DT Exclusive Interview: "The Boxtrolls" Voice and Sound Artist, Dee Baker

Laika Studios recently released a behind-the-scenes of their newest feature, The Boxtrolls. Instead of focusing on the visual acumen of stop motion artists, however, this short showcased the talents of voice actors, Dee Baker and Steve Blum. The two actors created the charming and deliciously sweet squeals and grunts made by those cuddly little Boxtroll characters. We recently caught up with Dee Baker by phone to pick his brain about the world of voice acting, an artistic contribution that often gets swallowed up the in the PR hype and ballyhoo of Hollywood animation promotions. Dee is a prolific voice actor whose credits extend into animated features, cartoon series, and video games. He's worked on both the Halo and Gears of War franchises and also voices Captain Rex and the clone troopers in Cartoon Network's Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Dee has also provided sounds and voices for animated television series like Phineas and Ferb, Transformers: Rescue Bots, and Ultimate Spider-Man along with hundreds of other roles. If that's not enough to solidify Dee's status as "coolest-guy-in-the-room," he's also the voice of Klaus, the German-accented fish in American Dad. Dee's talents were also showcased in a documentary released last year called "I Know That Voice, which takes an inside look at the lives and work environments of some of America's most talented voice actors today. klaus Our interview with Dee focuses on the voice actor's role within the creative process and how it intersects with the job of visual artists. He talks about what it was like working on The Boxtrolls, how his personal voice interpretation process works, and the differences between working on an animated feature versus a video game. Visual artists can learn a lot about the entertainment industry from listening to Dee's insights, which are based on his vast experience working within it. Let's take a listen...

A lot of work went into creating the “language” of the Boxtrolls. What was the most challenging part of that process for you and co-star Steve Blum?

What was really important for the folks at Laika who are adapting this for the big screen was to get the right kind of tone for what these little Boxtrolls sound like. They’re kind of frightening. The drawings they have in the book, Here Be Monsters! have a…how should I put it…there’s a jaggedness to them…they aren’t cuddly, warm or necessarily friendly . There had to be a way to convey a warmth and benevolence through these odd little creatures that don’t necessarily look friendly, but you’ve got to see that they are. They’re like little children in a way. They’re all very well intentioned, and you like them.

So, we had to come up with something that sounded right for that kind of creature. It sounded like something that people might be afraid of, or might be a little freaked out about, and yet something that revealed an intelligence, warmth, and sweetness. That was kind of what we were playing with in originally coming up with the sound. This was before we were doing the original recording. I worked with [Laika] for a number of sessions back and forth trying to come up with something that fit their concept of the tone of these little creatures.


Typically, how does the initial process of creating a specific vocal sound for a character work? Are you given only a written description and/or an previz image of a character to build your vocal interpretation off of?

When I’m building a creature for whatever it is, whether it’s a television show, or a movie, or a video game, it’s different depending on the project. On [Boxtrolls] they had sketches of what they were going for, but they didn’t really have a full rendering of them. So, a lot of it was [Laika] describing to me what it was they wanted.

Some times I have a full drawing of a character that pretty much tells me everything I need to know. Sometimes I have absolutely no drawing whatsoever, and I might not even have a script. I might just have some general descriptions: the size of something, what it’s doing, and I have to make sounds from that.

Ultimately, it all boils down to whether [producers] know what they want. That is, not just how it looks and how it moves, and even how it sounds, but the tone of the creature. If the show’s creators know that, then we’re good to go. This can be conveyed through a drawing as well as through the script, or just giving me good directions. A good rendering can tell me everything I need to know if it’s fully drawn out.


It sounds like you prefer to have a fully-rendered drawing as opposed to a sketch. Do you like the freedom of a loose visual interpretation or do you like things to be pretty well set?

When starting out on a project, I don’t necessarily want to be free. I need to know the specifics of the world that they’re trying to create, the tone of that world, and the specifics of each of the characters that I going to voice. Once I know that, then we can have freedom and fun. Until I do, it’s much more important to me to know the specifics of what this is like. For example, Is the project something that feels like Ridley Scott’s Alien? Or the Lord of the Rings feature films? Maybe it’s like Powerpuff Girls or SpongeBob? Does it feel like a Tim Burton movie? Any details that describe the general tone of what we’re going for is very helpful in getting specific.

