Reviewby Theron Martin, Jul 25th 2008
Ever wondered what it's like to be a voice actor? Ever wanted to break into the business itself? Over the course of five episodes English voice actors, directors, and studio execs for American anime productions discuss various issues related to the animation dubbing business in the United States, including such topics as breaking into the business, auditioning, what it takes to be a voice actor, the intricacies of the job, how anime voice acting compares to original animation voice acting, and so forth. Included are interviews with Crispin Freeman, Wendee Lee, Michelle Ruff, Steven Blum, Johnny Yong Bosch, Kari Wahlgren, Luci Christian, Laura Bailey, Lex Lang, Vic Mignogna, Kate Higgins, Stephanie Sheh, Beau "Jet" Billingslea, Mona Marshall, Yuri Lowenthal, Barbara Goodson, the late Bob Papenbrook, and dozens of others.
Sure, some of you are probably thinking, “why would I want to spend over 130 minutes just watching anime voice actors and related personnel talk about anime dubbing work?” The producers at Bang Zoom! realized this, too, which is why this endeavor is divided into five topical episodes with loosely-defined subjects like What is a Voice Actor, The Process, Finding a Way In, Advice, and Is It Worth It? Although these subjects tend to run together, the episode break points offer palatable subdivisions that should not tax anyone's tolerance level. Still, once you start watching this you may not want to stop. Brisk pacing and skillful editing keep the piece from ever getting dull, and the wealth of insight and detail involved in these conversation pieces can be both involving and fascinating. If you have ever been curious about voice actors or what is involved with being a voice actor (especially an anime voice actor), this is a DVD you will want to pick up. If you are enthusiastic about becoming an anime voice actor yourself, this is a DVD you need to pick up.
Some may find this material worth watching just for the people involved, as getting to see the faces associated with the voices you've heard, and names you've known, for years can be interesting on its own. The DVD features clips from interviews with 66 different English VAs with anime experience, ranging from most seasoned veteran Wendee Lee (who cut her teeth on 1985's Robotech and has since worked on more than 200 other titles) to fresh newcomer Xanthe Huynh (her first role was the lead in this year's Kite Liberator) to those with only peripheral anime involvement who are better-known for work in other acting fields, such as Lance Henriksen (Bishop from Aliens, the star of the TV series Millenium) and Tom Kenny (the voice of Spongebob Squarepants). Few are obscure, so any long-term dub fan will probably be able to recognize at least two-thirds of them. The behavior of some is also inherently interesting, as some take this much more seriously than others and some are much more animated than others. One of the bigger surprises is how reserved, even a bit tentative, Steven Blum is given the cocky, energetic roles he often voices, while Kate Higgins continues her tradition of wearing T-shirts of Sakura from Naruto (probably her best-known role) in anime-related interviews. Getting to see what the VAs look like also reinforces the notion that appearance doesn't matter when voice acting, a point which several of the interviewees bring up themselves as a reason for liking the business; while a few prominent VAs have the kind of handsome, glamorous look you would expect from a movie star (especially Yuri Lowenthal and Mary Elizabeth McGlynn), many don't.
Appearances are not limited to just interviewed, established VAs, either. Several anime VAs make appearances in groups or backgrounds but are not interviewed, and part of episode 3 focuses on some prospective VAs who are looking to break into the anime voicing business but have not been successful yet. Some prominent ADR directors, casting directors, and studio execs also make brief interviewed and non-interviewed appearances, as do Cartoon Network producers Sean Akins and Jason DeMarco.
The content is just as interesting as the people. While most of the insight presented here can probably be found in Extras scattered about innumerable anime DVDs, a more concentrated source of information on the business and its practicalities will be hard to find. In various segments interviewees talk about the technical details of actual voice acting performances, what the audition process involves, how one can break into the business, the kind of commitment it takes to do work like this, what is needed to be good at the job, and the practical realities of being a voice actor. Certain technical aspects like walla recordings (i.e. group background noise) are also explained. Although sometimes lively and entertaining, these discussions are often very frank and sometimes not very complimentary; the warning message on the case that “watching AIVA could change your perception of Voice Acting forever” may be a little overdramatic but is still appropriate. Amongst points repeatedly raised throughout the productions: anime voice acting is actually especially difficult compared to other types of voice acting, anyone serious about voice acting (including established VAs) should take whatever classes and training they can get, flexibility is absolutely essential, and being a VA (especially an anime VA) is not something you can do half-heartedly, as it requires exceptional dedication and great durability in the face of extensive rejection and criticism. In fact, some of the most somber moments involve prominent VAs talking about the lowest moments in their careers. Although the content does not dwell on pay issues, some interviewees do generally comment on the low pay scale in anime relative to its difficulty level and other VA work, and episode 5 makes it clear that people who can live on anime VA work alone are few; most have regular jobs, do extensive non-anime work, and/or are regularly involved in other aspects of the production process for American anime releases. Perhaps most interestingly, while interviewees are usually consistent on their opinions on various issues, there are exceptions. They give a vast range of differing opinions on whether or not prospective VAs should try to break into the business and what kind of attitude is necessary for such an endeavor, for instance.
Certain segments also give the interviewees a chance to reveal things about themselves. Which VAs were huge anime fans going in, which ones thought that “anime” was actually the name of a project going into their first audition, and which ones appreciate the material but are not otherwise much interested in anime? (Stephanie Sheh's comments about how her acting and scripting work has toned back her pre-acting fandom are particularly interesting here.) Which prominent VA got into anime voice acting at least partly because he wanted to help assure that anime would not turn people away with dubs that sucked? Although the vast majority of anime VAs come out of formal acting training and/or from other acting-related backgrounds, which prominent and widely-respected VA, who has done numerous leading roles over the past decade, had no prior acting training or experience whatsoever? Which VA/ADR director got into voice acting due in part to a broken leg suffered during the filming of Xena, Warrior Princess? And which well-known VA initially got into acting only because she followed her boyfriend to an acting program? You'll have to watch to find out.
Rather than use long interview pieces, as is generally seen on anime DVD Extras, nearly all of the content is composed of brief interview clips and behind-the-scenes footage spliced together topically; rarely does a single interviewee stay on the screen for significantly more than 30 seconds at a shot. Thanks to a skillful editing job, the clips combine to create a pleasing natural flow which belies the fact that they took place in disparate times and locations. The only clips that stick out at all are those featuring Vic Mignogna, and that involves a major discrepancy in audio quality rather than any content inconsistency. Occasionally interspersed amongst the interviews are brief clips from more than two dozen different anime series and a couple of non-anime titles, which are generally used to highlight particular comments. While a nice touch, their use is the least impressive aspect of the overall production. Better is the DVD's habit of regularly identifying VAs as they come up rather than just the first time each episode, and interviewees who are identified multiple times invariably have a different one of their prominent roles associated with them each time. Each episode begins with a brief original animation of an animated mike stand doing something at least vaguely related to the episode content. The upbeat but generic music used to front and end the whole production is otherwise not worthy of comment.
Like any normal anime DVD, this one also has Extras. Vocal Warm-Ups shows various warm-up techniques used by VAs, while Virtual Voice Actor gives the viewer a chance to practice voicing lines from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (as either Haruhi or Kyon) under the direction of ADR director Tony Oliver. Words of Wisdom provides written advice from many of the VAs involved in the interviews, while the Additional Footage offers the segments talking about being an anime fan (or not) in the business, content that did not easily fit into the flow of any of the episodes.
The DVD does have some flaws. A few people are listed in the credits as being shown in interviews but never actually appear in any of the interview pieces (most notably Colleen Clinkenbeard), and conspicuously absent from any of the discussions is any commentary about foley work (i.e. the grunts, sighs, and other innocuous vocal sound effects in a dub), which is often mentioned in VA audio commentaries as one of the most taxing aspects of their work. The content also mentions almost nothing about interacting with fandom, which is a significant part of the job for many anime VAs. On the upside, the producers make an especially classy move by ending the production with a dedication to the memory of the recently-deceased Bob Papenbrook, who appears regularly throughout the production
Despite the aforementioned omissions and the exclusive focus on the American side of anime dubbing, even those who look down on English dubs of anime may find this project to be an enlightening and worthwhile view, and it could help dispel some nasty lingering misconceptions about American anime VAs. Dub fans almost certainly will find a lot to like, especially if you normally enjoy English audio commentary tracks and DVD Extras focusing on English language production.
Overall : B+
+ Excellent editing and pacing, lots of interesting commentary.
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