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How Anime Dubs Were Made During COVID

by The Cartoon Cipher,

Like everything else, anime was undeniably affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, including anime voice actors. There were delays, hiatuses, plus the introduction of remote work and recording voice acting from home on a large scale for the sake of making sure everyone could continue to work safely. Many actors, writers, directors, and sound engineers put a lot of work into trying to make all of this possible. As I'm writing this, people in some countries are getting vaccinated and despite setbacks, the goal is to get back to a world without lockdowns or social distancing. But when things finally return to quote “normal”, what's going to happen to all the skills and knowledge that were used during this time? Will the days of remote recording be behind us, or can this past year-and-a-half be used to potentially turn the English dub industry into something better? My name's Abhi from The Cartoon Cipher here with Anime News Network to discuss the future of remote recording for English dubbed anime. But first please be sure to subscribe to this YouTube page if you want more content, as well as follow ANN on social media to stay updated.

Obviously at first, the lockdown caused by this virus meant everyone had to stay home and minimize going out, which also meant not going into recording studios. Even if using a studio was possible, it could potentially be an incubation chamber. There are multiple people walking in and out of them breathing all over the same audio equipment, and professional microphones often need pretty specific methods (such as UV light exposure) to be properly sanitized without damaging any components. COVID-19 isn't fatal in every case, but there's evidence of it leaving people with potentially life-long side effects, including lung damage which would be especially bad for voice actors. So even in situations where a studio might still request actors to come in, some probably wouldn't be keen to come back unless specific safety measures were guaranteed. The pandemic put the industry in a new difficult situation: dub remotely or don't dub at all. That seemed to be the only way to keep production up and running while making sure everything was safe. Many actors took it upon themselves to update or invest in home studios, however doing all that work properly takes time, and these episodes needed to be dubbed...yesterday.

Some companies sought to streamline the process of remote recording. FUNimation revealed on social media that they had provided at-home dubbing kits to actors, and that their engineers had adjusted to many actors' home recording spaces in order to continue. Meanwhile in the world of videogame dubs, PCB Productions created a regiment to deliver recording rigs to their performers in some states. Guilty Gear Strive was dubbed remotely this way, according to the game's voice-over director. Obviously, due to the learning curve that came with adapting to this new technology and workflow, it was nearly impossible for companies to match the same output as prior to the pandemic. In fact, here we are a year and a half later and the industry is still lagging behind. Around the time lockdowns were announced, simuldubs that were airing at the time from studios like Funimation, BangZoom and Sentai were put on hold for a bit. Hit shows like My Hero Academia came back fairly soon, but some delays lasted… quite a while. The last four episodes of Isekai Quartet came out months later and others like Heaven's Official Blessing...still haven't happened. Even Netflix, despite normally being committed to releasing anime subbed and dubbed at the same time, had to break that streak for Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045. That show arrived on the platform in Japanese only with a notification that due to the pandemic, some language tracks weren't yet ready.

Distributors like Funimation ended up with a big chunk of their previously announced simuldubs no longer “simuldubs”! And eventually released well after the shows had finished airing in Japan. Some were released in an all-in-one batch like Tamayomi, Shachibato, Sakura Wars and Wave, Listen to Me! Others were released on a one-to-two episode drip feed, but that wasn't the only interesting thing about these delayed dubs. Some were actually outsourced to other studios, including Sound Cadence Studios, Kocha Sound, NYAV Post, Studio Nano, and even New Generation Pictures who very rarely dub anime these days. This brought in acting talent we didn't usually see in usual Funimation simuldubs, which made things a lot more exciting. Funimation did occasionally outsource stuff to other studios before but not quite to this extent in a short amount of time.

But no matter who was helming the dubs, studios were able to take advantage of the new remote work environment to cast whomever they wanted regardless of location, as long as they were available. Back when anime was dubbed by the dinosaurs (pre-2020), actors did occasionally fly to different states to do dubbing work, but they didn't do it often or at least, not as often as fans might have hoped. Travel can be pricey and anime dubbing specifically doesn't always pay as much as other professional voiceover gigs. Studios like NYAV Post and Sound Cadence Studios were fairly committed to getting multiregional casts, even back then, and Funimation would occasionally work with Central Command in LA to hire actors from there. However, with the advent of remote recording, talent has popped up in dubs outside of their usual recording region, like Texas, Los Angeles, and New York, more frequently. There's been LA actors like Arnie Pantoja, Faye Mata, Ben Diskin, and Adam McArthur showing up in Funimation dubs, but also Texas actors like Kristen McGuire, Emi Lo, and Clifford Chapin showing up in LA dubs. In theory, this means there's a wider scope of casting choices in order to get the best person for each role.

