slid into the director’s chair after the prior director wasn’t cutting it with Those Who Hunt Elves. Then came Generator Gawl, the first series I had shepherded, script to screen, from episode one. Now it was time for my first “A” title so I was being summoned to the production manager’s office, a seriously unfriendly woman with reddish grey hair and teeth that were almost an exact matching shade.
She was dressed in her usual attire, Hot Topic, which was both two sizes too small for her slightly overweight figure and several boutiques away from where she should have been shopping. There are few women who can pull off bustiers and faux leather skirts with fishnet hose and a million women who should never try this at home. Janice was, well, she was one in a million. Today, however, the usual goth garb was accented by a very noticeable piece of jewelry that was actually able to rise above the visual shrieking of her mall madonna getup. It was a silver dragon, its claws and wings wrapping around what appeared to be a sword, and the pendant hung from her neck by a thick silver chain. With dread, I assumed it was not a coincidence that the very same figure was also emblazoned on one of the VHS tapes she handed me, the top one of a stack.
“It’s Orphen,” she said, her face devoid of anything close to resembling a smile. “It’s a big fan title.” It sounded like a threat, an unheard “don’t fuck this up” wafting like stale cologne after her words. She continued. “The translations are on the server. You can print those up. When do you think you’ll be able to go into the studio?”
“How many episodes?”
“Twenty-six,” she told me. Quickly and audibly I made my calculations.
“Okay, that’s thirteen hours of screening time, with the translations…I’m assuming these aren’t subtitled yet…”
“Of course not,” she snapped. But why would they? Her department had the most luxurious deadlines imaginable. Those on the other side of production? As slim a margin as you could imagine.
“So add on a couple of hours for the paper-to-screen back-and-forth. A day apiece to write the scripts. How many do you want me to record in the beginning?”
“Okay, that’s another five or six days. Casting about a week. Couple days contingency. That’s, what? Seventeen, twenty days max.”
“You sure?” Another threat.
“Well, I guess so. I mean I haven’t even seen the show, Cruella. I don’t know how talky it is. I don’t know how brutal the flaps are.”
Flaps. The movements of the animated characters’ mouths. They would determine how long the scripts would take to write. The more on-camera mouth action, the harder they’d be. Luckily, the Japanese are masters of getting by on a chintzy animation budget, so much of the dialogue usually plays over a shot of the back of someone’s head, or over a distant shot of two characters, their forms so small their mouths aren’t even animated. But despite these vagaries, the fact that she herself was a fan (the necklace) and there was considerable buzz for this title and all the dangers that implied, I was kinda stoked. My first big title. Time to show my mettle and begin owning my spot as only the second director at the studio. This is where the studio would begin to assert its creative direction for the foreseeable future.
Matt, the co-founder of the company and sole other director, would have a more traditional anime approach, over-acted, over-the-top deliveries, a little hammy for my tastes. My style was more realistic, more method, filmic, more mainstream accessible and less elitist niche. The fans would grow to accept this new slant on their beloved genre. It gave them another option to choose from, so that was a plus. But it would be my liberal adaptation of the original script that would divide the fan base into camps. One side saw it as blasphemous, changing lines for the sake of it. The other faction believed I was improving on a good (or flawed) thing. But this style was still in its infancy and the few titles I’d worked on were relatively obscure shows that only garnered a little bit of attention so I wasn’t truly branded as an apostate yet. Orphen would change all that.
“Who are you going to cast as Orphen?”
“How do I know? I haven’t even seen the show yet.” I was beginning to get exasperated and it was starting to show. Trying to appease her in her interrogation, I looked down at the box art.
Orphen, the lead character, looked like a teenage Harry Potter who spent a considerable amount of time in a leather bar, or at least fronting a Loverboy cover band. Off the cuff, I knew no one in the present stable of actors was right for the role. But that just one of the many tasks I was assigned when I was hired at the company: fatten the actor pool. So the character of Orphen would be one of my first discoveries, barring Vic Mignogna and a few others in Generator Gawl. People aren’t aware of it now, but I gave Vic “Edward Elric” his first starring role, and he’s been an anime mainstay (and often unbearable) ever since. I’d have to find someone as brilliant here as well who, hopefully, wouldn’t let a lead role go to his head.
A quick glance over the other boxes revealed the rest of the main characters to be a blond, effeminate apprentice, a screamy princess, two trolls (one of indeterminate gender), and a sorceress who had transformed herself into a dragon, presumably the same one forged in faux silver and hanging around Janice’s neck. There would be the other “guest characters of the week” but those could be cast later down the line. The core group, however, would need to be locked down well before recording and, hopefully, before final scripting began, though that was a dreamy fantasy.
She stared at me, waiting for her answer.
“I’ll get back to you,” I told her, readjusting the stack of VHS tapes in my hands. Then I left the dark, tepid topic mood of her office.
Preproduction was the rare time you weren’t tied to the studio every minute of every hour of every day. Prepro involved taking a stack of tapes, the translations, and holing up at home in front of your VHS player for days on end, screening all the episodes first, then taking each one and painstakingly pausing, rewinding, and playing every single line in the original Japanese so you could script the english version to screen, matching the character’s body language and mouth movements as closely as humanly possible. You’d have to make adjustments along the way during the actual recording process, but if you did the job right at the beginning, those tweaks should be minor.
