Interview with Brilliant Animation Director Ginny McSwain
by Justin Shenkarow
Justin Shenkarow is an Emmy Award winning actor. He’s be doing voice-overs and animation voices for over 20 years. For more info on Justin, please visit his website at www.justinshenkarow.com. You can reach him at Justin@justinshenkarow.com
Ginny McSwain is a Two-time Emmy Award Casting and Recording Director in the animation industry. She has built a foundation over her many years in the animation industry to become one of the most gifted and talented recording directors in the animation industry.
I had the privilege of doing an interview with her. She discusses how she broke into directing, her insight into the animation industry as well as her thoughts on how to become a great voice-over actor. Her incredible resume of casting and directing animation and interactive games starting with her first casting job for “The Smurfs”. She’s been the recording director for all the major animation networks and directed many breakthrough shows on those networks including:
· Nickelodeon: ‘The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron Boy Genius.” “Fanboy”.
· Disney Channel: “The Book of Pooh” “W.I.T.C.H”
· Walt Disney TV Animation: “The Emperors New School”
· Warner Brothers TV: “The Batman” where she won an Emmy.
· Film Roman: “The Mask”
She’s directed many interactive games as well including “Resident Evil 4,” “Haunting Ground”, “Mass Effect”, “Dragon Age”, “Mass Effect 2”, “End War” and many others.
For an extended list of Ginny’s incredible credits please check out her website at Ginnymcswain.com
My first questions for Ginny started with: How did you get into directing cartoons?
“It’s an interesting story, if you told me in college that I was going to be associated with animation for 33 years, I would have thought you were high. I was a theater major in college, then got married and came out here in Jan ’74 thinking I’d be an actor, so I came out here to L.A from Missouri and pounded the pavement for a minute and then realized it wasn’t for me. So I had odd jobs after that to make money, and I used to pass The Hanna-Barbera (for a bio on Hanna-Barbera check out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanna-Barbera) building everyday on my way to work on the freeway. I grew up with “The Flintstones” and loved them. One day in the fall, I figured Hanna-Barbera had to need help and so I’m just gonna go in there. In Dec ’75 I was doing an equity waver play with Annie Potts. I took my huge Monte Carlo and pulled into the Hanna-Barbera Building. This was when animation productions were seasonal, they’d sell the shows in early winter, you would start production in the spring and there were only a couple networks back then. CBS, NBC, and ABC. I walked into the building in December which is when they laid people off because it was their dark period. I walk into Hanna-Barbera and it’s a ghost town. I just walked in and asked the switchboard girl if I could fill out an application and if they had any jobs I could do. I didn’t know what I was thinking, perhaps sweeping the floor, maybe I could do maintenance. Somehow there was this producer standing there named Art Scott (for a bio on Art check out: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0778852/) who began answering my questions. He asked me if I had a portfolio. So I said suuurrree. He said “bring it tomorrow night and I’ll introduce you to our art director.” So I said fine. I ran home scrambling and took all of my college drawings and caricatures but I was hardly an animator. I went back the next day and again it was a ghost town because of the lack of production, but true to his word Art Scott introduced me to the art director who was Mr. Iwao Takamoto (for a bio on Iwao check out: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0847314/) who created Scooby-Doo and did all the artwork with Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera. He was a very interesting Asian gentlemen and he talked very softly. He asked me a question I’ll never forgot. He asked “You’re a college graduate?” The only reason I got a job at Hanna-Barbera was because I had a college degree which has never helped me since. So he said, “I’d love to call you in March.” I didn’t think he’d call but he called me in March of ’76 and put me into the art dept as an assistant and then I worked for the head writer for a year plus, and then I worked in development, and then in 1980, I was teamed with Gordon Hunt (for a bio on Gordon check out: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0402460/) and we started the recording dept. I could hear all the auditions in 1976 and the tape transfers and I thought I could do that because I had been an actress. I pitched myself and got a couple jobs. Then I said that I wanted to take care of the talent. Back then, it was all the old timers that ran the sessions, the producers would direct all of the shows, and I told them that I wanted to organize the reels for them, and also respond to the talent. It’s an awesome story about how I got my job at Hanna-Barbera and I don’t know if people can do that now. I just walked in because I wanted to work there and I was lucky to work there for 8 years because I got my foundation. People now have less of a foundation, and it’s a terrible struggle to move up the ladder. When I started, I didn’t just see the casting side, I got to draw and work with the presentations. Back then they sold shows by presentations, it was all about the artwork a thin bible on the show and Joe Barbera pitching shows to the network through his fabulous flambouyancy. He was an amazing seller and everyone loved his pitches.
Ginny, what do you like about directing?
I got thrown into it, working with Gordon Hunt and I created this job for myself. Gordon had been the casting director at the Mark Taper Forum and was extremely prestigious over there. Joe Barbera had known him because he had written a play that Gordon had directed. They put us together, because they saw the light behind my eyes and I had learned a lot. I love breathing the life into the copy and the script. The actors bring the power and the life of the project. I’ve been an actor and I’m an actor fan. This is the closest that I can get to Radio Drama. It’s the story telling. I’ve seen the best of it and the shabbiest, but the actors have always been a shining example of how great a project can be. At Disney where I did “Darkwing Duck” and “Aladdin”, the scripts were brilliant. On “Bobby’s World”, the scripts were just enough but we allowed the actors, comedians, and improv people to be loose and plus the script and they could even develop something fun too.
