Interview: Michael Sinterniklaas and Stephanie Sheh on Your Nameby Zac Bertschy,
Stephanie Sheh and Michael Sinterniklaas scarcely need an introduction; they're a pair of legendary voice actors and directors with a history of home-run English dubs produced in record time from their home at NYAV Post. Sheh has served up countless memorable performances over the years in shows like Bleach, K-On! and Erased, though you've probably heard her most frequently as none other than the voice of Sailor Moon. Sinterniklaas is also known for a cornucopia of roles, from The Venture Bros. to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to a mountain of anime (Monster, Hetalia and Tiger & Bunny, to name a few). Together, the pair has pioneered faster and faster techniques for turning high-quality dubs around at lightspeed, dubbing unfinished episodes of Gundam Unicorn from storyboards and rough cuts in order to produce the world's first English “simuldub” back in 2009.
It's no wonder the duo were trusted with Makoto Shinkai's international phenomenon Your Name, which as of this writing has enchanted global audiences and grossed over $350 million dollars at the worldwide box office. ANN caught up with the pair near the end of their press junket for the film to ask what it was like dubbing a movie with the sort of challenges Your Name provides.
Zac Bertschy, ANN: When did you first see this movie? How did it make you feel the first time you saw it?
Stephanie Sheh: Okay. We first saw this movie because we were reviewing it, because we knew we were going to work on it. We didn't know—I didn't know anything about it other than it was, like, a big deal. This is a big deal, it's a big movie. And then we just sat down to do our watch through, just to see what it's about before starting to work on it, and it was amazing. It was one of those things where it's both super and exciting and scary at the same time because immediately after—while watching it—I realized I am a huge fan of this movie, and then it hits you that you're going to work on it. Then you're filled with intense fear because you don't want to eff it up.
Zac: So while you were watching the film, did that start dawning on you? As you're watching it—"oh, this is a big deal"?
Michael: Well, a big deal happens after the fact, right? We heard it was a big deal, but we're watching it and loving it… For me personally, I don't know about you Steph, when I watch anything now it's hard for me to turn off my producer brain. The whole time I'm thinking "how would I adapt that, how would I cast that, how would I deal with all these moments?"
Zac: Did it feel like you were working on something really special, though?
Michael: Uh, hell yeah.
Stephanie: I think I definitely knew, I knew it was something special, but did I know how people would react? No.
Stephanie: Audience success and audience feedback don't always correlate with the awesomeness of the project. Oftentimes it does but then sometimes for whatever reason people don't hear about it or don't get to see it. I did not know it would be this huge, international phenomenon.
Michael: Yeah. For the work that we do you're always alone, basically. You watch it in a vacuum, you can have your own reaction to it. Mine on this one, I mean we've gotten to work on some really incredible projects and I always feel really hashtag blessed.
Zac: <laughs> Okay.
Michael: But when I saw this, there were so many extra feels, and actually we watched it with your friend.
Michael: Which made it really fun.
Michael: You wanna give her a shoutout?
Stephanie: Caitlyn Smith. We watched it with Caitlyn Smith.
Zac: Oh right.
Stephanie: Who—I met her at an anime convention. Anyway, we watched it with her and she is pretty fluent in Japanese, although she's not Japanese, she went and taught English—I think she taught English, she lived in Japan for a little bit. She loves anime and so, I was in New York and we knew we had to review this movie for work and then we were trying to hang out, so I was like "hey I have to review this movie for work. I don't really have that much time to hang out unless you want to come and watch this movie with me for work" and then she did and the three of us watched it and it was a lot of fun.
Zac: That's cool.
Michael: Yeah, when you review something for work you're like "oh wow this is great, and we can do this and this with it," but on this one a lot of talk has been made about—and I think I can say this safely without spoiling anything—tons of feels. Tons and tons of feels. At some point I think I stood up and was like "nooo!" It was like an emotional experience watching it. It's incredible. And actually, seeing it for the first time knowing nothing, I feel has been really important for us and for everyone else watching it. I'm a super anti-spoiler person and for this film especially there's so many beautiful moments that mean so much more when you're expecting nothing.
