Interview: Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods with Justin Cook, Chris Sabat, and Sean Schemmelby Jacob Chapman,
Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods, the first theatrically released Dragon Ball movie in 17 years, premiered in English over AX weekend in Los Angeles, CA. Justin Cook, Chris Sabat, and Sean Schemmel took some time out of that busy weekend to talk with us about the movie and the experience of dubbing Dragon Ball Z back in the early days. You can watch the trailer for the film here.
ANN: It's been a long time since a Dragon Ball Z movie has been released theatrically in Japan. I don't know how long it's been for you guys, since there's so much DBZ content that gets dubbed routinely, but what has the lag time been for recording new material for these characters? Was it different approaching the new movie at all?
Chris Sabat: There hasn't been that much of a lag. Almost every six months there's something Dragon Ball-related, whether it was Dragon Ball Z Kai that happened recently, or the re-release of the blu-rays where we're going back and tweaking some of the original audio, or if it was the orange boxes or the yellow boxes, or going back and covering the original Canadian cast, we've been doing this over and over and over again for a long time.
Justin Cook: There's a funny picture of the day that Chris and Sean finished recording Goku on the very last episode of Dragon Ball Z. I think they have a script in their hands and they're both indicating that it's the #1 show.
Sean Schemmel: (laughs)
Chris: Oh yeah, I remember! We thought we were done, way back then.
Justin: We kind of learned a valuable lesson, that every time you think it's done, something else comes through the door and says "Hey, we're doing it again!"
Chris: I've often described Dragon Ball as a show that is like a Dragon Ball villain. You think it's dead, and then the smoke clears and it's still there going "You haven't seen my next transformation!"
Sean: "I have more lines for you to record!"
Chris: So in a way, there wasn't anyone who had been too far from the series for too long. The cool thing about this was getting to do something new. We've all been redoing the same story over and over again, so to get something new and fresh is pretty awesome.
Justin: It was unique even with a few of the video games that would skew slightly from the storyline.
Chris: Yeah, we were so happy!
Justin: "Nice, a new something!" But yeah, this is fantastic. It's a feature-length film, whereas the previous films have all been these kind of 45-minute featurettes. This just feels a little bit larger than life, and it also feels extraordinarily true to the series itself, and it really kind of continues on the storyline.
ANN: Since this is the first thing in a long time that Akira Toriyama has been this heavily involved with, how do you think that affects the style or tone of Battle of Gods compared to other movies, spinoffs, or specials? What makes this one a bigger deal?
Sean: Well, contrasting it with GT, from what I understand GT was not Akira Toriyama's sanctioned work, although it's clearly sanctioned in a technical sense, just not made by him. This is the first new bit of material that he's come out of retirement for, but I don't know if that's the right phrase, because I have no idea what he's doing these days. I assume he's just been hanging out being Akira Toriyama and toying with whatever ideas he has in his head, being such a genius. I think what makes this different and special is that it's new animation using more modern computer technology. If you look at the older Dragon Ball Z animation from the 90s or even more recent movies, this is shot in a more epic way, it's cut in a more theatrical way, and the animation they use is updated. For example, if Goku's powered up, normally they'll draw the glow around him, but that's all done in this film with CGI, so the power effects are extremely cool. The animation style is definitely Akira Toriyama, and it's definitely canon as it were, but it has a freshness to it.
Chris: It has a freshness to it, but I think what makes it something you can tell Akira Toriyama had a huge hand in is that it's very character-driven. I know this sounds silly to say, but it really feels like it's part of the original series, like he never left Dragon Ball Z.
Chris: It feels like he somehow had this future technology back then, made this movie, and then put it in a vault somewhere because it fits so perfectly in the series. He didn't forget anything.
Justin: I'm a big fan of "director" vision, like I enjoy collecting a library of somebody's work where you can really identify a director by the movies that they put out, and this one really screams that it has that original recipe. It's fantastic.
Chris: Thematically, it's much closer to what I think he was interested in, because it was my understanding that he wanted to finish the series after Frieza. If you think about the way the battle with Frieza ended, with Goku essentially letting him go even after all those awful things have happened, it seems like Akira Toriyama isn't the kinda guy that likes to kill people off. I don't think he ever wants to kill anyone. I think this movie reflects that too.
Sean: Well, that was a sticking point when we had this discussion at dinner. I joke that everyone thinks that we sit around and talk about Dragon Ball Z all the time just because we work on it. We don't, but at this particular dinner, we were doing exactly what all the fans think we do with our spare time. The subject was this, and spoiler alert for the movie here: in Battle of Gods, Beerus wants to know about this Goku character, because Goku was known for defeating Frieza, and my first reaction was "No, I thought Trunks beat Frieza! Trunks shows up and cuts him in half." So we had this big debate: "Wait, when Goku leaves Frieza behind in Dragon Ball Z and Frieza shouts 'You fool!', it looks like he's being destroyed, but it's also animated in a way where it's ambiguous." So why is Frieza made of old dead parts and robots when Trunks beats Frieza?
