Friday, June 17, 2016

Why There Needs to Be a Best Voice Actor Oscar Category

Whether or not you believe it, voice acting is a real art form. It's a concept that most people take for granted, especially as many of the most revered titles rely on familiar celebrity voices. However, the construct is very similar to radio in that we never see the speaker. While there's still images that convey a story, the speaking is important in order to convey a deeper soul. For instance, a voice needs to sound somber during a tearful scene or ecstatic during an action sequence. It's a small thing that we take for granted, and have largely ignored. With the release of Pixar's latest Finding Dory, I am going to make my case as to why voice acting should be recognized in its own category. 

Think back to 2003 when you first saw Finding Nemo and was exposed to the blue fish Dory (Ellen Degeneres). What made her stand out to audiences? It couldn't just be her shape, which was on scale with her counterparts. Her story may be perplexing enough, but that isn't enough to make a character constantly rank as a crowd favorite. What makes Dory stand out is the same thing that made Robin Williams in Aladdin standout a decade before: the voice acting. While it may appear that Degeneres merely paid lip service to the character, there's a lot of small tics that go into defining Dory's appeal. Her manic cadence and often innocent tone made what could easily be a nuisance into a character that audiences rooted for, even adding to the emotional third act. 

Now imagine if the film lacked this core element. What if Degeneres merely read the lines and did so in a regular speaking voice. There would be a sense of disinterest and her appeal would be greatly shrunk from what it is. Much like physical acting, a lot can be conveyed by tonal shifts within one's voice in order to be happy, sad, or confused. While there are some phenomenal voice actors like Phil Lamarr and Rob Paulsen, most people wouldn't be able to recognize them largely because they tweaked their voice to fit the character. That itself is like Robert De Niro's physical shift in Raging Bull from fit boxer to obese loser. It just seems less noticeable because it's a voice shift - which can easily be mistaken as an easy task. However, the best voice actors can shift their voice while adding that necessary emotion. 

Much like acting, the best work is the work not noticed. While there are many forms of acting that extend to over the top, the general norm is that one must convincingly be somebody else. From there, it is up to the actor to add a core and make the implicit understood by the audience. Voice acting can do this by tweaking notes and conveying a deeper point just by holding a note for too long. Without going into specifics, any form of acting is successful if it can get an emotional response out of the viewer. This is sometimes done through lengthy monologues or quiet moments of defeat. Finding Nemo saw Dory experiencing the emotional spectrum while creating a sympathetic relationship with the audience. Whether or not you like the performance, Degeneres' work and its lasting appeal is strong evidence of how voice acting can create character.

It is why I am choosing to argue that there should be a Best Voice Actor category. Much like my previous arguments for Best CG Actor (which has some crossover with this piece) and Best Stunt Performer, I believe that the art of cinema is evolving and remains largely dependent on good voice actors. While most unfortunately remain unknown to the general public, it is important largely to how most families enjoy films. Those kooky characters in the background sound that way because someone has a wide range of vocal talents. It does seem important to recognize every facet of the industry, and considering that Best Animated Film remains one of every year's most recognizable categories; there's no reason to suggest that my request is foolish. After all, you have a Best Picture and four acting categories specifically for live action. 

The proposition to just nominate voice performances within the existing acting fields has long been contested. However, there are a lot of great points why this seems impossible to achieve. Acting, in its traditional sense, is a visual thing in which an actor pursues a range of experiences. Without the physical presence, it can improperly be seen as half of a performance. Also, most actors cannot do great voice acting much like the reverse. It wouldn't seem fair to make both compete in fields that aren't clearly equal. While it is a great dream, it would only create more issues that distract from the fact that this is an unrecognized field. While credit is thankfully given to the animators who make the films look marvelous, I still think that voice actors are the unappreciated talent by which the film finds its missing pieces and creates a soul.

If one would remember, The Oscars were invented as an excuse to get actors to perform better. After all, who doesn't like having medals around their neck? While it may be controversial to claim the legitimacy of Oscars on a merit basis, it definitely has impacted how acting has changed over time. It is likely that without Oscars, there wouldn't be as complicated of roles or nearly as much recognition of great work. I imagine that while Best Voice Actor will service trivia the way that winners of Best Sound Mixing will, I still think that it will help to raise recognition and possibly help people step up their games. True, it is a market dominated by celebrities and whose voices is the only necessary selling point. However, I do think that it would give lesser known voice actors a chance to be recognized while also recognizing a field that earns billions on an annual basis. That isn't like suggesting that we need more indie film categories. This is one of the major outputs of entertainment, and it only seems right to notice it.

I am not suggesting that Finding Dory should clench Degeneres a nomination. It only seemed right however to bring it up in lieu of one of the year's most anticipated animated movies. The next time that you're watching any animated movie, pay attention to how the voice performance influences your reaction. Then imagine it without the acting. You'll notice that there's an art to the field that unfortunately goes unrecognized. I think that in the quest to give the Oscars more relevant and modern categories, it only seems right to add a petition to have Best Voice Actor on a bill that doesn't just cynically add diversity, but enhances how The Academy recognizes the industry that makes its very existence and relevance oh so integral to American culture.

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