What type of membership would you like to apply for?
Account access problem
You do not have permission to access this page with your current sign in details. If you require any further help, please get in touch at questions@spotlight.com.
The Industry
Maurice the cat sitting on a table looking startled next to Keith from 'The Amazing Maurice'

Image credit: Ulysses/Cantilever/Narrativia / Still From The Amazing Maurice

The producer of ‘The Amazing Maurice’ provides an insight into making animated films and what he looks for during voiceover auditions.

Of all the ways to tell a story, perhaps none allows you more freedom and creativity than animation. Unlike live-action productions, your characters can be larger than life, you’re not restrained to real-world locations to film in and there’s no end to the various visual styles you can use to make your production unique and interesting. 

For actors eager to expand into voiceover work, animation allows your performance to shape your character’s movements and expressions. No other type of voice work ends with a visual representation of the energy and creativity you brought to the recording booth. It also doesn’t require you to look anything like the character you’re bringing to life – look at Steve Carell and his character ‘Gru’ from the Despicable Me series!

With all this on offer, who wouldn’t want to work on an animated production?

Robert Chandler has worked in the entertainment industry for 30 years. During this time, he’s experienced many roles: writer, director, and producer, working for British production companies such as Tiger Aspect and North One. He was part of a select team that set up the Mercury Music Prize and was the Creative Director. He’s also written and produced radio drama and ran an animation studio specialising in anime.

In 2009, he set up his own production company, Space Age Films, and since then, has brought to life award-winning animated films and TV shows such as The Deep, The Canterville Ghost and The Amazing Maurice.

We had the chance to speak to Robert about his experience working on animated productions, the role of a creative producer, and what he looks for in voiceover auditions. Here’s what he shared:

Hi Robert! How did you first get started in the entertainment industry?

Ever since I was very, very young, I wanted to work in either films or comic books. I basically wanted to run my own studio or be a comic book artist. I come from a working-class background, so when, in the 1970s, I said to my parents, “I want to be a film director or a comic book artist,” they had no idea how to process that or what to do about it. My school didn’t either, because back then there weren’t openings in those areas. 

But I pursued those ambitions and it took a long time, but, fortunately, I was able to combine them, in a way, by being a film producer who works in both live action and animation. 

Could you tell us a bit about what a creative producer does?

It can be a bit awkward sometimes, calling yourself a creative producer, because usually there’s a strict demarcation of producer, director, writer. Most people do not know what a producer does, or they assume you get the money and you are just that.

I’ve worked as a writer and as a director. I started producing in order to protect my own work, because I sold a screenplay once and then watched the company in the US sit on it for 18 months, and later I found out they bought it in order to get it off the market because it was similar to a project they were developing. So I thought, ‘That’s never going to happen again’ and I became a producer in order to protect my work and protect the work of other writers. 

For a creative producer, every job, film or TV show is different. Maybe people think I interfere, but I do have a vision. I regard myself as a perpetual student. I’m always studying films, writing reviews about them. It’s about understanding how narrative works, how drama works, how visual storytelling works and so on. I always fold that into what I do as a producer. 

I call myself a creative producer because sometimes I co-direct, sometimes I write or co-write, other times I just stand back. [I make] sure I put together the right creative team that I can trust to see something through, and they know that I’m there for them as someone who understands their process. Producing is a bit vague, and every job is different, but [they’re] someone who is a fundamental part of shaping the vision of the film.

How do you work with casting directors in your role?

I regard casting directors as the bees’ knees. You may have spent a long time on the screenplay, you’ve got your director and so on, but casting is everything. There’s no such thing as a bad actor – there’s only bad casting. If I see somebody and their acting isn’t great, I think it’s because they’re wrong for the role, not because they’re a bad actor.

If the studio or agents see who’s casting a film, it changes how they regard the film. That’s why casting directors are worth their weight in gold – they’re representing you and the film at a really vulnerable time in the film’s existence. Sometimes, they’re the first people I employ, even before the greenlight.

There’s this perpetual struggle in raising finance for films. Let’s say you have a movie star in mind, you know the film is right for her. When do you approach her? If you approach her before the film is greenlit, the agent is either going to say no, or we want her fee in advance, and it’s going to be a lot of money. You probably don’t have that money yet. And yet, without her, you can’t raise the finance for the film. So it is very difficult, which is why having the right casting director helps. It sends out signals – to the agent, to the actor, to the studio – that we’re serious about this. We’ve got a great casting director, take a look.

How did you first become involved in Sky’s animated film ‘The Amazing Maurice’?