How do you run your sessions as a director? Bringing everyone in to read as a group or individually?
There was a time when I didn’t have a choice—if I had 13 actors in a script then I had 13 microphones, and it was like directing an orchestra. That’s all I did everyday. Looking back I say “Oh my god how did I do that, how did I have the energy to do that.” Later, I did “My friend Tigger and Pooh” and everyone came in individually. It was just as enjoyable because you can do more exploration with a line and a character when you have hours just working with one person. Directing an actor by himself is fun because you get someone who knows what they are doing with levels and I know what I’m doing and you can pull it off both ways. It’s more fun when you have the whole ensemble, it’s like Radio Drama, but I like it both ways. Now, I work on these interactive games and I work with one actor at a time. We beat the shit out of the multiple characters that they are working on for 4 hours and it’s just as changeling and enjoyable for me.
What is the best way to prepare for an audition to come in and read for you?
First of all 99percent of all copy is going through the agents office now. It’s hard to prepare because I don’t think most of the actors are getting their material in advance, but it’s very difficult for the agents, they get bombarded with everybody’s projects. A day in the life of an agent is tough; they have commercial copy, animation, interactive and it could be 60 characters that the agents have to get in 3 days. I don’t know how the actors prepare. I think they fly by the seat of their pants half the time not really knowing what the style is for the show. I think mostly the clients listen back and you hear a lot of “next, next, next and then that’s good let’s bring them in for a callback.” To audition for a real casting director, or a studio, you’ll get your material in advance, you’ll know the style of the show, and you’ll know to ask the right questions, and you can ask questions, what’s the target audience etc. I came from the day, where you always came in to audition for someone live, you didn’t do it on tape or through your agents office. It was the writer and director and producer which was great because the actor got the full monty. Now, the shoving of the copy of the agents is the way it’s done. It’s good for the agents because they can have more of an opportunity to have their people heard. In the old days, I couldn’t call in everybody, I called in who I thought was right for the part, some of my old faves and some new people. That was the mix. Now, a lot of people can be found. Good news is more opportunity for new actors. You need a great booth director. It’s a skill to talk to actors. I was an agent for 5 minutes, just for 9months at Abrams, Rubinoff and Lawrence with Arlene Thornton. I ran the booth for animation and it was fun, the actors loved coming in to read for me because I gave them a lot attention. But, I never wanted to be on the phone as an agent and solicit. I just wanted to be creative and at an agents office what’s the point. I like talking to the actors and getting to the crux of it with creative people.
What tips do you have for people trying to break into voice-overs and cartoon voice-overs?
You can’t touch it unless you’re a strong actor. Versatility is good, being in touch with the basics, theater people gravitate the quickest to the microphone, they know how to breathe, they know the pacing, and have good energy. On camera people coming in to the voice-over world have a great natural quality but they have no command of the pace. But of course there are exceptions to everything I’m saying. I don’t want to be a puppeteer, I don’t want to give line readings, I want the right person for the right role and I just want to guide them. That means, I’m looking for people that can cut to the chase really fast, they’ve got all the layers to the part. If you’re not a strong actor, you won’t know the layers, the nuances the flushing out of the character. Forget about the microphone, it’s all about the acting and telling the story. Most importantly you have to know what your voice sounds like. So much of this is creating characters, sides of the character—low key, anger, laughter, crying,. Now a lot is listening for natural actors. You need a work out, take a class, sit in front of a microphone continuously figuring out where your placement is for your voice—for an intimate read, over the top, you have to get there fast for voice-over. Training is important, take classes in animation.
What makes a voice over standout in an audition?
I think it’s gotta be, because there’s a lot of people trying for a part, it’s thinking outside the box. You can’t be safe. You have to know the style of the show—is it action/adventure/over the top cartoony/sitcom edgy. Your acting takes over of what you’re bringing to the copy. You can’t be safe and just follow the instructions. It’s so competitive now, it’s the chances you take in creating the character, it’s all about what you do with the copy. Your speech patters, your focus, emphasis, who I want this person to be, and making strong choices. The freshness of someone who’s savvy with improv, maybe can plus the copy a bit for audition, a little hook, a mannerism, a tick, what’s your signature of the copy, but not re-writing the copy. It’s all about the story and what the characters can do with the story. It’s a team effort with the writers and the producers
Are there any final thoughts or tips that you can leave us with?
For people like me who cast and direct, what I can say to the actors—is keep working out, don’t rest, it’s always changing, you gotta keep up with the styles, watch cartoons—there’s a bunch of stuff you’ll like and hate. You gotta do your Homework, it never goes away, it never goes away for me and never goes away for the actor. It’s hard work but have a good time, the people succeeding have a great disposition, they are open to direction and ideas, they keep working at it, they’re open and flexible. My key word is flexible. Open up your eyes, learn something new, take the temperature, Voice direction for animation is it’s own little art form—every level and position I was at I think that I was lucky enough to be educated on—that’s what gave me my foundation to be a qualified director. I can’t tell you how valuable that was, it gave me my masters in my art-form.