Animated Shorts: Adventures in Voice Acting

Ani Shorts: Adventures in Voice Acting

Go to any anime con, and you see it.

Lines upon lines of otakus, some in costume, some not, waiting for their turn to voice over some muted animation clip. On occasion you hear stories of one actually turning pro.

As it turns out, that rumor is true. Pokemon’s Michele Knotz (Jessie), won such a contest by Central Park Media at a NYC-based anime fest. Her prize was the lead in the series World of Narue. From there, it wasn’t long before Pokemon USA decided to hire Knotz to take over the parts previously done by veteran Rachel Lillis.

Yes, Knotz did have a bit of experience before Narue, like three roles in nigh a decade. Still, while Lillis may have taken a hit in the bank after losing the plum voice roles in Pokemon, she’s still quite busy.

The strange tales take on all shapes and forms. Voice queen Wendee Lee once told me the reason her pal Steve Blum got the role of Jamie in Megas XLR was because he could scream like a girl. This is a guy best known for his ‘honey and gravel’ voice utilized to such great ends in like being Spike in Cowboy Bebop.

“Eeeeeeee! The secret’s out!!!” Blum mocks. “Dunno for sure why I got the role of Jamie, but that’s a great reason! OK, how about this one…On one of my very first series, I was cast as an old man in a minor role. About a year later I heard that the only reason I got the gig - was because the guy they originally cast was old and he had a heart attack and passed away a few days before he was supposed to record! I just happened to be there doing some monster voices and I seemed to be able to do a passable old guy voice. It kinda made me sick when I found out.”

Which leads to one very interesting quirk about the anime world. Even though it’s full of stories like these, kids still want a shot at becoming an anime voice artist.

Eric P. Sherman is certainly aware of this. As President of Bang Zoom Entertainment!, his studio has been in the ADR (for Automated Dialogue Replacement, a form of voice dubbing) business for 15 years. Some of the anime series they’ve provided english voice overs for include Eureka Seven, Karas, Gankutsuou, Lucky Star, Rurouni Kenshin, Samurai Champloo, Tokko and Tenjho Tenge. They also do games such as .hack, Earthworm Jim and IGPX.

Bang Zoom has just started a DVD series entitled Adventures in Voice Acting. It’s sole purpose is validated by all those kids lining up at the local anime cons.

“We started it because we noticed a real thirst for knowledge about this subject,” said Sherman. “We're constantly getting asked similar questions, as are most voice actors, about the business. "How do I break in?" being the number one question on people's minds. So we started with that, and then broke it down. When we thought the process out, the first question is not "How do I break in?" but rather, what steps do I need to take to be able to work in this field? Knowledge is power, and we wanted to empower people. My deepest passion lies in that, in encouraging people to believe in themselves, to believe they can do whatever it is they set out to do. So, for me, personally, this film didn't really have to be about voice acting - that's just what it happens to be about.”


To help him along, Sherman and company found many of the top anime voice artists in the industry to tell their tales. Among them is the man now dubbed the ‘king of anime,’ Steve Blum.


“Well, I look much better in a cartoon body! I hate being on camera!” Blum jokes. “Helping people is one of the things that truly makes me happy. If our advice and stories make it easier for aspiring voice artists to make intelligent choices and avoid mistakes, we’ve done a good thing. I wish it had been available when I was getting into the business, but then again, it may have scared me away. I think it’s an honest glimpse into a pretty isolated universe.”


“One day a little over three years ago, we were sitting in Studio 2 (where Blizzard records WoW and Starcraft II), talking about stuff and we just decided to do it. We sat down and wrote out several outlines and re-shaped them over a few months, getting together with Kristi Reed, the film's other producer, to brain storm. That process was a lot of fun. From that the questions were formed, then once those were focused and fine-tuned, they were written out on file cards. Those cards were with me for every interview and as we got into them, we'd throw some out and add some new ones.


“Many of the interviews lasted 3 hours,” said Sherman. “I think only one was just under an hour. Most of that subjects answers were very concise. For the most part, they were very long, intense interviews. We would stop for breaks every hour or so, just to get out from under the lights. The VA's who participated were all very giving, and I was very moved by that. I realized later that most of experience with them was in the booth, directing. Rather than looking at them, I am always looking at a video monitor, to check lip sync. So this was a very rewarding, very meaningful experience for me. I told them later in an email I sent to all the participants that I actually fell in love with each of them through this process. I had a newfound respect and admiration for them. They really are, most of them, inspiring people. They are what brings this film to life.


Adventures In Voice Acting took us three full years from concept to release. Most of that was because we had to balance this production with the anime and gaming titles Bang Zoom! Studios works on, so we could only edit on off hours. This was a gradual process and we were changing and changing what would become the final cut to get it better and better. Cutting things out, adding things in. We had over 90 hours of footage - not easy to go through! One day my wife, Kaeko, and I we in Italy on a short vacation for the first time in two years and she said to me ‘You just need to finish this, Eric. Do whatever you have to do to get it done. This is too important not to finish.’ So with that I returned to the states very motivated. We invested our resources and had a big push to get it done. We barely got it done in time for Anime Expo. It was a great feeling to sell the first copy of it at the Bang Zoom! booth this summer. And now the word is slowly getting out.”