Chris: Granted, it was kind of difficult to gauge this because we were working off sketchy translations back then, so it was kind of hard to tell exactly what the context was when we were first dubbing it. It was my understanding that Frieza's body was just floating in space, and his father King Cold scooped it up and recreated him sorta like Frankenstein.
Sean: Okay, now I understand. So Frieza was dead, and Goku did kill him, but his lifeless body was floating through space, and through some technology that King Cold had, he was reanimated into robo-Frieza and then Trunks shows up and slices him in half in two seconds.
Sean: I was not aware of that until today, and I've been working on this show since 1999. So when that came up in the movie, I was like "Wait a second, Goku's the one who defeated Frieza? Because I just remember that Trunks scene, and thinking it was so badass." So I was completely clueless for over ten years.
ANN: Speaking of villains, there's a new one in Battle of Gods, who's just been dormant somewhere during all the previous Dragon Ball fights, named Beerus. What's unique about Beerus as a DBZ villain?
Justin: I think the biggest thing that's unique about Beerus as a villain is that he's not a villain. He just is. He has a task that he has to do, and he's simply following through with that task. I think that gives a particular neutrality to this character that Dragon Ball Z doesn't usually get to see apart from maybe in the Other World Tournament. This isn't a movie where the earth is threatened because someone wants to take it over or--
Sean: There's no hate. This villain is not full of hate, he's just like "I'm the god of destruction, this is what I do. Sorry." Now this is just my interpretation, but I always like to look for the Zen Buddhist elements in Dragon Ball Z, and I think the real villain in Battle of Gods is Goku struggling with his ego and attachment. I mean, yeah there's a battle going on between Goku and Beerus, but there's an inner battle going on with Goku that he explores through his discussion with Beerus about power, and I think that's the real battle in Battle of Gods.
ANN: So you're showing the movie in California pretty shortly here...
ANN: Do you have any hopes for the fan reception at the event? Do you have anything special planned for how it's going to go down?
Chris: I don't have any plans for the event other than to go there and just watch the movie, and I'm really excited to do that because we had to dub it so quickly to make sure this could happen. We dubbed it well, but that meant we had to take longer to record it and it gave them way less time to mix it, so I didn't even have the chance to approve the very final mix of it. I'm very excited to hear what it sounds like, and to see it on a big screen.
Sean: Did you approve final edits for alts and stuff, like any of the jokes that we thought about putting in or adding?
Chris: Yeah, we went over that, but as far as securing a final mix, I only got to hear a pre-mix of it. So I'm really excited to just hear it.
Justin: I haven't heard it yet!
Sean: I haven't either, and apparently the engineer's doing something cool with my voice in some specific parts of the movie, and as a lay engineer myself, I'm excited about whatever our esteemed mix engineer is doing with the effects on this one.
Chris: Sean mentioned earlier today that this is one of the first times he's been really nervous about the job he's doing on one of these, and that resonated with me too.
Sean: I'm scared we're gonna be watching it and someone's gonna say "These guys really suck." I've never felt that way, like I've always been super-comfortable with my work. "I'm good at what I do, I'm rocking this, I'm knocking it out."
Chris: We dubbed the show for the first time back in 1999, it got on television, and I was never embarrassed by anything we did back then. I was never ashamed of anything, because we made it, we got it on TV, and that was awesome. Now I feel like there's attention on our work, so to see it on a giant screen, under a huge microscope in a way, makes me think "Man, I hope those mouth movements actually fit." We had such a limited timeline. We weren't able to go back and do a bunch of revisions, so we just had to make sure it was right the first time around. I'm interested to see what people think of it.
Sean: I'm just as excited as any other Dragon Ball Z fan, I think.
Justin: I think there's also a big difference from when we were working on the series in 1999, and every episode would get mixed individually, sent out to be broadcast 4-6 weeks in the future, and released even farther out from that on VHS or DVD. There's a bit of a sheltering effect for all the talent and production crew involved, but this will be the first time that we're sort of "put on trial" as it's shown, so close to when it was created.
