Exclusive Interview: Viz Media's Charlene Ingram and Josh Lopez on Sailor Moonby Zac Bertschy, May 16th 2014
Charlene Ingram is the Senior Manager of Animation Marketing for Viz Media; Josh Lopez is a producer on Viz's upcoming Sailor Moon release. We sat down with them both in advance of the show's big announcement to get all the details.
ANN: When did Viz start looking into getting Sailor Moon licensed and how important was it to the company?
Charlene: Sailor Moon is kind of that unlicensed "big" show that anybody would love to have, and I'm sure everybody has tried for it. So it's been well over a year at least, trying to acquire it. The process started before I began working at Viz so I don't know a lot about the initial rumblings, but it was just one of those very big and very important shows for us. It really fits in that wheelhouse with the types of shows that do really well with Viz. But with Sailor Moon being unlicensed for so long, there's a "will anybody even believe it when it happens?" aspect to it, because it had a reputation of being completely unlicensable. So needless to say, when it finally looked like it was going to happen, there was still unsureness on our side. "Okay, well that would be nice, we'll believe it when it comes in." Then it started going along, all these negotiations were happening, and I'm sure everybody put in bids for it. At the end, Viz was chosen and it was quite "Holy crap!" That was the reaction, like "Really? Really? Oh my gosh, this is really going to happen." Even still, it didn't feel completely real until a big box of tapes landed at your desk, right Josh?
Josh: Yeah. Seeing "Sailor Moon 1-46" was a very real moment. (laugh)
Charlene: Yeah, you're just holding a big piece of history. So it was a long drawn-out process, and I think everybody in executive acquisitions, marketing, just everybody felt like it was a no-brainer that we all wanted it, but it had just been held back for so long for a multitude of reasons. We made the best pitch we could for it, we wanted to put it out as true to the Japanese version as possible, so we just feel amazed and honored that we were chosen to embark on this magical journey with a show that meant so much for so many of us. Sailor Moon and Ranma and Dragonball Z were the first anime that a lot of our team had ever seen, so it's a little surreal and exciting. The gravitas of it is not lost on anybody in the team. I think a lot of us felt like we had our very own Luna show up in a box and say, "You've been chosen! Just say this magical phrase. Now you must put this out!" So okay, not exactly a "Moon Prism Power" setup, but close.
It sounds like it wasn't a traditional bidding war for a license, but that you were "selected" by Toei to finally be the ones to release this show.
Charlene: Well, we obviously don't know what other companies were doing for it, but we know that there were many competitive bids for the show.
Yeah, you have to figure that for something like that, companies like Shout Factory would try to go after it.
Charlene: Yeah, we hear there were even some Hollywood outfits too. It's one of those few anime series that has real recognition outside of the anime space. You can ask just about anybody who has even a little familiarity with cartoons, let alone anime, about Sailor Moon and they know what that is. That's a very rare item, right up there with something like Dragonball Z or Naruto or Bleach. So while there wasn't a typical licensing bid process to it, partially because of its age and history, it was still competitive.
You mentioned Naruto and Bleach, and I would put it in a more rarified air than even that, as a gigantic nostalgia-bomb for 90s kids. The show has been unavailable for a really long time.
Charlene: Over ten years! The last official home video release of the title was right about ten years ago, and then it all went out of print across the board.
I wanted to ask about your personal experience with the franchise. Were you guys fans in the 90s? Was it a pivotal thing for you in the early stages of your anime fandom?
Charlene: Yeah, Josh, coming from a dude's perspective, how did you know about Sailor Moon back in the day?
Josh: Well, there were all the younger sisters or younger cousins that would fight over the channel-changer, so I wasn't necessarily watching it back then, but I knew its importance early on, definitely.