What truly matters is, overall, the word is solidly positive. It’s enough that there will definitely be two more volumes in the series. The first will be on doing voice work for games, the other for original animation. Blum is a superlative example of this. He not only does all three, but TV and radio interstitials as well (i.e. he’s Tom of CN’s Toonami block).


“I’m the weird guy with no ambition for those sorts of things,” says Blum. “I’m pretty darned happy to do my acting in a padded room. Rather not be judged for how I look. That’s one of the best things about my job! I never know what I’ll be doing until the week before and often the night before. I do whatever I’m hired for at the time. A huge part of this business is being available for whatever… whenever! Basically I’m a voice whore. These days, I’ve been doing more video games than anything else, and certainly that has stepped up as the demand for new interactive product has increased, but literally it could all change next week. I’d be really sad if I couldn’t dabble in a bit of everything. In fact, I need to participate in different styles of acting, because those muscles will atrophy if they go unused for too long. Each project presents its own challenges and joys, but I truly love every medium I’m fortunate enough to work in – and all for different reasons.”


The icing on Blum’s cake though is he now being designated “Wolverine for life” by Craig Kyle of Marvel Animation. He’s already voiced the character in the recent Marvel Alliance game and is prominently featured in the Wolverine & The X-Men series, debuting on Nickelodeon in 2009.


“Wow, Craig said that?” Blum asked. “Guess blackmail and bribes really do work!


“Here’s the thing, I may not have had radio, theater or any other kind of “classical” training, but I did have 15 years of anime experience under my belt before I actually could make a living. I think it’s the most underrated medium of acting there is and an excellent boot camp for all other forms of animation. Not only do we have to dive into physically and emotionally demanding roles (and often sustain them for 26 episodes often for very little money), but we have to simultaneously negotiate the technical aspects of watching a monitor and matching lip flaps. In a way, my whole career was preparation for Wolverine! Not to mention that he is one of my favorite characters of all time! Don’t get me wrong, I’m still incredibly grateful. I count my blessings every day and never take it for granted, but I definitely ain’t no overnight success story. I paid a big ole’ honkin’ pile o’dues.”


“As we started to sift through the material we were shooting, we realized pretty early on that there is far too much to possibly squeeze into a two hour DVD,” says Sherman. “That, and the various aspects of voice acting are rather different from each other - different enough that it would be difficult to really get into the meat of the subject matter in a meaningful way in just one film. Thus the concept of splitting up the information into a three part series was born. We already have footage shot for the next two volumes, and we are setting up interviews for a lot more right now. There are so many incredible voice actors and directors and we can't wait to get their stories and advice out there for people to learn from. You'll see, it's a whole other world that awaits you for volume 2 and 3.


“I think there is always a need for voice artists. There is always a need for new voices, new talent, new people. But don't get me wrong: it's not an easy road, and the doors don't just open over night. Even if you do start getting some jobs doing voice work, it might be a long journey to reach the point where that is all you do work-wise. Look at Steve Blum, one of the greatest talents I know (and one of the nicest). He's doing great right now - doing a lot of original animation and hopefully making some nice bank. But he's been working -- and working very hard -- for the past fifteen years. He's earned this - it didn't just come to him. Even though he is one of the big exceptions to the ‘Take Acting Classes’ mantras that ever was. Blum is one of the few exceptional voice actors who did NOT take years of acting lessons. That doesn't mean that road will work for most. To be a Voice Actor you need to be an ACTOR. Plain and simple.”


Beyond that? As anyone knows, voice acting isn’t the only career one could shoot for in animation. You don’t even need to draw or write and Sherman is thinking about that, too.


“I direct and produce,” he acknowledged. “It's a great job, and I love what I do. It doesn't seem to be quite as romantic or exciting to folks as Voice Acting does. I don't know why! Personally, I prefer directing! I think that there are a lot of people interested in the field of Audio Engineering - and it's a great profession. You can ask our Chief Engineer, Pat Rodman, about that! And I definitely believe that there is a huge need for animators. Flash animators are in very high demand and I have heard that they can earn big salaries eventually. If you have those skills and are interested in animation, it would be good to research and investigate. Maybe a new series: Adventures in Animation??? Stay tuned!”




Mamoru Oshii's (Ghost In The Shell, Blood: The Last Vampire latest animated feature film The Sky Crawlers has been officially selected for the 33rd Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), to be held in Toronto, Canada from September 4 to 13, 2008.


The Sky Crawlers will be screening in the Visions section. Visions focuses on the innovative. It spotlights work that challenges our notion of mainstream cinema and explores new territory. Featuring unusual approaches to storytelling, experimental filmmaking techniques and new technologies, Visions is an exciting program featuring the work of brazen newcomers and veteran filmmakers alike, pushing the boundaries of contemporary cinema.


With around 300 works selected every year from more than 4000 submissions and an annual attendance exceeding 300,000, Toronto International Film Festival ranks among the most prestigious international film festivals in the world.


The screening in Toronto marks The Sky Crawlers' North American premiere. The movie has also been selected in competition for the 65th Venice film Festival.


For further information, please check the 33rd Toronto International Film Festival official website:

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