I Know That Voice is a funny, entertaining and insightful look at the voice acting industry, although its reach occasionally exceeds its grasp.
Chris Rock famously stated at the 2012 Academy Awards that “[voice acting] is the easiest job in the world”. To people who don’t study the art of animation in slightly obsessive detail, that’s a funny joke about a perpetual mistruth that, nevertheless, the vast majority of which will continue to believe anyway. To those of us who do study the art of animation in slightly obsessive detail, it’s an infuriating remark that short-changes those who have made a living out of the profession. Voice acting is hard. Really hard. You’re basically having to perform solely with your voice; that solemn look of confliction that you’d be doing if there was a camera filming your performance instead has to be conveyed entirely by your line reading, for example. It’s more than just doing a funny voice, it’s about being able to read every possible type of material in that funny voice, at a moment’s notice and make it all work. I have tremendous respect for these guys and girls, as you can tell.
What I Know That Voice demonstrated to me, however, is that I clearly wasn’t giving them enough credit. Whilst watching it, I managed to feel both inspired by the career path as something that could be fun and that I may even be half-decent at and immensely put off as I realised, “Oh, Maker, no, I am nowhere near that good!” It’s the kind of documentary that gives you a new-found level of respect for the people in the depicted profession and may possibly even motivate some members of its audience to fully go for it and try breaking into the profession for themselves. It’s sometimes a bit aimless and glosses over certain topics and aspects, but what it lacks in those areas it makes up for in being surprisingly entertaining.
The doc is led entirely by interviews and readers more versed in the realm of voice acting may wonder who they managed to get a hold of for them. Well, in short, pretty much everybody. Nolan North? He’s here. Tara Strong? She’s here. Steve Blum? Yep! Jim Cummings? You bet’cha! Maurice LaMarche? Uh-huh! John DiMaggio? Present and correct! June Foray? Well it wouldn’t be much of a voice acting documentary if she wasn’t here, would it? Tom Kenny? Eeyup! Andrea Romano? Indeed! Jess Harnell? Sure! Even a surprisingly non-grumpy Billy West is on hand! If they’ve been a prominent member of the voice acting community in the last three-quarters of a century and they’re still alive, they’re more than likely to turn up at some point. And if the last paragraph might as well have been in Turkish for all you understood, don’t fret, for the interviewees themselves are more than happy to slip into their classic characters at the drop of a hat. If you’ve ever seen an animation of any kind, you’ll likely recognise someone.
Mind, even if you didn’t and/or have next to no knowledge of the voice over industry, the documentary may still hold something for you via sheer entertainment. Everyone interviewed here speak with nothing but passion for their work and that enthusiasm is actually rather infectious. It keeps proceedings light even when certain sections start going in-depth. Bob Bergen goes into detail on the finer points of how one performs Porky Pig in a manner that’s both instructional, funny and throws into sharp relief just how difficult it truly is. Jim Cummings and Kevin Michael Richardson hold a Mike Tyson impression-off. Jess Harnell relates a tale of the time that he tried to prove to a snobby kid Animaniacs fan that he voiced Wakko Warner. Ed Asner is introduced by him suddenly pulling a switchblade out of nowhere. There are many more genuinely hilarious moments in there that keep the tone light and inclusive and fun, the film trying to appeal just as much to those who don’t already have a vested interest in the subject matter.
For those who do already have a vested interest in the subject matter, however, there are several sections here that are more than interesting enough to justify the entry price. In addition to the previously mentioned lesson in being Porky Pig, Dee Bradley Baker demonstrates the subtle intricacies in his voice work of the individual clones in The Clone Wars. Andrea Romano and Mark Hamill go into great detail about the various different voices and interpretations for The Joker over the years of Batman. Nancy Cartwright shows off a vocal warm-up exercise that genuinely made my jaw drop. Several casting directors, and some of the voice actors themselves, explain the process they go through when choosing a voice for a role. Even the concept of actors playing different races is brought up and addressed. The film doles out these specific and more detailed sections infrequently, though, in an attempt to balance out the documentary and keep it engaging for less detail-crazed viewers. It does keep the doc pacey, mind, with the 96 minutes practically flying by.
Of course, that pacey 96 minute run-time comes at a cost. Although I Know That Voice never drags, the doc is overstuffed. In an attempt to include practically everyone, many names are short-changed when it comes to screen-time. Tara Strong, Phil LaMarr, Tom Kane, Jennifer Hale, Richard Horvitz, Lauren Tom… those are just a few whose lack of screen-time left me wanting more, although one could put that down to being a personal gripe than anything else. I cannot use that excuse for the film’s kind of rambling structure, however. Much like with its cast of interviewees, the doc tries to touch on almost everything related to voice acting and for every topic that gets a nice, full look, there’s another that’s referenced in passing before moving on.
An early section on Mel Blanc and June Foray is an example of the former, with the interviewees practically queuing up to throw plaudits at the pair of them (although the effect of the gushing over Mel Blanc’s seminal performances of Bugs Bunny imitating Daffy Duck and vice versa in a Looney Tunes short is somewhat muted by the lack of archive footage for that moment in question), whilst the concept of The Internet coming out of nowhere and possibly changing the game in regards to the future of animation and voice acting is an example of the latter. I think someone literally just says “it has changed the game” and then Rob Paulson briefly references his podcast (Talkin’ Toons, verysubtleplug) before we move on to the next thing. There’s a section on voice direction that goes into detail but remains rather vague and unclear as to how the process truly works, blame of which can partially be attributed to the lack of footage showcasing the various directing styles in action. It is admirable to see the filmmakers attempt to cover everything, it just makes the times where it comes up short more noticeable and, again, left me wanting.
Of course, a documentary that leaves you wanting to know even more about its subject isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I Know That Voice is designed as both a gateway documentary for those who are not already aware of the voice acting industry and an in-depth look at the process for those who are familiar. It succeeds far more at the first part than the second part, I find it hard to believe that there will be people who enjoy documentaries who finish this one and not think that their time was anything but well spent, although there’s still more than enough in the second part to justify those who are already well versed in the world of voice acting to give it a watch too. I came out of it with an even higher appreciation for the men and women whose voices help power the media I love so much, something I wasn’t sure was possible, so take that for what it’s worth.
And if that hasn’t sold you fully, then know that I Know That Voice is also highly entertaining and surprisingly funny. Sometimes it spreads itself too thin in its attempts to address all of the topics and feature all of the names, but it’s always interesting and I came out of it feeling more knowledgeable about the subject, inspired to maybe try it for myself and full of respect for those who had made it. In other words: most all the spots on my Good Documentary bingo card were filled.