Lisa Biggs demonstrates voice versatility in Shakespeare sonnet exercise
Lisa Biggs is a 36-year-old woman with an asymmetrical haircut; when she takes her shoes off, you can see the tattoos on her feet. But the voice that comes out of her mouth sounds like an 8-year-old girl: high-pitched and squeaky, with the vocal timbre of a grade-schooler asking for an extra carton of chocolate milk. Biggs spent years trying to disguise that voice, but these days it pays her rent: she makes her living as a professional voiceover artist.
Standing in bare feet in the Concentrix Music studio in the Cotswold area of Charlotte, wearing jeans and a gray V-neck sweater, Biggs is recording dialogue for the cartoon “Becca’s Bunch,” slated to debut on Nickelodeon this fall. Biggs plays six of the seven children in a rabbit family, plus the mom, Lola Bunny. A producer of the show is listening to her from Ireland via an Internet line, giving Biggs feedback and explaining where her dialogue fits into the plot.
Every time Biggs reads a line, she performs it three times, offering minor variations so the producers have options to choose from. “Where is that float?”: bubbly but confused. “Where is that float?”: even more enthusiastic. “Where is that float?”: slightly breathless. Then the producer asks Biggs to be “more projective,” so she does it three more times.
As she records a sustained peal of laughter that begins as giggles but builds to a crescendo of hysterical yelps, Biggs gestures with her left hand, like she’s the conductor of her own voice. Then she grins and asks her long-distance producer, “Do you need more? I’m in it to win it.”
To play the rabbit children, Biggs uses a minor variation on her usual high-pitched speaking voice, but for the older Lola Bunny, she shifts her timbre into something huskier. “I love this voice,” she declares between takes. “I’m going to talk like this for the rest of the day. Isn’t it soothing? I’ll come and read you some poetry later.”
So what separates a professional voice artist from a civilian who sounds mellifluous on the phone?
You may already have heard her
Biggs has been the voice of everything from fuzzy toys (many, including Hasbro’s Furreal Friends) to victims of videogame zombies (a trailer for the game The Dying Light). She’s played Charlie Brown in a Peanuts iPhone app and the Care Bear Wonderheart in American Greetings commercials. In recent years, she’s branched out to directing kids (most recently, a series of Toys R Us radio ads) and founding Voxy Ladies, a professional association for voiceover women (Biggs says she sold it last year so she could focus on her own career). She’s hoping to expand into the “radio imaging” business, where she gives radio stations their identity by recording their promo spots. Biggs says, “In the inner circle of working professional voice talent, you’ve got some guys that make five, six million dollars a year or more.” Members of that elite club include the top movie-trailer voices and the cast of “The Simpsons.”
“And then you have people like me: I live in Charlotte, I drive a Volkswagen.”
Voice acting is like any other form of acting, Biggs says: “There’s an ‘it’ factor. Some people are naturally good at it. I’m not saying that to dash anybody’s hopes – if you want it bad enough and yield to the training, everyone has the capacity to manufacture ‘it.’ ”
“It” didn’t seem like a blessing for Biggs when she was growing up in Lancaster, South Carolina, daughter of a fireman and a preschool teacher.
She tried to hide it
Other kids called her names – “Squeaky, Smurfette, Beaker, Minnie Mouse” – and accused her of speaking in a high-pitched voice just for attention. She stopped speaking in class: “I made OK grades, but I bet if I actually participated I would have had a better GPA,” she says. When she had to give an oral presentation in a high-school biology class, she thought she could disguise her voice by adopting a strong Southern accent – a huge mistake, since she not only didn’t fool anybody, she confirmed the suspicions of classmates who thought she was faking.
“I tried to mimic other people and the way that they talked, mostly their cadence. I had to think about tempo and volume and pitch,” Biggs remembers. She wanted to be a marine biologist, but unwittingly, she was training for a voiceover career.
When Biggs was an undergraduate at Lee University, people would occasionally tell her that she should look into voiceover work, which she resisted, thinking it as likely a career choice as becoming an astronaut. But when she saw a brochure for an acting school in New York that included a class on voice work, she enrolled for the summer session. She learned a lot, but she also found that even in acting school, her voice provoked hostility. One teacher told her: “You need to quit this little-girl-voice act before you’re 30. Nobody buys it.” Another informed her that she spoke like that because she had been molested as a child and her voice had frozen at that age.
Nevertheless, after college graduation she headed to Los Angeles to try her luck at voice acting.
Then she found the ‘dude’
She got her SAG card and some tattoos – “because that’s what you do,” she jokes – and even had a supporting role on one episode of “The Simpsons” (playing a boy Lisa Simpson had a crush on). But she wasn’t making a living from her voice. And when she tried networking with an older voiceover actor at a convention, she says, he just leered at her and said “Can you call me Daddy?”
Biggs returned to Charlotte in 2006, planning to go to graduate school or enter a youth ministry. But her return coincided with a shift in the voiceover world: The industry had decentralized, and the Internet had made it possible to do sessions in cities other than L.A. Biggs hired a manager and gradually built up her career.
Biggs developed a range of voices, from a teenage girl to a sassy old lady. Her second-most popular voice is a little girl, but the voice she gets hired to do most often is a young boy. She started off trying to do a gravelly boy voice, like Milhouse on “The Simpsons,” but quickly found that it hurt her throat too much. Instead, she tapped into a character she calls “Liam”: a swaggering skateboard kid in the mode of 1990s preteen idol Jonathan Taylor Thomas.
“It starts with posture and body language,” Biggs explains. “When I’m in the booth and I’m Liam, I’m doing what I see my nephew do at his wrestling matches. He cannot stand still because he’s got all this energy. If you look at the sound waves, the boy voice is louder: I’m pushing more air out.”
The line that helps Biggs get into the headspace of Liam: “See ya later, dude.” She says that mantra and snaps into character: “Cool, game on, what do you need?” Producers know that if Biggs is slipping out of Liam mode – maybe after an audiobook session has gone on for hours and she’s exhausted – all they need to say to snap her back into it is “See ya later, dude.”
“The question of the distinct voice versus the character actor is really interesting,” says Phil LaMarr, a top-tier voice actor whose credits include Hermes on “Futurama” and the title role in “Samurai Jack.” “Ultimately, acting is the key, not the voice. From what I’ve seen of Lisa, she’s got that ability to modulate—you hear that distinction between her boy voice and her girl voice, even though it’s her. To me, that’s talent.”
Biggs had a pleasant surprise at the Concentrix Music studio: The “Becca’s Bunch” producers wanted Lola Bunny to rap a song. “This is the closest I’ll ever come to being a pop star,” she squealed. “I’ll just savor the moment.” Told that the track sounded like J.J. Fad’s “Supersonic,” Biggs rapped the 1988 single from memory.
Before she laid down her vocals, Biggs said she needed to take care of one thing: To get in the right frame of mind, she needed a cool rapper name. Her producer suggested “Biggie Smalls,” but she rejected that handle as property of the Notorious B.I.G. Then her face lit up and she shouted out two words that summed up her career: “Squeaky Tones!”