Pitching Voices: Terri Douglas

ADR voice-casting director Terri Douglas has an ear that allows her to perfectly match voices, casting actors that serve as a time-saving component to movie-making. Most recently, she cast the perfect "walla" group to wocka wocka wocka in The Muppets.

Terri Douglas can find someone who sounds just like you. Give her the proper tools—a recording of your voice, for instance—and she could find a voice actor to provide an exact match and then hire him or her to, say, call your parents and have a nice little chat. Fortunately, Douglas uses her powers for good. As a voice-casting producer and manager of the Loop Troop, her own loop group, Douglas is often called upon to find voice matches for famous actors or characters. She is also responsible for many parts of the movie-making process that the average viewer would never consider. Ever seen a movie where the characters were in an airport? Those nondescript airport voices in the background—Douglas makes them happen. She does it for animated films, too, and video games and television commercials. In technical terms, what she does is called Additional Dialogue Recording, or ADR voice casting. Most recently, Douglas did ADR voice casting on the film reboot of the Muppet franchise. But that’s not all she does. Douglas is also a voice actor herself. She recently spoke to Get In Media about all the ins and outs of being a voice actor/voice-casting director.

Get In Media: How did you start working as a voice-casting director?
Terri Douglas: I’m a singer. I’ve been trained in opera, pop, country, rock—I sing everything, so I have a trained ear in music. I also play the piano and I can read and write music, so I have a really good training in pitch. Those skills that I have musically helped me with voice casting because I hear pitch the way I would in music. About 1995 or so, I was brought in by a loop-group leader to see a session of looping where they do the voices in the background of a film. I knew right away that was exactly what I wanted to do, because I had just a natural talent, and I absolutely loved it. About a year later, I started my own loop group and was pretty quickly casting huge features. It all happened super fast.

GIM: What does a loop group do?
TD: A loop group is a group of actors that go in on a feature film, say, and we fill in the background voices. So, let’s say you’re watching a movie and they’re in the airport—like, I did the movie Flightplan. There are hundreds of people in an airport walking around, but when they’re filming a movie, they can’t mic that. So, I bring in a group of voice actors to fit what’s up there. We recreate what’s on the screen—so, we’ll be walking by the mic and chatting and talking like we are passengers in the airport. They record that and put it in the background of the film, you know, blend it in, and it sounds now like the airport just came alive. So then, also, we would hear in an airport the public announcements. You’d hear them announcing, you know, “Flight 43 now boarding gate six.” So, I would make sure in my casting that day that I have people that do really good announcements, and we record all that, and the editors put that in the background of the film. So, now it becomes like a real airport. That’s the job of the loop group, to help enhance the sound of the production. We also can change it. If we have a movie where the attitude is really low, and we want to jazz it up a bit, we can get the loop group talking faster and more upbeat and pick up the scene.

GIM:  I had no idea they did it that way.
TD: It’s really quite an interesting thing to see. I did Scream 4 recently, and so you have the kids who are at the party, and they’re watching movies and reacting to the killer and screaming and running, and my group will take that on and scream and run around the stage, and we’ll record that and add it to the production, so that we beef up the tracks so they sound more full. Sometimes, extras can’t talk because the principals are talking. So, if you’re in a restaurant, and you have two principals—let’s say two very famous people who are sitting at a table and talking, and the movie is about them—we have the background of a restaurant, but they don’t have the extras talking at all because they want to keep the track of the principals clean. They don’t want to marry it to the background. So, I will then bring in a group, and we will use the restaurant walla. We call it “walla.” We stand up there going, “How was your day? Oh, it was wonderful. I think I’ll have some more coffee.” We’re having these nondescript conversations that you would have in a restaurant, and that will go into the background, and all of a sudden that scene will come alive.

Instead of calling in your principal talent time after time after time, you know, to fix scenes—let’s say if they shorten a scene, or they lengthen one, or you can’t hear a word one of the Muppets said—then I bring a voice match person in to that character, and they do it for the temps. Then, the real Muppet principal person will come in at the very end, and they fix the tracks so it’s really their voice. If they aren’t available, then the person I hired, the voice talent, stays.

GIM: Do you have a specific group of people that you use to cast these parts?
TD: I wear a couple different hats, so I’ll tell you about the different voice castings that I do. So, this is the casting for the looping stuff. I cast from a specific group of people. There are quite a few who really have the technique down of being able to improv and talk about anything we could be doing on the screen. We might be launching rockets to Mars or something, so we need to have NASA lingo when we go in. I know there’s a group of actors that I trust to come up with the research for that. Then, when I need specific stuff that might be voice matches, I will go to the other group of voice talent if the looper community can’t get it. I will go to the voice talent that has agents. So, they would be people who do commercials and cartoons and things. I will audition them. You never know, you might need someone who can do monsters and crazy stuff. So, I will pull from the pros who do that. So, like on The Muppets movie, I brought in groups of people for two full days to create the background sounds of wherever the Muppets were. I also brought in people to do voice matches. We will voice match characters—when principal actors aren’t available, we’ll do it with temps, and then the principals will come in for the final and replace it. If they’re not able to come in and do it, then we will do it for them.

GIM: So when you cast for voice matching, that part doesn’t end up in the final cut?
TD: Yeah. When you’re putting together a movie, you have temp tracks that are being put together, and they have screenings, and they’re trying to get the movie to a certain level before they release it. Instead of calling in your principal talent time after time after time, you know, to fix scenes—let’s say if they shorten a scene, or they lengthen one, or you can’t hear a word one of the Muppets said—then I bring a voice match person in to that character, and they do it for the temps. Then, the real Muppet principal person will come in at the very end, and they fix the tracks so it’s really their voice. If they aren’t available, then the person I hired, the voice talent, stays.

