Anime Industry Reality Check: Celebrity Voice Actors

It’s time for another explosive insider reveal of the anime industry, if by “explosive” you mean “the way mild chilli bubbles when you warm it up on the stove.” Today’s little session of fantasy vs. reality may be a bit different in that I suspect that today’s topic will already be known and accepted by many of Geek’s Dream Girl readers… a sort of “preaching to the choir, if you will.” Consider this, then, a wake-up call to the industry itself, or at least a stern finger-shaking reminder that there are better ways to spend millions and millions of dollars, such as renovating your basement to be a scale replica of the Tomb of Horrors, complete with traps (amuse your friends before killing them brutally!)

So what IS today’s topic, I hear you ask? Well, it has to do with voice acting… specifically, the tendency to want to hire celebrity voice talent for any anime movie that has even the remotest pretentions of grandeur (see: any Hayao Miyazaki movie ever). Whether it’s Christian Bale, Patrick Stewart or Miley Cyrus, get a few big names on the roster, and you’ve got the makings of a perfect dub… right?

Right?

The Fantasy

Celebrities make everything better! Obviously hiring a well-known and beloved live-action star is a much better idea than hiring an unknown voice actor. After all, people know Robin Williams; they don’t know Scott McNeil! Therefore, hiring a popular celebrity will guarantee fame and fortune for your theatrical anime production! On top of that, a celebrity actor is obviously going to give a much better performance than just some voice actor hack. After all, these people have Oscars to their names and thus will be able to give flawless performances behind the microphone. After all, voice acting is way easier to do than on-site acting, so this should be a shoo-in.

The Reality

OK, first, let’s give credit where credit is due; many celebrities do make fantastic voice actors, and plenty of anime dubs are richer for having them, or at least certainly stand up well. Disney is particularly good for the most part about this; their choices for Miyazaki movies, save for a few hiccups here and there (Gillian Anderson as Moro? Seriously?) are pretty much spot on the nose, with genuine warmth and depth to the celebrity performances. I’ll also go out on a limb and say that, for some reason, Star Trek actors always seem to be awesome at it, at least in original Western animation and video games; besides the original cast, there’s Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis, Michael Dorn, Brent Spiner, Kate Mulgrew and Tim Russ (I’d give good money for more Avery Brooks and Rene Auberjois voice acting as well… rawr). There are certainly plenty of live actors who make the transition to voice acting almost seamlessly, and more power to them.

Having said that, there are some major issues with this obsession with getting celebrity voice talent, most of which spawn from a lack of understanding of how live acting and voice acting is different. There seems to be this idea that if you can act well in movies and stage, you can act just as well in a cartoon or video game, thus getting a good stage or movie actor is the way to go.

In fact, the two styles of acting are entirely different. Oh, to be sure, there are similarities at the heart of it – same ideas of becoming a character, etc etc – but the tools, or lack thereof, are different. In movies and in theatre, acting is actually quite a physical thing; you don’t just emote with your voice, you emote with your expressions, your gestures, and even just the way you stand. Live actors are used to using these tools to express themselves. What happens when you stick them in a situation where their expressions, their movements and their entire physical body are no longer involved and everything is dependent on their voice alone? Some actors can’t make the transition and end up developing flat performances that may have been quite nuanced if we could have seen their gestures or facial expressions (e.g. Rachel Leigh Cook, Gillian Anderson). Then there’s the fact that, in anime dubbing, you’re not only restricted to your voice but also to a certain set of lip movements; many actors struggle with fitting their words into the lip flap while still being convincing, and some who do perfectly good Western animation acting end up with incredibly stilted delivery in anime. Also, consider the fact that, in movies and theatre, you are often playing off other actors; the character you’re arguing with or asking questions of or seducing is “in the room” as it were, and it makes it easier to interact naturally. In contrast, voice dubbing, especially with anime, is a very solitary process, with actors usually stuck alone in a recording booth for hours with only the voice of the director in their headphones. The results can be a somewhat disconnected performance where the characters don’t quite seem to be talking to each other. Lastly, environment, location and sets can have a big effect on some actors’ performances. Imagine you had to pretend to be a forlorn, trapped princess longing for something more, longing to escape your cage and fight for your freedom; which of these locations do you think would inspire more emotion out of you?

