ROSS BAGDASARIAN, JR. and JANICE KARMAN on 'ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS' Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for Radio Free Entertainment
November 30, 2007
Since being conceived in 1958 by actor/songwriter Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. as a high-pitched chorus in the platinum-selling song "Witch Doctor" and subsequently being personified in the follow-up hit "The Chipmunk Song," Alvin and the Chipmunks have become a mainstay of pop culture, entertaining fans of all generations. What started as a novelty recording eventually became a full-time family business carried on by Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. and his wife Janice Karman, who have brought the characters of Alvin, Simon, and Theodore to life in TV shows, animated features, and an expansive library of songs.
Now, nearly 50 years after their creation, the Chipmunks enjoy yet another incarnation in the 2007 feature film Alvin and the Chipmunks, which blends live action with CG animation. This time around, Bagdasarian and Karman, who have traditionally provided the voices of the Chipmunks in projects like the now-classic '80s Saturday morning cartoon and the hand-drawn animated movie The Chipmunk Adventure, have handed over the roles of Alvin, Simon, and Theodore to Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler, and Jesse McCartney, respectively. The new movie stars Jason Lee as the Chipmunks' manager and adoptive father David Seville, with supporting performances from comedian David Cross and actress Cameron Richardson.
Being a kid of the '80s who enjoyed Alvin and the Chipmunks on NBC Saturday mornings, I was naturally wary of more childhood memories being exploited for modern movie material. But with the involvement of Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. and Janice Karman, this latest big screen adventure for the chipmunk trio successfully modernizes its characters, yet still retains the spirit of the old cartoons. Old-time fans will find more than enough moments of delightful nostalgia mixed in with a heartwarming, family-friendly story and updated versions of some of the Chipmunks' classic tunes, as well as a few interesting cover songs.
Despite the miracles of technology, the Chipmunks' voices are created, essentially, with the same involved, analog process that Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. used decades ago: voice actors painstakingly sing and speak at half-speed (effectively doubling the time they must hold a note or say a line), and the recording is sped up to increase the pitch for that trademark Chipmunk sound.
In this exclusive interview, we had the pleasure of speaking to Ross and Janice about the evolution of the Chipmunks and taking a trip down memory lane. Both were incredibly gracious with their time and hospitality, and it was wonderful to witness their enthusiasm and passion for their life's work firsthand.
RadioFree.com: You both provided the voices of the Chipmunks for the '80s cartoons. Did you do all of the singing as well?
ROSS: We did all of the talking parts. And then the singing, much of the time, we got other singers to come in, because some of these songs are incredibly tough from a vocal point of view. You've got to be able to hold your notes twice as long, and I'm not a good enough singer to do anything other than like...If we needed Alvin to have a real personality kind of line or song, then I would do that. But aside from that, not a good enough singer to do those kinds of performances. Janice is a wonderful singer, and if you saw The Chipmunk Adventure, when the girl chipmunks [sing] "My Mother," that lovely song...Janice sang the lead on that song.
JANICE: I'll sing sometimes. If it's way more raucous or I don't need the personality in it, I'll delegate. [laughs]
By the time the '80s Saturday morning show came around, was there any kind of technology that would digitally change your vocal pitch in real time? Something that could free you from the laborious analog process?
JANICE: Well, there was. There was a harmonizer, but it took the warmth out of the voice. And so it sounded tinny.
ROSS: And mechanical.
JANICE: So we had to do it the hard way--the old-fashioned way that his dad did it.
ROSS: You know, the other thing about using any kind of harmonizer or any of those plug-ins is that not only do you, as Janice said, lose the warmth, but the clarity of the character, being able to understand what it is that they're saying...All of that is obliterated. And you don't have much room to lose there, so we couldn't do it. We continue, to this day, to do analog recording with them.
Did you consider reprising your roles as the voices of the Chipmunks for the 2007 movie, as opposed to bringing in new actors?
ROSS: You know, we definitely talked about that. And for Janice and for me, it wasn't so much that it was important as to whose mouth the characters were coming out of, as long as they had the essence of Alvin, Simon, and Theodore. And when we met with Justin Long and with Jesse McCartney and with Matthew Gray Gubler, these are guys who grew up on the shows that we had produced and written, and very respectful of who the characters were, and were always looking to Janice or to me [for suggestions]. So they were phenomenal to work with.
JANICE: It could have been a miserable experience, and it was a great experience because they were as collaborative and receptive as they were.
Did you ever worry that in modernizing the Chipmunks, their spirit wouldn't translate and the humor would become too crude or vulgar or edgy?
JANICE: We know where that line is--we know where the line of inappropriate is. And because Alvin is such a trendsetter, or sees himself as Mr. Trendy, he lends himself very, very well to new vernacular and new fashion. And he just sort of thrives on that stuff. But you have to maintain the character. You have to maintain the essence. And although Alvin pushes the envelope, he's never mean-spirited. He's never coming from a malicious place. There's a scene where Alvin throws a jar on Dave's head. Well, he's not doing that to be malicious. He's doing that to save Theodore. He's doing that because he thinks his brother's going to get hurt. And so you always have to respect and maintain the organic character that's coming out of these guys that has been our main focus for 30 years, and certainly Ross' dad's.
How would you characterize the Chipmunks' transition from traditional 2-D animation to the realm of live action and CG animation?
JANICE: It's been pretty organic. The technology is such that we get to really see detail like we've never seen it before--nuances, facial character, looks that we've never gotten before, which we couldn't achieve in Saturday morning. This was a thrill to be working with a company like Rhythm and Hues that did the animation, and have them care so much about the result as well. It was just a thrill.