Dee at work in the audio booth for The Boxtrolls


What types of visual characteristics “say” things to you about how a character should sound? For example, does a character who is furry “sound” differently to you than a hairless one? Are there other specific physical features that inform your interpretations of a sound effect or character’s voice aside from obvious ones like ethnicity or gender?

Any information is good information. The style of the rendering can be much more informative than any specifics in terms of the visual characteristics like fur. The tone of the rendering can be actually more informative. It could be a quick sketch of something. If it communicates the essence of that character, that’s all I need. If any of the superficial characteristics inform me about the essence of that character, then yes all of that is very helpful. But it may not matter if it has a mustache, or three ears, or a bobbed tail, or spots. None of that may tell me anything about what this character is actually like. So it just depends.


It sounds like your vocal interpretations are based more on the overall tone and general feeling of a character rather than any specific physical traits. For example, if a character is “evil” as opposed to “good” tells you more about the way a character should sound than, say, whether that character is furry or hairless.

Right. I mean it’s like if it’s “evil,” okay what do you mean by “evil”? Do you mean like Joker in the Batman features evil, or do you mean evil in the Batman animated series? Do you mean evil like Mojo Jojo in Powerpuff Girls or maybe evil like in Avatar: The Last Airbender? An evil character in that sense? There’s all sorts of different flavors of that. If I just know the specific direction, then we can go somewhere with it.


That’s interesting. It sounds like you have like a catalog of other shows and characters in your head that you use as creative references. If a director describes something in a general way, you want them to narrow it down by making more specific references to other things you actually know. Is that how you typically narrow it down?

The short answer is probably yes. I think much of entertainment is made with a very specific eye towards the icons of the history of entertainment. It can be stuff that’s really popular and hip right now. You can use pop culture as a short hand reference for what you’re doing. You’re doing a video game, and it’s like “This is essentially Lord of the Rings” or “This is essentially John Carpenter’s The Thing” or “This is like Scooby-Doo only they have a cat and they’re in space.” I think it’s true that most things are not wholly original, created from whole cloth, completely like nothing else. They always refer to something that has already been done, probably much better [laughs]. They’re just doing a fresh take on that or a different version.

For instance, for a while there it became clear to me that many of the characters that writers were creating were essentially going for the Christoph Waltz character from Inglourious Basterds. That was such a remarkable performance, such a captivating, enticing and interesting performance. A lot of people said “We want something like that in this episode of our show or in this game or in this cartoon.” If you’re aware of those sort of iconic things that are happening now and that are a part of the entertainment history of story telling,…then you can either write it, draw it or make a quick verbal reference, and I will know exactly what we’re doing then.

Phineas and Ferb: “Perry the Platypus”


What’s a working relationship like between a visual artist and a voice actor?

I would want any one on the visual creative chain to know that what they do is of vital importance to voice actors. Some shows, for instance, use a storyboard show, which are rough sketches of each scene they send to us so that we can see exactly what’s happening. In that case, I’m relying very heavily on what the visual artists do. Now, if you’re someone drawing a character that’s going to be auditioned for and then performed, then it’s as much, if not more, important. The way that that critter is drawn, the style of it, the energy of it, the emotional intensity is going to tell me almost everything that I’m going to be shooting for. If it’s bland, inconsistent, or vague, then I’m not going to get it, but if it’s specific and it’s obvious, then I will. So, it’s very, very important to me what the artist is doing there.


Do visual artists or directors ever change a character’s look to better fit your interpretation of that character’s voice? Is there a back and forth process that generally occurs?

Yes, they do. It depends upon the project. Some shows like Legend of Korra on Nickelodeon is animated completely. All I do is look at it in post, and I see it and loop to what I see. They’re confident enough in their storytelling and animating that they don’t need me yet. I just come in at the last minute. But in most animated shows, they do animate to the voice. Even when doing creature sounds, what I’m doing is essentially dictating the choreography and movement of the character with my performance. If I do it too fast, then they have to bring me back and change it. Or they will change the way it is animated. It happens both ways.


Overall, it sounds like most studio animation is a mixture of what producers need at the time.

