This type of post wasn’t something on my radar when I started this blog, but I couldn’t be more pleased with how it turned out. I ended up in touch with David Wald through a unique set of coincidences, but once we started talking, I knew I had something worth sharing. It was great hearing about his anime origin story and he gave me an inside look at the anime dubbing industry. He was generous enough to answer my questions for a post, so here we are!
I personally almost never watch anything dubbed these days, but I have come to terms with the demand and existing market for it. For some people it’s simply a preference, and people are free to enjoy their media how they wish. I’ve even had more than a few people tell me that dubs are the ONLY way they can watch anime due to some sort of disability that prevents them from smoothly reading subtitles.
I’m not about to switch over to watching dubs, but I definitely gained a new respect for them after hearing from David about how much thought and effort goes into them. I’m really excited to be bringing you this interview and think you’ll find it interesting even if you don’t watched dubbed anime.
David is a veteran anime voice actor in the United States. He started his anime voice acting career with ADV and currently does most of his work with Sentai Filmworks and Funimation. He’s acted in well-known franchises such as Golgo 13, Vampire Hunter D, Grave of the Fireflies, and even played Master Chief in the Halo Legends anime. More recently, he’s worked on newer anime such as Fairy Tail, Attack on Titan, and Gate. For a full list, click here.
In general, I tell people to watch subs over dubs. Do you still want to answer these questions?
Ha, of course! I have no issues with that, and I can certainly understand the preference. I have a great love for non-English film from all corners of the globe, and I watch that stuff subbed whenever I can. For my own part, I tend to prefer animated or anime titles dubbed, and that’s because I’m generally more engaged with the visuals in an animated title. They’re more abstract than live-action visuals and require more work from the brain to interpret, so I prefer to let my ears do the work of absorbing the narrative so my eyes have plenty of time to experience the rest.
How did you end up voice acting for anime? Were you an anime fan already?
I was only a casual fan. When I was a kid, there was no real forum for anime, no dedicated tv broadcasts and certainly no dedicated channels. In fact, there wasn’t even “cable television” yet, in my earliest years. We’re talking about the 70s and 80s, here. So like everyone else, I’d seen Speed Racer on Saturday mornings, along with what we over here were calling “Battle of the Planets” and everyone else called “Gatchaman,” but not much else. (That’s right, y’all, I grew up with 7 Zark 7. Still in therapy over that one.) But then, in the early 90s, I worked in a Blockbuster Video (remember those?) which sported the ill-titled “Japanimation” section with a few titles. I watched 3 of them with great interest: Golgo 13: The Professional, Vampire Hunter D, and Grave of the Fireflies, all subbed. That was when I first learned that anime went a great deal further than Speed Racer, but it would be several more years before I started working in the field.
As luck would have it, I actually ended up working in dubs of the very Vampire Hunter D and Grave of the Fireflies that I’d watched years before, and got to voice Golgo 13 in a series. Life is weird, isn’t it?
I’d been a stage actor since age 11 or so, and had been dreaming of voiceover, probably since roughly the first time I’d ever heard Mel Blanc. I’d then gone to college as a music major and spent several years doing the whole rock band thing until roughly 2004, when I went back down to Houston (where I grew up) and got back into professional theatre there. In fairly and miraculously short order, I was working on a play which John Swasey, VA & ADR (Automated Dialogue Recording) Director for what was then ADV Films, came to see. Afterward, he hired me for some incidental voices in Shadow Skill and started teaching me how this stuff is done. Swasey is my Anime Obi-Wan, and I still seek his wisdom and counsel quite often.
How long have you been voice acting for anime?
It all started with Shadow Skill in 2004.
I assume you do other gigs than anime voice acting. What else do you do to pay the bills? What percentage of your work is anime voice acting?
