Talking With Pirates: a Chat with Corey Burton and Jeff Bennett


Disney’s Captain Hook and Mister Smee embarked on a virtual world tour to celebrate International Talk Like a Pirate Day; voice actors Corey Burton and Jeff Bennett sat in the Radio Disney studio in Burbank, speaking to radio DJs and talk show hosts, in character as the notorious pirate and his loyal first mate. Captain Hook and Smee are the villains in Disney Junior’s popular program, Jake and the Never Land Pirates, an interactive treasure hunt and cartoon show all in one.

To celebrate Talk Like a Pirate Day, Disney Junior aired an all day marathon of Jake and the Never Land Pirates on Monday. Jake and the Never Land Pirates is the number one cable series for preschool viewers age 2-5, and 47% of moms watch the show with their children.

Burton and Bennett do spot-on recreations of the characters originally performed by Hans Conreid and Bill Thompson, and they gamely ad-libbed responses to the sometimes-odd questions asked of the pirates by the radio hosts in their short segments, which were recorded last week for broadcast yesterday. Smee offered commentary on recipes for codfish casserole while Captain Hook complained about the stereotypical “pirate speech,” saying that most would-be pirates affect a vaguely Irish sound, with a lot of “aarr” sounds. “We were trained to speak with elocution and diction,” he declared.

After responding to questions about child-labor laws as it applies to the pirate kids, and the possibility of the pirates forming a union, Hook and Smee completed their interviews. Burton and Bennett then got their turn.

Corey Burton has been performing the Captain Hook voice professionally since he was 17 years old. A student of legendary voice actor Daws Butler, Burton was hired by Disney to record the role for an educational project when Hans Conreid was on tour with a theater company and unavailable for the project. He has since played the role for various cartoons, audiobooks, videogames (notably the Kingdom Hearts series) and theme park attractions. He has also recorded narration for holiday-themed segments of the Haunted Mansion, recreating the famous Paul Frees voice, though he insisted on not replacing any of Frees’ original recording. Burton also plays Count Dooku on Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and has performed hundreds of voices in projects ranging from Gummi Bears to live-action films.

Jeff Bennett is heard as Mister Smee, but he is perhaps best known as the voice of Johnny Bravo. He is also head on Batman: The Brave and the Bold, playing Captain Marvel, the Joker, Ultra-Humanite, Abra Kadabra and OMAC (he also provided Batman’s singing voice for the musical episode) , and on Young Justice as the Red Tornado, T.O. Morrow, and Batman’s butler, Alfred. Bennett played Pip in Enchanted and has been heard in many other films and programs.

I asked about geeky projects, citing Burton’s role as Count Dooku, which Bennett described as “ultimate geek,” and Bennett commented that he plays a lot of geeks, mentioning some of the kids from Disney’s Pepper Ann, a show from the 1990s. “I play a lot of nerdy voices,” he said, dropping into a nervous and nasal sound. Burton mentioned that they both do a lot of videogame voices, such as their multiple roles in the Kingdom Hearts games.

Bennett elaborated on this, mentioning a recent project for the XBox Kinect, a new Alice in Wonderland game based on the animated version from 1951, in which he plays the White Rabbit and March Hare while Burton plays the Mad Hatter and Caterpillar. “Between the two of us, we play half the cast of Alice,” he explained.

Burton and Bennett have occasionally done the same voice for different projects; both have played the White Rabbit and Droopy Dog (both of which are originally Bill Thompson voices), though Burton says “I’ve never had a real strong Bill Thompson range to draw from.”

I asked about the differences between recreating a famous voice and creating a new original character voice, and Bennett explained that even when creating an original voice, he will often base it on a performer from the past who has played similar roles, as a way of “hooking into” the character. “I’ve tried to get Eric Roberts into auditions sometimes, but it doesn’t usually work. They say ‘no, he sounds a little too dumb.'” He does a little riff on Eric Roberts in The Pope of Greenwich Village,” and explains, “he sounds like an animated character, so why not get that into a show?”

