With more and more animated movies being produced, I’m frequently asked about how to break into the industry, what the animation voice over casting process is like and where it happens. I recently spoke with Natalie Lyon, casting director at Pixar Animation Studios and there’s nobody better to answer questions about animation casting than Natalie. She’s passionate, experienced and a pleasure to talk with.
When and how did you first get into casting for animation?
I always wanted to do casting. I remember in junior high finding out that (casting) was a job and being like, “I need that job”.
I started as a development production assistant at Pixar almost 13 years ago. The development producer was also our casting director. I did not know that when I started the job but I was thrilled! From the second I started, I asked “How can I help you with that?”
On the production side, typically you stay in development for one or two years and go on to feature film but I refused to leave because I wanted to keep working on casting. I kind of stumbled into it but in the last two years, I’m casting full time and it’s awesome.
What do you look for when casting for animated characters?
With most of our movies, we go with people who use their natural speaking voice. Very rarely do we have talent putting on a voice or an accent or doing a character. The first thing we do with the main character is to think about actors we know. We actually have a TV Guide subscription we’ll go through when we’re trying to think of certain characters. There are a million sitcoms so we’ll just flip through. Casting director Kevin Reher and I both watch a ton of TV, a ton of movies and we pay attention. When we hear a really interesting voice, we’ll email each other: “Hey, this person is not the right person now but may be for later.”
With the much smaller roles, we have someone who is in charge of wrangling talent for a loop group (groups who voice the background characters in a given scene). For the in-between roles, maybe ten lines, I think it’s really cool when we can support the local Bay Area acting community. The girl who plays Riley in “Inside Out” is a local actress and two of the rustlers in “The Good Dinosaur” are local actors.
We also get tons of demos and we’ll listen and keyword the demos into a casting database. A lot of the demos we get are people doing Saturday morning cartoon voices and that doesn’t help us because that’s not really what we’re looking for. We’re not looking for people to put on some wacky kind of voice because we don’t have those types of characters, usually.
Do you cast on both coasts?
Absolutely. Especially when we have roles with kids, I have agents that I reach out to here, in LA, Chicago and New York. When we’ve gone through the concentric circles of those areas, like we did with “The Good Dinosaur”, I reach out to agents in Florida, Arkansas, Denver, Utah, etc. We really dug in on that one and looked all over the place. There are four or five agencies that we work with in New York. We describe the characters we are looking for and they send us clients. When we are specifically auditioning kids, then we’ll reach out and bring in some kids to audition for us.
Do you listen to Character Demos?
I do. I have to confess I don’t get all the way through a lot of them because at a certain point, you realize that it’s five minutes of someone doing crazy voices and you will never hear what they really sound like. I’ll often listen to commercial or narration (demos) because you can hear what the person sounds like. If I never hear the person’s voice, it doesn’t help me.
So you would rather hear someone who sent you a demo of their actual speaking voice?
Yes, and I know that makes us very different from most voice over but when it comes to doing a lot of different voices, that’s when the insane, amazing skill set of the loop group actors, who could be three characters, four characters in a single movie, come into play. For my part of it, we’re looking for main characters and a lot of peoples’ acting falls away when they’re not using their real voice. Janeane Garofalo did have an accent in “Ratatouille” and for Linguini in “Cars”, Tony Shalhoub put on an accent but, in general, we want people’s natural speaking voice.
What changes have you noticed in the animation casting world in the last five years?
One thing has been how much you can find online and how helpful it is. It’s so much easier to have a demo, to have materials to send ahead of time and self-record an audition. When we were casting for Russell in “Up” we thought, “Oh, if people call my voice mail, they can make a recording!” Now you can record it on your smart phone. That gives us access to so many more people. Also, you could be online looking for comedians, type it into Google and instead of just learning about somebody, you can watch their stand-up online. So when people don’t have something to send me, I think, “Oh, are they not serious about this?” There are also so many theatre actors and now a lot of theatres are making trailers for their plays, which is so incredibly useful.
Do you ever search for talent online at sites like Voices.com or Voice123.com?
We do sometimes. That’s actually how we found Spanish Buzz for “Toy Story 3.”
I so appreciate your taking the time to talk with me.
Of course! Thank you!
Natalie Lyon is a casting director at Pixar Animation Studios. She joined Pixar in 2003 as a development production assistant. Beginning with “Ratatouille,” she has helped cast every Pixar feature film, short, and TV special. Along with Casting, Lyon worked in Development as the department manager, supporting the earliest stages of film production.
A member of the Casting Society of America since 2009, Lyon, along with Kevin Reher, won the Artios Award for Animation Feature Casting for “Up”, “Toy Story 3” and “Inside Out”.
In addition to her work at Pixar, she has also cast live action shorts, the web series “SanFranLand,” and the Academy Award-nominated animated short “The Dam Keeper.”
Prior to Pixar, Lyon began her career as a writer and editor at ChickClick.com, a women’s website focusing on social issues, health, and lifestyle. An Indiana native, she is a graduate of Indiana University with a degree in Film Studies and a minor in Journalism.