Life for a working actor- or any artist, really- is a collection of supplemental incomes, which ideally all come together to afford a phone bill, some rent, and some PB&J. Often, it’s necessary to take a “day job” as well. Since returning to Houston in ’04, I’ve worked in theatre, commercials, industrials, film & TV, cabaret, and even corporate theatre, in addition to anime. Nowadays, I’ve stepped back from a lot of that stuff and put more of my energy into anime, stepping into the occasional directing or writing role. Thanks to a lot of hard work and some strokes of amazing good luck, I’ve been largely able to keep my focus on anime for the last few years. I swore off the traditional “day job” several years ago. We’re gonna see how long that can last…
What does the process look like after being handed a script?
For voice actors, you’ll generally see a script for the very first time moments before you start recording it. There’s very little prep- usually a brief rundown from the director and then you’re rolling. Sometimes, we’ll know what the show or role is before going in and be able to do a little research on it, but just as often, we’re going in more or less totally blind. That’s one of the things I love about it. You have to make strong character decisions immediately and commit to them completely, with the director’s help and guidance, of course. When we record, we’ve got the script on one screen and the video on the other in front of us, and we’ll jump from scene to scene, and sometimes from line to line, and record all the dialogue for our character/s.
For writers, you’ll get a direct translation of the original Japanese script. In this initial translation, there’s no concern over mouth movements or nuance. Simply put, the writer’s job is to take that translation, create some nuance in an English version of the dialogue, and then fit it into the moving mouths. The “creating nuance” part is open to wide interpretation and every writer defines and executes that element a little differently. Matching the mouths is really the easy part.
For directors, it varies widely. Sometimes, directors are writing the adaptation as well. Other times, you’ll get an entire set of scripts a few weeks before you start recording. Often, and particularly considering the new trend toward simuldubbing, you’re getting scripts for new episodes while you’re recording earlier ones. ADR Direction requires a great deal of flexibility and adaptability.
How much leeway do you have when working with a script? Can you change stuff?
A very loaded question! You’ll get all kinds of different answers to this, but here’s mine: Text is liquid in this business, and can change at virtually any stage of production. As writers, directors, or actors, our job is to tell the story as it’s presented in the original Japanese iteration, but that can be very slippery ground. Sometimes, you’ll encounter Japanese cultural references or linguistic tricks for which we simply have no English equivalent. In those cases, a writer can either generalize it and hope it lands on the English audience, or we can approximate it with our own native cultural references or linguistic devices.
One of my favorite tricks is sarcasm or irony. The Japanese don’t employ this device anywhere near as often as Westerners do in their language, but we use it everywhere. As a result, you’ll find a lot of it in any of my own adapted scripts. Whenever I come across a translated line that I don’t think will land on an English ear the same way it does on a Japanese ear, I look at two things: what the character is actually saying, and what the character is actually thinking. I’ll try to find an adapted line that addresses one or both of these things and communicate it in a way that a Westerner will understand both intellectually and viscerally.
Our first duty is to deliver the information as it’s presented in the original Japanese and to stay true to the given traits of the characters. Writers will do their very best to fit the mouth movements, but everyone has their own sense of rhythm and cadence, and sometimes a line that worked beautifully in a writer’s head won’t work as well in the mouth of another actor. In addition, as recording proceeds, actors will usually get a deeper sense of the character than even a writer or director, and sometimes a line will change to capitalize on this deeper understanding.
Whenever I’m recording, I’ll read all lines as written. If I have an idea for an “alt,” or alternative line, I’ll ask the director if I can record it for them so they have the option. Sometimes they use it, and sometimes they opt for the original. It takes a village! But nothing is really set in stone until recording is complete.
How much does chemistry with the other actors play into it, if at all?
This varies pretty widely, and largely depends on whether or not you’re among the first to record your role. When we record, it’s almost always a single actor in the booth, with the director and engineer in the control room, so actors seldom record together. On occasion, you’ll be the first actor they record for a given scene or episode. Sometimes, you’ll be the last. So you work with every tool you’ve got at the time of recording. Thankfully, we have two things that help us find consistency and continuity regardless of how many other VAs have recorded before us: we have the director, who must always maintain in their mind the sense of music and cadence in a given scene and can help the actor to refine a read to suit it when necessary.
