Jason Henkel, Skydance SVP of Casting and Talent Relations, Talks Finding the Right Voice for Animated Films

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Jason Henkel came to Los Angeles in 1993 to pursue an acting career, before he pivoted to working in animation production. But his experiences as a performer helped show him the kind of casting director he didn’t want to be. “I didn’t want to go into a field where I secretly felt, ‘I could do this better,’” he says. “And from the moment I became involved with voiceover, watching these amazing actors who were so great at manipulating their voices, I knew I could never do what they do.”

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Henkel began his career as the assistant to the SVP of Music of DisneyToon before moving to casting in 2008, where he worked on the animated “Tinker Bell” movie with John Lasseter, who was then-COO of DisneyToon, Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. Henkel served as head of casting for DisneyToon Studios, where he was twice nominated for the Casting Society of America (CSA) Award for “Planes” and “Tinker Bell and the Neverbeast.” After 18 years with Disney, Henkel followed Lasseter to Skydance Animation in 2019, where he currently serves as SVP, Casting & Talent Relations where he oversees casting and recording for all Skydance animated features and television series.

Though animation takes years to complete, Henkel has already seen massive growth in his time at Skydance. He estimates Skydance had between 50 and 75 employees when he started, and now that number totals over 1,000. Upcoming projects include the musical “Spellbound,” with songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, “Pookoo” from “Tangled” director Nathan Greno and the Apple TV+ animated series “WondLa.” There are also projects in the works from acclaimed directors like Brad Bird (“The Incredibles”) and Rich Moore (“Zootopia”) in the works.

When people say they want to get into voice acting, where do you point them?
There are classes that are specific for voiceover where you’re in a recording booth. One of the first classes I took when I was interested in this field was Bob Bergen’s voiceover class. Bob is a great voice actor, and he taught a class in a recording studio where you could get comfortable behind the mic so that when you go into a voiceover audition, you don’t look like an amateur. People who have never done this before don’t know certain things – like, you don’t touch the mic. It’s a dead giveaway that somebody is new to this if they walk in and start adjusting the mic. And that’s fine, but there are engineers who do that, and you can learn things like that in classes.

There are also coaches who offer one-on-one training and all kinds of classes for everything from commercials to animation. Another benefit of these classes is you meet other actors who are pursuing a career in voiceover. So, you can form workout groups or someone might recommend you to their agent. This isn’t as common on the on-camera side but for some reason, people in voiceover are very quick to help each other out with references and referrals.

One piece of advice I remember Bob gave me was to tell his students not to take a class that says at the end of the class, you’re going to have a demo. There are companies that make demos and it’s a separate thing from a class about mic technique and the audition process.

I’m sure you have a Rolodex in your brain of great actors, but traditionally how are things cast for animation?
We sort of cast in two ways. One is we have auditions for roles. We send a breakdown out to agents that we deal directly with – it’s kept small. You know, animation is slow and a lot of this has to be kept confidential. So, you’re going to a group you really trust. They send their client the audition material and it comes back to us. You could end up listening to 30-40 auditions or you could listen to 200, it really depends on how wide you’re going.

The other way we cast is pulling audio reference of other projects actors have done. We cobble that together and create an audition. John Lasseter calls it “non-sequitur theater” because you’re putting these random clips together and they don’t necessarily make sense. You want to find the most current material because if you hire that actor, you want their voice to sound the same.

How has the pandemic changed the way you audition?
The whole process has changed. Previously, we had an in-house recording studio so when we had callbacks, sometimes people could come to the studio, and I could voice direct them. In some ways, things are more convenient now because actors don’t have to be in the city or drive all the way to a studio. But if that person had come in and auditioned in person, I could give them immediate direction or add some context to a scene – you can adjust something right there on the spot. So that’s been a challenge.

I imagine you always have your ear open, looking for talent. Where are some of the places you’ve found actors?
I go to theater a lot; I watch a lot of film and television. In my department, between all of us, we watch so many shows. I’ve seen people at voice classes – there was someone I saw who I thought was amazing and I told an agent about him and they’ve been working together.

Have you ever overheard someone and stopped them to ask if they did voiceover?
There are definitely people you overhear and you think they might be great – like maybe their voice is a little cartoony. But the real question is: are they a good actor? Because just having a funny or cool-sounding voice isn’t enough. There’s a misconception that voice acting is not real acting. But it is; you have to be a great actor. You need skill and talent. It’s not just something you can do for 10 minutes in an audition; you have to sustain yourself for hours in a session.

Something I appreciate about the films you’ve worked on is you often have recognizable names in the cast, but they’re also the right actors for the roles. I’m thinking of people like John Ratzenberger, who you’ve worked with a lot.
I love when people recognize John. We went to the “Luck” premiere and the entire audience had a reaction when they heard his voice. And he is just the sweetest man.

But there are also actors I’m not familiar with in leading roles. Do you have to strike a balance in casting? Does having a name help?
It definitely can help with the marketing and publicity when you have bigger names but at the end of the day, the actor has to be right for the role. When we’re making decisions on this stuff and playing voices for John [Lasseter], he doesn’t even want to see who the actors are. We’re just playing the audio with the picture cut together. Sometimes he’ll choose someone and be surprised when I tell him who it is – and that this person auditioned. It’s fun to have a mix in there but it ultimately has to be about the actor, not the name.

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