Charlene: For me, Ranma was my first anime that I knew was anime, and my first manga. I started getting those inklings like "Ooh, this is the fan niche for me, this anime and manga thing, this is where I belong." But the Sailor Moon dub came on Cartoon Network in between my classes in college, so I would have my TV on, and I'd catch it and become a little transfixed by it. Thinking back on it, Sailor Moon was the anime title that fully solidified me as a fan for life. That was the defining experience. That was the one where I knew I would be locked and loaded forever. In that way, it's very special, and it's special for a lot of people who saw it in that timeframe too. It's got that sort of magic to it that brings you into that world of anime and makes you feel like you can be a little something greater than you are. You're not just a normal girl, you've got something magical inside you, something special. It's one of those series that people find some part of it that resonates with them. There's Sailor Moon anime fans, there's Sailor Moon manga fans, there's Sailor Moon live-action fans. Where I ended up settling was as a Sailor Moon musical fan. I love the manga, I love the anime, I love everything about it, but it was experiencing those musicals that really got me. After watching Sailor Moon in English and then going to a convention and watching the Japanese version, and hearing the differences for the first time blew my mind. It blew my mind to hear things in Japanese besides Ranma, hearing how high-pitched Usagi was, or how the transformation sequences were different and had a disco beat. It became a whole new thing, and it triggered that switch a lot of fans experience where they just want to start consuming everything "anime." So even though I'm well past that kind of fandom now, for Sailor Moon I'm most excited about bringing that experience to a whole new generation. You never know, someone may watch this and decide they want to come into this anime lifestyle. In that way, it's very important.
Just giving people the chance to relive the earliest days of their fandom, because it's been out of print for so long, that's a big deal too, I think. That show means a lot to a lot of people, and they're finally get the chance to legally see it again.
Josh: We've had fans and friends alike approach us on a regular basis, begging us to bring it back at any cost.
Charlene: It's one of those things where everyone who works in the North American anime industry has a story about a fan following them around insisting they release Sailor Moon.. Working on the show now, having not experienced it in so many years, and looking at the scripts and the translations, the thing that hit home the most with me and got me really excited about bringing it back out is just how many progressive themes are in this show from the early 90s.
In your announcement, there are plenty of details about how you're planning to release this show, and I'm sure much of that was dictated by Toei, but what was your own biggest priority for this release?
Charlene: We'd been talking about that as a team for a while, but we really solidified it when looking at the initial feedback on the Ranma sets. With a big title like Sailor Moon, do you make the release more like the Naruto sets or do you go with something that's a little more collector? There's two prongs to that here. There are the fans that were born and raised on Sailor Moon, and then there's the new people coming into it so we wanted to make sure those fans from back in the day who remember it fondly have something that's like a trophy to put on their case to remind them of that time. Give them that beautiful release that they've always wanted and they deserve, reward them for being patient. That LE strategy is going to be, well not a Ranma clone, but it'll take a page from the Ranma release because it was so well received. It's going to be unique and special in its own way, fitting Sailor Moon. There's going to be a combo pack that will be the limited edition, but there will also be the DVD version accessible to more mass-market retailers, that's going to be positioned for new fans that might not know anime. Hopefully people will discover it that way or through the Hulu streams, too. For the limited editions, we want it to be beautiful and worthy of what Sailor Moon means to anime and deserves to have. It's more than just making it pretty because it's Sailor Moon. It needs to be an avatar for a great anime title, and have a full release look across all five seasons. We want that shelf continuity, we want that pride, and we want the fans old and new to look at it and say "Yeah, that's the way it ought to be done."
Have you decided on a release format for stuff that isn't the television seasons, like in a box set of films and shorts, or will you release those separately? Have you decided any of that yet?
Charlene: It's a little too early to tell. We're still looking at all the material that's available. Getting a release plan complete for the TV sets is the first priority. Movies will be slotted in there, but there just aren't nearly as many details at this time .
The subtitled version will be streaming soon on Hulu and Neon Alley as well. I think Neon Alley is just Hulu at this point though, right?
Charlene: Well, Neon Alley is a network on Hulu.
Charlene: When you watch it on Neonalley.com , you will have the ability to interact with it and be in that social ecosystem, but if you want to watch it on a device or kick back and watch it on your TV, you would use the Hulu Plus app. But it will be available free on both Neonalley.com and Hulu.com starting May 19. It's important to us, because this is such a big title, to have a free option available. Sailor Moon has never been free, legal, and official online here.
So this show's coming out on Bluray and it's an old show from the 90s, just like Ranma. What kind of restoration are we talking about here?