ROSS: You know, one of the things about this is that you have layers of professionalism. And not only are the guys at Rhythm and Hues incredibly professional, but you talk about going the extra mile? Well, they went like the extra 5,000 miles.
JANICE: They really did.
ROSS: These guys fell in love with the characters, and, in an absolutely inhumane schedule, did some of the most phenomenal stuff you've ever seen.
As the look of the characters evolved in the transition to CG animation, did you encounter any surprising problems?
ROSS: [jokes] Well, you know, during the various iterations of this process, there are times when you are pretty sure you've made a terrible mistake...
JANICE: You're looking at a clay figure and it's not acting at all, and then you're looking at a clay figure that's moving a little, but the expressions aren't right, and you don't know that you're going to get it right. And then you're looking at the character not completely furred, and the expressions aren't right again. And you're thinking, "No, no, no!"
ROSS: Or the fur makes it look like a plush doll and not a real character.
JANICE: So you're writing notes and you're sending them for every frame! [laughs] Every frame! "Put the eyebrow up, take the smile off, Alvin's not being malicious here, he's protecting his brother!" You know, we had to take that leap of faith with Rhythm and Hues, and they went beyond our expectations. Because they really did love the characters, and that comes across.
ROSS: What also happens in any animation is that there's a learning curve for these animators--that they are learning who the characters are, and, especially in a new medium, how to translate that. What amount of fur? Is that too much? Is it not enough? Is it soft here, is it starting to get harder here? Where's the line and the stripe coming? You know, all of those things are unbelievably accelerated during this process.
JANICE: And you usually have a longer learning curve. This was a real accelerated speed.
ROSS: And the guys did phenomenally. The final product is something we're really delighted by.
I thought it was hilarious that the movie opens with the Chipmunks singing "Bad Day" while they're squirreling away nuts. Although I did wonder how they picked up that song in the wilderness...
JANICE: [laughs] Yeah, you gotta take a leap of faith.
What was your process of selecting that song, as well as the other covers that made it into the movie? Did you consider putting in even more songs?
ROSS: Mostly what we did was look at each musical opportunity, and we probably looked at a dozen or more songs for each one of those moments. So whether it was "Funkytown" or "Only You" or "Bad Day," we looked at a whole variety of things. We were working on maybe a chain gang song as the opening. So we played around with all kinds of different things.
What is the reaction of most artists when you approach them about having the Chipmunks cover one of their songs? I assume you always have to get permission from them or their representatives...
ROSS: You know, when it comes to an album, you don't need to do that. For movies you do. Now if we wanted Waylon Jennings or Tammy Wynette or Billy Ray Cyrus or Alan Jackson to be on the album, obviously [we would have to ask]. But we've always found 9 times out of 10, people love the Chipmunks and they're only too happy to be part of it.
Any particularly memorable reactions from artists whose songs have been covered?
ROSS: Well, a lot of things. This is not an artist whose song was covered, but one of my favorites was from Bette Davis before she passed away. We had done "Bette Davis Eyes" [on] Chipmunk Rock that we did in 1982, and so she sent a little thing: she was now a big hit with her grandkids because the Chipmunks had sung "Bette Davis Eyes."
The Alvin and the Chipmunks video game for the Nintendo Wii includes a fantastic collection of covers. What was involved in putting that project together?
ROSS: We went over the vocals for those songs and really worked to make sure that we got the energy in them, and also the performance in them. If it's ["I'm Gonna Be" by the Proclaimers], it's got to have that kind of an accent. You can't just sing it like Pat Boone. It's got to have that sort of an intention to it. So we worked really closely with those singers to make sure that those performances were really good...Whatever that song is, we really worked to get those performances.
Is there a way for fans without a Wii to hear these songs? Maybe a soundtrack?
ROSS: Well, not yet. But because we own those songs, we're going to put them on our website, and they'll be downloadable some time next year.
What has been the strangest piece of Chipmunk-related merchandise you've seen over all these years?
JANICE: You know, it's not so much the toy, per se. It's the execution. And there are times when we have said we have to have approval--we have to see this.
ROSS: That's the scene where [David Cross' character] brings the ugly Alvin doll that doesn't look anything like Alvin in the movie...
JANICE: That would not have been approved. [laughs]
ROSS: That's where that came from, because we have seen so much stuff over the years where plush manufacturers [ask], "Well what do you think of this?" And we go, "What do you mean? It doesn't look anything like Alvin." So that's where that came from. [laughs] That's a true life experience, I'm sorry to say.
Have you started work on another Chipmunks movie?
JANICE: We've just given birth, and it might be a little too soon to get pregnant again. [laughs]
I have indeed heard of this filmmaking/childbirth metaphor!
JANICE: [laughs] But we can't help ourselves...We're just a little pregnant.
So what classic characters or new stories could a sequel tap into?
ROSS: There's so many fun opportunities, whether it's the Chipettes that Janice created in the '80s...You know, there's a host of things. And one of the other things, too, is that we've just created this family now with David Seville and the Chipmunks, and so there's a lot of ground to cover and to mine there with the richness of that relationship.
If you introduced the Chipettes, wouldn't you have to get rid of Brittany's legwarmers? Isn't that look way too '80s?
JANICE: Definitely. My gosh, I hope Brittany's not embarrassed by the look. [laughs]
ROSS: What we might do in a scene like that is just to pay homage to people who knew that look and grew up on those in the '80s, we might have her try them on for a second, then go, "Nah," and throw them away.