More significantly, actors from states without established dubbing studios have become more common, too. Ascendant Animation is a dubbing company that literally began during the pandemic, but they've made a point of consistently casting from a variety of regions, including some overseas talent in England and Australia, while similar things can be seen in Sound Cadence dubs like Arte or Dragon Goes House-Hunting. And while it's exciting that studios like them are introducing non-US talent, there's still progress to be made. Australian voice actress Aimee Smith who's done some dubbing with SoundCadence, mentioned to me that unfortunately, sometimes international remote performers like her have faced extra barriers from other US clients (not limited to dubbing), like not having a VISA or citizenship…or needing to sign on with a specific agency that doesn't sign on actors from other countries. Sadly we don't know how or when this situation could change, and while we obviously hope it will, just bear in mind that this may be a limiting factor for international remote talent specifically.That could be considered a small start, but that's one reason to explore remote work possibilities even more! Some actors, such as AJ Beckles and Anjali Kunapaneni, have had their very first anime roles ever thanks to remote recording. Old fan-favourite actors like Dan Green, Wayne Grayson, and Erica Schroeder have shown up occasionally, too. It would be great if the ADR writing or directing talent from these various places could also get in on this multiregional work, (I'd love to be able to write a dub script from here in Australia) but for the sake of this video, we're focusing on remote dub voice-acting, as it has some extra specific hurdles to overcome.

Now, a lot of the aforementioned benefits are nothing new. There were times where actors needed to record for roles at home or from other studios via Skype or SourceConnect. Even on popular Western cartoons like Avatar, Zach Tyler Eisen had to record for Aang remotely via satellite connection for most of his episodes. However prior to the pandemic, this was usually the exception for English dubs, and would probably happen if an actor could not physically be at the studio that day for whatever reason. Part of the reason why it wasn't the norm stems from the fact that recording this way comes with its own issues. Unlike cartoons or audio-only work, dubbing requires the actors to be in-sync with the animation, and that's harder to coordinate remotely when the internet lag can make things fall out-of-sync or make sessions take longer. Now multiply those issues according to the number of actors per show. While Funimation's dubbing kits did make these dubs possible at first, it turns out they weren't exactly perfect.I remember that first remote-dubbed My Hero Academia episode did have a couple of moments of peaking, which is where an actor's audio is too loud for the mic to handle and gets distorted.

According to Aaron Dismuke, the dubbing kits just weren't as smooth as in-person recording. “It's an iPad and USB microphone that goes into the iPad. It comes with a mic stand, but it doesn't come with soundproofing. They had to sort that out themselves with engineer consultation, and mattress foam, and getting in your closet… And sometimes they're holding the iPad… The actors were telling me some very rough stories about trying to record from home. Gosh it was tricky, and there were multiple times [...] with people who couldn't come in, where we had to get pickups because there was some rustling sound that I couldn't hear because you don't hear playback whenever it's on the iPad. That's the thing that's really crazy about those iPads that is why I'm glad to be done with them... is because it's so hard to direct someone when you can't hear back what they did, you can only hear it one time. And you're going off memory, you're like: 'I think that was good. Will you listen to it and let me know if it was good?' and they don't hear the rustle of their clothes in the closet.”

However, dubs from other studios also had their own audio inconsistencies, some more obvious than others. This isn't to say clashing audio quality never happened before COVID, and we won't know what the exact problem was in each case. It could come down to the recording space itself, the equipment used, or how the audio mix was handled. Even when everything sounds normal, the technical issues undoubtedly complicated the process more than it used to. No matter how well you treat your recording environment, sometimes a session can be paced by outside factors that can affect the audio. Some actors we spoke to understandably prefer the in-person chemistry over a potentially lagging video call, especially if a scene required a strong, particular emotion. According to Kai Jordan, SourceConnect itself apparently has a 30 minute session drop issue. Even though Alan Lee's audio sounded fine for the Great Pretender dub, he still faced connection issues that sometimes meant he had to dub without seeing the video playback which would occasionally cut out.

However, the sad reality is that not every actor had the money, space, know-how or time to create a proper home setup when this all kicked off. Back when the pandemic started, one thing Jonah Scott mentioned to me is that even some big name pro voice actors were normally able to head over to their agent's recording studio when they needed it. But now being able to remote record almost acts as an additional prerequisite to getting cast. Particularly in the case of role reprisals, it might've been worth delaying an episode for longer than usual in order to ensure the needed actors were set up. Sadly though, in cases like the character Davis in the latest Digimon movie, Brian Donovan was recast due to issues with his home setup. It's also possible really good actors could be excluded from projects because they couldn't meet the new, higher threshold. Granted, there are definitely some who adjusted and there are now undoubtedly cases where remote recording can be seen as the more convenient option. I mean why drive an hour or two down to a studio just to record a few minutes of audio when you could do it from home and save time as well as money?

