Jewish Journal

Bill Ratner: More Than Just a Familiar Voice

You may not recognize his face, but you’ve surely heard his voice. From the voice of Flint in the TV cartoon “G.I. Joe,” to the man who narrates the movie trailers for “Inside Out,” “Ant Man” and a slew of others, Bill Ratner is one of Hollywood’s premier voiceover artists. 

He’s also an award-winning author and essay writer. The 71-year-old currently is working on a memoir about growing up in an advertising family and being orphaned at 13. Before heading off to Italy this summer to participate in The Lemon Tree House artists-in-residence program for writers, he took time out to discuss with the Journal the voices in his head.

Jewish Journal: What drew you to voiceover work?
Bill Ratner: I was a lucky kid. My father was a creative director at an ad agency, and every day for me was “Take Your Kid to Work Day.” He dragged me into work on weekends, and I watched local TV news anchors and radio deejays duck into the sound booth to do voiceovers for commercials. I got a bird’s-eye view and a great education about the media. As a child of the ’50s, I was hooked on TV and was aware at an early age of the job of the TV booth announcer. He was invisible and seemed to have unlimited powers of communication, and always had a deep, impressive voice. 

JJ: How did you break into the industry?
BR: When I was 12, me and a group of boys on my block formed the Brotherhood of Radio Stations. We expropriated radios from our parents, connected microphones, created funky public address systems, wired our houses for sound and were dazzled by the sound of our own squeaky, adolescent voices.

JJ: How competitive is the voiceover business?
BR: Voiceovers were once the province of broadcast professionals, but celebrities have made vast inroads with voice acting in Disney, DreamWorks and Pixar animated movies, and they’ve shined a spotlight on the fact that one can make a career doing voiceovers. These days, anyone with a nice voice or an acting background is taking voiceover classes and hoping for the best. So the voiceover field has gotten increasingly competitive.

JJ: What does it take to be a successful voiceover artist?
BR: First and foremost is the ability to read, especially “cold read,” which means making sense of text you’ve not seen before. It’s amazing how many trained actors can’t interpret commercial or corporate copy, which is written very differently from dramatic text and often only barely resembles the English language. An actor’s job is to interpret a dramatic scene, but a commercial voiceover performer is often doing three things — playing the role of the trustworthy, likable spokesperson, telling a story and selling a product or service — all at the same time.

JJ: What is your favorite type of voiceover work?
BR: When I work for Discovery or the Smithsonian Channel, I am narrating long-form stories about an airplane disaster or the discovery of a lost civilization. Oral storytelling is the most ancient of presentational arts. It’s challenging. This kind of voiceover job is the most rewarding to me.

JJ: Which is the most challenging?
BR: Movie trailers. A narrator has only a few seconds to tell a story that filmmakers have spent years and tens of millions of dollars putting together. Studios audition dozens of voices for a movie campaign, and movie trailers are generally done by non-celebrity specialists.

JJ: Do you ever use your vocal skills to play practical jokes?
BR: I receive way too many junk phone calls, so recently I redid my outgoing voicemail message to say, “This call has been intercepted by the Fraud Detection Service. Please inform your employer that the line upon which you are calling may be disconnected as a result of this call. Thank you for your cooperation with the Fraud Detection Service.” I’ve memorized it, and I often perform it live when I pick up the phone and it’s a junk phone call.

JJ: How has your Jewish background informed your life?
BR: I didn’t experience my own Jewishness until my wife and I sent our daughters to the Silverlake Independent JCC for preschool. The director, Ruthie Shavit, a sabra, taught us Shabbat songs, holiday songs and performed wonderful daily rituals every morning. I call myself a Jewish ex-Unitarian agnostic. My daughters had their bat mitzvahs at Sholem Community Organization in Los Angeles, where they studied Yiddishkayt and Jewish culture and history. They’re grownups now and continue to celebrate our Jewishness as a family.

JJ: What do you do when you’re not creating strange and wonderful voices?
BR: I’m active in the storytelling scene. And I’ve been writing short stories and personal essays for a while and have been lucky enough to get a few published. I ended up with a book deal from a publisher I met at a storytelling conference and wrote “Parenting for the Digital Age: The Truth about Media’s Effect on Children and What to Do About It,” a collection of personal essays about working in the entertainment and broadcast industries, and how I tried to do for my children what my father did for me around media awareness. 

JJ: What’s your secret to staying married to the same woman for 33 years?
BR: I met my wife on an airplane. I fell in love with her while watching her stuff a large straw travel bag into the overhead [bin]. We began dating immediately. I introduced her to my therapist. We did couples therapy for the first 15 years of our marriage. Why wait until it’s too late? She’s an artist, an art teacher and an incredible mom. She is also the most patient, kindest, wryest person I know. I’m a lucky man.

JJ: What’s one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
BR: I know the words to the University of Minnesota cheer song from the 1920s.

Mark Miller is a humorist, stand-up comic and has written for various sitcoms. His first book is “500 Dates: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Online Dating Wars.”