Pixarticulation: Vocal per Formance in Pixar Animation

By Montgomery, Colleen | Music, Sound and the Moving Image, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Pixarticulation: Vocal per Formance in Pixar Animation


Montgomery, Colleen, Music, Sound and the Moving Image


Although academic study of animation has steadily increased over the course of the last decade, as Rebecca Coyle observes, 'animation literature tends to concentrate on visual aesthetics and style while marginalizing the form's reliance on dialogue and/or sound effects and sound design' (2010, p.8). By the same token, inasmuch as animation studies specifically, and media studies more generally, has long been dominated by image-based analyses, the study of film sound has generally privileged examinations of film music. In his foundational book, The Voice in Cinema, Michel Chion succinctly points out the irony of this critical bias, asking: 'by what incomprehensible thoughtlessness can we, in considering what is after all called the talking picture, "forget" the voice?' (1999, p.1). While the recent 'sonic turn' in media studies has yielded a wide, interdisciplinary range of valuable new sound studies research, the voice and vocal performance in film remain under-examined areas, particularly in comparison to the broad corpus of research on film music.

Moreover, much of the extant work on the voice in cinema, including Chion's, approaches the subject from a psychoanalytic perspective (see also Doane, 1980; Dolar, 2006; Silverman, 1988; Sjøgren, 2006). These studies are, no doubt, invaluable contributions to the fields of film and sound studies for, as Mladen Dolar argues, the voice is 'the intimate kernel of subjectivity' (2006, p.14). However, understanding how the voice functions not only as a formal property of the filmic text, but also within a broader system of texts surrounding a film, is equally important to parsing the relationship between voice and image in cinema. This study thus aims not only to address these critical lacunae in animation studies and sounds studies, but also to contribute to the growing body of sonically oriented media industries research, which has yielded several important studies of the music industry, film music, and recording technologies, but has been much less attentive to the voice (for example, see Forman, 2012; Goodman, 2010; Spring, 2013; Wikström, 2010; Wurtzler, 2008).

Pixar Animation provides a germane case study for such an industry analysis of vocal performance in animation for two key reasons. First, from an historical perspective, in the mid-1990s Pixar became one of the first major contemporary animation studios to routinely cast star vocal performers in all of its feature films - a practice no doubt informed by its parent company, Disney, turning to star vocal casting in the early '90s (for films such as Beauty and the Beast [Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, 1991], Aladdin [Ron Clements and John Musker, 1992], and The Lion King [Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, 1994]). This voice casting strategy, as I argue, has not only significantly contributed to Pixar's sustained critical and commercial success but has since been widely adopted by most major animation studios such as DreamWorks SKG, Blue Sky Studios, and Illumination Entertainment. Pixar has thus played a significant role in reconfiguring the (increasingly important) role that vocal casting and vocal performance play in the production of animated features. Second, from an industry perspective, as a division of the largest, most synergised multinational media conglomerate, Pixar provides rich terrain for mapping how animated voices are constructed, marketed, and monetised within and across its range of media products. Pixar's vocal performances not only perform crucial narrative functions, but also figure centrally in both the studio's promotional paratexts and the synergistic, multimedia network of consumer products spawned by its films. A close analysis of Pixar's vocal performances allows us to parse both the narrative dimensions of the voice in animation as well as the broader meaning-making functions the voice serves in Pixar's range of texts and paratexts.

This article's central objective is thus to consider, from a media industries perspective, the functions that the voice - and, particularly, star vocal performance - performs in constructing Pixar's texts and paratexts, and the ways in which it is operationalised in the studio's marketing practices. …

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