Charlene: In 2009, there was a restoration done. Those are the very best materials available for Sailor Moon, and it is a 90s shojo anime, so there are challenges there. But we've been working with some companies that are really great at what they do and they've developed a way to not just do the inverse telecine but to really remaster that video. It looks significantly better than any other DVD that's come out, lots of care was put into it. You don't have to worry about any fake-widescreen, it's in a fully uncropped pillarbox, all the original colors are preserved, and a lot of care was taken to go along with our official style guides and official materials to make sure all of the colors are the way they were intended to be. Everything looks nice and crisp and clear, but you still have to understand that season 1 is a 1992 TV Anime.
You got really high marks for the work you did on Ranma, so would you compare it to that in terms of quality?
Charlene: It's different from Ranma because there were different materials to work from and it was a completely different production. When we were evaluating, and I know Josh was a part of that team, we all took some good hard looks at the assets available, what type of Blu-ray restoration could be done, from key scenes to casual scenes to transformation scenes, just doing all kinds of Blu-ray tests on them and being brutally honest in deciding whether or not to even attempt it. It had to be a beautiful restoration that does it justice and doesn't make it look like something it's not. We didn't want to futz with the animation at all, we just wanted to make it as clear as it possibly could be. The first couple versions we tried were not-so-much, and we said "Mm. No." Then the teams went back and came up with some more workflows, more refinements to take it very slow and detailed instead. For that last Blu-ray test, we all watched it in the QC room and I was amazed. I said "Wow, this looks like a Sailor Moon Blu-ray, I'm sold." So that's when we all made the decision. I think the fans are gonna be impressed with it. The sets will be a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack so if for some reason they don't want to watch the Blu-ray, the content will be there on DVD as well.
Well, old farts like me may remember that last time the first season was available, it was from ADV more than ten years ago, around 2003. Those sets looked bad and sounded worse, and they were just going with the materials that were available at the time. That would have been five or six years before that restoration happened, so at least we can look forward to an upgrade from that. Those were even in mono, they didn't have stereo audio for it.
Charlene: I cherished those though, because I missed the boat at the beginning, and they sold out very quickly. I remember having to hunt them down in the Gen Con dealers room for two hundred dollars a pop. I saw all four of them and went up to that poor guy like "All of the money. Take it!" And then I watched them and it was just not the quality I was hoping for but I was so happy to own them because of what they represented. The quality between those sets for season 1 and 2 and the 2009 restoration is night and day. From the 2009 restoration to what we have now is at least as much of a striking difference, because the 2009 restoration, while a considerable improvement due to having those materials, still has some issues in it. Some of the color balances are off, like Sailor Moon’ skin is very very pink, some of her skin tones are like bubblegum pink, practically. So we wanted to keep the quality, but also preserve the colors. We took the utmost care with it.. In some ways, I think the difference is more stark than Ranma. It's hard to explain in words without just having the picture in front of you and saying "Dude, look at this."
Will the stuff that shows up on Hulu at least give people an idea of what it will look like? Generally the bitrates are not quite high enough there to give you an accurate picture of what the bluray's gonna look like, but that'll be from your current masters at least.
Charlene: Yeah, it'll look much better on Hulu in HD than it does on DVD, but any time you stream something, it depends on your connection. We will be premiering two episodes at Anime Expo and we will at least have screengrabs of those previous releases shown in the presentation. The difference will definitely be clear. I remember watching that transformation sequence with Josh and when you originally saw that scene way back when, some of the little stuff in the background seemed like "Oh, there's a lot of little dots and bubbles in the background." Now, you can tell that all those little bits and bobs in the background are actually stars. You can see all the pleats on the skirts, you can see all the little strands of hair, you can see all of that detail. It makes me think like "Wow, I wish I had that when I was cosplaying Sailor Moon characters because clearly I did it wrong before!"
So let's talk about the new dub, or at least as much as you can talk about it at this point. I know it's still in its infancy at this point, but is it fully cast and when does production on that start?
Josh: We've just begun recording. We recorded a couple of the key characters, so we're just establishing our main characters at the moment. We're going to cast as we go, though. We're just in our first season at the moment.
