At Quinni-Con 2013, voice actor/director Chris Cason ran a lot of panel about how anime is dubbed and released in the US. He works full time for Funimation, one of my favorite distributors. The panel I was able to catch was all about voice acting from casting to syncing and it was pretty eye-opening. When Funimation secures a license for a new show, they put together their in-house creative team. As many as seven separate shows are being worked on in different studios at a time with an regular work schedule of 10AM to 6PM. The director is given the translated scripts, character descriptions, and images from the show. However, they're in charge of researching the show and influences to figure out the crux of the series. They plan for as long as the production schedule allows them so they can figure out the right tone and approach for the translated program.
After research is complete, casting begins. Notebooks are prepared with the title of the show, a description of the show, character descriptions with images, and auditions sides. About 150 people are called in to audition in a mix of scheduled audition slots and cattle calls. The scheduled auditions go off every 15 minutes for three days for a single show.
The voice actors arrive and are instructed to choose three characters they believe they can do the best on the show. They perform the sides and are given direction to see how well they can work with the director. This is a standard tactic in any performance situation. It always freaks my students out when they prepare for an audition and we ask them, on the fly, to go in a different direction. If the director has worked with you before, they probably don't need to do this part. It's meant to gauge what the working relationship will be like when the show goes into production.
The casting process is hard. It's not because of a lack of talent. Chris Cason estimates about 5% of voice actors nail everything they're asked to do in a given audition; an even smaller percentage fail. The rest all do well enough to potentially be cast in the show in some way. It comes down to the blend of the voices. You hopefully get to choose your leads out of the 5% and then fill in the rest with complimentary actors who also gave fine auditions.
Once the cast is set and the contracts are signed, it's time to actually record the show. It's a much slower process than you would think. Cason says, working one on one with a voice actor, they usually get through 30 scripted lines and 35 reactions--screams, laughs, cries, grunts, etc.--each hour. The sessions with an individual actor usually last three to four hours. It takes about a week to record each episode in an anime series.
Actually directing the show is a challenge. Because of the tight time constraints, the actors are usually working cold. They're given the script and have to go with it on the day of the recording session.
Once in the booth, the voice actors have to contend with two screens. The script for the show is on the left. The video of the scenes is on the right. We're not talking about fan parodies on YouTube (that's another post); the lip flaps have to match for licensed dubbed anime to work. Chris Cason equated it to acting with math. You have to sound good and sync up with a limited amount of time.
The trick with actually directing anime is the style. Anime tends to be a pretty melodramatic form. With the exaggerated psychology that has evolved from manga art, the reactions by the actors have to be large enough to match the action onscreen. You can't just whimper and sniffle when a character has seemingly unhinged their jaw and began gushing gallons of tears out of their eyes. The same applies to body-shifting anger and fear. If you go really realistic on an anime dub, it's probably not going to turn out well. There's a reason the young protagonists in a shonen series tend to scream all the time; they're drawn that way.
Once a series has wrapped and the voices are ready to be mixed, it will be months before the cast and creative team can talk about the new show. They sign weighty NDAs threatening bad things if they talk about what they were working on before they're allowed to. It's a timing issue with the actual anime license and the distribution deal with the TV network. What it means is that, by the time a new anime dub airs on TV, the cast and creative team have probably recorded another series already that they can't talk about. It's a long road from license to release and one that is far more challenging than you might have imagined.
Thoughts on the anime dubbing practice in America? Sound off below.