Interview: BELLE English Dub Castby Lauren Orsini,
BELLE, the latest film from Mamoru Hosoda, is also one of the director's most ambitious. Aside from its smooth animation and fairytale art, it also features a score of bold, evocative musical numbers and a huge cast to populate the film's virtual world. GKIDS produced the dub with NYAV Post, and it was up to voice directors Michael Sinterniklaas and Stephanie Sheh to adapt it for English-speaking audiences. After completing casting and scripting, this was a feat they managed to accomplish in a month and three days of recording.
Though the film features celebrity voice actors studded through its enormous English cast list, a brand new talent landed the lead role of Belle/Suzu: Kylie McNeill, in her first voice acting role at 19 years old. ANN spoke to Sinterniklaas, Sheh, and McNeill about the dubbing process, their most memorable scenes, and what they hope viewers take away from the film.
This is your first voiceover credit. How did you get involved in the project? Did your YouTube help you get discovered, or did you reach out to them first?
KYLIE MCNEILL: I got the casting audition from my agent and I auditioned in August. I just recorded it in my room on my laptop and sent it in. I think while they were casting me, my YouTube was used as a reference to hear more of me singing… I actually recorded the first audition in my bathroom. I was staying in Atlanta because my mom was working there, and I had a bathroom space that I made my little recording studio.
We were impressed that you're only 19. How long have you been singing?
MCNEILL: I've been singing ever since I was super little. My parents raised me on Broadway cast albums. My abuelo was a flamenco singer. My mother sings. I went to a performing arts high school where I majored in musical theater. I think I started my YouTube channel two or three years ago. I haven't posted too much.
Did you try out specifically for the role of Suzu/Belle?
MCNEILL: Yes. I did one of the scenes from the movie as well. But I sang a Kelly Clarkson song [Because of You] for the audition, which was required as well.
STEPHANIE SHEH: I just dug up the email thread where [the team was] discussing which song we should have applicants sing for the audition. Sara Bareilles's Gravity, Demi Lovato's Stone Cold, Christina Aguilara's Save Me From Myself, Alisha Key's Girl on Fire, and Miley Cyrus's Wrecking Ball were pitched.
Was the idea to have them sing a song with a similar vibe to the songs in BELLE?
SHEH: Yes. So much of the singing in BELLE is emotional. So the idea was to pick an emotional song.
MICHAEL SINTERNIKLAAS: For callbacks, we used a real song from the movie. But for the first round of auditions, we couldn't release the media yet. So we thought, what other songs would channel the elements of BELLE's music and show that people could really sing?
BELLE is about differing identities. Kylie, how did you play up the contrast between Suzu and her digital avatar while performing this role?
MCNEILL: Well for Suzu, I definitely tapped into my awkward teenage years, which I'm just barely escaping now. I really relate to her. I was super shy in high school. I barely spoke except when I was performing for class, which was required. For Belle, she has more of an air of confidence around her because she's in her avatar and she feels more comfortable. I tried to play that up.
This is Kylie's first credit, she's a teenager. How did you decide to cast her for the role? Did you feel like you were taking a risk, why or why not?
SINTERNIKLAAS: For a long time, Stephanie and I have been casting as appropriately as possible. The idea of casting a teenager to play a teenager did make sense. It's similar to when we dubbed A Silent Voice (starring a Deaf character) with a Deaf lead actor. As to Kylie being untested, we wanted to make sure she could do it. So in the callback, we had her sing a song from the film and act a couple of scenes to see how it would come out. The quality that made Kylie stand out to us is her bravery. Humans want to find comfort. If something's awkward they diffuse it or want to settle into something more comfortable. But in BELLE, Suzu is living on this precipice… every time she tries to do something better, it doesn't go her way. She doesn't find peace or resolution even towards the end when she has to do something bold. Kylie remarkably was able to bring that feeling and not shy away from it. I was actually very pushy and bullish about casting her.
SHEH: After working with younger actors, I realized there's an authenticity that isn't there when it's an adult. It's less about the vocal sound, but the attitude and the way they approach the character. Michael is also really great at working with New People. As a studio, NYAV Post, we'll take the hit and go slow if that person's performance is going to be perfect for the role, then taking the easy way out and casting somebody experienced who we know could do a good job but won't get as close to the perfect performance.
What was it like working with the original music team (Taisei Iwasaki, Takayuki Chiyo, and Ludvig Forssell)?
SINTERNIKLAAS: Studio Chizu had said to us that globally, English would be the most ingested version of the film so it was important that all of this be done right. Since the music was such a huge part of the film, I asked [Chizu] if we could work with the original music team, and they were available and said they'd love to. They flew out here and we ended up recording for seven days. Because of COVID, we almost didn't get to do it, but by following SAG guidelines, we ended up going to a larger studio—the world-famous Power Station, built by Bon Jovi's uncle in 1977. We had the run of the place, recorded in a couple of different rooms. It was really fun.