Zac: Yeah, I didn't know too much either going into it. I'd purposefully stayed away and I felt like the experience was enhanced as a result. Would you say you were nervous to handle the dub after seeing the film for the first time?
Stephanie: I think even nervous would be an understatement.
Zac: I'm curious about the timeline, when did you first review this film? Had it come out in Japan already?
Stephanie: Uhhh, had it? I think it was about October of last year.
Zac: So yeah, so it'd been out for a few months and you had kind of heard it was a big deal.
Michael: I believe so, yeah.
Stephanie: I believe so. It had already been out but I think it hadn't beaten box office records yet.
Zac: Right, okay. It wasn't what it is now, yeah. <laughs>
Michael: It wasn't, no.
Stephanie: It had been out and it'd been at number one but it hadn't been—it was still in the middle of its run, I think, not the whole streak —
Michael: It wasn't number one, yeah. I think it was number four or three of theatrical released, but it still had a couple films above it, and it hadn't beaten Spirited Away yet. So we knew it was a Little Engine that Could, but didn't realize it was a juggernaut until later. In terms of being nervous to work on it: hell yeah. There's so much going on, there's so much nuance, there's so much culturally specific stuff, there's so much stuff that doesn't even exist in our language, like dialect. And also, we had a pretty tight turnaround.
Zac: How tight?
Michael: We had four weeks.
Michael: To go from getting materials, where we still had to actually fill in some blanks in the translation of the script, then go to adaptation, then cast a huge cast, and then direct, edit, record, mix for theatrical release all inside of four weeks. So getting the hard drive to delivering the final master was like four weeks.
Zac: That's a little ridiculous.
Michael: I feel like NYAV's sort of been known for that now. We did the first simuldub, so we're used to doing that. I mean "you get used to everything, including hangings" my mom used to say. So it's maybe not a good thing to get used to, but you stop kicking at some point.
Stephanie: I know, but you gotta stop putting that out there or else people are just gonna be like "here's an insane deadline, we know you can handle it." You know what I mean?
Michael: Or hey, we wanna hang you, just take a knee, walk it off, whatever.
Zac: Yeah, next time it'll be two weeks. They'll be like "well you said a month was fine, so we figured two weeks…
Michael: Yeah. "Fine" is a strong word.
Zac: This has got to be the number one thing you're asked about is the language challenge in this movie. Specifically dubbing it into English because of the gigantic—the movie kind of hinges on this pun that only exists in Japanese. How did you approach it as a producer?
Stephanie: We did—you know, Clark Chang who wrote the script gave us several options and we recorded… I think we recorded all of them and then Michael and I when we were recording drew in other options as well. Then we kind of just like played them back to see what worked the best. We knew that we were going to lose something. You know?
Michael: That one moment, yeah, yeah.
Stephanie: Yeah, that one moment, it wasn't going to be exactly literally what it is in Japanese because it doesn't work in a dubbed version of that.
Zac: Right, yeah.
Stephanie: But we had to figure something out.
Michael: I feel like that could be a whole interview. There's so much with a film like this. We do a lot of stuff internally that I don't think everyone does. We kind of workshopped all the different iterations of that moment. We didn't just go "oh okay we gotta do this," and then moved on. We actually, like Stephanie said, recorded all these different versions and then in the sessions improvised a bunch of other stuff. We were trying to honor what you see, like what was going to feel like it made sense, what was going to serve that moment, what was going to play into something humorous. I've now seen it a bunch of times in theatres of different audiences and it's always gotten a laugh. I don't know that it means exactly the same thing, but it seems to carry the moment. But it's tricky. There's so much context to that. What's going on with that character in that moment, I think leads us to improvise this other idea. Even after all the best-laid plans and going back and forth with everyone one the team, everyone at the studio on how to play that moment, we ended up with something that came out of just doing it as opposed to thinking about it.
Zac: So you had space, even in a month you had space for improvisation and time to work all that out.
Stephanie: We did substitute out sleep.
Michael: That's the thing, sleep is basically optional. You can also talk a lot while you're eating.