In a normal studio environment everyone just does their job. The director directs, the actor acts, and the recording engineer takes care of the session. In remote recording however, the actor needs to take on some of an engineer's responsibilities; making sure they're using the equipment right, positioned on the mic correctly, making sure they're in-sync, riding the gain correctly etc. Without naming names, some actors aren't exactly comfortable with this being the new norm as it can require micromanagement that's usually left to the engineers.

That doesn't mean the engineers' jobs got any easier as they are arguably the unsung heroes of this whole thing! According to Alyssa Dumas on the Blu-ray extras for the anime Memories, “We are using mainly a program called SourceConnect which has different versions at different tiers. And we're using the program to connect with the actors at their home studio. So there's like a whole audio approval process of seeing what home studios are like, what we can do to help their home studios... And then we have a whole remote system where we remote record with them over SourceConnect, and also using video programs so we can share the video with them, share the script with them, and that way we're able to dub from all over the world. Wherever the actor is, they get to come in. And then in mix, it's a lot of… just kinda taking out things that happen at people's home studios. We take all that gunk out and then tune everyone so that they all sound like they're in the same space and same environment.”

Not only did many engineers have to put in more hours than before, but all of those potential audio issues that would've been rare in a controlled professional studio, now need to constantly be adjusted and taken into account. In fact, as alluded to before, many have needed to act as teachers for everyone during the remote recording process. Even folks like Alejandro Saab and Daman Mills, who had already done some home recording, mentioned to us that they'd also gotten some advice. With so many factors involved, an engineer can help pinpoint the exact issue. Obviously engineers cannot salvage every problem no matter how much time they have, and actors like Luis Bermudez stressed to me how even with great equipment, too much background noise, or even excessive sound reflections bouncing off your space back onto the mic can make you difficult to work with remotely. This is why a future where at-home recording is the only kind of dubbing that happens doesn't feel sustainable right now.

What about an industry where we combine the benefits of what we've learned with what we had before, a situation where in-person studio recording is still the main way dubbing is done while remote recording covers its limitations? Granted, if the ideal dubbing landscape is one that gets great actors from all over the place while also allowing for both kinds of recording,then the other side of this coin involves getting professional studios from other regions into the anime loop and getting them regular work,which unfortunately is a whole other conundrum.

Audiences have gotten a taste of non-region specific casting for dubs, so I want to see how far at-home recording can take that. It seems like a real shame to go back to dubs being divided by state, especially since online projects have already been making use of remote work for a while. Not to mention, imagine the wealth of acting talent who would have a much harder time getting into this industry if they aren't in Los Angeles, Texas, New York? Or even the potential international talent? Getting a good home setup can be expensive, but so is rent in LA. So I say, if there is intelligent life out there...then let's teach 'em how to dub! Speaking of other countries, remote recording could also give us access to authentic accents, rather than relying on local actors who either omit accents or use...underprepared accents. Maybe there would also be fewer problems maintaining casts when recording moves to another region. There's a lot of awesome voice actors out there, let's get them work! And...not everyone is going to agree with this, but I think that allowing actors to do their best possible job on a show may involve giving them more time to work on it.

Obviously this is all very idealistic and won't happen overnight, but one step toward these goals might come from companies more directly supporting voice actors to get them into the remote recording scene, like what we've seen with PCB. Now granted, I would want all of this without the consequences of overstraining other employees such as engineers. It would be good for actors to ease the load by either becoming more audio savvy or again, coming to a controlled studio, if it's an option. All of this isn't to say that remote recording and a wider talent pool will automatically make dubs better or that it means no one will ever get miscast again. It'll always be on directors to guide the talent well and cast them appropriately. Getting more colours or better brushes to paint with won't mean much if you don't know how to use them.

Even without the need to travel, actors' individual schedules or commitments as well as other logistical reasons will dictate why certain actors cannot be cast in certain dubs. If you don't like how dub casting has become somewhat predictable, then the possibility of a remote and in-studio model that allows for casting all over the world is worth supporting. It may not help every voice actor but it can help more than before, which for now feels like a good step to making dubs more interesting. All in all, it is a little sad that it took a global pandemic to get companies to this position, but will remote recording from home be the future of anime dubbing? I don't think it will be the full picture, but I hope it will at least be part of it.

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