The flip side of this, of course, is the professional voice actors, who ARE used to working in the recording booth and using only their voice to convey their emotions (and yes, some of them are as bad at live acting as live actors are at voice acting). The obsession with getting celebrity voice talent not only sells these actors short but denies them potential work as well as writing off potentially better choices for certain characters. Voice actors like Brad Swaile or Brian Drummond may not be household names like Brad Pitt, but they have a specific set of skills that lend themselves well to anime characters, and a lot of the time they’d beat the pants off Pitt in terms of delivering convincing performances. And yet many companies would lean towards giving Pitt the job just because LOL BRAD PITT.

One last thing to consider is that one of the biggest points of casting celebrity talent – getting people to come see the movie – is less of a point than many might think. A lot of major anime releases are watched by, unsurprisingly, anime fans, and anime fans seem to be a lot less fascinated by celebrities and big names. Some exceptions exist, of course – most of us will very happily troop in to watch anything with Patrick Stewart’s dulcet tones – but we’re no more or less likely to go watch something if it has Robin Williams instead of Scott McNeill. At best, it may inspire some extra interest in an audience that was already interested to begin with; at worst, it can come across as a cynical grab at a non-anime fan audience (e.g. Miley Cyrus’ sister and a Jonas Brother in Ponyo).

When Reality and Fantasy Collide

Obviously, the biggest effect of this collision of reality and fantasy is, well, crappy dubs, or at least crappy performances, even from excellent celebrity actors. Your mileage may vary, of course – what is flat or overdone to one may be a nuanced performance to another – but I’m sure we’ve all have our personal, “OH [FAVE CELEBRITY] NO” moment. For me, it’s a tossup between Cate Blanchett putting on her Super!Galadriel imitation for Ponyo, the flat delivery of Billy Crudup in Princess Mononoke, the miscasting of Gillian Anderson in the same, and Rachel Leigh Cook dilly-dally-shilly-shallying her way through Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (it almost counts! Might not be specifically anime, but it was dubbed in the same way).

Also, as mentioned before, the contrast of reality and fantasy can marginalize professional voice actors and diminish their accomplishments. Who cares if Kirby Morrow gave the performance of a lifetime as a beloved secondary character; the father character with five lines is played by Matt Damon, goddamnit!

Having said that, sometimes the meeting of reality and fantasy, well, goes pretty darned well. For every bad or overblown celebrity performance, there’s usually a decent or even impressive performance to go with it. A lot of actors, particularly in sci-fi franchises, seem to be able to make a good transition and often distinguish themselves very well, especially in secondary roles. In fact, a lot of the best performances are the ones that we don’t recognize; “Hey, wait, the mother was Tina Fey? Whoa, I totally didn’t catch that at all.” And then of course, there’s Patrick Stewart. We’d listen to him read out the phone book.

Can Fantasy Become Reality?

It already has to a certain extent, based on the sheer number of celebrity voices getting yoinked into major anime releases, particularly Miyazaki titles. What needs to happen now, I think, is that companies need to start taking more of a case-by-case approach to casting rather than falling over themselves to cast celebrities. I want to hear more about celebrities and professional voice actors auditioning for anime roles as equals, and let the best person win. I’d like to see the next theatrical anime release be filled with “no name” actors that prove their worth just as well as the Jolies, the Depps, the McKellans of the acting world.

Will this happen? It’s hard to say. A lot of smaller anime dubbing companies (mine included) already get the value of a talented voice actor vs. a big name, but convincing executives of this, particularly in major companies like Disney, may be a lot harder. Perhaps the value of a star name will remain all-important as long as celebrities remain popular. In which case, don’t expect to see celebrity voice actors go anywhere.

What are some of your favourite celebrity voice actors? What about least-favorite?

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