretty much have an incredible view of this world and the serious depth to it.
DIMAGGIO: [imitating pimp slang] Hey man, I don’t know ‘bout that, but I just made this movie for the pussy, okay? When you’re a documentarian, you print money, and my word is bond. We did this movie for all the dirt pussy.
SHAPIRO: Sorry, John! That’s what I meant.
DIABOLIQUE: Has either of your visions for the project changed at all since the initial development?
DIMAGGIO: There was more dance involved in the beginning! Sorry…
SHAPIRO: I would say I Know That Voice very much evolved the way we planned, we just didn’t realize the wealth of information that we’d capture and how hard it would be to narrow it down. There was so much to use.
DIMAGGIO: Basically, all the time that was spent doing interviews was repeated. At times, it lagged on but by the end, we felt we had what we needed. So we’re just anxious to have it be out and have people see it. At least I am, for sure.
DIABOLIQUE: Considering how prevalent the world of podcasting and digital distribution has become, have you considered taking the extra wealth of the footage you had and creating some kind of companion piece?
SHAPIRO: I’d say that down the line, there’s a strong possibility that you may be seeing something on the web, possibly like a series of less-cut-down interviews where you can get more in depth with the people we interviewed and the stories that they told. We’re not committing to that just yet, but keep your eyes open though.
DIABOLIQUE: If the film is successful, is there any other avenues or subjects within the world of voice acting that you’d like to document in the future?
DIMAGGIO: [imitating pimp slang] Motherfuckin’ voiceover groupies. Awwww yeah. If we make that, I’ll be right there. [ends slang] Sorry! I can’t help it!
SHAPIRO: I say it was a pretty daunting task to cover what we had covered, so we wanted to keep our eyes on the prizes and focus on what we had covered before looking on to the next project.
I Know That Voice, directed by Lawrence Shapiro and featuring talents such as Seth Green, Kevin Conroy, Diedrich Bader, Mauriche LaMarche, Cedric Yarbrough, Dee Bradley Baker and Pamela Adlon, will release this December exclusively on Video-On-Demand through cable providers Comcast, Cox and Time Warner Cable via GoDigital before expanding to iTunes, Amazon and Hulu in January 2014. For more on the film, you can visit the film’s official website and like its official Facebook. For more from John DiMaggio, you can view select seasons of Futurama and Adventure Time on DVD/Blu-ray and on Netflix Instant Watch, you can catch new episodes of Adventure Time on Cartoon Network, and you can also follow him on Twitter: @TheJohnDiMaggio. You can watch the trailer for I Know That Voice below!
For more on John DiMaggio, Lawrence Shapiro and I Know That Voice, keep checking back here at DiaboliqueMagazine.com! Don’t forget to pick up our new issue, Diabolique #17, now available at the App Store, Google Play and on shelves at Barnes and Nobles and other major magazine retailers!
– By Ken W. Hanley