Zac: Right. <laughs>
Michael: So, yeah. I'm still making up for the sleep I missed then. But I think it's a benefit of being a boutique studio, we're all close-knit and at any hour we're throwing ideas over the internet or texting or reaching over and tapping someone and going "hey hey, what about this?" It was sort of non-stop, yeah. It's exciting! But there's no sleep…
Zac: So you turned in a hard drive. Was your work reviewed by CoMix Wave, the people who made the film? They personally supervised the Chinese dub, for example – did you have that kind of oversight?
Stephanie: That I don't… I assume they did.
Michael: That's above our pay grade. I know that our dub was not gonna be released until Toho reviewed the trailer, which had to be built after we recorded the movie. So we recorded the movie, then Anime Limited pulled the lines from our dialogue-only stems—we sent them individual clips so they could build the trailer. But the trailer had to be the same trailer they made in Japan. Based on those pulls from the movie, building the trailer, Toho signed off on our dub. That's as much as I know. If they reviewed the entire thing, I'm not sure. But that was Toho the distributor.
Stephanie: I think that's our understanding.
Michael: The largest distributor in Japan.
Stephanie: That was my understanding of the situation. Or maybe it was about approving it, approving the dub to be played in theaters or something like that? It's something along those lines, yeah.
Michael: Supervision like that would've been tough - we were recording our stuff, we were directing each other—we would direct all day and then break for dinner at like sometimes nine or ten o'clock, get back in the studio at eleven or twelve, and then record until four or five in the morning. So I don't think anybody would've wanted to supervise us.
Stephanie: Was it that late? I don't even remember.
Zac: You really don't want a reputation for doing this. <laughs>
Michael: Yeah, can we redact that?
Stephanie: Yeah, what? I don't remember until four or five. I feel like it was 2 AM, I don't know.
Michael: Oh we were definitely going until four. I remember being awake until four.
Stephanie: I can't stay awake that long.
Zac: So you're saying if we listen closely, can we tell which takes happened at 2:30 in the morning? Would we be able to tell?
Michael: Yeah, we saved all the groggy waking-up stuff for when it was like four AM.
Zac: Did you get a chance to meet Makoto Shinkai at all? Did he have anything to say about your work?
Michael: Actually we did get to meet him. At the screening in LA for the Oscars.
Stephanie: We did get to meet him but at that point he hadn't seen it actually.
Zac: Oh, okay.
Michael: But he did think it was cool that we were both the directors and both the leads, and he thought "oh, that's great," he seemed to have a pretty positive reaction to that. One thing that—this is so dumb. There's a shirt in the movie when my character is going to go on a surprise date. The shirt that he wears is a shirt that I actually own, mine is a crew neck his is a v neck. So I wore that with the jacket that he wears, and it was like my lazy cosplay because I'm not really a cosplayer. So I wore that hoping he would notice. <laughs> That senpai would notice my lazy cosplay.
Zac: Did he?
Michael: He didn't. It was quick. I was like "should I tell him? No, I shouldn't tell him."
Zac: You're like the twentieth guy who came up in a shirt like that and was like "ehh?"
Michael: He was like "ahhh, all the same."
Stephanie: You know what? Michael actually owns another pair of pants that Taki wears.
Michael: Oh yeah!
Zac: It was destiny.
Michael: A pair of Ben Sherman pants. It was destiny. No, that's the thing. Let's talk about destiny for a second. On Stephanie's birthday, just a little while ago, there was this meteor show and this meteor split and lit up the sky in southern California on her birthday while Your Name is playing in theaters and there's a comet in the movie. I just think that's no accident.
Stephanie: For the record I just want to clarify: nobody died in the meteor shower.
At least not because of it.
Zac: <laughs> Ah, that's good. It didn't like turn Eagle Rock into a crater or anything?
Michael: <laughs> Eagle Rock! You don't want to know how they make their craft beers.
Stephanie: It did split apart, right?
Michael: Yeah, yeah, really happened. Right? There was a meteor shower. That's "musubi.
Zac: Amazing. Happy birthday by the way. Stephanie why don't we start with you, what was the hardest scene to pull off? Since you directed Michael, what was the hardest scene to direct?
