Lani Minella makes a very convincing baby boy and elderly grandmother. She’s spot-on as Nancy Drew in the Her Interactive video games and as Rouge the Bat in the Sega game Sonic the Hedgehog. Minella won’t reveal her actual age, but she is credited with voicing more than 500 video games in 365 different voices over about two decades.
In 1992, Minella founded AudioGodz, a one-stop shop to help game companies with voice acting, casting, directing, and audio. “I’d like to think anyone can be trained to do this, if you’re not tone deaf and have vocal control,” she says. “You can get a lot of your inspiration from real life. Or from watching Springer.”
Scrunching her face for a gruff six-foot Haitian soldier and stretching her lips for a sexy Katharine Hepburn are all in a day’s work. “What’s great about voice work is…you can look like holy hell,” Minella says matter-of-factly. After spending hours in cramped, overheated recording studios, one often looks like she just took a shower or walked through a tornado.
Below, Minella explains how reality TV is destroying the industry, why the gender gap doesn’t show signs of closing, and the unlikely way the voice of Spongebob nailed his job.
Age: I prefer not to say; this is a very discriminatory business. I voice anyone from a baby to a 100-year-old.
Based in: San Diego, Calif.
Graduated from: San Diego State University and United States International University; English major, art minor
Previous jobs: On-air talent and producer at various radio stations
Much like acting, voice work is an opportunity to be someone you’re not. Is that exhilarating for you? Games are the best, because you have the chance to be a multiplicity of characters. I get to have fun and create insectoid languages, which kids love. But nowadays, parents are determining what kids should hear, and they’re replacing exciting characters with “safe” ones. Producers don’t want to offend anybody.
What about shows like South Park? They got away with it because people were like, thank goodness someone is taking a chance and not being politically correct.
What would people be surprised to learn about your job? Lots of black parts are actually played by white people. Also, my line of work takes a lot of energy. For characters in games, you need to make dying sounds, jumping sounds, and landing sounds.
So you’re actually jumping in the recording studio? The last thing you want to do during a voiceover is sit down. You have to put the motion in games; that’s part of the fun. For hitting noises, I’m actually punching the air or doing a karate chop. I’ll often do backhanded tennis swings to make certain sounds, which impresses producers.
Most embarrassing moment: While gesturing, I once swiped my can of Coke and it splattered 50 feet away.
Speaking of getting physical, how do you switch your voice from young boy to old woman? Women can do a lot of things men can’t, like voicing a teenage boy. Pooch your lips and move your mouth forward to sound like a boy; bring your lips back against your teeth to sound like a girl. Making a tough face makes you sound masculine. It can be that easy.
Do you find a gender gap within the industry? Yes. A male might get a $500 offer on Voice123.com, while a female might get $50 or $100. It’s the way the public has always done it, and it’s the same reason people didn’t take me seriously as the manager of a stereo store. Girls aren’t supposed to know “that stuff.” It’s largely who you know and who you blow.
Best part of your job: Working with the audio guys, who are highly creative.
Most challenging part of your job: When directors tell you to “do it different” but don’t specify how. The toughest jobs really wear you down. After recording for a Lord of the Rings video game, I was so hoarse I couldn’t even swallow water.
How often do you lose your voice? It has happened three times. But I only lose my normal speaking voice; I can still go really high and really low.
The best cure for a hoarse voice: Hot liquids can temporarily relax swollen chords a bit, and humming instead of whispering or talking can help. Water just washes away your mucus lining and can lead to dry mouth.
Your dream job growing up: To do cartoon voices. I was amazed at the animations, and I was always the class clown.
Are most cartoons and games recorded in Hollywood? Looping and animation, yes. But Take-Two Interactive, one of the biggest companies that hires people for the voices in Grand Theft Auto, is based in New York. But games don’t pay that well. The real bread and butter of the industry is in commercials and promos.
Salary: It’s better pay than flipping burgers, but you’re not punching a time clock. Don’t quit your day job unless you’re the voice of Revlon.
Dress code in the studio: No jewelry, no high heels, no clothes that rustle. Don’t waste time with perfecting your hair and makeup, because sometimes, sound studios will be little clothes closets.
Has the industry shifted with the rise of reality TV? It’s done a lot of damage to the industry, just like hiring celebrities has. Reality shows get away dirt cheap without having to pay a script writer. Directors on shows like The Real Housewives of New Jersey are just like, be yourself and fight a lot.
LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
1. Know your voice, control it well, and be able to read cold copy quickly. Don’t inflect your voice upward at the end of sentences, and follow directions well.
2. Go your mirror, make funny faces, and talk through them. The odder you look and the more you flail about with your hands, the more people are going to think you’re really good. Keep an open ear while you’re out, then go home and impersonate and adapt those voices.
3. At the start of your audition, say “1 of 2.” Do the first take the way the director wants, and then come up with something entirely different for the second take. By putting more lottery tickets in, you get more jobs.
THE SPONGEBOB STORY>> Tom Kenny, the voice of Spongebob Squarepants, got his big break at a Hollywood party. He was mimicking a midget he had overheard — one who was angry about being typecast an an elf. Someone overheard Kenny, tapped him on the shoulder, and said, “Come into my office tomorrow. I might have a job for you.” And he was thus cast at Spongebob. —As told to Megan Hess
Think Lani Minella‘s job is cool? Check out the opera singer who compares singing to a hot fudge sundae.