Barking For A Living

Giving voice to Hollywood’s dogs
By Alysia Gray Painter, December 2010

“Woof.”

“Can we try that again?”

“Woof!”

“Okay, one more take.”

“Woooof!”

“Perfect.”

Hollywood has been home to countless hounds who’ve acted in film and television. And while the sounds those pups emit have sometimes been their own unadulterated, 100 percent doggie growls and whimpers, often what we’re hearing when we watch a cartoon canine (and the occasional live-action mutt) is, well, very much human in origin.

Of course, since the invention of celluloid, human actors have often provided impressive sound effects for numerous fish, insects and various animals and other creatures. Flies buzz, salmon burble, squirrels chitter, kitties purr convincingly, often due in large part to an accomplished bipedal, Screen Actors Guild card–carrying actor at the microphone. But many artists who voice dogs aren’t merely playing the wisecracking, pants-wearing woofer who likes to drink beer and play baseball (in short, the played-for-laughs, extremely humanized hound). In addition to numerous animated animals, humans are ably voicing honest-to-goodness, real-life, silver-screen dogs, the kind of pups we live with.

“It seems like half my life, I have been barking…and some of that has been professionally,” says Frank Welker, an industry icon who has voiced a bevy of big-name bowwows, from Scooby Doo and Dynomutt to Goddard on The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. “When I go to the doctor’s office for a physical and the doctor asks me to cough, I bark! It’s just a natural response.”

Feeling Like a Dog

It isn’t simply a matter of asking an actor to bark or growl with abandon, however. As real dogs can express fear or excitement or joy, the humans impersonating —or “in-dog-onating” perhaps—a pooch have to be able to convey the feeling the onscreen animal is experiencing at the moment. “When you’re making animal sounds, you still have to emote an emotion even if you’re not using words. Often the sounds will imitate the way a word sounds—the same amount of syllables,” says voice director Donna Grillo. “You know you’re going to have fun when you’re recording animal sounds.”

And while it is certainly a specialty in both the fields of animation and live action—being able to bark, with emotion, on cue—there’s more work for bipeds who can snorfle like a four-pawed pup than one might expect.“There’s usually a dog in the family and there need to be sounds for it,” says Grillo,who has directed her share of grunts and wheezes and sniffs while working in cartoons. “If it’s a comedy, I look for funny sounds. If it’s a serious or action-type show, I go for realistic.” Maybe the breaking-into-thebiz part is a bit harder than arriving at a traditional casting call with a headshot in hand, but, if you’re a film fan with a gift for growls, it might be a career course that will surprise the folks back home: Really? You bark for a living? Really?

But aspiring snarlers should know ahead of time that the recording process is quite rigorous and consists of much more than just yipping and zipping. You have to truly become the dog. “In Disney’s film Homeward Bound, I did all the actual dog [and cat] sound effects while celebrity actors did the spoken voices,” says Welker. “This was so much fun. They put the film up on a screen in a darkened studio and I would just roll with it and fill in the sounds as I felt them—it’s a process I love, called looping. Mostly it was breathing to make the audience buy into the strange reality of real live dogs speaking. It really works to help to make the transitions. The director was great and liked what I was doing. He said it was so realistic that the sound editors were not sure when the real dogs stopped and I started. That is the highest compliment I can get: being [mistaken for] a dog!”

Welker also favors a more realistic approach rather than a highly stylized, overly artificial performance.“Sometimes the project requires a dog who has a lot of personality that isn’t obvious on the screen. That is one of the more difficult things to do, trying to stretch it but keep it believable. I remember when I did the horror film Cujo—you had one of the most lovable creatures on the planet, a Saint Bernard. And it was supposed to be a rabid killing machine. I looked at this dog’s sweet face and thought No way ... but with good makeup (foaming jowls) and some of my most vicious growling and barking (I’m getting a sore throat now just thinking about it) and a mix of real dog sounds and some very good camera work, they did indeed create a classic horror flick. I leave it to the audience to judge if it worked, but I will tell you that I won’t watch it just before bedtime.”

Hound Sounds

Truly becoming the dog is key to the performance. The human self has to be stashed for the moment and the canine character fully assumed. “I picture myself as a dog, literally get into a stance, but stay on two feet, and prance around in front of the microphone as the dog, and then bark as if I were talking with that dog’s point of view,” says actor Barb Heller.When asked to play a Poodle,Heller modified her woof. “I had to come up with a higher pitched, feminine and spoiled bark. If I were doing a Terrier, I might have been a bit smaller and gruffer,with a bit of a squeak.”

For Heller to summon a particular “hound”sound, attitude is essential.“Figuring out what pitch and what type of ‘attitude’ s/he has” is part of the challenge of creating realistic dog f/x, according to Heller. “For all animals, this is the most challenging part in speaking as them.We only have their animal sounds and sighs or breathing patterns to work with.”

And while actors look to the fictional Fido they’re voicing to inform their performance, it’s no surprise that a real-life buddy is often the inspiration. Before one audition,Heller observed a pal’s pooch.“My friend Erin has a super cute Toy Poodle, and although he was smaller and more masculine than the older female Poodle I was playing, he had the right stuck-up, no-nonsense style. I started with his walk and high-pitched bark and went from there.”

Frank Welker lived with his furry muse for well over a decade. “I had a wonderful German Shepherd I loved dearly,” remembers Welker. “She lived with and tolerated me for 14 years, and I still dream and think of her often. She was a great friend and companion. I know she taught me a lot more dog than I taught her English—but then, there were days when I swore I heard her say, perfectly clear, ‘Uh, you’re not really going to wear that shirt with those pants, are you?’”

Alysia Gray Painter author of Howl and McSweeney's More Mirth of a Nation contributor, and The Bark's Southern California correspondentówas nominated for an Emmy.