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Eric: On history and the future, without much on the subject of pay-for-play

So let's talk web animation.

I'm one of those folks who isn't sure about pay-for models when it comes to web animation. I had little to say when Ctrl-Alt-Del did it, because I don't read Ctrl-Alt-Del, so I didn't have to decide if I was willing to shell out the cash to watch animations or not.

Well, as you almost certainly already know, PvP is releasing a pay-for animation series. So now it's something I have to consider, because I do read PvP. I like PvP. And so here we are.

Now, unlike many critics of the model (critics who most famously include the Penny Arcade guys and... well, Scott Kurtz himself), I've never had an innate problem with pay-for content. I was and am a Modern Tales, Graphic Smash, Girlamatic and American Elf subscriber, for example. The biggest problem with the model (as Gabe and Tycho included in their Webcomics Manifesto at the back of their reissued/remastered/new-take-on their first book) is it creates a barrier to creating and holding an audience. Well, PvP already has an audience -- a substantial one. So, in one sense this is a new experiment -- will all those monthly unique visitors turn into the few thousand subscribers needed to enable Blind Ferret to at least pay off their production costs? The quality of the first teaser is pretty damn good, with strong (and well engineered) voice acting. (Though there are intriguing differences between this setup and the strip -- the cubicle environment for one. C'est la guerre. Different media, different choices. Kurtz (and Kris Straub -- Kurtz's most prolific collaborator) are apparently both writing and executive producing the series, and succeed or fail, it's clear they're putting their all into it.

That's not why I'm here. I'm going to subscribe, but then I would, wouldn't I.

I'm here to talk about Dino Andrade.

Dino Andrade is one of those names that you'd only know if you were anal about things like voice acting. Which I'll admit I am. I'm the sort of person who pauses the Tivo so I can read the voice actor credits at the ends of things like Justice League Unlimited and Legion of Superheroes, because voice acting can make or break a project. It's damned hard to voice a character and have it work -- you're doing an entire performance with inflection, minus your hands, your eyes, your face, and everything all actors in other media work with all the time. You don't even have the advantages of radio drama -- in radio drama, your voice is in a vacuum which the listener can build a scene around using imagination. In animation, you're distracted by the visual. We actively listen to radio. We passively watch television. It's a huge transition, and as a result voice actors tend to slide by us.

Dino Andrade is not a world famous voice actor. That would be one thing, and easy to explain. Dino Andrade is instead an engineer, a producer, a voice coach, a voice teacher -- and one of the strongest and most significant elements of one of the most significant voice actresses of the past twenty years. An actress who happened to be his wife.

Her name was Mary Kay Bergman, and she passed away in 1999.

If you don't recognize that name, you're not alone. A lot of people don't recognize that name. But there's a lot of names you would recognize. Let me quote myself, from a remembrance I wrote for her back in my old online journal, at the time:

For those of you saying "who's that...?" Mary Kay Bergman was the voice of every female character on South Park. From Wendy Testeberger to Mrs. Brofloski to Mrs. Cartman to the Nurse with the Fetus on her face. Every one of them.

She was, for all intents and purposes, most of the movie in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. She sang the entire of the Blame Canada song in four different voices. "What what whaaaaaaaat?" was her. Mrs. Cartman jovially explaining what a rim-job was was her. She also played the role credited only as "Female Body Part," which has to be the greatest mystical vision sequence of all time.

She, of course, didn't get as much attention or as high a billing as Minnie Driver, who was the voice of Brooke Shields for one stinking line.

Mary Kay Bergman was more than South Park, though. Unlike Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Mary Kay Bergman was a voice actress for years. She was the current voice of Daphne, in Scooby Doo on Zombie Island and Scooby Doo and the Witches' Ghost. She was the animated version of Batgirl. She was significantly involved with Beauty and the Beast, the animated Disney Hercules movie, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mulan and The Iron Giant. She was a villain on The Tick. She was Mrs. Butterworth in the commercials where the bottle talked. She was the official voice of Snow White in Disneyland, Disney World and any Disney productions where it came up. She was six different voices in Star Wars: Episode One. She was the female vocalist in Weird Al Yankovic's "Pretty Fly (For a Rabbi)."