Charlene: The main Sailor Guardians have been cast, Tuxedo Mask, Luna, all the people who show up in the early parts. Recording actually kicked off last week, Josh was down in L.A. last week, and I went down for the first day on Tuesday. So it's very very very new.
Josh: It's becoming even more real now, though. We have a Sailor Moon, and she's been recording for the last week and a half. She's fantastic. We've recorded Queen Beryl and Jadeite--
Charlene: --and Tuxedo Mask!
Josh: And Tuxedo Mask! I think our fans are going to be very pleased with who has been chosen by us and our licensor.
Charlene: It was really cool being down there for the recording because it's impressive that the licensor cares so much. It's become a little rare to have licensors in the booth with you. When I was down there Tuesday, it was me, Josh, and the licensor team in the booth the whole time, observing, going through notes, doing retakes, and working with those key characters. You can tell that everyone involved in the production just loves it and cares about it so much. It's so cool seeing Josh and the director and the actors all working together to make those characters super-accurate. We're not going to be announcing the cast until Anime Expo, but it's a really interesting mix. I especially like our Moon and Tuxedo Mask so far.
Josh: Yeah, they're fantastic.
You mentioned it's being recorded in Los Angeles. Can you tell us the studio that's handling it?
Charlene: That will be announced at AX too. It's a very highly regarded studio that is definitely up to the challenge of an important title like Sailor Moon. It's probably one of the nicest recording studios I've sat in.
Josh: The dub of this show is definitely being handled with the sensitivity that it deserves. We have so many fans that have brought up that they just want to see a release, anything really, and it's not just our production staff or our cast or our studio or our sales and marketing department that are excited about this title, it's everyone. We're more than ecstatic to be a part of it right now, and working closely with the licensor has already been a great success, along with casting the show and breathing some life back into these scripts.
Charlene: Well, it was a long and extensive casting process because you went about it a little bit differently, with that whole wide net.
Josh: Yeah, we definitely reached out as far as we could to find the best fit for every character in the show, and it hasn't been difficult so much as fun, so far, because once you pair one actor to the next, you can just see the show unfolding in front of you. Once we had Moon, we had everybody else. It's been a treat, really.
So, awkward question: anybody reprising roles?
Charlene: We can't say at this time, that's an AX reveal! I know that's the logical next question, but we want to save all surprises and a real rockstar rollout for that.
It's interesting that the whole cast of the original DIC dub will all be there!
Charlene: One of the things about the previous dub is that there were so many cast changes throughout that there's no one Sailor Moon, there's almost no "one" of anybody. It's partially because it's a product of its time, but the expectation in anime now is to try and keep the most consistent cast possible throughout. In doing this new dub true to the Japanese version, all the Japanese names, situations, everything, we wanted a real cohesive cast that could go the full 200 episode journey, really grow with their characters and make it consistent across the board.
Speaking of that, based on this announcement, you don't have the DIC dub, you don't have the old syndicated television version of the show and it will not be made available at least through you, correct?
Charlene: It's just not available.
So what you're saying is, "please don't ask us about it ever again"?
Josh: (laugh) There's absolutely nothing wrong with a comparison to the old dub or to what DIC put out, especially because that's what some people can recall loving about the title and that's just fine. We're not trying to just do things different from them, what we're trying to do is make something that pays honor and respect to the original version of this, and that means we're offering everything to fans this time. It's not going to be censored, we're not going to hold back any episodes or seasons, you're getting everything.
Charlene: That's the thing, the original dub cut and spliced episodes together, shortening them, changing genders, changing relationships, changing a lot of stuff. There were complete episodes never shown before. So this will be the first time all 200 will be fully intact.
Is there a particular season of the show that either of you are looking forward to working on the most?
Josh: Well, we're just getting into the meat of the first season right now, and I think that's something that I'm never gonna forget. It's probably the thickest I've been involved in this series, so just being reintroduced to all the characters and all the old monsters is the most exciting part.
