What is the History of Voice Over?

April 9th, 2012

It is commonly believed that the first voiceover was from Walt Disney, as Mickey Mouse in “Steamboat Willie.” And although this was a long time ago, in 1928, in actual fact the first voice over was in 1900!  This historical achievement belongs to Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian inventor. He was thrilled with Alexander Graham Bell’s new device, the telephone, and set out to create a way to remotely communicate without wires. The beginning of “Wireless!” In 1900, working for the United States Weather Bureau, Fessenden recorded the very first voice over: a test he made reporting the weather.

He was also the first voice of radio. In Boston, in 1906, during the Christmas season, he recorded an entire program of music, Bible texts, and Christmas messages to ships out at sea.

As voice over became more routine in radio, cartoon, etc., the actors behind those voices were rarely known by the public. Exceptions are Walt Disney, of course, and perhaps Mel Blanc, a radio personality and comedian. He became known as “The Man of 1000 Voices” for his versatility, and is the voice on many cartoons distributed by Warner Brothers. One of the most influential and prolific voice over actors of all time is certainly not commonly known by the public, but very well known in the industry. This is Don LaFontaine, who began in voice over in 1962, recording VO for a movie trailer. He became the vice of movie trailers, setting the standard for how they were written and voiced.

As voice over acting grew into a formidable business, it still, however, was very “behind-the-scenes.” Literally and figuratively! Actors filled their spare time with voice over work – it was what they did “between jobs.” But voice over really came out into the light, and became more than respectable, with the onset of digitally animated films of recent years. Celebrities began providing the voices for characters in huge box-office successes such as The Lion King, with Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons and James Earl Jones, Shrek with Eddie Murphy, The Narnia series with Liam Neeson, and there are hundreds of other examples! (Click here for a list of great voiceover performances.)   The public is now used to big actor names in animated films – it is a powerful marketing strategy for the production companies of these films.

And well-known actors love it! Nancy Griffin said it well in her NY Times article from 2003 , “Film/Television; When A-List Actors Are Happy to Hide Their Faces.” She wrote, “No hair and make-up necessary, not a personal trainer in sight and a four-hour work day: these are just a few of the enticements luring A-list actors, including Jim Carrey, Will Smith and Robin Williams, to headline animated features.”

These celebrities have really brought voice over into its heyday. It is regarded with great interest by aspiring actors, and it seems millions of young people want to find their way into the field. It provides rewarding and challenging careers to actors of all sizes, shapes, personalities, and skills. And it is enormous fun!