Monday, April 16, 2007

Recognize This Face? You May Not Have Seen Him Much But His Voice Has Made You Watch Something!

When I started at CBS over 15 years ago, I had the opportunity to work finishing CBS's on-air promos. These 5, 10, 20, 30 or 60-second spots promote what CBS has to offer and are often extremely creative. But besides the picture, it was the announcer in many instances that made the spot. I've met and worked with many of them. But there is one of them who is probably one of the nicest guys I've ever met. Recently, you've seen him on the tube and now people know what he actually looks like.

For years Don LaFontaine has been a Hollywood icon. Before last August, few people had any idea who he was — until he opened his mouth. LaFontaine is the voice or, as Geico labeled him in a recent commercial, "that announcer guy from the movies." He is the veritable Babe Ruth of movie trailers with just as many nicknames: "the King of Movie Trailers," "Mr. Voice," "Thunder Throat," "the Voice of God.

With a thunder-throat like his, you'd think that LaFontaine would get recognized everywhere he goes — the dry cleaner's, the super market, certainly at the movie theater — but not so, he says. "People don't recognize my voice at all really. My conversational voice is the same voice that I use when I'm working, but when I'm working it's more, it's a bigger, a little more over-the-top kind of voice that, if you used it in normal conversation, you would have people calling security."

There was even one time that he did all of our answering machine messages. It was definitely wild to hear Don come on and say..."Pete's not home right now..." And, for most of his career, LaFontaine lived in relative anonymity. Then Geico Insurance Co. began running ads featuring LaFontaine and a "real" Geico customer. Seemingly overnight, LaFontaine went from faceless voice to a YouTube celebrity.

"The Geico ad changed my life. It was amazing what happened," he said. "The public isn't necessarily unfamiliar with me, but this Geico spot just exploded to the point where now I am recognized virtually everywhere I go. And it's a little disconcerting, because I've been anonymous for over 40 years doing this, and now I've got people watching me to see how I eat. It's a little weird."

When LaFontaine began his career in the early 1960s, movie trailers were nonexistent. "Up until the early '60s, believe it or not, the primary advertising vehicle for motion pictures was the theatrical trailer, the previews, the coming attractions or the print ads. They did very little or no advertising on radio or television, so this was a brand new idea," he said. "I realized very early on that what the trailer does, essentially, is take the audience, which is sitting in the theater, and transports them to a different time, a different place, a different situation in which something is going to happen," he said. "I felt it was necessary to set up the time, place, situation so they knew where they were, so they could locate themselves before we told them what happened. So I would say, 'In a world where' … and we would tell them where it was or what was happening."

Since 1964, LaFontaine said he did "a word here, a sentence there, a complete spot," and before he knew it, "I had about 1,000 films under my belt." In the decades since, LaFontaine has only added to that number, amassing an eye-popping 5,000 films, including "Fatal Attraction," "Cast Away," "The Godfather" and, his personal favorite, "Elephant Man," among about 35,000 narrations.

When we worked with him in our famed "PC-23", we used to schedule our day around Don's arrival. We would work finishing many spots, sometimes up to 120 per day! But when Don showed up, in his white limo, all other work ceased and we let the man read. He was so busy that he had to have the limo. His driver would take him from place to place, telling him how long he had to be there and then whisk him off to his next announcing gig. Every now and then I caught Don grabbing a bite to eat in the commissary. He is a great guy to talk to and really enjoyed being a Dad to his children. Many times he'd tell me he'd rather be home than in the studio at CBS.

Well, he got his wish. Nowadays, LaFontaine, who works from his home studio in Los Angeles, averages between seven and 10 jobs a day but has recorded as many as 35 in a single 24-hour period. "My wife calls my studio, which is in the basement, she calls it the hole — which she insists I go into and disappear into, much like the rabbit in 'Alice in Wonderland,' and never come out of until the end of the day, which is basically true. I treat it like a nine-to-five job more or less," explained LaFontaine.

It is this professionalism, this dedication to his craft, which has led to the respect and praise of his colleagues. "Within the industry, he's known as the Man, the Michael Jordan of his game," said friend and colleague Paul Pape.

You wouldn't believe how a spot can go from bland to spectacular with the right voice. If it was comedy or an awards show, we used Mark Elliott (Now the voice of Disney). If it was a Walter Texas Ranger type show it was Chuck Riley (The voice of Ford Motor Company). But if it was a big show, one that needed to get the audience's attention, it was the voice of Don that made the spot. And the bottom line is that an effective voice-over has less to do with tenor of the voice, than the passion and emotion evoked by the reader. "It's not the quality of the voice that counts or really matters," he said. "It's the quality of the read. It's nice to have a thunder-throat like I do, but some of the most successful people in the business don't. What you have to have to be successful is veracity? You have to have some sort of affinity for the words, some feeling for it, some passion for it and that's where the veracity comes in."

He is one of the busiest men I know. His schedule, with so many clients, has also made him wealthy. It is rumored that Don makes in excess of $6-million a year. That's right, $6-million! Doing voiceovers is lucrative. I know a bunch of people who are out there trying to do it. You get paid on a "per-spot" basis. So if you do a promo for a show that's 20-seconds long, you get paid for that. That's called a "spot". But it doesn't end there. You also make money on the "tag." So everytime you hear the words "tonight" or "next", the announcer gets paid again. And the $$$ adds up. Are these guys worth it. Heck yes!

But there's more to it than just a good read. LaFontaine describes his voice-over work much like an artist would talk about a painting or a sculpture. "You are painting oral, a sound picture with your voice," he said. "It's like reading to a child. A child could be lying in bed with their eyes closed listening to the story, and they are painting the pictures in their mind based upon what you are saying to them. It's really as simple as that."

If only I could get him to read for my blog. Let's see. "In a world that has gone insane..."