Mark Oliver, one of Vancouver’s top voice actors, has had an unusual career.
The Dr. Caligari connection is through his grandfather, who co-produced the landmark German horror film in 1920. The My Little Pony connection is that Oliver was the voice of several characters on the animated TV series and movie.
Oliver is one of Vancouver’s top voice actors, with 89 credits on his IMDb resume. The 58-year-old rates his own page on behindthevoiceactors.com, a website where you can hear him do characters like Wood Man in Mega Man: Fully Charged and Dr. Thaddeus Blakk in Slugterra.
Both are animated series, which has been his bread-and-butter. But recently he’s been branching out into narration on a pair of Second World War documentary series, Hell Below and Hitler’s Last Stand.
He’s also been working on a documentary about his grandfather, David Oliver. Needing a bit of relief from his hectic schedule, he started fooling around with an Elvis Presley monologue of tabloid allegations that he was “strung out” on heroin.
After putting music and images to Elvis’s ramblings, he submitted it to the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen in Germany. And on May 6, Elvis: Strung Out won first prize at the prestigious festival. This puts him in good company: Oliver said Roman Polanski, Milos Forman, Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog all won awards at Oberhausen at the start of their careers.
“If you’re really interesting in boundary-defying cinema, I can think of no better place to go than the short-film festival of Oberhausen,” said Oliver. “It’s very pure.”
Elvis: Strung Out is only 41/2 minutes long, about the length of a typical music video. Images of the ’70s Elvis doing the Pelvis onstage in a white-fringed jumpsuit are intercut with shots of his adoring audience, while a slinky, hypnotic bass line plays underneath the monologue.
“I always had an archive of these demented Elvis Presley rants,” Oliver relates. “I started to work on them and re-edit them, until they started to approach like a haiku. I thought, ‘This sounds wonderful.’ Then I started fooling around with music to accompany this text.
“Then having edited the music and the dialogue together, I thought this was deserving of its own film. I hunted high-and-low through Elvis archives (online) to find appropriate footage, and began to cheat the visuals on top of the audio. It’s closely approximated lip-sync, so that you would believe that he was actually delivering all this dialogue live onstage in front of an adoring audience.”
The short film will be available June 1 on Mubi, a streaming service for artier films. Oliver flew to Germany for the festival, but now is back in Vancouver doing voice-overs. This week he was channelling one of his old teachers at an English boarding school into “kind of a deluded English monarch.”
He laughs at the memory of the school, Downside, which was run by Benedictine monks and very Catholic.
“These schools were designed to breed the next generation of (British) empire-builder,” he said. “I think my parents should have demanded their money back.”
He got into the voice-over biz at the suggestion of a friend, who noted he was always doing different voices at parties to entertain his friends. Oliver started off his artistic career as a singer and musician in Vancouver’s alternative scene in the early ’80s, so he was already comfortable in the studio.
His main gig these days seems to be villains.
“I’m not stupid,” he said. “I want to have some kind of shelf life in this industry, and I know any amount of 50-plus-year-olds who are still the voice of the cocky 17-year-old hero. They are always looking over their shoulder for the real 17-year-olds who are coming swiftly behind them.
“There’s no getting around the fact that if you get a chance to play villains you get allowed a degree of irony that heroes don’t get. And you can be sexy, you can hide so many layers within the performance.”
Oliver is one of three children of the late H.A.D. Oliver, a prominent local defence lawyer that became a B.C. Supreme Court Judge and ended his career as the province’s conflict-of-interest commissioner.
His grandfather was a pioneer of German film who produced 200 silent films and once owned a chain with 65 theatres. But he was Jewish, and left Germany in 1934 after someone threw a hand grenade at his taxi. He died in England in 1947, and H.A.D. emigrated to Canada in 1952.
Mark Oliver never met his grandfather, and really didn’t know much about him until the family discovered a cache of documents about him after H.A.D. died.
“The ironic thing is that this sort of fantastical thing about this hypothetical Elvis Presley that never was has led me back to Germany,” said Oliver. “I found myself in a huge auditorium addressing this international audience there for the short-film festival of Oberhausen. I said to the audience that I wanted to dedicate my film to my grandparents.
“My hope was that they might be proud, that after an absence of 86 years another generation of Oliver filmmaker had returned to Germany.”
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