Orphen was a chatty mix of on-camera and off, so the only difficult part, the only thing that took real time, was coming up with better dialogue than the Japanese had scripted initially—making the jokes work harder, the dialogue more engaging, and the overall script more entertaining. This was my charge when they hired me. At the time, the goal was to get our shows on TV, either on one of the 3-5pm slots during an afternoon animation block on the major networks, or an off-prime cable slot, or, the big prize, on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block of anime programming. It was an uphill battle. All the shows airing were series with close to a hundred or more episodes. The kind of shows we licensed were 13, 26, 39 episodes tops. But Orphen, while only 26, was our biggest hope so far. It was a G/PG-rated actioner involving magic and a little light comedy. No questionable material (that we could see yet) that would demand heavy editing or tinkering with to make the show broadcast-ready. My job was to make it syndication-worthy, as that would lead to greater sales. So I was taking great pains with the script and, of course, in the casting. I was going to be working with these people for over a year. I wanted them to be good actors but also good companions. No prima donnas or divas in the bunch.
And the show wasn’t bad.
The story of a sorcerer who had gone rogue when his friend turned herself into a dragon during a powermad move, it was a quest tale to find a magical sword that could change her back. The magic academy where he was a student had sent out magical assassins to stop him so there was a nice tension driving the episodes. With him on this journey were an apprentice he’d taken on for money, a bratty spoiled heiress with ties to the sword who was along for the ride, and in pursuit were two trolls who were out to get the sword for themselves. The casting proved to be breezily easy and a pleasure.
For the one of the two trolls, I cast a gifted comic actor, John Swasey, who’d already been in several of the company’s shows. And I knew John from my previous career as a radio spot scribe and producer. As his fellow gnome, I honestly couldn’t tell if it was a girl or a boy. The name, Dortin, didn’t help me with that either. The Japanese actor was even less assistance, with a unisex name and a voice that defied gender assignment. I decided to use confusion in the show, making the little thing’s gender a running gag. To play the boy/girl I found Hilary Haag, an absolutely beautiful and adorably diminutive talent who could take her kewpie doll voice and gruff it up, fitting the androgynous character’s visual perfectly. I was nervous she might shred her throat in just three recording sessions, but she said she could handle it and keep the voice throughout the whole series.
For the youthful apprentice I cast Spike Spencer, a young-voiced actor who had been the lead in several previous anime and while he had his eye on the lead this time, he seemed begrudgingly content to playing second fiddle for me, since I was the new director and he wanted to guarantee future casting. He had a bloated discussion with me about the money but when I hardballed him and told him I had a finite budget, just like an independent film, and he was getting just as much as the others with a similar line count, he demurred and fell in line. Shelley Calene-Black had the comedic chops to play spoiled brat so she was cast as the heiress. The lead actor was a bit of a search but was found with relative ease. His name was David Matranga and he was a stage actor in town who had just signed with one of the local talent agencies. After a killer audition, he was slotted to play Orphen. His voice was sufficiently heroic, snarky, and youthful. Many of his scenes would be with Shelley Black, who was also from the stage, so their dynamic mixed perfectly together.
But showing up at episode four, however, came the big snag.
In the story, the group comes along a pack of blue “wolfen,” episode four’s “monster of the week.” The heiress, Cleao, falls for the little blue wolf cub and he becomes a part of the traveling band of sword searchers. The problem was that the cub’s vocals were not provided by a sound effect, they were voiced by an actual Japanese actor, and would have to be replaced. I had every actor who came in for an audition for one of the main characters give me their best dog impression and no one cut the mustard. Or sliced the puppy chow, as the case was.
In the production process, we receive all sound effects and music on one track, the voices on another. During recording, we adjust the levels on the sound and music, enhance them on the off-chance it’s needed, but all the vocals are replaced. One, they’re in Japanese. Two, it’s a talent cost issue. The process is called ADR, additional dialogue recording (some people call it automated dialogue recording), and that drill puts the actor in a sound booth, reading along with a paper script and watching the animation on a monitor. They read along with the Japanese audio track for placement and then speed up or slow down their delivery until it looks perfectly natural coming out of the animated mouth, and you’re on to the next line. It’s a lot harder than it looks, in no small part because you’re basically having to act all of the character’s intonations and physicality without getting physical, using only the voice. Not every actor can do it. Some people just don’t have the skill for it. Someone could be a brilliant actor on the stage or the screen, but when they enter the recording booth, it’s like their skills don’t extend to voice acting. It’s a strange paradox, but one you come up against with frequency. It’s a frustration on a lot of levels. But when you find an actor who can do it, you cast them continuously. They’re not easy to find, despite what the general perception is. “The people at the office say I’m hilarious at voices” is a commonly uttered phrase we’d always hear from neophytes and wannabes. Unfortunately that skill so charming at the office rarely translates into talent in the booth. Sometimes, but not usually.