When I mentioned her passing to some fellow killer geeks, all of whom were respectful, one of them said "I think I've heard of her." He didn't mean it to be an insult. It was the level I was at before I noticed she was dead and went websurfing.

A star on one of the most popular TV shows currently out there commits suicide. She was also in both the South Park movie and The Phantom Menace for Christ's sake. And the people who most consumed the shows she did most of her work on vaguely knew of her name from somewhere.

She clearly did more voices and work on The Iron Giant than Jennifer Aniston, who voiced Hogarth's mother. But Mary Kay Bergman's name didn't appear above the title, even though Jennifer Aniston's voicing was the weakest in the movie. But Jennifer Aniston is a star, you see. For reasons that escape me at the moment, but give me time....

One of the sites I did research on had a picture of her. She was a strikingly attractive red haired woman. She was close to forty at death, and looked it, but she could have played Daphne at forty with no trouble at all, it seems. Her husband posted a message to her fans on her own website. And she did have fans who left condolences. And, as it was in an open guestbook, there were some morons too. I fear for the species sometimes.

This seems deeply wrong to me. Voice acting isn't simple. Animation isn't simple. We should have enough respect to mourn when someone who's brought a lot of joy into the lives of others dies tragically early.

Well, I mourned -- at least as much as I mourned any television and movie actress whose work I really liked. And I pass that on to you.

And if you like a cartoon, from The Powerpuff Girls to The Simpsons to South Park, get to know who the voice actors are. So, when one dies, you won't have to wonder why you feel badly.

It was almost exactly seven years ago I wrote that, but it still sticks with me. It's a lesson I learned then, and I've tried to live by it. I track the voice actors and actresses I like, and I treat them with the same significance I treat other actors. More, really, because these are people who have to endure hotshot 'stars' walking onto their turf and getting better billing for generally weaker performances. It was a happy day for me when Peter Cullen was given the gig for voicing Optimus Prime in the live action Transformers movie -- almost certainly the studios would have preferred the voice of Clint Eastwood or Bill Paxton or someone like that, in hopes of drawing in a crowd even if it meant a substantially weaker performance.

These things mean something to me. They should mean something, damn it.

And after all this time, Mary Kay Bergman still means something to me. Jesus -- Batgirl, Daphne Blake, Snow White and Sheila Brofloski? How could she not mean something to me. That's a huge part of our culture at the times she lived in.

And so I feel a kinship with her widower, who has continued since then to teach, to support voice acting, and most of all to keep the memory of his wife alive.

I've seen some people online say they didn't like Skull's voice -- basing that on the one minute we've seen, so far. And I can understand that. But the one thing I'm certain of is Dino Andrade knows voice acting. He knows how to build a character, make it expressive, and give it a soul. And if it continues to kindle the flame that Mary Kay Bergman sparked, I'm entirely behind that.

It's likely I would subscribe to PvP on the basis of Scott Kurtz and Kris Straub.

It's certain I'm going to subscribe if Dino Andrade is involved with it.

Besides, the little dinosaur 'grab-handle thing' Skull handed Brent the coffee with absolutely sealed the deal. "Gnram gnram!" indeed.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at November 27, 2006 5:55 PM

Comments

Comment from: Denyer [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 27, 2006 7:03 PM

almost certainly the studios would have preferred the voice of Clint Eastwood

And with Cullen, they've more-or-less got him! Ahem.

No, I'm really pleased too. Not quite so set on Welker for Megatron having heard a recent recording, but it'd be a nice further nod and I honestly don't know how much of the voice is post-processing...

Comment from: Egarwaen [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 27, 2006 7:24 PM

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Yes, I ruin a joke.

Stop reading this comment right here if you haven't watched the trailer and particularly care about being surprised.

