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Welker also favors a more realistic approach rather than a highly stylized, overly artificial performance.“Sometimes the project requires a dog who has a lot of personality that isn’t obvious on the screen. That is one of the more difficult things to do, trying to stretch it but keep it believable. I remember when I did the horror film Cujo—you had one of the most lovable creatures on the planet, a Saint Bernard. And it was supposed to be a rabid killing machine. I looked at this dog’s sweet face and thought No way ... but with good makeup (foaming jowls) and some of my most vicious growling and barking (I’m getting a sore throat now just thinking about it) and a mix of real dog sounds and some very good camera work, they did indeed create a classic horror flick. I leave it to the audience to judge if it worked, but I will tell you that I won’t watch it just before bedtime.”

Hound Sounds

Truly becoming the dog is key to the performance. The human self has to be stashed for the moment and the canine character fully assumed. “I picture myself as a dog, literally get into a stance, but stay on two feet, and prance around in front of the microphone as the dog, and then bark as if I were talking with that dog’s point of view,” says actor Barb Heller.When asked to play a Poodle,Heller modified her woof. “I had to come up with a higher pitched, feminine and spoiled bark. If I were doing a Terrier, I might have been a bit smaller and gruffer,with a bit of a squeak.”

For Heller to summon a particular “hound”sound, attitude is essential.“Figuring out what pitch and what type of ‘attitude’ s/he has” is part of the challenge of creating realistic dog f/x, according to Heller. “For all animals, this is the most challenging part in speaking as them.We only have their animal sounds and sighs or breathing patterns to work with.”

And while actors look to the fictional Fido they’re voicing to inform their performance, it’s no surprise that a real-life buddy is often the inspiration. Before one audition,Heller observed a pal’s pooch.“My friend Erin has a super cute Toy Poodle, and although he was smaller and more masculine than the older female Poodle I was playing, he had the right stuck-up, no-nonsense style. I started with his walk and high-pitched bark and went from there.”

Frank Welker lived with his furry muse for well over a decade. “I had a wonderful German Shepherd I loved dearly,” remembers Welker. “She lived with and tolerated me for 14 years, and I still dream and think of her often. She was a great friend and companion. I know she taught me a lot more dog than I taught her English—but then, there were days when I swore I heard her say, perfectly clear, ‘Uh, you’re not really going to wear that shirt with those pants, are you?’”

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 49: Jul/Aug 2008
Alysia Gray Painter author of Howl and McSweeney's More Mirth of a Nation contributor, and The Bark's Southern California correspondentówas nominated for an Emmy.

Illustration: Brian Biggs

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