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When A-List Actors Are Happy to Hide Their Faces

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Brad Pitt recording dialogue for "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas." Animators came to refer to the title character as Sinbrad.

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.Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas

.Arts & Leisure (July 6, 2003)


Scenes from 'Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas'
Video: Scenes from 'Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas'


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Catherine Zeta-Jones in the studio for "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas."

(Page 2 of 2)

Today's animated characters are often built around the stars' personalities. While in the past an actor would come in late in the process and read from a finished script, today's voices are often cast when the character exists only as a few sketches. Working from those visual cues and a preliminary script, the actor records a voice-over, often ad-libbing lines. The animators and writers watch and listen, then begin to flesh out the character, inspired by the star's body language and speech patterns. The final result is a fictional creation imbued with the essence of the star. The screenwriter John Logan ("Gladiator") incorporated what the filmmakers call Brad-isms into Sinbad's dialogue: "You catch that last move? Pretty cool, huh?" Ms. Zeta-Jones said that she recognized herself in Marina's quirks: "I have this very annoying habit of putting my hands on my hips and shaking my head a lot when I get feisty."

The filmmakers' conception of Eris was sketchy when Ms. Pfeiffer showed up for work. She struggled to find the appropriate voice as the writers experimented with dialogue; everyone wanted a mischievous and seductive goddess rather than a stock villainess. Ms. Pfeiffer felt vulnerable, all alone in the recording booth. "At one point I tried to get Jeffrey to fire me," she says. He didn't, and she serendipitously discovered the key to her character one day when she flung her pashmina shawl dramatically about her shoulders as she spoke her lines, a physical expression that helped her lock in Eris's voice.

It is the cartoon comedies that have benefited most from the stars' participation. The $270 million gross of "Shrek" is unimaginable without the improvisational brilliance of Mr. Myers's ogre and Mr. Murphy's Donkey. Mr. Myers recorded Shrek twice, first in his own voice and then with a Scottish accent. "Once I saw the whole picture, I saw I needed to dig even deeper," he says. "And in having Shrek be Scottish, I was able to tap into a certain energy." When his mother, who is from Liverpool, read him books like "Babar" or "Curious George" she often gave British dialects to the characters. "It was a happy memory of my childhood," he said, "and in Scottish I was able to connect to that."

When Mr. Myers begged to be allowed to redo Shrek's voice, Mr. Katzenberg and his partner Steven Spielberg agreed, although the decision required the ogre to be reanimated from scratch. "That incident cost us about $5 million," said Mr. Katzenberg. "But it's Mike's total creation, and honestly, it made the movie so much better."

In case anyone is feeling sorry for the underpaid stars, they do collect generous bonuses if an animated movie is a hit — and they have the opportunity of a major payday on a sequel. When "Shrek" was a smash, Mr. Katzenberg pre-emptively ponied up $10 million apiece to land Mr. Myers, Mr. Murphy and Ms. Diaz for the next installment.

It remains to be seen if Sinbad's actors will be so lucky, but remuneration is not what it's about. Over and over, the stars who provide voices for animated films say they are motivated by wanting to do something for their children, something that stands a chance of being timeless.

"I thought it would be great to take my son to see what I do for a living," said Ms. Zeta-Jones of Dylan Douglas, who will turn 3 in August. "There aren't many films his father and I can do that with. We won't be taking him to see `Traffic' any time soon."  

Nancy Griffin wrote "Hit and Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood" with Kim Masters.

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