Everyone in that category stopped? Good.

The panda attack hooked me. I'm subscribing. That has to be one of my favourite reoccurring gags, because every time it happens, it's executed so well. It gets a laugh out of me no matter how many times Kurtz pulls it off, because he's good enough to not overuse it and keeps it fresh. Plus, it's a PANDA ATTACK.

And Eric's right. Dino Andrade is absolutely perfect as the voice of Skull. I was kind of iffy when he opened his mouth, but I now can't see Skull talking any other way. That's a good sign. I'm kind of iffy about the cubicles. I like the office setup of PvP - it de-Dilbertizes it. But if anyone can pull it off, Kurtz can. And if Kurtz can't, it's just $20.00.

Comment from: ticknart [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 27, 2006 7:26 PM

My only problem with Skull's voice in the teaser is that it's nothing like the voice I've been hearing in my head for the past six years. The voice I've heard is Stephen Furst's.

I'm sure that after watching the 'toons, I'll get used to, and enjoy, Andrade's version of Skull, but it'll never be perfect, which comic strips turned into cartoons never really are.

Comment from: miyaa [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 27, 2006 8:10 PM

I think it really depends on who is actually doing the animation. Animation is a whole different beast than just drawing a webcomic. I'm willing to wait until the animation has had a couple months of archives and opinions bantered about before I'm willing to consider purchasing the animated version of PvP.

Comment from: Doug Wykstra [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 27, 2006 9:26 PM

The show looks (relatively) well animated, the voices are all obviously done by professionals, and the jokes are spot-on. And I'm a two-year sponsor for Red vs. Blue, so I'm comfortable with the idea of spending stuff online. There hasn't been a thing Kurtz or Straub has put out that I haven't liked.

But...

I don't think I want to put down 20 bucks on this. And yeah, it's Skull's voice (as well as the relatively steep cost of these 4-6 minute episodes). Francis and Brent were pretty close to what I'd imagined, not spot-on, because how could they be, but at about a Dilbert level of accuracy. But Skull's voice... I really thought about it today, and realized that I hear Skull with the voice of Brad Garrett. That probably explains why Andrade's voice (consummate professional though he is) was so off-putting. And now I read this snark that makes me feel bad about flinching when I firs heard Skull speak. Maybe if they release a DVD, I'll buy it then. I have a weakness for DVDs.

Comment from: Robotech_Master [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 27, 2006 9:43 PM

The thing that amuses me are some of the comments over on the Image forum suggesting that maybe people should take a vote as to whether Skull's voice should be changed.

Um...riiiiight. Like art is democratic.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 27, 2006 10:25 PM

And yeah, it's Skull's voice (as well as the relatively steep cost of these 4-6 minute episodes). Francis and Brent were pretty close to what I'd imagined, not spot-on, because how could they be, but at about a Dilbert level of accuracy. But Skull's voice... I really thought about it today, and realized that I hear Skull with the voice of Brad Garrett.

I can understand that, but at the same time I've listened to the Blamimation tracks Kurtz and Straub did, and Skull as done by Andrade is pretty darn close to Skull as done by Scott Kurtz himself. So I'd say that's close to how Kurtz heard it.

Now, despite what Paul G. said about me in the other comments thread (love you, Paul ;) ), I am in fact a good New Critic. You're free to 'hear' Skull however you might like. But, seems to me Kurtz is free to hear Skull however he might like too, and in the end he's going to select a Skull who sounds the way he hears him. I don't know as that should be the dealbreaker for the animation.

Comment from: Doug Wykstra [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 27, 2006 10:47 PM

Oh, I know, Kurtz has already stated on his site that Skull always had a high-pitched voice in his head. I can't imagine how weird it would be to think a character sounds a certain way for eight years, then hear everyone protest that no, in fact, that character sounds completely different. Kurtz can and should make Skull sound however he feels is consistent with the character. And to be fair, Skull's voice does seem to be consistent with his character (although just a tad screechy- but that will probably be worked out). I'm not buying it not only because of the cost, but because the length of the episodes and my enjoyment of the PvP comic strip isn't enough to warrant a $20-$30 purchase, at least not right now when I'm scrapping for tuition money. Economically, it just doesn't work out for me. Skull's voice is just icing on the cake. Not the best metaphor for the situation, but, well, yeah.

