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Animation: How To Keep Your Voice
In Shape And True To Your Characters

By Elley-Ray Hennessy
Voice Actor & Coach

Vocal placement is the bane of most character voice performers' existence! 

It is profoundly rewarding to capture a unique sound vocally - yet equally disturbing when the placement wanders and morphs into another texture or is lost completely. 

You can adapt your instrument through compressions and aspirations, textures and structural props, creating absolute vocal magic.

But maintaining these character choices can shatter the nerves of even the most seasoned professional. 


For some it is like cupping water in their hands, so refreshing and yet frustrating as it seeps through your fingers - the prayer gone. 

How do we sustain a specific placement so that it can withstand the rigor of all the emotional switch-ups that most animation scripts require?

This is the plea of the animated voice performer, who tends to lose emotional, physical, mental and spiritual truth while trying desperately to support a chosen placement. 

We tend to find an accent, placement, rhythm or texture and forget that this does not enliven the character or inspire its truth. The placement is secondary to the character development and cannot take precedent over the emotional truth of the character. 


You must always be an actor/actress first and foremost when creating and maintaining a character. Never sacrifice the emotional, mental, physical, spiritual integrity of the character for a placement, accent, texture, etc.

There are certain fail safes that you can rely on to help you sustain specific cataloged characters that you may like to choose from your bag of tricks. 

Know that structurally, placement is key, and you must have the muscular strength to hold these placements through the vocal gymnasium that scripts require. 


To strengthen these placements, you must develop the muscularity required - which means that you must work the instrument daily to achieve optimum strength. If you wanted to have a great body, you must go to the gym every day and work out. 

I work my voice every single day and it serves me quite well. My ENT specialist says I have the largest cords he has ever seen, which is why I can support the kind of gravel required for characters such as the Nicorette monster, Lubriderm alligator, Beerain, Madame Liesel and Megamum, to name a few. 

In particular, make sure that your soft palette is completely strengthened and capable of supporting the kinds of textures, aspirations, gravel, etc., that certain vocal characters demand.

Yawning is your best friend, and you must push it to the farthest capable place for your instrument every day.


Once you have strengthened your instrument and feel it is capable of feats of great strength, go for the gold. 

When tackling a character, find an "ism" that helps you hook the character. This may be anything from tongue placement inside your lower lip or pursing your lips laterally, screwing up your nose, pulling your lower lip to the side of your face, finding a catch phrase like "yep, yep, yep" or "you know" or "darling" to help specify the character. 

It may be a vibrato, or slight stutter or repeat of words. It may be a swallowing effort or breathy hum. It could be opening the back of your throat and sucking in, or clearing your throat or creating jowls. 

There are infinite "isms" that make your character unique and it is the ism that will help anchor the dynamic of the character no matter what emotional situation they are in. 


Physically become your character.

If you are ultra-feminine, know how this character would stand and how she uses her hands just as if a male character may hunch over with his belly sticking out, or the chin may jut forward, or the head may shake slightly, or the butt is shaking. 

Create the character and create every part of its being.

Determine how your character vocally assists its emotional situations. Do they "ah" or "oo" or "sniffle" or "grunt"? Do they have certain efforts just in walking? How do they breathe, how do they show fear, how do they express vocal excitement? 

Write all the traits down that will help you maintain the overall health and truth of your character.


Always and most importantly, know the character laugh. This is key and will get you out of any situation when you feel that the character may be slipping. 

If you don't have the character laugh, you do not know the character. For joy is the basis of all animation characters, even if they are villains and evil. 


Also be conscious of the age, size, weight, and gender of your character. Stay lighter for the younger characters. Do not press into the copy or overwork it. Keep a naive truth and playfulness to them. 

With age, press into the weight. Remember, neither youth nor age are played slowly, which is a constant mistake. Buoyancy is key for the emotional truth of all characters. 


Keep a reference catalog for yourself of your trusted and favorite characters, so that you can remind yourself of specific placements that you may have found.

So many of my students find amazing characters, yet do not record them for posterity, and then cannot remember what they sounded like. 

You will constantly be creating new characters, so keep your recorder close at hand so that you always have a reference. 

Revisit the characters that you have created when you are doing your homework. Don't leave certain placements to rot. All characters will come to play at some time or another, and you never know when a certain one will be called upon. 

If you haven't played with the catalog, then you will not strengthen the placements. Document your specific villains, heroes/heroines, characters and "others" that you call upon, and then make additions to these specifics that you have for different genres of animation. 


There are infinite possibilities for character placement and sustainability, and it is your responsibility to maintain the creative source that brings audiences so much pleasure. 

Do your homework and create your catalog, inspiring both yourself and the listeners that desperately need your storytelling skills to help raise the vibration of this planet.

Live the dream!
Based in Toronto, and with over 30 years experience in voice overs, TV, film and theatre, Elley-Ray Hennessy is a leading voice talent and coach, specializing in animation, commercial announcing and multi-voice. She's won multiple awards, having voiced thousands of TV and radio commercials and countless animation series and films. 


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Comments (4)
Alex Apostolidis
8/28/2012 at 7:08 PM
This was an awesome article. I had the good pleasure to meet Elley-Ray at Voice 2012 and she has changed the way I look at voice over characterization and the business of voice over in general. And once again she has inspired me to take it one step further. Thanks Elley-Ray. Keep on inspiring.
Rick Lance
8/27/2012 at 10:38 AM
Thanks, Elley Ray! This is a good breakdown of character analysis. Like anything else, the finer points she suggests can only become...and need to become... second nature as you put your characters to use. Lots of practical advice here. I think all actors are capable of creating some believable characters and should have them to call on at a moment's notice. Personally, I don't consider myself a character actor, but I've done some pretty convincing character parts. We all can!
Donna Postel
8/27/2012 at 9:39 AM
Elley-Ray, this is not just a blog post, it is a master class! You outlined pretty much everything a performer needs to do to stay true to the character, beautifully. Thank you for sharing your wisdom!
James Lewis
8/27/2012 at 6:23 AM
I'd like to know more about exercises to strengthen the muscles involved in producing speech. I've been a professional communicator for years. But now I'm narrating audiobooks and I'm having troubles with voice strain that I never had before.
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