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Matinee Blog

A History of Voice Over: 1900 – 2015

Can you believe it’s a staggering 109 years since what is regarded as the first ever voice over was recorded? Whilst many wrongly assume that Walt Disney was the first voice actor, voicing Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie in 1928, it was actually Reginald Fessenden, 22 years earlier in 1906 who held this achievement to his name.

Reginald Fessenden

On Christmas Eve 1906, Fessenden became radio’s first ever voice, although six years earlier, he had successfully reported on the weather during a test whilst working for the United States Weather Bureau.

The Christmas 1906 broadcast made history; it was made from Fessenden’s makeshift studio in Brant Rock, Boston. Whilst the majority of the broadcast, made to ships at sea, were Christmas messages and music; perhaps the most important section was a short speech by Fessenden, the first of its kind.

Walt Disney

As previously mentioned, many assume that Walt Disney was the first voice actor and whilst this isn’t the case, there’s no doubting that he was perhaps the first known to the wider public, voicing Mickey Mouse. This marked the first time Mickey came to life with a synchronised voice and became the start of a number of early cartoons, with Looney Toons following a year later.

Mel Blanc

Following the success of Steamboat Willie, Warner Bros. and Leon Schlesinger Productions premiered Looney Toons, with one of the most prominent voice actors involved over the coming years – Mel Blanc. A former radio personality, Mel first joined Leon Schlesinger Productions in 1936 and earned himself the title, “The Man of a Thousand Voices,” one which, to this day, he is still referred to by.

Voicing some of history’s most famous cartoon characters, including Bugs Bunny, Tweety Pie, Porky Pig and other Warner Bros. classics, Mel is accepted by many as the first outstanding voice actor who set the bar at an incredibly high level for others to follow in his footsteps over the forthcoming years.

Prior to Mel’s involvement with Leon Schlesinger Productions, voice artists were given no on-screen credit for their work; something which changed when the company refused to award him a pay rise. As a compromise, Blanc requested that his name be added to the credits. This, as you’d expect, did wonders for his career and quickly earned him a wealth of recognition and a stream of future work. The question we must ask is, at what stage would voice artists have been credited had Mel not asked for, and been turned down, that pay rise?

Don LaFontaine

By the 1960s, an increasing number of cartoons and animations were being produced by the world’s leading production companies which, of course, led for an increased demand for talented voices, not only for use in movies to voice characters but also for trailers, promos and adverts. It is this period which is regarded by many as the time when the voice over industry really started to take off and the number of voice artists employed really started to grow.

Don LaFontaine, over the course of his career, has voiced hundreds of thousands of commercials, recording his first in 1962, which was used for a movie trailer. It is believed that he was paid just $82 for his work on the project. It was LaFontaine’s work in this field that is thought to have changed how trailers and promos were not only voiced but how they were written; quickly becoming a very powerful tool for film producers.

LaFontaine more recently, prior to his passing in 2008, voiced some of the film industry’s most notable trailers, with recent credits including Family Guy Presents Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story (2005), Santa vs. the Snowman 3D (2002), and Fillmore! (2002).

Screen Actors Voicing Animated Characters

Fast forward to the present day and we now find that there’s often a very fine line between a big screen actor and a voice actor and, whilst there was once a clear divide, recent years have seen some of Hollywood’s most known names voicing animated characters in both film and TV. We recently put together an infographic which looked at The Voices Behind The Characters, showcasing just how many of our favourite animated movie stars are voiced by known stars.