Comment from: Robotech_Master [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 28, 2006 12:08 AM

Oh wait, you know what's even funnier? The people who tell Scott that he's "lost a reader" for having the temerity to produce an animated PVP and charge money for it to recoup costs, after he criticized Ctrl-Alt-Delete for doing the same thing.

I mean, wow.

Comment from: Robotech_Master [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 28, 2006 2:24 AM

Oh, right, one more funny thing. The people who claim Kurtz is charging too much, and who support this argument by comparing the dollars-per-minute of PVP to dollars-per-minute of a movie DVD. As if quality of a show can be judged on a basis of how much money you pay per minute!

(And even if it could, $20 to $30 in 2006 dollars for an hour of PVP is damned cheap compared to what animé fans paid for their shows back in the pre-DVD days of the early '90s.)

Comment from: miyaa [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 28, 2006 2:26 AM

Well, it took Image and the animation company proposing this four times to convince Kurtz that this was a really good idea, so the people criticism of Kurtz's changed opinion (or being a hypocrite, I suppose) holds no water with me. And really, everyone should have the right to change their opinion even if writing an opinion makes it seem like it's written in stone.

I do wonder though more about animation as being a good business decision for highly successful webcomics? (Ditto also for Penny Arcade: The Video Game.)

Comment from: Mr Myth [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 28, 2006 9:17 AM

The thing that bugs me about the subscription model is that it is all or nothing - you can't buy episode to episode or the whole year, you can only go all or nothing.

Which might not make any difference in the long run, but I'd definitely prefer to test the waters first. I think it's going to be quite the challenge translating the comic strip humor into a genuine animated series - it really is a different medium. The sample had some serious potential - some of the banter, the dino-claw toy was genius, the panda was a nice touch.

But I also felt that the rhythm was a bit... off. A bit too used to transitioning between panels, rather than continual motion. I think they've got the talent to produde a smooth finished work in the long run - but I'd like to be able to see that develop, rather than have to buy the full load up front.

But yes, I was damn impressed when Kurtz commented on who they had doing the voice of Skull. Now, the voice itself doesn't really work for me, mind you - but in the end, that's my problem, not theirs.

Comment from: Dragonmuncher [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 28, 2006 9:52 AM

Voice of Skull was definitely odd to me, but I could get used to it.

I see what you mean, Mr Myth, about the pacing. It'll probably get better as they do it more.


The thing that does bug me though, is that... well, I mean... that whole Ctrl-Alt-Del thing. When Buckley announced that, Kris Straub did a giant splash panel making fun of it, and the Blaminations were obviously created at first to poke fun at the concept. Did Kurtz do a rant about it? I don't remember- possibly not.

Still, the flip-flop does seem odd to me. Eh, whatever. Guy can change his mind if he wants.

Plus, I really like Ryan Sohmer, and LICD in particular. So maybe I will sign up...


PS Good to see you posting again, Eric.

Comment from: Pooga [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 28, 2006 1:06 PM

Jumping from the PvP series discussion into a bit of a voice-acting geek sidestep here...

You make mention of Mary Kay Bergman in a couple places as the voice of Batgirl. I know IMDB has been going through some revisions as they attempt to include complete episode-by-episode cast/crew for their television entries (for example, I could be wrong but I vaguely recall William Daniels, Ed Begley Jr & Howie Mandel being in slightly more than 6 episodes each of St. Elsewhere during it's 6 or 7 years), but they only list Ms. Bergman as playing Batgirl in the SubZero movie. The voice-actress I've always mentally associated with Batgirl is Tara Strong nee Charandoff.