The director is the orchestra’s conductor and we VAs are the instruments. If we can’t hear the other instruments in our section, we can do what we need to do by following the conductor’s baton, so to speak. I mean, no ADR directors are actually conducting, as far as I know. If batons start appearing in ADR sessions, we’re all in a lot of trouble! They guide us with a simple note here and there to nudge us into the territory they want us to occupy. The other thing we always have is the visual element. The character’s body language, and most especially their face when visible, will give you the most essential clues about how to deliver a line.
But when other actors have recorded before you, it will certainly inform your read. And, just like on stage or on camera, you’ll “vibe” with them if you’re open to it.
Truly, the most important chemistry in the session exists between the VA, director, and engineer. If that’s solid, the rest will more easily fall into place regardless of how many VAs record before or after you.
Do you have a favorite anime? If that’s hard to answer, a favorite genre? Favorite one that you personally worked on?
A title that’s currently got me totally entranced is, in the most narrow sense, not technically “anime,” though it’s certainly heavily informed by that medium. It’s a short, independently produced, animated film, made here in the US called “Arrival,” by a young writer/director named Alex Myung. It’s a breathtaking piece of work without a word of spoken dialogue. It tells a beautiful story, it’s set to an extraordinarily gorgeous score, and Myung’s characters communicate some very sophisticated emotions with deceptively simple expressions. His talent is enormous, and I’m waiting with great anticipation to see what he does next.
I can tell you the roles I most enjoyed recording. Four leap immediately to mind. Those are Berg Katze in “Gatchaman: CROWDS,” Count Magnus in “Vampire Hunter D,” Yoji Itami in “GATE,” and Germán Luis in “Garo: The Animation.” Those four guys were such a pleasure to inhabit, and the process of recording so much fun, that they will live forever in my memory among my favorite experiences.
Another title on my “favs” list is The Royal Tutor. I thought ADR director Tia Ballard did an astounding job with that show. I loved every minute of recording and knew from those sessions that it would be quite an adorable title, but when I watched it myself on Funimation’s streaming site, I was amazed at how utterly charming that adaptation turned out to be. My responsibility in that show was fairly light when compared to the other VAs, so I was able to watch it with almost as little preamble as any audience member who hadn’t seen it at all. It’s one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen, and that’s largely due to Tia and to the main cast.
What’s the hardest part about dubbing anime?
I’d say the hardest part is also the most fun and intoxicating. It’s the requirement for adaptability on multiple levels. You adapt a character from line to line, scene to scene. You adapt from character to character. You adapt to the differing cultures and established practices from production studio to production studio, and even from booth to booth and director to director. Adaptability is the big challenge, I think, but also provides the greatest payoff when done well. That’s where I get my juice in any creative endeavor.
What would you say is the most important thing you’ve learned about anime dubbing over the years?
Overall, that it has lots of room to grow. I think the dubbing industry suffers from its own, self-imposed, deeply-ingrained inferiority complex. I think we see ourselves, industrially, as a derivation of an existing product, and as long as we do, we can only ever be a derivation of an existing product. I believe that if a fan wants the closest thing they can get to the experience of the show in its original form, they’ll watch it in Japanese. But I believe that if a fan has chosen to watch anime in English, it’s because they want to hear a song of themselves. They want something they can relate to, and I think we can do a better job of giving it to them if we free ourselves from the scrutiny of sub fans who aren’t watching the dubs, anyway.
All art is a continuous act of adaptation. The artist adapts from concept to thought and from thought to canvas, so to speak. The audience adapts from presentation back to abstraction in their own imagination, then from abstraction to emotional or intellectual response. A writer adapts a thought into a sentence, as we all do whenever we speak. A translator/ADR script adaptor adapts on all these fronts, simultaneously. I think we in the adaptations business need to be less afraid of actually adapting.
