Roger Ebert was a lover of words, but for the last several years of his life, cancer rendered him unable to speak them. A computerized voice system was developed that allowed him to communicate, similar to the technology through with individuals like Stephen Hawking speak, and even utilized new experimental technology to design a computerized voice that sounded more like his own.
This synthesized voice does show up in Life Itself (2014), the documentary about Ebert’s life adapted from his autobiography of the same name, but it’s not the primary voice of Ebert we hear. Much of the film’s information is presented in narrative form, read as though reading the pages of his memoir. The speaking voice sounds extremely akin to the familiar voice of Roger Ebert people heard for years on his television show and various appearances, but quite obviously wasn’t his.
The voice was courtesy of Stephen Stanton, a voiceover artist who specializes in celebrity impersonations and voicematches. His television voice credits are immense, lending his talents to regular work on The 7D (2014) and Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2010) to one-time stints on programs ranging from Doc McStuffins (2012) to Family Guy (1999). As for Life Itself, he was personally summoned by director Steve James to take on the part.
“Robert’s team came to me about an audio project to recreate his audio reviews and interviews for his website. From that project, I was introduced to Steve James and from there; Steve contacted me and sent over some audio files and an outline of what he wanted to do with the documentary. I was honored to take on both projects.” - Stanton, in an interview with AXS
Taking on the voice of someone easily recognizable is tough. People love to focus on the faults of your work, and depending on the context of the material, a bad impression can come across as mockery. For Life Itself, a documentary that serves both as a biography of an interesting man and a funereal piece about a late celebrity, there was initial concern about having someone attempt to take command of Ebert’s voice.
“Life Itself is challenging. Not only was I trying to voice match Roger, but, I was trying to include an audience that included his wife, family, close friends, and people all around the world that knew exactly what Roger sounded like. The pressure was on. At first no one was sure if recreating Roger’s voice was a good idea, and we didn’t want the audience to think I was mocking him. We all took a gamble and everything worked out great.”
See Stanton at work, recording some of the VO for Life Itself: