Interview: Tony Oliver on Adventures in Voice Acting

by Zac Bertschy,

For a while now, Bang Zoom Entertainment has been running a series of voice acting workshops around the country, answering the eternal question: “how do I become an anime voice actor?”. We sat down with Tony Oliver, a longtime voice actor, director and producer who also happens to teach these classes to find out what it's all about.

So tell us a little about what you do.

I've been a voice actor for 25 years, and I've also worked as a producer and a director. I started with The Sea Prince and the Fire Child, which is an anime film, and then went on to play Rick Hunter in Robotech. Later on I started writing, helped to create and produce The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. After that I went back into anime; I direct an awful lot, and do voices for cartoons, games, and anime.

These classes – this started as a Bang Zoom thing, and they tapped you to run it? How did all this come to be?

Well, Bang Zoom got so many questions about how to get into the business, how to become a voice actor, that they decided to do a documentary about that called Adventures in Voice Acting. At the same time they started offering classes to people, both as a service to help answer that question – “how do I get into voice acting” – and also to help develop talent. I came along right about the time they were doing that and agreed to teach a class, and I really loved doing it, so we decided to move forward together and make it a part of Adventures in Voice Acting, and now it's starting to take off.

So this all falls under the ‘Adventures in Voice Acting’ umbrella, so to speak.

Yeah, it just kinda made sense, since they all serve the same purpose, teaching people how to get into this business that's so often very difficult to get into.

Now, there are several tiers of classes, right?

Yeah, we have two tiers right now, we have a beginner's class and I just started doing an intermediate class. We'll be adding an advanced class probably later in the year.

Could you give us a rundown of what people could expect from these two different classes?

Well, they're both geared toward anime. The first class is really just basics – what is voice acting, a little time on ‘what acting is’, and how to achieve that; it isn't just reading lines, there's emotion involved. Just like any other craft or art, there are techniques you need to learn and practice. So we give you an overview of those things. I also get into vocal production, how you use your voice, the mechanics of that – it's something you develop over time, not something you can do in one day. We also talk about the techniques of recording an anime dub, how we do ADR, Automated Dialogue Replacement, and what that entails. And then we spend the rest of the afternoon practicing; we take you into a real recording studio, at Bang Zoom, and give you practice recording actual voices, using actual shows. I give pretty straightforward critique as to where people are, and what they need to work on, and what techniques they should practice. It's an entire day class, 8 hours long – it's kind of Voice Acting Boot Camp for a day.

In the intermediate class, we talk about developing characters, and how you do that. Every actor who goes into a studio to audition or perform usually has a little ‘tool box’, so to speak, of standard voices they can use to start with and then they build characters off of that. So we spend time developing your tool box, the various voices you have to create characters. We also touch on original animation and how that's done, which is different from anime in certain ways, recording without pictures in a group. Again, we get back into the studio to practice, with a little more focus on what people need to do to audition and work professionally.

What's the average class size? How many students do you get per class? I assume this is kept fairly intimate.

Yeah, we keep the classes small – I like to keep them under 12 people. Generally there are about 9-12 people on average per class. The beginning class we can get up to 15, although we try to avoid that. Intermediate classes are 10-12 max, because it requires a little more mic time when you're getting into creating characters; we like to give people a chance to try different things. You get a lot of my time!
Even though it's a group effort, it is a very personal art, and we deal with people one-on-one when we're working with the microphone.

Can people just skip straight to the intermediate? I imagine most people go through the beginner's course first, but do you get people who maybe do have some experience taking the intermediate class just to get more training or more practice?

Well, so far the way we're trying to do this, we're trying to make sure anyone taking the intermediate class has prior training. If not through us, then one of the other workshops around that we recognize, or that they've been working a little professionally. It's a tough class in that we don't pull punches – I'm not mean or anything [laughs] but you need a certain level of experience walking into that, because you're surrounded by people who do. The beginner's class is geared toward people who've never done it before.

I would imagine you have some issue – I mean, you've seen the sort of people who go to anime cons and say “I wanna be a voice actor!” and they're teenagers or whatever, I would imagine the class structure you have helps weed the people out who aren't serious about it.

Well, yes, plus the class costs some money – that kinda helps keep people who aren't really serious about it out, but yeah – voice acting is not an easy thing. In some ways it's more difficult just because of the style of acting, having to use your voice far more technically… so if you walk into an intermediate class just because you made some funny voices and people said you were good, it's going to be tough, since we move really quickly into the meat and potatoes of professional acting.

Now, since this is focused mostly on anime voice acting – you mentioned that there was a part of the class that deals with original American animation, which is a different style of acting, to my knowledge – have you considered doing classes for people who don't necessarily want to do anime work, but rather doing shows for Cartoon Network or that sort of thing?

We do have some plans for that – as we've gotten into this, we've learned that there are a lot of different segments that people like to learn. The reason we started with anime is because that's where Bang Zoom came from and that's where the people who have approached us came from.

Whether you're doing anime or original animation, though, it really is the same – it's the same job, just with anime you have the added technical component of having to work with the finished animation. So we actually start with the more difficult thing first! [laughs] Anime acting is actually far more difficult than doing the other stuff simply because of the additional technical component to it. The time we spend in the intermediate class in terms of original animation is really just a continuation of what we've been doing all day.

Ultimately we do have plans to expand into other areas, including original animation and commercial production. We spend a little time on games in the intermediate class, but at some point we'll probably expand that into a full course.

Is there any concern – and I'm sure you've noticed this – that the number of dubs being produced is shrinking considerably, and the number of jobs out there would appear to be very limited, and sometimes it seems like it's generally the same 10-15 people getting most of the work. Is there room for a whole bunch of new talent in the pool? Is there work for these people?

Well, yeah, of course there is. I've heard this for 20-some years; there's never any work, it's a very closed business, it's very cliquish, and there's an element of truth to that. However, this is anime, and I've seen it go through 2 or 3 cycles, where it gets big, and then there's work, and then there's a downturn, and there's not a lot of work, and so yeah, there is work for people who are talented and tenacious and can commit themselves to it. It's not an overnight thing. Actually there's a big influx of work in games, and that's where the work is increasing, and the technical skills involved in doing voiceover work for games are the same as they are for anime.
The fact is, it's a tough business to get into. Not everyone can do it, and not everyone who's good gets in. So my attitude is, the work comes and goes, we're always looking for new talent who can do things we've never heard before. The tragedy is when people who have talent don't try – then there really is no hope.

Have you ever hired anyone out of your classes?

Yes, a number of times – many people who have gone through our courses have gone on to do work for Bang Zoom. I actually just hired one of my ex-students on a feature film I was doing some recording for. There's always a chance – one of the nice things about attending a workshop attached to a working studio is that if there's an opportunity that we might have for them, we might pick up the phone and give them a shot at auditioning.

Finally – and this is just for fun – if there was one project you could've worked on, anything that for whatever reason you weren't a part of, what would it have been?

Cowboy Bebop! [laughs] I would've loved to have been in that show. But other than that, I've been very lucky with the projects I have been involved with.

The next Adventures in Voice Acting Beginner Level Workshop is happening on February 28th, 2009, at Bang Zoom! Studios in Burbank, California. You can read all about it here:

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