GIM: What are you looking for when you try to voice match? Are there particular qualities of voice that help you know when you’ve got the right person to match them? It seems like with The Muppets, for instance, you’ve got such famous, beloved, well-known voices, you would need to be very accurate when you match them.
TD: We’re not looking for an impression. Let’s say we were voice matching Robin Williams. I’m sure you and I could both be very funny right now and ramble off some Robin Williams jokes, you know, we could talk like him and be silly. I’m not looking for an actor to do an impression of him. I’m looking for someone who has that natural tone where his tone is in his voice, so that he naturally sounds like Robin when he speaks. Then, the acting behind it—his personality—is something the voice actor has to be able to get. For instance, I was hired recently to do a DIRECTV commercial. I’m the voice match for Heather O’Rourke. Remember the little girl from Poltergeist who says, “They’re here?” I’m the exact match for her, so I’m in all the commercials. I was selected over hundreds of adults and real kids who tried to voice match her, but I have this immature little sound in my voice that sounds just like Heather’s. So, I was called by another casting company through my agent. My agent called me and said, “Can you voice match Heather O’Rourke?” I said, “Yeah, I think I can.” I knew her, actually, when we were kids. I listened to the clip of her doing it, and then I had that sound in my head and the pitch, and I said it over and over, and did some auditions and sent it in. They called me to do some testing with it to see if it matched, and it matched exactly. So, when you voice cast, you’re looking for people who have that natural sound.

What I’m listening to is what needs to sound right. I don’t care what the person looks like. I’ve been very surprised by some people when I finally meet them. That’s the fun of voice-over work. We can create so many voices and sounds without having to be those people or look like those people.

GIM: Are there legal ramifications to doing someone else’s voice? Do they own the rights to the sound of their voice?
TD: I believe her parents signed off on having that commercial done, so then the production company has the permission to voice match the person who is not living for the purpose of that job. I’m sure they signed quite a few contracts—that’s not my area. I don’t get into that.

GIM: When casting a voice, how do you separate what the person looks like and what they sound like?
TD: I never ever look at people. I only listen to them, because you could have somebody on the stage that is 55 years old who is doing a 12 year old. What I’m listening to is what needs to sound right. I don’t care what the person looks like. I’ve been very surprised by some people when I finally meet them. That’s the fun of voice-over work. We can create so many voices and sounds without having to be those people or look like those people. I don’t ever judge anyone by the way they look for their voice. I’m listening only for their voice.

GIM: It seems like computer-animated films are taking a bigger and bigger share of the movie market. I’d imagine that your job is especially important for them. What do you do for an animated film?
TD: Not only will we do the background groups—the “walla” group—we will also do the incidental characters. That’s when it really gets fun. I’ll make sure I voice cast for that day a group of people who can cover the group and a group who can cover the incidental characters. A scene might have a little rabbit jump up and go, “Hey, wait for me!” He might need to have a deep, funny voice, so I’ll bring in animated talent who can cover these kinds of specifics.

GIM: Do you have any favorite projects that you’ve worked on?
TD: We did a movie called The Wild, which was an animated feature for Disney. The first day that we worked needed to be all men, and I had 16 famous voices that you would know from other cartoons. I brought them in because they needed to create the voices of the wildebeests that ran around, they needed to sing, and they needed to create this whole world with animals that talk. It was so fun to watch them work. They moved with lightning speed together when they talked. Their brains work super fast. That was one of the best sessions I had, because the level of the talent was so over the top.

GIM: How do you approach voice casting for an animal character?
TD: Right, so, do we want an animal that sounds like an animal? Or do we want an animal that sounds like a regular human being, like Joe Pesci, you know? If I’m hiring a person to play a real animal, there are only about two or three guys in the town that can literally sound like real animals. It’s very difficult to take the human sounds and breath out of your voice when you’re doing real animals. It’s one of the hardest things to do. If we’re looking for animals to talk, then we want them to sound natural and not cartoony. We want them to sound like real people with real emotions. Then I look for people who have great character in their voices.

GIM: Do you ever cast the principal roles, or is it mostly background work?
TD: I do. I cast a lot of video games as well—I did Medal of Honor, The Sims 3, The Godfather, Lord of the Rings, Command & Conquer, I’ve done dozens of video games—that’s where I specifically cast all of the voices, and they are all principals. They could be a celebrity; they could be a high-power voice talent that works a lot. I’ve also cast a few commercials, but that’s a whole different casting style.

GIM: Since you do both jobs, I wonder what your advice would be to someone who wants to be a voice actor and to someone who wants to be a voice-casting director.
TD: To be a voice actor, you really need good improv skills. I would recommend taking improv classes so that you can respond and free your mind and go to a lot of different places. I also really recommend people to go take accredited classes where you’re working with someone who is a pro in the business who can teach you how to read commercial copy, how to read promo copy, how to read animation copy. Develop your voices, develop your characters and then make a demo, submit your demo to agents, and then it picks up from there. If you want to be a voice-casting director—it’s funny, no one’s asked me that—you really need a good background in voices. You need a background to know what Bella Lugosi sounded like. You need to know characters, current and past. You need to also have a good ear for pitch and tone. Also, I think it’s always great when voice casting people also have acting skills, so that you can judge somebody’s acting. And, you need a lot of patience.Get In Media

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