The project was developed by a German producer, Emely Christians, who recognised that Terry Pratchett is quintessentially English in his writing, and she wanted a UK producer to partner with her on that to get the tone right. It was a good call. She came, not to me first, but to another producer colleague called Andrew Baker. Andrew was head of legal at ITV for a long time, and had recently set up his own company, Cantilever.

He’s a huge Terry Pratchett fan, so that made a big difference, but Andrew hadn’t produced an animated movie before, and so he asked me to come on board. This is really, in a way, where my creative producer persona came to the fore, because Andrew and Emely were looking after finance, legal, the rights, the sales and pre-sales. I was focusing on casting and then working with Toby, the director, and the two animation studios, doing a bit of rewriting with Toby – as you do automatically in animation when you’re storyboarding. 

Andrew and Emely were involved in the creative aspects, too, of course, and I was involved in their aspects. We shared responsibilities and made for a formidable trio.

There are some big voice talents in ‘The Amazing Maurice’ such as Hugh Laurie, Emilia Clarke, Himesh Patel, David Thewlis and David Tennant. What was it like working with so many big names?

Oh, it was brilliant. I love actors. We were a little bit lucky in that the pandemic had hit and most of those actors were not working. The great thing about animation for an actor is that they can get paid a fair bit of money and we don’t really do longer than four hour sessions in case the voice dries up. You might do two half days, and you can come and dress how you like. 

I stuck to my own principles, which was, get a great casting director. I’d been working with Debbie McWilliams on another film [so] I’d forged a really good relationship with [her]. When I said to Debbie, “Hey, do you fancy doing an animation?” she hadn’t really done it before and it was an opportunity for her. 

I had a relationship with Hugh Laurie because I’d been developing The Canterville Ghost with Stephen Fry, and I’d worked with Hugh on that. Hugh was one of our first choices, and he came on board. I maintain good relationships, not just with casting directors, but with actors and agents because of the respect I have for them, and it sort of came good. Our wish list became our cast list.

There were [also] some Terry Pratchett fans that just emerged. Emilia Clarke confessed that her brother was a Terry Pratchett fan, and she’d do it for him. We got a fantastic cast. 

Sometimes people say, “Oh, it’s just stunt casting to help sell the animation or to help sell the film.” On one level, they’re not wrong, but I would never use a voice that wasn’t right. David Thewlis, playing the nefarious villain who’s made entirely of rats – when he brings his voice to it, no one else can do that. 

In animation, does an actor’s voice performance affect the design, expressions or movements of the characters?

It absolutely does. You have to think of the animator as the second actor for the character. The voice actor is giving this performance, and the animator works off that as much as the storyboard. That’s why a lot of animators have mirrors. A good animator will have a face mirror on his or her desk and have access to a room with a full-sized mirror, and you’ll see them – they’ll be in there doing all sorts of weird things to get the right expressions or poses.

It’s like dance because they’re acting out what the character would do. Animation rewards extremity. You push it to extremes because you’re articulating with the body and embellishing the voice performance to create a character that somehow is a whole. 

One of the reasons actors like animation is because you do the opposite of live action. In live action, you’re often telling the actor, “Just tone it down a little bit, it’s a bit too big.” In animation, we say, “Go bigger, go larger,” because animation responds to a larger-than-life voice. Actors love that direction. 

What do you look for in auditions for animation voiceover?

“An actor who can connect with the script is 80% of the way there.”

That ability to take direction, which sounds obvious, but you might need more direction in animation than you might be used to in live performance. It’s a different kind of direction. It’s often concerned with timing, so it wouldn’t be unusual, even with a great take, to ask for it again but faster.

Good voice directors are magicians and they are able to get the performance out without ever saying, “This is how I want you to say it.” They have to coax and cajole and sometimes give metaphorical instructions like, “Imagine you’re a child and someone’s just taken your ice cream, how would you respond to that?”

With a successful audition, it is basically an actor somehow just becoming the character, which again, sounds obvious. It’s usually somebody who surprises you about the character, finding something you may not have heard yourself when reading it or designing it, but is indelibly right. An actor who can connect with the script is 80% of the way there, and then it’s about how they fit alongside the other cast members. It may not be their fault if you don’t choose [them], and it’s important to convey that. 

If you’re auditioning for animation, I would find out exactly what it is that the team wants. Make sure you look at your character, understand who the character is, ask what the character looks like, and don’t just get an image of the character, get an image of the character within a location so you get a sense of the scale. How does this mouse feel when it’s in this situation? Well, maybe he feels like he’s king of the world, because that’s the sort of mouse he is. Find out, don’t be afraid to ask these questions so that you really understand your character. And for heaven’s sake – take it seriously! To the director, that mouse creature is as important to the story as ‘Rose’ is in Titanic

A bit like when you’re screenwriting, no two characters should ever look the same on the page when you read the dialogue. It’s the same with auditioning and voices. If you were to watch an animated film and close your eyes, could you tell me [which] character was talking? If you could, that means it’s a good voice performance and it’s the right actor. 