WARNING: YOUR NAME SPOILERS BEGIN HERE. Scroll down to skip.
Stephanie: I think the hardest scene definitely for Michael is—woah, wait if I say this it's going to spoil the movie. This is a tricky thing with all the interviews regarding this film is that a lot of the making of—all right, put your fingers in your ears, or actually blindfold yourself because this is going to be in print, or just skip over this question. It's when he is on the mountaintop and he forgets her name. It's really, really emotional. So obviously directing Michael to get to that point and hit those moments right is important. So it's this big moment and the music comes in but you also don't want it to be overly done or too dramatic, because we really tried to make the tone of the dub a little bit more on the real side. So that was a little bit tricky, and there's all this tricky sync in there too. So that was the hardest part to direct. I'm trying to figure out what's the hardest part for me as acting. I think overall this film—I can't really pinpoint one scene, I just think overall it's tricky. I had a much harder time playing Mitsuha than I did playing Taki. Because my personality, I think, can be a little bit more like a boy. So it was a little easier for me. Then on top of that, I don't know if audiences will know this, but Mitsuha has a bit of a regionalism. She has a bit of an accent that we came up with. So there was a lot of things you're juggling with her. I think she behaves a certain way when she's comfortable with her friends and then in a different way when she's dealing with all the pressures of her life. It was a little trickier I think. For me, overall in the film, the voice changes a bunch. When you see her in Tokyo later she doesn't have the regionalism anymore, she doesn't speak with an accent but she's slightly older. That voice is also different than what she sounds like when Taki's inhabiting her body. And that's also different than when she's younger and she does have the slight accent. So overall it was kind of challenging.
Zac: Yikes, that sounds tough. Michael, same question for you.
Michael: You know what I think the hardest scene in the movie was when they meet on the mountaintop. Not only was there a lot of tricky stuff to sync both in performance—and by "sync" I don't mean flap, I mean syncing up the performance to all of the visuals and the context of that moment which is really, really complex. Mitsuha has a whole bunch of stuff going on with her, it's a very emotional meeting, then she bounces between hope and shock and being upset and being put-off and maybe being a little bit love struck and all these things are happening in super rapid succession, just bouncing between them all. So getting all those things justified, that was the trickiest thing as a director, and as an actor on the other side of that scene. Lucky for me, Taki is a little more cool and understated in that section, so all the heavy lifting's really on Mitsuha's part. So I'd say the hardest thing for me was exactly what Stephanie said she had to direct me through. And then directing Stephanie in the same scene.
It's funny, because we came up with a rule early on. We're both directors, we're both actors, but we're directing each other. And when we are—spoiler alert—each other. There's a body swapping thing going on, that's a known thing, it's in the trailer. But when Mitsuha was inhabiting my voice, then I could question some direction, we could have some discussion about moments, but it would always fall to her judgment because 1) she's a director 2) she's the girl. The inverse was true. When I was directing her as Taki inhabiting her body, she had to defer to me. There were some little things that I think really affects how realistically masculine and feminine we are. I know there's a scene where she's riding a bike and she's pedaling really hard up a hill and she sort of flips and a bike falls and she played it like "ah!" like a scared kind of reaction, and I was like "no, as a dude, rather than be scared of almost falling, be pissed off at the inconvenience that now you've lost your ride and you've got to get somewhere real fast." So eye on the prize, it feels more Taki to me to be like "dammit, I gotta get there!" versus "oh no, I almost got hurt!" Finding some little things like that really inform it. But yeah, she was a great dude, which is such a surprise, because if anyone knows Stephanie Sheh she's such a lovely little lady.
Stephanie: I'm a dude.
Michael: All right, she's a dude. Fine, you're a dude. And I have been accused of having a pretty strong feminine side. Which I'm frankly proud of.
Stephanie: It's true.
Zac: Well I think worked out in the long run.