Burton commented that recreating a classic voice is a technical challenge, “to maintain the essence, the timbre, and the soul of the original recording; the trick is not to do it mechanically, so that you’re conscious of every aspect of pitch and placement and pace, and it sometimes takes a while to establish it fully, and make it your own in a way, and yet make it faithful to the original.”

Burton aspired to do voice work from a very early age; he remembers watching the Flintstones and Jetsons on prime-time TV when he was about four years old, being intrigued by the voices and saying “I think I can make my voice sound like that.” Eventually he studied under “the best teacher imaginable,” the great Daws Butler, the voice of Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, and almost all of the Hanna-Barbera characters of the ’60s. “I learned how to be a radio actor, in the grand tradition of the Golden Age of Radio. I learned all about the business of voice work in commercials and movies and ADR dubbing.”

Bennett recounted how, as a teenage employee at a local movie theater, he used to impersonate his boss, calling up his co-workers and berating them in the boss’ voice. Later, he got involved in regional theater in Houston, and got to do the radio promos for the various plays. “They had a pretty good copy writer that worked there, so I started doing the different characters, and I thought, wow, this is a lot of fun. I always imitated other people, and thought, well, maybe I’ll do standup, but I was too afraid for that. I just did not want to be alone in front of a group of people going ‘ehh, you suck!’ But I enjoyed doing the radio spots, and when I came out here, I hooked up with people who were looking for new blood. I was just getting ready to do a workshop with Sue Blue, and then she cast me with Corey on James Bond Jr. I played I.Q., the grandson of Q. That was one of my first jobs.”

The actors explained the wide range of projects that voice actors work on, including not only cartoon voices, but also narration, videogame voices, movie work, dubbing dialogue on foreign language films, and more. “You don’t realize how vast it is until you get into it,” Bennett remarks. One such niche is ADR, or “Automated Dialog Replacement,” also known as looping, which is the re-recording of dialog and sound effects for films, for cases when the film may have been shot in a noisy location, or there is some other problem with the original sound track, or an editing decision requires a new audio recording. Bennett explained that sometimes, particularly in animation, something gets changed or added in editing, and new audio needs to be added, such as screams or “different things they didn’t think of at the original recording.”

The art of foreign language dubbing is, according to Burton, “a challenge of a different nature, creating an illusion of real synchronization with words that don’t really come out of the mouths,” which sometimes requires difficult speech patterns in order to make the audio match the visual. “Sentences stuck together; inside-out phrasing, because you’d have to match plosives and fricatives, etc. Pauses in the middle of a word just to get it to look natural. Or in some cases, unnatural, for effect, because it’s just funny or interesting or weird,” he says.

The Internet has created some new opportunities for voice actors, such as web-based animation that sometimes becomes popular and moves to TV or cable, but its biggest impact is on the way jobs are booked and scheduled. “We’ve become a point-and-click service. It makes it tough. I much prefer the civilized days when you’d be booked two months in advance, because there weren’t even fax machines, and they’d have to mail you the script and contracts; it’s gotten to the point that everything’s at the drop of a hat.”

Bennett mutters in an “old man” voice in response, then follows up by recounting how in the past, actors would usually have about a week to prepare for an audition, but now it needs to be done immediately. “They need it by tomorrow, and you’re like, I’ve got two jobs today — I’m not complaining — but I’ve got two jobs today, there’s no way to get that audition in, and they’re saying ‘we really need you to MP3 it by tonight,’ and okay, I’ll have to do that at midnight and it’s not going to sound the way you want it to.” He now uses an app called TwistedWave to record auditions on his iPhone or iPad. “I used it without a USB mic, and they said my audition came through loud and clear. So I have a USB mic on the way from Amazon, because sometimes I need to be able to do it from my car. Sometimes I need to get an audition in and there’s no way I can get home in time to do it. For auditions, it’s something that can work quick and well, It’s amazing what a good job it can do for something that comes out of this little device.”

