For the last several years of his life, after cancer surgeries robbed him of the ability to speak, film critic Roger Ebert used pen and paper to write words and phrases he wished to convey. He also communicated via his Apple laptop computer — first with a British-accented voice his wife Chaz dubbed “Sir Lawrence” that spoke words as Ebert typed them and then with Apple’s more robotic-sounding but also more nuanced built-in audio program that Ebert nicknamed “Alex.”
In early 2010, Ebert and Chaz announced on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” that they’d enlisted a Scottish company called CereProc to create a computerized voice that more closely resembled Ebert’s own by using snippets of his TV work, DVD commentaries and the like, but that never fully materialized. Alex stayed with him until the end.
As good as Ebert deemed Alex, however, he likely would have been wowed by Stephen Stanton.
An L.A.-based impressionist and “voicematch” expert, Stanton narrates a portion of the new Steve James-directed Ebert documentary “Life Itself” — which debuts January 19 at the Sundance Film Festival — as Ebert. The vocal likeness is uncanny.
Stanton’s voicematch skills are most commonly called upon if dialogue needs tweaking during a film’s post-production process, at which point many stars are either no longer under contract or simply unable to attend an extra recording session due to physical inaccessibility (i.e. they’re in another country).
In preparation for his work on the Ebert doc, Stanton read Ebert’s memoir, studied a rough cut of James’ film to better understand its overall tone and scoured YouTube for videos of Ebert in different guises: the movie reviewer, the public speaker, the conversationalist.
“His voice was very distinct when he was on television, and there was a hook you could take and just run with it,” Stanton says shortly after finishing an undisclosed voice project for Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks Studios. “When he was talking conversationally, that is the real person coming out. And that can run the gamut. People talk high, low, fast, slow. It’s not a character that they’ve created for a particular movie or a story. Or in Roger’s case, the persona that he had on television. So it was a lot more work. And trust me, I was sweating bullets before the first [recording] session started, because being a fan of Roger going all the way back to ‘Sneak Previews,’ I wanted to make sure I did justice to both his voice and his memory.”
On an ascending one-to-ten scale of difficulty, Stanton says, voicing Ebert was “probably around an eight.” His Chicago accent combined with other vocal nuances made the job more challenging than usual.
“You’re trying to get into the heart and soul of that person, and their mind,” Stanton says of his subjects, “trying to recreate how that person would feel when they’re talking about [something]. In this film, Roger talks about everything from his childhood to his early experiences working at [the Sun-Times] to the love of his life, Chaz. These are very heartfelt things, and certainly they’re something that you don’t just want to throw out there and say, ‘This is an impression of Roger.’ You have to do your best to try to get into how he felt about those different things when he was talking about them.”