Take the word “Oni.” This is a specific cultural/mythological reference in Japanese to a particular set of mystical creatures for which none of our Western equivalents quite fit the bill. We usually translate the word to “demon.” But that word means something usually quite sinister to us, and may not at all be what the Japanese writer intended. “Troll” may not work, either. So, in an English adaptation of that concept, we can either use the word “Oni” as it is, in which case the general Western population won’t get it without a pause and a google search, and hence won’t have the same autonomic, visceral response that a Japanese audience would have with that word, or we can try to find the nearest reference we can muster. It might be angel, demon, monster, spirit, or even something like “big deal,” depending on context.
Admittedly, my view is not a wildly popular one. But I think pushing the adaptive envelope beyond its current scope is an inevitable future for dubs, if they’re to survive and thrive. I think, as long as we feel beholden to the “direct translation,” we’re going to limit our audience. Our audience is not the subs audience. Sub fans don’t want to watch dubbed anime for the same reason I don’t go see live cover bands. To put it simply, I think dubs need to stop seeing themselves as a cover band. We’re playing these songs with different instruments, and I think we need to embrace those differences if we’re to use them to their fullest potential. Listen to John Coltrane play “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music and you’ll know exactly what I mean.
There is obviously a significant demand for dubbed anime; why do you think that is? What makes it attractive to fans compared to watching subtitled anime?
There’s a serious and insatiable hunger for speculative fiction, here in the West. We’re gobbling up genre fiction in films, books, and television alike. This isn’t new, and I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon. It just so happens that anime is full of wildly variable fantasy, horror, and science fiction, and because it’s born of a different culture, it has flavors we’re not accustomed to experiencing over here. It’s different from what we’re used to, and I think that’s interesting to discerning viewers.
I think dubbed versions of this material hold interest because they suit not only people like me, who’d rather dedicate their eyes to the art than to the subtitles, but also to those who want to hear a story that feels like it’s being told to them, not to someone else. Many of those folks will relate far better and more deeply to the language and the music of their own tongue. And if the adaptation is solid and sound, well thought out, and well executed, we can bring those tales to people who might not otherwise engage with them.
In addition, I think it has to be said that there’s material covered in anime that doesn’t get covered very well in Western media. One easy example of this is LGBTQ representation in anime. It’s everywhere. The Japanese have been telling these stories for years. There’s plenty of trope and stereotype in anime, but there are also LGBTQ characters in anime that serve functions other than those commonly assigned to them in Western media.
For example, I had the honor of voicing Bulat in Sentai’s adaptation of Akame Ga Kill. Bulat was gay. It was clearly stated in the text and reinforced on a few occasions throughout the show. But he fit none of the usual tropes you find in Western representation: he wasn’t the wildly flamboyant comic relief, he didn’t suffer unduly because he was gay, and he wasn’t a psychopath. (Debatable.) Almost every LGBTQ character you’ve ever seen in any Western property is one of those three things. We’re getting better about that, but anime is light years ahead of us on that front, and I think we’re even hungrier for those stories than we let on, nationally.
And that’s just one example. Anime covers a great deal of very sophisticated emotional ground. Here in the US, we’re used to animated properties being one of two things, generally: either it’s meant for young children, or it’s a comedy meant for adults but animated largely for the sake of irony. Don’t get me wrong, I love it. I’m as addicted to The Simpsons, Family Guy, and Bob’s Burgers as anyone! But I think anime interests Western viewers because it offers that territory and so much more.
A title like Attack On Titan would never have come from the US. We have certainly generated visuals just as lush and stories just as epic in our animation, but I’d say chances are pretty good that if AoT had been made here, it would’ve been directed at a younger audience, which would have been a profoundly different show. Look at Battle of the Planets. They cut all the “adult” material from Gatchaman and replaced it with “7 Zark 7,” a nervous robot whose job was essentially to flail his arms around and remind us how frightened we were supposed to be for our heroes before a commercial break. It was a smart move, at the time. It meant they’d get airtime in the Saturday morning cartoon block, which was the holiest of holy ground for animated programming, back in those years. This was ’78 or so. As a result, the show became quite popular. I never missed it, myself! But there was no place for adult-oriented animated programming in those years.