Stephanie: Yeah, so. We sometimes… late at night, there was some arguing that basically if he was supposed to be Mitsuha then I got to veto him and vice versa. The thing that's really tricky about this film is that with the accents and with the swapping of genders is that the character's voice still has to be there. It has to be there, that's what distinguishes the characters when you're watching it. But at the same time their biology is still the same. The lungs, their larynx, the body cavity that produces the sound is still the same. So it's not like you're going to make a completely different voice for the same person producing the sound.
Stephanie: But on top of that, in reference to the accent, is that we wanted to keep it super subtle because if it was a full-on accent, the people around them would immediately notice and immediately call something fishy, or immediately be like "cut it out", know what I mean? Because if your friends all started speaking with a British accent or a Southern accent, a very identifiable, distinguishable accent then you couldn't help but call it out and keep pressing them until it went away. So if it was something that was more subtle, so that it was like "wait, it kind of sounds like you have an accent" and sometimes you notice it and sometimes you don't, then to us it would be more believable. We had to keep it in there also because it's referenced in the dialogue, but it also helps the character. But we did want to keep it super subtle. And to be honest, I think the dialect in the Japanese version, it's not really an accent, it's a way of saying things grammatically, expressions and stuff like that and we don't have enough of that in the English language regionally to effectively make that direct swap. So in anime it's always done with an accent. But whenever they substitute Southern for a Kansai-ben it always take me out of the show.
Michael: Yeah me too, it really pulls my—
Stephanie: So we did something noticeable but subtle.
Michael: So we kind of came up with something different. Also because the city in question is based on Hida, which is more in the north and sort of the west. So we were like "hm." It started out with the idea of "does that mean they're western?" So we experimented with a little bit of Fargo and that was kind of catastrophic. Something we do at NYAV Post a lot, the audition process for me is such an important step. It's not just about finding the right actors, I mean you audition to cast, but it's also an opportunity to workshop some stuff. As we pulled people in and had them do something Fargo, it would often spiral off into something Irish.
Zac: Yeah, Minneapolis into Dublin.
Michael: And we were like "oh, crud, we've got no time to get this done, and how are we going to find enough people that can do the accent without slipping into something else…" And it was so ear-pullingly distracting. It also sort of implied something innocent and maybe a bit less intelligent, which is not what we wanted to convey, it's not about that. It's not like "oh, everyone's an oh yeah oh my gosh," all the trigger words people would come in and start doing to get into the accent would change everyone's personality. So it had to be something more subtle. And Stephanie and I came it from a couple different places and we met in the middle and came up with something a little bit unique.
Stephanie: Yeah, because we were talking about kind of a blend between mid-west and Minnesotans, what we all think of as Minnesotan is that very strong Fargo "Dontcha," a lot of that.
Stephanie: When we were casting there was a Prince tribute concert in Minnesota. They were interviewing this reporter that went to cover it and she's from Minnesota and I was listening to her talk and I could hear the accent but it was super, super subtle. Like the "o"s, we kind of modeled it after that. I recorded it and we played it back. It's funny, because some of the people I played it for could hear the accent and some of the people couldn't hear the accent.
Stephanie: So it's kind of what we were going for a little bit. It's funny, because on the internet I've been like lurking and reading some reviews and some people were just… the accent work completely flew over their head, they didn't notice it at all, and other people did notice it, so it's kind of a weird one.
Michael: It's exactly what we're going for. It needed to be subtle , but for me it really makes the town, Itamori, feel different. When you're there, it just feels townie. It feels like everyone knows everyone and there's a different sort of laid-back vibe. By contrast, everything happening in Tokyo, I really think that subtle accent carries a lot of weight. And it's not too much to be distracting. It was tricky, yeah. We borrowed vowels from something more Boston or a little bit Cape Cod, someone I know from Cape Cod that I used to work with. So we made this little amalgam for this fictitious city that would feel townie. I think townie's really the word we came up with. It's still more townie accent than exactly mid-western.
Zac: That's a real specific thing.
Stephanie: Michael also, the way we divided up the labor for the most part, not entirely, but for the most part, Michael directed most of the Tokyo people and I directed more of the Itamori people.
Your Name is still playing in some theaters around the country; check your local listings for details. Thanks to Funimation for arranging this interview.
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