It’s surprising to learn that new animated family movie Maya The Bee: The Golden Orb, is one of only a handful of voice acting roles Shane Dundas of the The Umbilical Brothers has taken, given his penchant for pantomime, voices, sound effects and improvisation.
“Prior to this, the only kids’ animation I remember us doing was Maisy, in which we did all the character voices and sound effects,” the legendary Canberra comedian told CW.
Riffing off-script and letting their comedic chemistry shine even sees the signature Umbilical Brothers physicality find its way into their vocal performances.
“If you see us in the booth, we’re still physical, like I’ll screw my body up when I’m saying ‘oh, let’s get out of here’ or whatever it is. It’s strange that it happens but it does help the voice,” Dundas said.
“You are almost physically assuming the mask of whatever the character has.”
Dundas said he’s had a ball recording with his partner in crime, David Collins, over the course of the three-film series.
“They were like ‘just do what you do, these are the lines, do the lines and then your riff off those lines’ and so for each of the films we have done that,” he said.
Dundas and Collins have appeared as Barney and Arnie since the first film was released in 2014, an ant duo providing comic relief in the Australian-produced films.
Their vocals for The Golden Orb, which hits screens 7 January, were recorded prior to COVID in a few sessions over 2018 and 2019.
Dundas’ description of their recording sessions is evocative of Robin Williams’ legendary work on Aladdin, where he famously laid down hours of improvised material that didn’t make it past the cutting room floor.
“We could have a two-line exchange that turns into a two-minute conversation,” he said.
“The only frustration is when we come up with some awesome gag, because riffing is what creates a lot of our stuff, and it doesn’t find a place in the film because, understandably, this is for young viewers.
“There’s often a situation where we see the film and go ‘oh, but we did some gold on that scene! There’s gold there! You cut the gold!’.”
For Dundas, the ability to leave his work on the Maya The Bee in the booth offers a point of difference to the taxing task of crafting Umbilical Brothers shows.
“Essentially it’s fun being in a booth and doing a stupid voice and knowing that someone else is going to cut that down,” he said.
“That’s what I’ve always liked about what we do, it’s childish and the grown-up part is just structuring that stuff.
“When we do our own stuff, we provide the context, and we can figure out where we want to take it and how we want to grow it.
“Within the Maya The Bee [films], we’re the comic relief characters, we can only go so far with that. It’s still going to be contained within where the main character’s story goes.”
From Canberra to New York to Canberra
A Canberran through and through, despite his extraordinary success in comedy, Dundas has had his share of typical Canberra life experiences – such as moving away and returning.
“It had all been Canberra,” he said. “I had come from Canberra, grown up here, had friends here, and eventually I moved back here after we did a year in New York in ’99,” he said.
Prior to leaving to attend acting school in Sydney, he even had a brief stint in the public service, Defence to be precise.
“I never intended on continuing working there for better or for worse, because, you know, I would have had a more solid super account … but you make these choices,” he smiled.
Prior to leaving town, Dundas had dalliances in acting and performing. He recalled doing a summer theatre show for kids in the 1980s with community theatre company, TAU, called The Bunyip and the Alien.
“I played the Prime Minister,” he said.
“I can’t remember if I was a koala or a wombat, but I had this furry suit on and I played him as Bob Hawke; it was quite bizarre, that happened in Canberra before I went to do serious acting training.
“I always loved comedy, I never considered it to be a potential profession … There was definitely something comedic and theatrical going on there.”
It was meeting Collins at Sydney’s Theatre Nepean that set Dundas on the path to establishing what has become a long and successful career.
“It was one of those magical happenstances,” he said.
“He’s got the chemistry with me and we knew immediately we had a natural affinity, and we could create a comedic thing between us that was bigger than each of us.”
Having been back for 20 years now, Dundas finds Canberra affords him the private lifestyle he enjoys.
“You can be yourself and no one’s going to hassle you,” he said.
“In terms of its sophistication and vibe as a city, it’s really come along … there’s no reason not to live here in terms of things going on or not going on.”
Maya The Bee: The Golden Orb is in cinemas from 7 January 2021.