We have cable now. The internet. There’s an accessible audience for shows like Gatchaman without having to craft them into something more kid friendly. Anime doesn’t have to do that, because it’s got plenty of material for kids. And we don’t have to do that in our dubs any more because we can get the grown up anime directly to it’s intended audience.
Do you think there is anything Japanese Voice actors can learn from American voice actors? Vice versa?
Well, because I don’t speak Japanese, I can’t make a rational analysis of the differences. My experience of Japanese dialogue is purely abstract, and largely musical. I don’t know if it’s because of the language itself, or perhaps because of an acting method that’s commonly employed by seiyuu, but I hear an astounding attention to tonal production from the Japanese VAs. The Japanese language doesn’t modulate as much as English, so as a Westerner, I’m accustomed to hearing higher highs and lower lows than seiyuu usually employ. But by virtue of that, I hear masterful little tonal changes happening within the actual vibration of their vocal chords. It’s a clearer and more concise tonal instrument than we Westerners use.
It’s difficult to describe, but we in the West tend to use expressive devices that stop or interrupt tone, rather than enhance it. We’ll mumble, or use a vocal fry, or put more space between words to create emphasis. We do lots of tonal shifting as well, and we do so in a usually broader range than the common Japanese speaker. Perhaps it’s because the Japanese speaker covers narrower ground in pitch modulation than a Westerner that the modulation they do use is so refined. A vocal technician could explain this much better, but in general, seiyuu express ON the tone, and Western VAs express more OFF the tone.
I don’t know that I’d say we would benefit very much from adopting one another’s style. Our performances in the booth are reflective of the common elements of our respective languages and cultures. But I will say that those who master both approaches are capable of far more sophisticated expression than those of us who lean one way or another. I’d say the best balance I’ve heard between these two approaches has been from actors trained in Shakespeare, regardless of their native tongue. True execution of Shakespearean verse requires mastery of both tone and silence.
So, I guess my real answer is: we should all be studying Shakespeare.
How do you feel about redubbing?
Conceptually, I think it’s fine. We’re in the business of adaptation, after all, so why not an adaptation of an adaptation? But that’s just philosophy. In actuality, redubs are sometimes a practical necessity. Licenses for US distribution of anime lapse after a certain amount of time or after meeting certain other conditions. It’s not an uncommon practice for a newer house to license and distribute an older title. Also depending on the individual deal, a new studio may or may not have the rights to distribute the previous dub, or the actual recorded tracks may no longer be available. Technology has changed rather rapidly over the last several years, and some of those old reel-to-reel dubs are lost, ruined, or otherwise unusable. So if the title is popular enough for the production studio to consider dubbing it, they often have to make their own dub. That’s all just logistics, really.
Your anime voice acting definitely dominates your online profile. How does it influence your other voiceover work? Does it help you with the ladies?
Heh, I don’t think I’d have much of an online profile at all if it weren’t for anime. Social networking is something I’d likely have avoided entirely if I could. I’m a slow adopter in this digital age! But I certainly understand the merits of social networks, both personally and professionally, so I’ve created and maintain pages on the Big Three: Facebook, Twitter, and now Instagram. (Are those still the Big Three? Haha) And because most of my time and energy is spent in anime, that’s mostly what I have to share.
But I think we in the dubs business have a special interest in that level of marketing and networking. Unlike larger, Hollywood ventures, dub fans have direct access to us through these channels. If you’re hearing from me on those social networks, it’s me and not an assistant or a publicity firm. The same can’t always be said for the glitterati of traditional Western television and film. Likewise, when you’re posting on the pages of Funimation, Sentai, BangZoom, and others, they are seeing it. I imagine the same can’t always be said for Disney or Universal. We can be reached directly, and we can participate directly in discussions about a show with which we’re involved. This generates a rapport with the fandom that’s rather rare in the entertainment field, and I’m happy to participate in that. Conventions serve a similar purpose. It gives us all real access to one another.
As far as helping with the ladies, the short answer is no. Haha, but it has made me some lovely friends!
Do you have any questions for David? Leave them in the comments below or try your luck on one of the social platforms!