Welcome to Voice Acting Analysis! This is a new feature I’ve decided to try out in terms of flexing my muscles on one of my favorite subjects in regards to animation: voice acting. Just as crucial a component to an animated character’s emotional life and heft as the design and movement, voice acting can be often underappreciated in reviews and critiques of animation, though in some areas that has started to change due to the Internet allowing a much wider information network for people wanting to know who has voiced which character. This feature will be looking at all sorts of products: movies, TV episodes (doing an entire series would be a fool’s errand, critiquing an episode lets me get much more specific), shorts, and I may even look at original web content.
We’ll start things off with Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe, a show that is unique in a number of ways, up to and including voice acting. While the series does employ a number of actors who have experience in either animation or other voicework areas (such as Zach Callison, Grace Rolek, Kimberly Brooks, Susan Egan, Michaela Dietz, Brian Posehn, and others), it primarily eschews what we might call “career voice actors”, people like Tara Strong, Rob Paulsen, Kevin Michael Richardson (although he appears in the “Say Uncle” ‘crossover’ with Uncle Grandpa), and many, many others. The series instead casts a much wider net, going for stage actors, singers, radio personalities, comedians, and basically anyone who has an interesting vocal presence. As much as I love the career voice actors mentioned above, it IS great to hear such a variety of talent, and many of them are now people I would absolutely love to hear in more animated projects.
The specific episode in question is “Keystone Motel” which I chose primarily because it has a lot of great actors working off of each other and getting great, emotional material to sink their teeth into. I’ll be examining each actor’s performance throughout the episode, even if their contributions only amount to a few lines, and pointing out specific moments or deliveries that I think are particularly nice and relevant in my analysis.
Episode Summary: With Garnet still angry at Pearl for her deception in “Cry for Help”, she goes on a road trip with Steven and Greg to the Keystone state, staying at a motel. When her emotional turmoil causes her to split into Ruby and Sapphire, things might get worse before they get better….
Zach Callison (Steven)-Somewhat of a cartoon veteran at this point, having made appearances on shows like The Legend of Korra and Sofia the First, as well as films like Mr. Peabody and Sherman and the dub of Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, Steven is fairly close to Zach’s natural speaking voice but slightly higher pitched. As an actor, he arguably has the hardest job in the series in that Steven is both the POV we see nearly everything through and often an emotional anchor for the characters around him. As a result, a lot of the humor in the character comes out of his often blase reactions to the strange things that happen, and Zach has a lot of fun with this (“Is it weird that I’m getting numb to this?” in “Reformed” is a personal favorite example). Though, often the best moments in Zach’s acting in many episodes come from both that guileless cheer and his warm, loving acceptance of other characters and their flaws, such as his admittance that he thinks Pearl is “pretty great” in “Rose’s Scabbard”. “Keystone”, then, is a bit of a departure for Steven and Zach both in that he spends much of the running time confused or upset, although he tries to cheer up the arguing Ruby and Sapphire up in his own inimitable way. His best scene comes near the end, as he storms off in a huff after the two ruin breakfast, and then pours out his soul: ““I was so happy when Garnet said she was gonna come on this trip with me and Dad! Home’s been awful! Here’s been awful! I thought you wanted to have a fun time, but everyone’s been acting awful too! It-it just came with us!” Zach acts this beautifully, hitting the anger and the regret at how bad things have gotten, and him quietly wondering “I don’t understand! Is-Is it me?” is like a knife in the gut.
Deedee Magno Hall (Pearl)-Personal bias time: Deedee as Pearl is, next to Shelby Rabara as Peridot (who isn’t in this episode but we’ll get to her soon enough), my favorite vocal performance in the entire series. Deedee is primarily a Broadway veteran, as well as a former member of Disney’s late 80s/early-to-mid-90s revival of The Mickey Mouse Club (or MMC, as it was often referred to), which also featured the likes of Marc Worden (who’s had some VA experience as well), Britney Spears, Ryan Gosling, Christina Aguilera, and Justin Timberlake among others. Deedee has a wonderfully expressive voice that can steal scenes even if she’s just making a strange noise or hitting a particular syllable in a memorable way (this also applies to Rabara, incidentally). And she absolutely nails Pearl’s big emotional scenes, such as her breakdowns in “Sworn To The Sword” and “Scabbard”, and songs like “Strong In The Real Way” or “Do It For Her/Him”. Pearl isn’t in much of “Keystone”, but in her brief moments Deedee perfectly captures the anxiety, guilt, and desperation to be forgiven. Her pitiful “I’m sorry” is particularly heartbreaking.
