There are a lot of perks to being a voice actor, not the least of which is having the chance to develop great original character voices. But there are also opportunities in voicing existing characters. This end of the business is called voice matching.
Kiff VandenHeuvel is one of the busiest male voice matchers around, with credits that include voicing a certain reckless smuggler from a galaxy far, far away. We asked him to shed some light on this little-known corner of the VO industry.
CA: You’re the voice over “older Han Solo” in the Star Wars universe. What does that mean? What kind of work are you doing as that iconic character?
KV: That’s correct. In the animated series Star Wars: Forces of Destiny, I play Han Solo in The Force Awakens timeline. So that means when the story they are telling involves Han from that era, I lend my voice to the character. As of right now, Forces of Destiny is the only place where I occupy the pilot seat of the Millennium Falcon.
CA: That’s a pretty high profile booking. Take us through how it happened. What was the audition process like?
KV: It honestly begins with letting my agent (CESD in Los Angeles) know my skill set. I never would have gotten the audition or have been considered if my agents didn’t know I could voice match. I think that’s a very important part of all of this: being able to prove that you can do it. That’s why an impressions or voice match reel is so important.
When it comes to matching, I’m one of the guys that my agent thought about for this project. I had never matched Harrison Ford before, and when the audition came to me, I spent about 2-3 days working on the match before I recorded it. I watched scenes from The Force Awakens over and over, found places in the movie that matched the tone of the audition copy, and I would listen and parrot back what I heard. There are a lot of variable to consider. There’s the pitch (how high or low his voice was starting and stopping, like a song), the texture (does his voice sound smooth, rough, gravelly), the intention behind the line, or what emotions and ideas he’s trying to convey with what he’s saying. I try to look beyond the words to uncover sarcasm, anger, longing, panic. There’s also the phrasing (pauses and breaths) to consider. Then I just try to mimic all of those things and act the scenes well.
CA: Sounds like the key to being a good match for a character definitely lies in the prep.
KV: Definitely. Some matches come easy because they are broad and easy to mimic. Everyone has a great Christopher Walken, Sean Connery, Jack Nicholson because the signature of those voices is so distinctive. Harrison Ford has a very recognizable voice but the touchstones of matching him for me are in how quiet he is, how he kind of stammers, how on certain words he’ll slow down and open his eyes and raise his eyebrows and get really clear. For example in Return of the Jedi when threepio says “It’s against my programming to impersonate a diety. It wouldn’t be proper.” Han Solo replies, “PROPER!?” Watch the clip and you’ll see what I mean. But you really study who you are matching to get a swatch of the variety of the target.
Then it’s recording and playing back your recording until you feel like it’s as close as you are going to get it. Rhythms and patterns of the target’s speech are super important. In all honesty, I think I booked it on my slate. Even more than my read, the way I said, “Kiff VandenHeuvel: Han Solo” sounded more like Harrison than anything I’d ever done. I rarely slate in character, but it sounded so on the money, I kept it.
Once it was done, I sent it in and forgot about it, because you have to. 2-3 weeks later, my agent called to tell me I was the captain of the Millennium Falcon. Pat Brady is the best at telling you you booked iconic roles!
CA: How often are you called upon to use your voice matching skills?
KV: On average I probably do voice match auditions 2 -3 times per day. Often it is for movie trailers or for pitches for trailers. I’ll use a recent trailer for The Art Of Racing In The Rain as a recent example, in which I matched Kevin Costner. If you listen to the trailers for this film, you’re going to hear Kevin Costner, not me as him. It’s a big studio film, they don’t want a match covering all of his lines in the trailer, either. Trailers have gotten to be super high profile, sometimes more anticipated than the film. So it’s a big deal. But they may do a bunch of scratch trailers to bid on the work, and for scratch work (which is like an unpaid demo) they may not have access to the star. They will have media to cobble together their story, but often the reference files I get are a voice sample of who they want me to match in the tone of what they’re looking for.
With Racing in the Rain, I was sent audio of a paragraph that Mr. Costner recorded for the film along with a script with several monologues like it. So I read them without a tempo consideration, just trying my best to sound and act like Mr. Costner. That was critical. If I’m going to represent him, even in scratch, I feel like I owe it to him and to the entire production that I act well and collaborate on the character. Then I didn’t hear anything for maybe 3 weeks, and then a flurry of activity, a line here, a paragraph there (only scratch for 2-3 sessions, then they started paying per session).
How they used what I sent them, I honestly don’t know. As an editor, I can imagine that they took what I sent them and used phrases, words or sounds (like transitions between words to smooth out an edit) and cut them into Mr. Costner’s narration or promotional recordings. You know how Dinosaur DNA was spliced with frog DNA to complete the codes in Jurassic Park? Kind of like that.
I’m a shortcut and my voice saves people time, money and anxiety. I’m not the real thing, but if I can truly honor the performance of the person I’m matching, it feels like I really did my job.
CA: So that’s matching for a trailer. What other auditions come in? My gut tells me that when we hear a familiar voice on screen or in gadgets and products, more often than not they’re being done by voice actors as opposed to the actual celebrity.
KV: It’s not often that I’m replacing a celebrity so there’s more it than being able to do a killer Kevin Costner. Most often, I’m auditioning for “Soldier 2”, “Newscaster”, newer actors, actors whose voices falls into my range, and guys who I have no idea who they are, but they are working in the film. Then, it’s just about listening and getting as close as you can.
All of that said, when it comes to toys, merch, videogames, cartoons, etc. It’s a mixed bag. Some actors do their own merch, some have matchers they recommend or approve of. I haven’t received the stamp of approval from anyone I match, but hope to some day.
And as far as your gut is concerned, when you are hearing devices or gadgets, I know this sounds like a “Disney answer,” but I believe it: You are hearing the character. Robert Downey Jr. isn’t Iron Man. Christian Bale, Michael Keaton, Ben Afleck, George Clooney, Kevin Conroy aren’t Batman. Batman is Batman, Iron Man is Iron Man, and when you hear the voice, it’s Iron Man. It’s Batman.
When you hold that in your mind, then you can be Iron Man. You can be Batman.
I have been both.