This isn't meant to diminish Mary Kay Bergman's importance in voice acting circles. It's just that the Dini/Timm Batman series and Animaniacs were the shows that really got me interested in learning who were the voices behind the pretty moving pictures, so that series is one I'm a bit more familiar with than others.

Those series are also why if I ever created an animated series, I'd want Andrea Romano for voice casting/direction. I don't think I've ever seen a series where she was listed for voice casting where the voice-acting wasn't exactly right for show.

Comment from: Zeekar [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 28, 2006 1:36 PM

I was about to post the same thing. Bergman's death was a tragic loss, no matter how you slice it, but we still have the voice I most associate with Batgirl. Not to mention Raven of the animated "Teen Titans", Toot on "Drawn Together", Luthor's henchperson Mercy, Bubbles of the Powerpuff Girls, Bebe Proud, Timmy Turner of "The Fairly Oddparents". Those are just the ones I know without looking. A quick perusal of IMDb reveals Tara Strong was also the voice of Katma Tui in the "Green Loontern" episode of Duck Dodgers and the voice of the Scarlet Witch when she showed up on an episode of the "X-Men" cartoon.

What amazes me about voice actors in general is their prolificity. They do such a wide array of voices on such a wide array of shows, it boggles the mind. It's one thing to look at the myriad of voices, say, Hank Azaria does on "The Simpsons" and think "that's all the same guy?!", but then to look at all the different voices one actor does across so many different shows... it's mind-boggling.

Comment from: Shaenon [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 28, 2006 2:14 PM

Kurtz has never been one of the guys strongly opposed to the pay-for model. He was on Modern Tales at launch and ended up leaving for personal and time-commitment reasons, not because of the subscription model itself. Most of his snarks at pay-for-content webcomics over the years have had to do with problems he had with the specific services and/or the people behind them. So I don't see this as particularly hypocritical.

Twenty bucks seems a little on the pricey side, but I bet he can get it, and more power to him.

Comment from: HydrogenGuy [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 28, 2006 2:43 PM

Eric, thank you for writing this.

The way that Hollywood studios shoe-horn 'name actors' into animation is a huge pet peeve of mine - particularly Disney on their Studio Ghibli dubs. That's not to say the acting hasn't been perfectly fine, most of the time (I have enormous affection for Cary Elwes because of the Princess Bride, but he is not a very good voice actor in my opinion), but acting that was just as good or better could have been obtained by using professional voice actors for probably much less money.

Look, Disney dudes, you know those "beloved animated classics" like Snow White and Cinderella and so on that you've been pimping the hell out of these last fifty years? Do you think anyone but the dedicated Disney fan can name any of the people who did the voices for those? Or how about The Little Mermaid, the movie that pulled your patooties out of the slow-burning fire of irrelevance? Its biggest name was Buddy Hackett.

And Disney's a small-time offender next to DreamWorks. I still have nightmares about "Shark Tales".

Right. Sorry for ranting. I just wanted to express an enthusiastic 'hear hear'.

Comment from: Freeptop [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 28, 2006 2:53 PM

"Oh, right, one more funny thing. The people who claim Kurtz is charging too much, and who support this argument by comparing the dollars-per-minute of PVP to dollars-per-minute of a movie DVD. As if quality of a show can be judged on a basis of how much money you pay per minute!

(And even if it could, $20 to $30 in 2006 dollars for an hour of PVP is damned cheap compared to what animé fans paid for their shows back in the pre-DVD days of the early '90s.)"

That's all well and good, but if $20 feels too expensive to someone for, at best, 72 minutes of animation, that's their right to feel that's "too much" for them, regardless of how much anime fans paid for back in the early '90s.

Myself, I didn't buy anime in the early '90s, and I didn't even buy many movies of any kind on VHS, either. I enjoyed movies, but they simply weren't worth it to me. DVDs made the price worth it, for me.