There's a moment in the film where Suzu is singing by the river, composing a song. That moment is born out of Kaho Nakamura, the Japanese voice actor for Suzu, walking by the river and recording herself on her iPhone as she composes a song. Hosoda was so enamored with it, he tried to replicate it as much as possible. Since we were working with the original music team, we got to hear the original iPhone recording that Kaho sent them, and it's replicated pretty perfectly in the film. Little things like that, you can't replace. I don't know if it's going to make an obvious difference to the audience, but getting to experience that in the studio was really cool.
MCNEILL: It was so much fun. I was so afraid. I was really nervous. Singing those songs is ridiculous. The composition is beautiful so being able to sing them was crazy. One of my favorite moments was on one of my last days. I was singing the reprise of “A Million Miles Away” and Ludvig said, “This is the one you sing at the end credits. This isn't Suzu's version of the song, this isn't BELLE's version of the song, this is Kylie's version. Take that as you will and do your thing.” That meant a lot. After that recording, I feel so weird about saying it, but he definitely teared up. He's so kind, but he's so tough and you wouldn't expect him to.
SINTERNIKLAAS: Yup, Ludvig was the only one who cried. Definitely no one else cried. (Laughs).
BELLE has an uncommonly large voice cast if you count all the virtual avatars who populate the world of “U.” Did this present any unique challenges?
SHEH: The cast list was HUGE. All of the non-lead character role actors did a million different parts. They had to be versatile and change up their voices a lot. Since “U” is supposed to be international, we decided that in the walla [background voice acting], we would pepper in different languages. We decided not to do it too much because we didn't want it to pull away the audience. We didn't want it to be a gimmick. There are just a lot of accents and foreign languages in the walla that are mixed down to create that international feel. Pretty much any actor, we'd ask “Do you speak another language?” Sometimes there are moments where the peanut gallery is reacting to Belle or the Dragon and they're all saying the same thing over and over: “What? What? What? Who is he? Who is he?” Those are moments that we'd throw in an accent or another language so it didn't get too redundant.
MCNEILL: I had a favorite line, but it's been mixed down so you can't really hear it. In the dome when the Dragon is interrupting the concert, one guy says something like, “Get outta here, Dragon Schmagon!” (Laughs.) That completes me. I am really sad no one can hear it.
Did any of you have a favorite scene during the recording process?
SINTERNIKLAAS: I think Kylie really enjoyed when she had to vomit. She said [sarcastically], “This is so great! I'm going to tell everyone it's my favorite scene!”
SHEH: Did you actually vomit? Because I've vomited twice voice acting.
MCNEILL: (Gasps.) No, I didn't actually vomit!
SINTERNIKLAAS: I was there, I was directing [when Sheh actually vomited.] I never vomited, but while we're on the topic, I used to make my producer vomit on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by recording burps for Michaelangelo. I think it's hilarious to make people feel nauseous with the power of my voice.
What were you most trying to convey with the vocal component? What do you hope viewers take away from the film?
MCNEILL: I feel like my middle school and high school experiences were very similar to Suzu's. I lost someone very important to me and found myself becoming very introverted. I hope that people who have gone through… be it loss, some sort of trauma, or suffering from anxiety. I hope people who have dealt with that or are going through that identify with Suzu. I wish I had seen this movie in middle school. I would have absolutely fallen in love with it and used Suzu as a model of hope for myself.
SINTERNIKLAAS: Something that comes up for me with that question is that this movie is about being seen. Whether you're on the internet trying to get attention because you crave being seen, or you're hiding from people and covering your face and trying to not draw attention to yourself, being seen is the theme of this film, and how people handle themselves on the internet is what I think Hosoda is really trying to explore. I think it's interesting that the greatest threat in this world of artifice, where people present these fantastical avatars, is to be exposed—basically to be doxxed. It's the greatest threat, but ultimately, the greatest power. I think what changes the world in the movie is that somebody had the courage to be vulnerable.
SHEH: So much of our lives and our opinions are on the internet these days. I think what's really beautiful about this movie is it's a reminder that behind every entity in “U” or the internet is a real person with a story and a history you may not be aware of. It's not just Suzu, it's also the Beast, it's also Peggy Sue. As we go on the internet and give strangers our unsolicited opinions about how others should live their lives and be and present themselves, we should just pause a moment and remember there's a real human being behind every single avatar.
Update (1/25): Added clarification to the introduction that GKIDS produced the dub with NYAV Post.
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