Adventures in Voice Acting

Everyone wants to be a voice actor. They may lie about it...many of us who have watched subtitled anime for decades in particular. But the truth is, everyone who's ever watched anime in the English language thinks that would be a cool job to have. Some people would just like to make funny voices for a living. Others of us have thought that if only we were given the keys to the dubbing kingdom, we could change the direction of it all and make it work. The proof that dubs can be done right exist -- ask anybody who's really and truly fairminded and they'll tell you that watching Cowboy Bebop, FullMetal Alchemist, or Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex in English is at least as good as (if not better than) the original. But there is so much garbage in the way of dubs out there...subs are often the only way that some of us can really enjoy our hobby. We may never finish the sub vs. dub debate. That said, in everyone there is a little bit of an actor, and in every anime fan there is the voice of some wild-haired character waiting to get out.

Adventures in Voice Acting is the first show I've seen that has really gotten to the heart of American voice acting and shown in no uncertain terms what it is, how it works, and how mindblowingly tough it is to get into the business. It's not quite a documentary, as there's no real plotline to follow of any sort, but it's not quite a DVD "how-to" manual, either. In the course of a little over two hours, we get snippets of interviews from (I'm guessing here) about 100 people who've worked in the anime industry. All of them share their stories about voice acting in anime, from their big breaks to how they prepare for a role and how they deal with rejection (an ongoing theme). At times, it's a little dull, but at other times it's fascinating.

Unlike most shows, I can't exactly give you a detailed description of the plot other than what I've said. What I can tell you is that this is about the closest most of us will ever get to seeing the workings of an actual voiceover job. The show is designed primarily to give fans an idea of how the work is done and what's required to be in the business. Bang Zoom, the DVD's publisher, has its own training sessions available to those who have their hearts set on being voice actors...which tells us that there is financial motivation behind the DVD's creation. (It should also be noted that later volumes will cover other parts of voice acting work, so Bang Zoom is not trying simply to profit from naive otaku.) But Bang Zoom does not present the work as easy or simplistic in any fashion. Every single person on the DVD states just how hard it is to get work, how it takes 10+ years typically to make a living in the industry, and how many people who think they've got it just don't - and won't. I'm pleased that something like this exists, if nothing else to convince the masses of young teenagers not to pursue a career in voice acting. Acting itself is already an incredibly difficult profession in which to succeed, and voice acting is 10x more so.

For myself, the DVD actually served to illustrate a couple of extremely important points, if only indirectly. First off, when you understand how anime dubs are made, it becomes clear why so many of them are bad. The actors usually have only the slightest clue of what the shows they are working on are about, and they have to rely almost totally on the director's understanding of their character in order to make any sense out of it. They are lucky to see a script a day in advance. They have to work alone in a studio without ever meeting the other folks playing characters in a show. Everything must match lip flap. Many of the voice actors do not use anything approaching their natural voices but create "characters" that almost invariably sound hammy...but the constraints of the business make it impossible to employ actual children or teens for those roles. Under extreme time and monetary constraints, an OK line reading may the best take they can get. The truth is, knowing what the DVD teaches you, it's amazing that dubs ever turn out really well...the industry is set up to make lousy dubs.

Those exact same problems, however, highlight just how good many voice actors are at their profession. Seriously, having taken some acting classes and being in a few plays here and there (and doing public speaking as a pastor for a living), I can tell you that it's a wonder these folks do as good a job as they do. Admittedly, while some of the actors love anime, to many it's just a job. But there is a lot of passion to most of these folks, and they really do their best to make these shows come alive.

I can also recommend the DVD for the simple fun of seeing some voice actors and matching them up to their characters. For example, Tony Oliver, the voice of Rick Hunter in Robotech, looks nothing like I would have expected. Yet it's a thrill to actually see the guy and (in some small way) get to know him. Others are just fun to see as real people...Crispin Freeman, in particular, cuts through a lot of the nonsense and "tells it like it is," and I found myself taking notice whenever he appeared. And if none of that sells you on it, there are some great special features such as the "be a voice actor" segment that lets you try out just what it's like to be in the recording booth.

The only major downside to this video is that it really is too long and allows too much repetition. The DVD is divided into 5 roughly 25 minutes episodes, and I found it much better to watch a couple at a time rather than to tackle the whole thing at once. Frankly, I did this because I got bored. I'd also say that some of the advice given on the DVD - the whole "follow your dreams" kind of bit - got a little old. I would have found the DVD better had it been less inspirational and more down-and-dirty into the guts of how a program is recorded. But in many ways, this video is not made for a thirtysomething who's already chosen his life path and has a bachelor's degree in mass communication. Instead, it really is for teens who are trying to decide if this really is something they could dedicate their lives to doing as a career. And for that set, I think this video will be effective.

I have to admit that my perspective on anime dubbing has changed quite a bit after seeing Adventures in Voice Acting. Now that I know some of the folks who put their time and effort into creating dubs, I'm more interested to see their work. They may not always succeed in matching a great Japanese voice track, but I'm rooting for them now. While this show is not incredibly exciting, any true anime fan is going to want to pick this up to learn just how their favorite programs are made. And who knows? Maybe the next great voice actor or director is just waiting to be inspired by this DVD. One can only hope!

Adventures in Voice Acting -- nothing objectionable -- B+