The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, January 9, 2000
Time Off

Selling their voices for a fortune
By Manohar Malgonkar

I MET India’s legendary ‘birdman’, Salim Ali, only once, and that, too, only briefly, in a travel agent’s office. For a few minutes we made everyday conversation. He, surely, was an ‘exceptional’ man in Hendrik Van Loon’s definition of the term, because he did not fit into any other category. If a man’s vocation shapes his image, Salim Ali, ornithologist, could be cited as an ideal example, for he actually resembled a bird: small, spare, beaky, restless. It was easy to believe that he could actually speak to birds in their own language, as St Francis of Assisi is said to have done, and that if his interpretations of bird-sounds seem like women’s doggy-talk, it is only because of the inadequacies of language to represent sound-effects; that, when Salim Ali himself said such things as, te-tew, te-tew, he produced the precise notes of "the graceful call of the Blue-tailed Bee-eater’ and when he said towit, towit, towit, or pretty-pretty-pretty, any Tailor Bird in the vicinity would come swooping down towards him looking, depending on its sex, to chase away a rival or to find a mate.

  The study of India’s birdlife had been Salim Ali’s mission in life, and at the time I met him, he had reached emeritus status. He certainly knew more about Indian birds than anyone else, ever. In the Middle Ages, men such as Salim Ali were cannonised as saints.

It just so happens that I speak as something of an insider, for in my youth as an ardent shikari and hunter-for-the-pot and then for a couple of years as a professional hunting guide, I too, had taught myself to imitate the calls of some birds and animals.

With a tender bamboo leaf held tightly between the thumbs of both hands and pressed against the mouth, one can, with a little practice, reproduce some animal calls by blowing the air in or out. What is called the "belling" of a sambhar stag, for instance, or that of an alarmed cheetul, or again the challenge thrown by a grey woodcock and the hen’s mate-inviting clucks. I could also imitate the call that monkeys make to warn the troop of some lurking danger, well enough to get them all excited, and form a ring around me, chattering wildly and making threatening faces.

O.K. So I fooled some black-faced langoors for a few minutes and maybe killed a few dozen jungle moorghies by, as it were, calling them up within gun-shot range. But these were useless skills, and not to be compared with an ability to type hundred words a minute or write shorthand by what was called the Pitman method. Being able to make animal calls, bird calls, was not a skill you could sell.

Except, so it would seem, in Hollywood. There, men and women have always been paid handsomely to quack like ducks, or chirp like sparrows or caw like crows in animated cartoon films. Who knows how much money Walt Disney would have dangled before someone like Dr Salim Ali to say te-tew, te-tew, or pretty-pretty-pretty in imitation of some bird or the other? And even I, with my somewhat scanty reportoire of animal and bird sounds might have made a better living than I do as a writer.

In Hollywood, nothing is real and everything is maya, illusion. It is not a city so much as a colony of film studios which are in the business of manufacturing dreams to be shown in theatres around the world and in our homes. Here they have a class of professionals known as ‘voice actors’; men and women who specialise in talking the English language as a bird or animal might have articulated English words or phrases. So a duck must say things inauthentic Donald-duck squaks, a mouse in Micky-Mouse squeals, and a lion as Elsa might have spoken to her mistress.

That is the test of real skill. Someone who can make merely bark like a dog, or moo like a cow, or bleat like a lamb, has little chance of being hired by a major studio. For straightforward dog-growls, cow-moos, lamb-bleats, they can use the actual animals and pay their owners no more than the customary union rates. But if you can say things like, "Woof-woof! — Ah kin crrrunch the bhooones of the Lion King with one of me paws tied in a sling, woof-woof! Grrrh! and convince the studio experts that this was how a dog spoke English, you’re in the big money.

But much depends on the man in charge, the director of the film, the person who can hire for big money or fire for no reason at all. He it is who decides whether you’re worth only $ 10 a day or $ 10,000. A recent animal film called Babe, brings out how the system works.

Babe was a runaway success. It earned for its studio, Fox Films, something like a $ 25 billion. But the principal actor in Babe the pig, could not have cost the studio much more than a pig of equal weight bought for roasting, except that, since the original piglet for the Babe part grew up too fast to sustain its ‘cute’ image during the time taken for Babe’s filming Fox had to substitute another piglet of the same shape and size as the original Babe. But Babe happened to be that phenomenon a ’talking’ pig, and the talking part for both piglets was provided by a "voice actor" of repute, Ms Christine Cavanaugh.

Ms Cavanaugh was paid $ 50,000 for her work which, considering the fact that she could have hardly worked for more than 30 days, seems quite generous. But, judged against the millioins of dollars that the film made for Fox, it looks positively mean. At least Ms Cavanaugh thought it was not enough. So when Fox, encouraged by the success of Babe wanted to make a sequel, Ms Cavanaugh demanded four times what she had received for Babe: $ 200,000 plus a share in the profits. Her demand was thought to be unreasonable. The studio had no intention of paying that kind of money for someone who made ‘barnyard’ sounds. The film’s director, George Miller, hired another ‘voice-actor’ to do the pig-talk for his Babe-II.

But it seems that voice actors who provide the dialogue for cartoon charactors in films are not all that easy to replace. The same studio that so cavaliarly refused to negotiate with Ms Cavanaugh because they thought her demands outrageous, Twentieth Century Fox, caved in in the face of a similar ultimatum given by a team of voice-actors who provide the dialogue for its immensely successful cartoon serial, The Simpsons. Dan Castellaneta, who, for instance, does the speech parts of the principal charactor, Homer Simpson, now gets $ 50,000 for a two-day work week, meaning $ 25,000 for every day that he is required to show up at the studio.

I myself rarely watch cartoon films, but whenever, in the process of normal channel surfing, I catch a glimpse of The Simpsons, I can neither follow its actions and still less the language that its characters speak in. Yet in America the serial is extremely popular and has been running for nearly 10 years. It has earned hundreds of millions of dollars for Fox, and the Studio obviously cannot afford to take the slightest risk with its casting of the show’s voice actors. It seems that Fox actually auditioned dozens of well-known voice actors for the Homer Simpson part, but finally gave up because there was no one else who could say ‘D’ oh!’ precisely as Mr Castellaneta does.

One wonders how many renowned stage actors of the past, say, Sir Henry Irving or Sir Lawrence Olivier, could have dared to demand for reciting the Hamlet soliloquy on stage the sort of money Mr Castellaneta gets for saying that one word: ‘D’oh!’.

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