Behind the Scenes: Cartoon voice workshop in Toronto with Melissa Altro

By Megan Mooney

Wanna do something really fun some Saturday? Well, how about going to a cartoon voice workshop taught by Melissa Altro?

I did, and it was a blast.

Workshops are great; I think of them as theatre that you get to participate in. In this one, participants (myself included) performed by working with scripts in a professional studio.

Melissa has been doing voice work on cartoons since she was 12 years old. So, as you can imagine, she knows her way around this stuff. If you have kids, or were a kid some time in the last 15 years, you likely know her as the voice of Muffy in the show Arthur. Now she’s sharing some of that expertise in the form of workshops (and one-on-one coaching and demo production, but we’re going to focus on the workshop).

Although I was a bit nervous in the beginning, I really enjoyed myself. I liked seeing how things work, hearing everyone else and playing with my own voice. Plus, at the end of the day, we each got to take home a CD of our day’s recordings. It’s a pretty cool (and, in my case, I’ll be honest, sometimes cringe-inducing) thing to listen to.

All of Melissa’s workshops have a maximum of eight participants, so everyone gets a good chunk of individual attention. They take place in a professional studio, and there’s a sound engineer who sets you up and records you for posterity. And yes, when you’re doing your voices behind the glass in the soundproof recording part of the studio, all the other participants are spread out on couches listening to you. But it’s okay because the tables turn, and you get to hear them do their thing too.

This was Melissa’s second workshop. She’s put a lot of work into it. As one would expect, she was pretty nervous on her first try. But, after loads of preparation, including a practice workshop with friends, she threw caution to the wind and went for it. The result was a huge success. The participants were thrilled with the workshop. Now Melissa’s nerves are gone, and the workshops continue.

What the day looks like

We started by doing sounds. We each chose two from a list that included things like laughing, crying, screaming, cheering, burping… well, you get the idea. We did each sound at different intensities, which was our introduction to the microphone. Melissa was very gentle with our tender nerves (first tries are scary!). She provided suggestions, guidance and direction on how to play with the sounds.

Once we were warmed up, we moved on to paragraphs. Melissa suggested different ways to approach the text and pulled us out of our shells a bit more. It was cool being coached and listening to others be coached. I learned as much from listening to the other people as I did from doing it myself.

After lunch, we were each given a selection of scripts chosen by Melissa, based on our voices and demeanours. This was really nice attention to detail on her part, because the more a script suits you, the easier it is to work with. It also meant that there wasn’t a great deal of overlap in the material people were performing. We worked on these with continued coaching from Melissa.

The class finishes with a simulated audition. We had to choose a script we hadn’t already worked with for the audition. Everyone sat out in the lobby reading scripts, pacing, practising, waiting anxiously to be called in.

It was interesting when I listened to myself on the recording on my way home. My audition sounded completely different than I thought it did, but the pieces where Melissa had coached me, sounded (for the most part) the way I expected them to.

Most of the people in the workshop were there because they’re interested in doing voice work in the future. I was just there for fun. And fun it was! I already know another person who’s planning on taking it for fun. But, he’ll have to wait until April, because Melissa’s March 6th workshop is already sold out. Her next one is on April 10, 2010, and considering how fast they’re selling out, I’d suggest signing up soon.

For those taking it to build a career in the industry, it’s a great way to find out what to expect as you enter the industry, play in a professional studio and provide a nice window into your strengths and weaknesses. Plus, if you decide to do your demo with Melissa, you’ll have a bit of a head start, since you’ll have already worked with her.

If you’re like me and just want to take it for fun, don’t worry. As long as you take it seriously, none of the people training for their profession will mind you tagging along.

For another look at the day, check out Miranda Plant’s write-up on her experience.

A bit more about Melissa

Melissa has a very impressive bio, which not only includes more than 15 years of experience in the industry, but also four Emmys and one Gemini nomination.

When she was 12 and living in Montreal, she had an acting agent who asked her if she’d be interested in auditioning for a cartoon. She did, and she got the part. The rest, as they say, is history. It’s clear that Melissa loves what she does. In fact, when we met for an interview, she had just finished a recording session for Arthur.

Melissa has now had a taste of directing through her work with demos, and she really enjoys it. She wants to get more into it in the future (while continuing to do voice work). For now though, she’s very involved in the demo process. She finds scripts that suit the actor, coaches and directs them through the recording process and then does the editing. Each demo is a piece of art. Melissa finds it gratifying, and she’d like to do it on a bigger scale.

Some things you’ll hear in the class

Here is a short glossary of terms that you can expect to hear at the workshop that you may or may not already know:

Slate – Before you start recording, you state your name and what you are recording in your own voice. My guess is that it’s called a slate because it’s a derivative of the clapboard slate used to mark the beginning of a scene when filming (you know, the “name of movie, scene 5, take 15” thing).

Cans – Headphones. But not cute little ear bud headphones – great big covers-your-whole-ear-and-blocks-out-the-outside-world-headphones.

Clipped – When the volume increases drastically, the sound becomes “clipped”. So, if you have a bit in your script where you’re going to scream, you step back from the mic before screaming so that you can avoid the recording being clipped. When you hear it happen (and trust me, if you take the workshop, you’ll hear it happen – I’m pretty sure every one of us did it at one point or another), you’ll recognize it.

Sides – This is basically the part of the script you’re going to do. It’s another term shared with the on-screen industry. It’s whatever scene will be recorded/shot that day. Or, in the case of an audition, whatever piece of the script you’ll be reading.

Wild, as in “Do it wild” – This means record the same thing (line, word etc.) several times in a row, without a break, but in different ways. It lets your imagination run wild and gives the production team different feels to work with. There are always a million different ways to do a read. For instance, the phrase, “that’s a really nice dress”, could be sincere, sarcastic, apologetic, envious and so on.