Well, for creature sounds it’s a mixture, but in terms of just speaking words for a character, almost always studios animate to the voice even though they’ve already mapped out the story board. Like the case of Clone Wars, they’ve already mapped out the choreography of a scene. They’ve already got it figured out how they want things to move. The director knows that, and I start voicing even though I’ve never seen the story board. They just direct me along with the script in a way that fits with how they’ve already choreographed and shot the scene. But that is unique to Clone Wars. I don’t know if they do that in a lot of other shows. But for the most part, they animated to the voice.

Batman: Arkham City: “Ra’s al Ghul”


How is voice-over work in animation different from work in video games?

Well, they’re fundamentally the same in many ways. Both require very specific voice acting abilities. However, they’re different for me in terms of the amount of work. It’s a much greater amount of work in voicing video games. You’ll have four hours of solo work with a long script usually in a video game. When you do a television series like Sponge Bob or American Dad, you’re sitting with a cast. So you’re doing some of your lines and everyone else is doing their lines. So, it’s not constant wall-to-wall just you talking like in a video game [laughs]. It’s a little bit lighter duty that way.

Also, in video games, voice actors typically are screaming, dying, being burned alive, you’re fighting or falling off buildings. And it’s very vocally stressful and a lot more work. In cartoons, typically there’s a lot more sharing of the vocal labor. Sometimes in animation they bring you in individually to record, but it’s usually not as punishing or grueling as a video game.

Also, as union professional actors, the way that voice actors are paid is a buyout session fee for our work in a video game. This means that we only get paid for those sessions. We see nothing from the success or the failure of a game, which in my opinion is not fair. I think anybody who was involved in making and creating that should share in the success of it, including the artists. In doing animation work like a television show for instance, there’s residuals involved. So, there’s a little bit of money on going as it’s viewed by people.


Do you think the increasing popularity of video games and animation will change the job of and demand for voice-over artists in the future?

Yes, I guess so. Video games are very popular and they continue to evolve in terms of how they are made. There’s such an explosion of games that don’t need voice actors like in Angry Birds or FarmVille where the voice acting is really not that important. On the other end, there are the console games that have great popularity and increasingly need a cinematic level of performance visually, vocally, and in all respects. So, you certainly need to have really skilled voice actors for that. From that angle, there’s certainly more of that kind of work.


Why do you think some studios base a character’s appearance on the real life person voicing the character. For example, Disney does this a lot. For example, the genie in Aladdin looks like Robin Williams.

Well, they’ll often use the on-camera actor as reference. They’ll video tape or film the voice actor, and it might just be easier because they want to dial in the performance, the essence of that actor or performer, into that visual. It’s not really necessary to do. Also, I think maybe it’s part of a tendency, when they cast a famous person to voice act, to try and make them visible in some way. Again, I don’t really know if that has any payoff. A child watching the show doesn’t know one way or the other. Perhaps the people who finance the project like it better that way. If Robin Williams’ character looks more like Robin Williams, then maybe it feels more like Robin Williams is in your show. So, everyone has a better feeling about it, I guess. But it’s typically not done in most of the shows I’m on even when there’s famous people or recognizable voice actors that are brought on board.


So Laika may have based some of the look of the Boxtrolls on you and Steve Blum?

[laughs] I don’t know. I’m looking more and more lizard-like, and grotesque everyday that I get older.

The Boxtrolls, “Fish,” “Wheels,” and “Bucket”


What’s the most annoying sound in the world to you?

The most annoying sound to me is a voice director who, either doesn’t know what he or she wants, or doesn’t care really all that much. They just want me to do things so that they can select something later that they like. The sound of like a child screaming…the most horrible sounds always sound good to me. I like those sounds. It’s just the sound of some person who doesn’t know what they want wasting everyone’s time. That’s the sound I don’t like because it’s inefficient creativity. It wastes everyone’s time. It wastes my voice. It wastes everything. I want to deliver what people want, and if they don’t know what they want, then I don’t know what we’re doing.


Well, Dee, we really appreciate you doing this interview with us. Your answers should provide some insightful feedback for our readers, who are artists, and like most of us probably don’t know much about this part of the creative process.

I hope so because I need what artists do. It’s fundamentally a visual storytelling medium. And I’m fascinated by shows and stories where you can turn down the sound and still understand the story that’s being told because the visuals are so specific. It’s really important what artists do.