Please stand out, please give something to the character that is the quintessence of that character and a bit more than any other person who’s auditioning for it. By more, I don’t mean louder, I mean condensed and compact and focused and true.

What are your top tips for an actor looking to get into voiceover for animation?

That is a tough one to answer. The sad truth is I may only be casting 10 roles this year and, of course, seven of them may be [big] name actors, so where do you get the other three? Invariably, you ask for voice reels and so on.

I’ve no idea how you stand out in that field, except by doing it, sending voice reels. You can make yourself known to the producer, but don’t be a nuisance. You have to be a bit of a nuisance, but not a complete nuisance.

A lot of actors, although they’re screen actors, have done voice work, maybe for radio, corporate voiceover. [These are] slightly different because you’re not creating a voice for a visual representation. But really, it’s about getting the right agent, talking to your agent and letting them know, so the agent is contacting the producers and the casting directors working in animation.

Look at who’s cast the last five animated films in this country and ask your agent to have a word with that casting director to just let them know you’re available.

Do you feel like animation for adults is having an emergence?

I hope so. It’s something I’ve been fighting for, for about 30 years. Britain is pretty poor when it comes to taking animation seriously as a medium for adults. Whereas France, for example, has a culture of deep respect for comic books, and that folds itself into a respect for animation. Look at Japan and Korea, the rise of Crunchyroll, or the sustained life of Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender

[When I was 16], I desperately wanted Marvel Comics to be taken seriously, and everyone laughed back then. Now, of course, it’s gone too far in the other direction. People are saying, “We’re fed up with these superhero tales.” They really did conquer the world! This is everything I hoped would happen, and maybe animation-for-adults will have its day as well, (although there’s obviously a bit of you that doesn’t want it to, because it’s your precious thing, and if everyone loved it, it would no longer be precious).

The English are still stuck with their literary prejudices, which is why they think the theatre is superior to cinema. It’s all rooted in the written word, whereas a visual language they think is made for people who are illiterate. You face that as someone who says, “Yeah, I make cartoons for a living,” or “I love comic books.” You are confronted by a weird cultural mix of snobbery and lack of understanding of how vital these art forms are. But we are getting there. I’m involved in two movie projects which are animated and are for older audiences.

What’s next for you?

I’ve got a pirate film from an American writer. I read it and thought, ‘Oh, this is fantastic’, so I’m trying to set that up. It is really about a father and a son. I always look for the human connection.

On the live action side, I’ve got a horror film, which not so much uses animation, but uses visual effects in an interesting way that is sort of animated. That’s a British feature. 

Oh, and I’ve got a lovely, animated tale about two dogs, which we announced in Bordeaux last month, called Out of Frame, which is basically one animated dog and one painted dog, and they don’t realise they’re different, but the painted dog is looking for their owner, and they find the owner by going into the world of art through a picture frame in a gallery. I love dogs, and it’s very nice because the film also explores the world of art. 

Finally, what would be your dream project to work on?

There’s a comic book drawn by Mick McMahon, written by Alan Grant and John Wagner, called The Last American. It is a sort of wandering tale of a soldier, Ulysses Pilgrim, who’s chosen by the US government to survive a nuclear fallout, and then he goes wandering after the destruction of the world, effectively, looking for life. It’s devastating and absolutely beautiful. 

We’ve just had The Last of Us and Jonathan Nolan’s Fallout on TV, and Furiosa and Borderlands are here, and maybe the post-apocalyptic wasteland is no longer what it once was, but if I could do The Last American in animation and pay tribute to McMahon’s work as an artist, I’d be very happy. He’s one of the greats.

I did try. I’ve talked to the owners about it in the past because what that comic did is what all great art does, it gets to the heart of who we are as people, and so when Pilgrim’s looking for life, it makes him very aware of what’s lost, and as a reader, it’s really moving. He quotes Paul Simon – ‘He walked off to look for America’ – in one of the panels, and it made me cry on the train when I was reading it.

That would be a dream project, but the real dream is to make a series of films which are written directly for the screen and are not adaptations, the way Pixar used to operate. The great Pixar movies are sensational, written visually, and written for the screen. Look at WALL-E or Finding Nemo. Original stories. 

The idea of creating a series of feature films that say something about life and are fun and not adaptations but are written originally for the screen as British animated features – that would be my dream.

A massive thanks to Robert for giving us an insight into the animation voiceover process!

Take a look at our website for more interviews with industry professionals and actors.