Chris: I feel a huge responsibility too, because there's been this weird evolution of the people that we meet at conventions these days. Back in the 90s, we were only meeting people who thought that there was no reason Funimation should be dubbing any show whatsoever. Every question was "Why are you guys using different music?" or "Why are you doing this or that?" That was well over a decade ago, but now Funimation's a completely different place, and everything we do is with the Japanese integrity in mind. So the people we're seeing now are usually in their early twenties, and they saw the show in elementary school or junior high. So they'll come up to us and say "Man, you were my childhood, your voice has been imprinted into my brain."
Sean: Me and my friend Ralph were talking about this one day. I mentioned to him that when I'm lying in bed at night, sometimes I think about how my voice has had an effect on people, and it's not that my voice is special, but it's linked to this special thing in Dragon Ball. He's a biologist, so he said that kids' brains are developing at that age, their neural nets are still expanding and connecting, and your voice rattles around in their ears, and impregnates their brain sort of permanently. It's different from hearing something when you're thirty or forty and it doesn't hit you as hard. But while your brains are growing, it's different, it's getting weaved into that fabric. When it dawned on me exactly what was going on there, I was almost shaking at how terrifying that is to think that there's a whole shit-ton of kids out there, possibly millions, who have our voices stuck in their head in the same way that Scooby Doo or Bugs Bunny is stuck in my head. It's surreal, but then you understand things like why the kid who's taking a picture next to me at the con starts shaking uncontrollably. I've had that experience myself with things I love, like when I bumped into Journey at the airport once and I was flipping out but trying to keep it under control at the same time. I felt this overwhelming desire to fanboy out and I think now "Oh that must be what it's like when I'm dealing with a Dragon Ball Z fan." It helps put things in perspective for you, because we all have our idols, and it's all a communal standing on shoulders of giants thing. It's a cool thing to be a part of. We make cartoons for a living!
ANN: So is the screening of Battle of Gods from the theatrical cut or the extended version that aired on Fuji TV earlier this year?
Justin: It's the theatrical run version.
ANN: Do you know what the potential availability of the extended version might be?
Justin: Keep an eye on Funimation.com!
ANN: I was in Japan at the time they were running that extended version on TV, and while I didn't see the whole thing, I did happen to see that Vegeta sings in this movie. I don't think Vegeta has ever sung before, so how did you go about handling that?
Chris: There was a lot of stress going into recording that, because for an entire year it seemed like every single person I met at a convention was asking the question "When are you dubbing Battle of Gods?" I actually have a t-shirt printed up that I'll be wearing this weekend that says "Yes we dubbed Battle of the Gods." It does say "the," because that's what everyone was calling it before the official name came out. So I was stressed going into that part, and I'll be honest, I did it twice. I did it one time through early on, just to have something there for the backup singers, because otherwise what we had was sort of a karaoke track. So I sang my version of it, the backup singers did their thing, and then when I went to record Vegeta's lines for the movie, I redid that song because I wanted it to be good. My philosophy was this: Vegeta probably never had much of a musical background. Although, in this particular instance he's trying to put on a very good show. Let's just say he's not the most skilled singer. He is very passionate, though.
Sean: I'm curious! I haven't heard it yet. I know that you're a formerly classically trained singer, so I didn't know if you were gonna be borrowing from that skillset.
Chris: Well, Vegeta's singing style is going to be very much like Vegeta's personality. It's a very loud ordeal, let's just put it that way. It's probably one of my favorite things I've ever gotten to do for Dragon Ball Z. It's ridiculously funny and I can't wait to see it in the theater. There's a great line that follows it, but I'm not sure if you guys are going to be able to hear it, because I'm gonna be laughing so hard.
Sean: Sometimes Dragon Ball Z humor is not the funniest to me, could be just because of my American tastes or whatever, but there's a lot of jokes in this movie that translate really well. My favorite one, "spoiler alert! spoiler alert!", is when the dragon finds out that Beerus is nearby and totally breaks dragon character. "Oh-oh-oh, Beerus is here?! Well uh-uh-uh, how is he doin?" He's all nervous and shit. I almost wanted to hear him say "Tell your mom I said hi!"
Chris: Every Dragon Ball Z episode starts with Goku's narration recap, like "Hey, it's me, Goku!" and then he starts to tell the story. They have a really funny joke written into the movie about that.