The same is true here: while some people may have no problem with it, I find that I can't justify, to myself, paying $20 for 72 minutes of PvP. If the price were lower, I might go for it. That's just simple supply and demand economics, though. I wish Scott Kurtz and everyone the best of luck in this venture. I hope for their sakes that they will find they don't miss my $20 because they'll have plenty of other buyers. But unless they lower the price, I'm afraid it will be without my $20.

Of course, if they want to put out about two hours of material on a DVD for $20, then I'll be interested :)

Comment from: Mr Myth [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 28, 2006 3:50 PM

I do have to go on record to say that... yes, I do think the length of a feature is a valid factor to consider in the price. The price for this content puts it worse off than going out to the movies, and that has always felt like I'm being ripped off.

Is the length connected to the quality? Well, no - but I'm not likely to buy bad quality anything. We aren't discussing spending $20 (much less $30) on 6 hours of bad content vs 1 hour of good content - we're talking about spending it on either 6 hours or 1 hour of equally good material.

That said, I don't have any actual problems with Kurtz putting this price tag on it - animation is pricy, and he needs to pay the costs, and probably can't easily judge how many people will be interested. I am confident he can't afford to give this away for free, and only if his numbers turn out really well would it become reasonable to drop the cost.

But I am equally confident the price will put some people off, and I certainly can't fault them for that.

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 28, 2006 6:21 PM

Personally, I usually don't hear a voice for a character when I read something. Is that odd to people? On the bright side, it keeps me from rejecting a video adaption of something I like because of a voice actor.

I do think I see one problem people might have with Skull's voice. Despite the fact that Dino isn't responsible for the character I'm thinking of, I keep expecting Skull to suddenly go, "So, did you get that thing I sencha?"

Myself, I won't end up buying it because I wasn't *that* entertained by the clip shown - I'd expect something funnier for my money. Maybe I'll come to it later on, but for now, I can go without.

Comment from: Tyler Martin [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 28, 2006 8:20 PM

Skull's voice caught me off guard when Scott first did it in the Blamabomination. But then I saw how it fit. And Frances sported a similar voice back in 2000 if any of you remember:

http://www.cwturner.com/flash_PvP.html

I don't think the cost per minute is bad, but I think the idea of 4 minute episodes totally kills the quality of those minutes. That preview was over a minute itself.

Seems like the energy would be better spent on two well-done 24 minute episodes with some more involved content, or even an hour-long special which are then sold on DVD (the webisodes could string together to maintain the current upfront fee structure and online distribution).

Comment from: Scarybug [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 28, 2006 8:48 PM

I don't follow PVP, but I really liked the teaser trailer. Since Straub is involved I'll seriously consider subscribing. I have no problem paying for something that ends up beeing the livelihood of actual in-house animators and voice actors. You can make cheap-as-free blamimations as a one or two person team, but to get the quality of the trailer (I understand that the swf version is probably higher quality than the flv, which looks like it dropped some quick mouth frames) you need a team who deserved to be nicely compensated.

Comment from: Robert Hutchinson [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 29, 2006 7:03 AM

I would be 100% onboard with this--enjoying the animation and acting, paying the money, not worrying about it being hypocritical or unwise--if only I liked PVP. I am a selfish bastard who wants Kris Straub writing and producing Starslip Crisis: TAS.

Comment from: Aerin [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 29, 2006 12:54 PM

I didn't know Bergman's name, but now I miss her actively. The current Snow White voice match is atrocious.

And it's entirely possible that, while working on the satirical Blamimations, Kurtz and Straub discovered that they liked animation, and saw its potential as a medium. That's not really hypocrisy.

Comment from: UrsulaV [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 30, 2006 9:09 AM

I have lately come to appreciate voice acting in video games with a new passion. I think it was playing Neverwinter Nights 2, where they had some really quite good voice actors for some of the NPCs. Eventually I realized that I was lugging at least one character around, not because he was good with a fireball but because the voice just killed me.

So the next few games I've played since, I have made a point not to merely read the subtitle at high speed on the cutscenes and then click through. At least, not the first time.

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