Animated films: Talk about a difficult job Acting: Hollywood's big names vocal about the challenge of breathing life into a cartoon character.

December 21, 1998|By Gene Seymour | Gene Seymour,NEWSDAY

Jeffrey Katzenberg says it's the "most demanding, absolutely hardest job that any actor can be asked to do." He's referring to the process of making one's voice fit an animated cartoon character.

At first, you're tempted to think, well, Jeffrey Katzenberg would say that. As a guiding spirit behind the explosion of full-length animated features that's resounded throughout the '90s, Katzenberg feels an understandable propriety toward the whole process of building the perfect big-screen cartoon. So maybe he's overstating things just a smidge.

And then you sit down and talk with Val Kilmer and Sandra Bullock, two of the major Hollywood stars who have provided their "vocal talents" (as they sometimes say in animated-film credits) to "The Prince of Egypt," the ambitious, much-anticipated full-length biblical epic produced by Katzenberg and his partners at DreamWorks that was released Friday.

As with almost every other project of this type, Kilmer, the voice of Moses, and Bullock, who speaks the part of Moses' sister Miriam, performed their lines in a booth, accompanied by a microphone and nothing -- or no one -- else. The situation is unusual. But it doesn't sound, on the surface, all that demanding. No makeup, no wardrobe, no waiting around for the light to be right. What's so "demanding" about this work?

Plenty, says Bullock, who admits being daunted by not having another human being in the room with whom to serve and volley the dialogue. "I relate better to people physically, rather than verbally," she says. "And for the couple of days I did [the recording], I felt so isolated. I've never had this experience before."

As the voice of one of "Prince's" two main characters (the other, Moses' stepbrother and prince-turned-pharaoh Ramses, is played by Ralph Fiennes), Kilmer had greater demands placed on him than Bullock (and far more studio time, though neither he nor Katzenberg has kept track of how many days -- maybe 60, maybe 90). Moreover, Kilmer says, the dramatic stakes were raised in "The Prince of Egypt" compared with other animated features.

"It's not the kind of animation where everything's broader and the volume's turned up," Kilmer says. "You have to bring in more shading, more subtlety along with the bigger emotions."

"The Prince of Egypt's" release climaxes a year more conspicuously loaded than usual with big-screen animated features using famous voices. Besides Kilmer, Fiennes and Bullock, the movie's cast includes Jeff Goldblum, Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny Glover, Patrick Stewart, Steve Martin, Helen Mirren and Martin Short.

Earlier this fall, there was DreamWorks' "Antz," with Woody Allen giving voice to a Woody-esque, computer-animated ant and Sylvester Stallone, Sharon Stone, Anne Bancroft, Jennifer Lopez, Gene Hackman and Christopher Walken as other ants.

"Antz" was followed by "A Bug's Life," another tale of ants battling tyranny, produced by Disney. It, too, has all-star vocals: Dave Foley, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Denis Leary, Kevin Spacey and David Hyde-Pierce.

Just about all these folks are occupied most of the time with other commitments, and their studio time has to be coordinated to fit in with their schedules. The logistics proved especially tricky with "Prince's" cast, according to Katzenberg, who says that in the approximately three years it took to make the film, Kilmer made two movies, Pfeiffer made three, Bullock made four and Goldblum made "at least a couple."

Making a match

Just how Katzenberg solicits voice talent is an interesting and surprising process. "I have casting people who have worked with me for years, and once we have the story developed and the characters' personalities worked out, we put together these audio tapes of different voices. They're not identified on the tapes, and they're not audition tapes. They're put together randomly from various sources, different work.

"It's like 'Name That Tune' in six bars or two bars. Sometimes you know who it is before a couple seconds. Like Sylvester Stallone or Jeff Goldblum. They have distinctive voices. But, we aren't listening for who they are but for whether the quality fits the character. In just about every case, we got our first choice for each actor and actress."

Ask any of the actors who have been asked to carry out this process and most will tell you how ... peculiar, at the very least, its demands are. Even a much-celebrated veteran like Bancroft, who was the voice of the queen ant in "Antz," says acting in isolation was "like being in space."

"And you don't see anybody," she says. "You're acting to this piece of paper in front of you. You have to become a storyteller yourself, because you're required to use your imagination."

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