Sean: Yeah, "spoiler alert!" again. When Goku meets Beerus for the first time, he's so excited that he runs out of King Kai's house and says "Hey, it's me, Gok--!" and before he can finish, King Kai smacks him in the face and says "I knew you were gonna say that!" They totally make fun of the fact that Goku says that every week. Speaking of which, I love that King Kai's car and shots of his planet are CG, so things look much more 3-D, but it's not in the style of a Dragon Ball Z videogame either. Little pieces of the drawn image are CGI, so it works really well. I haven't been this excited about a Dragon Ball thing since I got the part in 1999. I've been excited about being in the show all these years, and I got really excited when we were doing the first video game, but this is like right next to getting the part itself in terms of excitement. Although I wasn't excited about having that part until I had been playing him for a little while, because I didn't really get who Goku was at the time, and I really thought I'd nailed my Captain Ginyu audition. After a couple weeks of playing Goku though, I realized "Wait this is the main character of the show." So I never had that moment of "Yeah, I just got the lead part of this show!" I actually started arguing with Chris on the phone, and I didn't even know him. I was like "Are you sure about this Goku part, because I was thinking I'd be better at this other role." You are not supposed to do this as an actor, but I wasn't an actor really, I was a french horn player who happened to be auditioning for a cartoon.
Chris: None of us really knew what we were involved in at the time. When Funimation first started dubbing this long ago, we didn't even have the full series in the building. There was no library where we could watch all of Dragon Ball Z. They were having a difficult time getting the materials from Japan, so we ended up having to get our material from the company who did the Spanish dub of Dragon Ball Z. So to anybody who asks "Were you inspired by the Japanese voices?" I would say, "Yes, I am now, but all the choices that were made in the initial casting were made based only on what the character looked like and what we imagined they would sound like."
Justin: You have to remember, this is a time before the internet. Chris set up my first e-mail account when I started at Funimation, so of course internet wasn't something that we had available to us. So much so that the writers would occasionally play jokes on us, like after the Goku and Piccolo driving episode, we were told "Oh, you gotta see the Tien Shinhan driving episode! That's the funniest ever!" We just didn't know. We were flying by the seat of our pants.
Chris: Back in those days, we didn't know where the show was gonna go, and that was part of the fun in recording it for us, and part of the pain of recording it for Sean, which I'll get to in a moment. You would come in and not know what was going to happen. You would find out "Oh, Vegeta's going Super Saiyan 2 today!" But for Sean, he had a funny quote back in the day: "Goku's health is directly proportionate to the health of my wallet."
Sean: My poor bank account. I'd call my dad and say "Dad, I need to borrow some money because Goku's in the tank." He'd be like "What? Goku's in the tank." I'd say "Yeah, he's in the healing tank. I only get one or two lines, so I'm not working a lot this week and I need to borrow some money for gas." My dad was a preacher and he would joke about it during his sermons in front of everybody like "My son is Goku, and he needs to borrow money for gas because Goku's in the healing tank." It's just weird to call your dad and be like "My character's healing up, so I'm short on cash right now." It was a very difficult thing to deal with at the time, and as far as technology goes, we were just chasing tape. The Pro Tools rig was hooked up to a giant Betamax, a $25,000 machine. Between takes it was always "Hang on a second: click! whirrrrrrrrrrrr!" Waiting, waiting, waiting, and "Whirrrrr! Beep, beep, beep, go!" If you don't get it right, then you get to wait while it syncs up all over again.
ANN: I bet that was fun for screams.
Chris: Oh no.
Sean: Usually with screams, I would keep track of my ability to do takes. When I first started, I would get it right anywhere between ten and twenty tries. Now I do it in one to three, but it took me eight years to get that good at it. If you're chasing tape and you gotta do a scream, you have to watch it all the way through first to know what you're in for.
Chris: A couple things happened, fortunately. Sean got better and the scripts got remarkably better.
Justin: I think all the way around, Dragon Ball Z and the development of its story has in some way mirrored the development of technology as well as Funimation's maturity with what we're doing.
Sean: We don't have capsules that we can throw down and a studio appears, but...
Chris: I wish we did. I could certainly use a Senzu bean right now.
Sean: I'm gonna need one after tomorrow.
ANN: You're one of the big events at AX this weekend, and the other is Sailor Moon, which is just a little older. Is Dragon Ball Z now at the point where people who grew up with are bringing their kids up with it, and you're getting into the second generation of fandom?
Chris: Oh yeah!
Sean: Kids and grandkids. I've met grandmas who were Dragon Ball Z fans because they watched it with their kids, and now they watch it with their grandkids. They're having babies real fast these days.
ANN: In ten years, you're probably still going to be working on this show, so are you excited or a little frightened at the idea of a third generation of fans?
Sean: Masako Nozawa's in her seventies, and she's still voicing Goku. I keep thinking some of the screams I did in my early thirties, I can still do today, but I'm forty-five, and when I'm fifty-five, I don't know if I'm going to be able to scream like that. I'm gonna have to keep this voice up, because every time I expect it to end, there's more.
Chris: Fifteen years from now, we'll just grow a clone, make them scream, and then kill them.
Justin: Then we'll get in our flying cars and go home!
ANN: Thank you for your time!
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