Burton also embraces the new technology a bit, explaining, “I do a lot of recording from home. Most of my solo work is done from home; commercials and trailers and narration, little ADR bits, movie trailers.”

I asked them about the strangest job they ever did, and Burton tells me, “I got a call from a sound editor that I did a lot of ADR work with, named Paul Huntsman. He passed away recently, sadly. But he knew me, knew I was a good voice matcher and voice actor; I got a call, ‘Yeah, it’s Paul Huntsman, look, I’m working here on this film with Billy Friedkin, and he doesn’t like any of the loops. He wants a real voice actor. Can you come down to MGM and do this loop for us?’ So okay, I drove to the studio, I was really impressed to meet Billy Friedkin. They were in the studio, they had a mic set up right near the screen, because they were already in mixdown, I guess, and they ran the scene. They go, ‘Okay, here’s this man getting beaten.’ The film just pans for a minute and in the background there’s this man getting whipped, and they said ‘Can you do his voice?’ Okay. They set it up, and I went ‘AUGH! AUGH! AUGH! AUGH!’ And ‘That was great! Perfect! You’re done!’ And that was it. I was done.”

Bennett counters, saying, “I had one that was even shorter than that. The shortest thing I ever had to do was at Disney. A show called Bonkers. I played a sort of Bill Thompson-esque character called ‘Jitters A. Dog,’ I had already done the episode, and they called me back for some ADR. They book you for two hours; okay, you booked me for two hours, I’ll be there. I get there, and they had one thing for me to do. At the end of an episode, Jitters gets, there’s a bomb or an anvil on the head or whatever, and Jitters says ‘Ouch.’ They decided they wanted it to be ‘Ow-‘ KABOOM! ‘-ch.’ So I came back in to do ‘-ch.’ That was my job that day. Those are the days when you go ‘I LOVE THIS BUSINESS! This is the best!’ That was the strangest thing, because they could have had the sound engineer do that. My ‘-ch’ isn’t going to sound too different from your ‘-ch.’ And they paid me again for that. Go figure.”

What advice would they give to the kid who is watching Jake and the Never Land Pirates, listening to the voice actors and thinking “I can do that”?

Bennett answers, “I think what you need to start with is a good ear. There are people who think they do good voices, and they might do a few; they don’t hear it as well as somebody like Corey does. There’s something in the ear, musical and non-musical, that some people just access better. Listen to a lot of different people.” He also recommends that aspiring voice actors “get on mic early, so you get used to what you actually sound like. A lot of people hear themselves and go, ‘I never realized I sounded like that.'”

“The first thing I wanted as a kid was a tape recorder,” Burton remarks, explaining, “I just put together little audio plays, myself and my brother, with sound effects, just imitating people we knew.” He adds, “my main advice always is, you have to love it more than anything else in the world, because it’s show business, and show business is a terrible challenge for anybody to make a living at. It’s just the very top of the very top talent really work at all these days.”

He cautions, “you have to be obsessed with voices,” and both actors reflected on their childhood inspirations, such as Rich Little. Bennett explained that Little would do a bit in his act where he would run through about a hundred different voices in about a minute or two, and “I sat there with my jaw dropped, and said “I want to do that!” He began practicing celebrity voices like Jimmy Stewart, often imitating Rich Little’s imitation. He comments that it’s a “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” thing, doing an imitation of somebody’s imitation, and Burton comments that the intent is to “pick up the character markers that make it recognizable.”

Continuing to offer advice to the aspiring voice actor, Bennett warns that “sometimes when you turn a hobby into a job, it becomes work.” You don’t realize that, especially in animation, sometimes all the screaming and all that stuff,” it’s possible to end up hoarse by the end of the week. “I’m Allergy Boy, so I always have that problem,” he says. “That’s the danger of your hobby becoming work, but I love it. Like Corey says, you’ve got to love it.”

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