Estelle (Garnet)-Let’s not mince words: Estelle’s voice is just cool. Born in the U.K. and beginning as an artist there before migrating to the U.S., her deep, richly accented tones have been a highlight of the series from the beginning. What makes Garnet a particularly fun (if admittedly difficult at times) character to write about in terms of her acting is how impenetrable she often seems. Estelle adopts a very matter-of-fact, deadpan tone for most of her lines, which add a different flavor of comedy and authority to contrast to Pearl’s high-strung attitude or Amethyst’s outlandish party animal vibe. Thankfully, she’s gotten to stretch quite nicely as the series has gone on, expressing deep anger, frustration, happiness, sorrow, fear, etc. with aplomb (in the recent episode “The Answer”, she provides a wonderful fairy-tale style narration to the events), yet still retaining that feel of mystery. Like Deedee, she’s not in the episode for very long, but her brief moments are perfectly executed, with me being especially fond of her drawn-out frustration as Ruby and Sapphire begin their split.
Tom Scharpling (Greg)– A man of many talents (writing, music, acting), Tom is primarily known as the radio host of Jersey City’s WFMU long-running “The Best Show” with his co-host Jon Wurster (who popped up on this show as the sleazy Marty, Greg’s former music producer, in “Story For Steven”). His other credits include working on the TV series Monk as a writer and producer, as well as previous collaborations with Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim division on shows like Tom Goes To The Mayor and Tim And Eric Awesome Show Great Job! He has an easygoing, affable vibe to his voice and demeanor, which perfectly suits Steven’s laid-back but loving rocker/car wash owner dad. Often Greg can be a voice of reason or wisdom among the crazy shenanigans that make up Steven’s life, and Tom always manages to do a good job with those scenes without making it feel like preaching directly to the audience. Thankfully, he’s also really funny, and gets some great bits here, such as wondering aloud whether his contact is legitimate, getting Steven excited about staying at a motel and then immediately downplaying it when Garnet wants to come, or reacting in a pretty casual manner to the fact that Ruby and Sapphire have split, indicating that he’s met them before (tell us THAT story please, crew).
Charlene Yi (Ruby)-Admittedly a large part of the fun here is the visuals, with Ruby going through a bunch of crazy poses and facial expressions in rapid succession for much of her screentime. But in a way, we can credit Charlene’s livewire performance for this visual feast; allegedly Rebecca Sugar went back and redrew a number of poses and expressions after hearing the vocal track. Which just speaks to the strength and power of that performance. Ruby is a pot of boiling rage here (in case you’re wondering, the visual and personality similarities to Anger from Inside Out HAVE been noticed by the Internet), and Charlene punctuates a lot of her lines with growls and little screams that convey this state of mind. It’s a BIG, showy performance for most of the episode, but then we have that climax. After seeing how upset Steven’s been made, Ruby tries to push the blame on herself and Sapphire for how things have gone, and Charlene brings the performance down several volume levels, making her sound more like a concerned mom whose kid has seen her fight with the other parent (and make no mistake, Ruby and Sapphire are VERY much in love, no matter what certain randos might try to tell you) and is trying to defuse things. She also beautifully plays the reconciliation with Sapphire; her loving tease that she gets to look at Sapphire when they de-fuse is utterly adorable thanks to Charlene’s acting. Acting-wise, it’s probably my favorite tightrope-walking in the whole episode.
Erica Luttrell (Sapphire)-Erica is no stranger to animation, having been in projects like The Magic School Bus, Doug Langsdale’s Dave the Barbarian and portraying Wonder Woman villain Cheetah in several DC Comics cartoons and video games. On average, those tend to be very outlandish, over-the-top roles (her role on Barbarian has a good deal of high-pitched screaming involved at times, for instance), but she dials it back rather nicely as the literally-and-figuratively cool-headed Sapphire. A lot of the humor in the character comes from her deadpan line readings as a result, such as when she says hello to Steven after Ruby stomps out of the motel or when she confirms that she’s engulfed with rage in the calmest voice possible. But she also does a great job with the heavy lifting at the end with the argument and then reconciliation: the shame in her voice as she says “but we made him feel like it was HIS fault!” or the anger in “I don’t think you’re stupid!”, and the heartfelt laughing as Ruby picks her up. It’s very tricky work emotionally, but Erica knocks it out of the park.
All in all, “Keystone Motel” is an excellent example of the series’ commitment to high-quality comedic and dramatic voice acting, as well as just being a great episode in every other respect