Charlene: Everything from the third season onward, I'm most excited about. I'm really excited about Haruka and Michiru's relationship, and keeping it true to the original. I think we're living in a really exciting time where that won't be seen as scandalous. I think it'll just be seen as a beautiful romance. I'm happy that it's not just "Oh no, there's lesbian characters, scandal!" It's like "No, these are two people that love each other and they make sacrifices for each other, isn't that beautiful no matter what gender they are?" I'm also just excited about all of Sailor Stars. For the first time, people will get to see the end, and it's finally going to be all complete. The show's got that cool soap-opera-cartoon kind of feel, like you know it's going to be monster-of-the-day, you know it's going to be character-development-episode, but you find yourself rooting for the heroes all the way through it.
Josh: We were just grinning when hearing her do her call-outs and everything, it's really exciting. I don't know if you mentioned this, but all the original music will also be involved in the series. That's something that the original dub did not have.
Obviously this will not be in really tinny-sounding mono like the ADV sets, right?
Josh: Oh no, stereo!
Charlene: Yeah, real audio with separate M and E tracks and real music cue sheets to work with! I know we got the big box o' stuff and of course me being the marketing person, I was like "Let me look at all the style guides, let me look at what we've got to work with for packaging art," and then I got to see a lot of the translated scripts and music cues and everything. A lot of it was scanned from way back in the day and I was like "Wow, this is super in-depth," like there was a cool historical nerd part of it all. It's like you're going back and looking at an old microfilm.
Josh: There's something really nostalgic about hearing the music cues, you know exactly what's going on in the show when you hear certain songs. We heard our voice director humming along while recording. It's just one of those things you can't get out of your head.
Charlene: Speaking of the recording, the really cool thing about the cast, when Josh was casting all the Sailor Guardians, because it is a very musical series, he wanted to make sure that all the Sailor Guardians, should the need arise--
Josh: --could sing.
Charlene: Yeah, they all had to have pipes on them. All of our key girls that sing a lot, just wow. They are good singers. Sends little chills up my spine.
Obviously, this show has been considered unlicensable for the last ten years, so it's going to be considered a minor miracle that anybody managed to get it back out over here. How closely are you working with Toei, and how tight is that level of control? Are you going through rigorous approvals on every last little tiny thing?
Charlene: Well, in my past I've worked with this licensor, and the really great thing about them is that they're so detail-oriented. It's super-great that they have an office in the US, so we can talk to them every day, several times a day, back and forth through e-mail, text message, , phone calls, everything. While it can be a little time consuming for approvals when you need to get a whole lot done on a major brand, knowing that every little bit is considered and gone through and that if there's a question, they ask you about it, is great.. We try to give the fans the best experience possible and be true to that property, so it's been super-involved with them on a daily basis, and it's wonderful.
Josh: It's fantastic actually, some of our approvals go directly to the creators of the show as well.
Charlene: Yeah, quite a few.
Yeah. I don't think anybody who knows the backstory of all this is surprised by that.
Charlene: Even though it makes for a longer lead time, it's actually very heartwarming to me that the upper echelon of a title really cares about the other versions of it.
Well yeah, you just get to spend the rest of your life living in fear of the creator!
Charlene: They know their show, they know what they want, they have the vision. That's all it is. It isn't just a Sailor Moon thing, any time an anime company licenses a title, it is not really their title, it belongs to the IP owner, it belongs to the author. You're just spreading that art to a bigger audience. So we take that commitment very seriously. It's a very exciting time to be in, where we have a multiple-year project where everybody's gonna be working their butts off and loving every second of it. I know Josh is slowly becoming a magical girl.
Josh: (laugh) Yeah...
From a retail standpoint, here you have a show that's 200 episodes and the fans who are aiming to buy it have been waiting for that last season most of all, just because it's legendarily unavailable. So you might have a committed group of people that are going to buy all of this release, like people do for Dragonball.
Charlene: It's so much more than that fifth season too. To anyone who's like "Well I already have all of that, I'm just gonna wait for Sailor Stars," I would say "No, please consider getting all of it just to see that true translation, uncut, with that really nice picture quality, consistent cast, everything." The reason Sailor Stars is so powerful and such a good ending is because of that four season journey all those characters took to get there. Sailor Stars is the end, it's the cherry on top, but it's that journey that everyone goes through that makes it so good.
Thanks a lot, guys.
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