JAPANESE CARTOONS, TEXAS VOICES
Lone Star State an unlikely mecca for dubbing after bootstrap operation transformed into anime powerhouse
There’s an art to screaming well. It requires a lack of inhibition, a willingness to holler with a gaping maw and full-throated sincerity. Your audience will know if you don’t mean it.
From inside a soundproof room in a southwest Houston business park, John Swasey demonstrates.
AHHHHHHHH. AHHHHH. AHHHHHH.
He screams again and again, working his way through the highlighted script. As one of the top talents in anime voice acting, the 54-year-old has spent more than two decades bellowing into microphones.
In that time, he’s seen the industry explode, watched the anime “bubble” burst and hung around for the rebuilding.
But through it all, he’s stayed in Texas — there’s almost no better place to be if you’re an anime voice actor. The Lone Star State, as it turns out, is an American mecca for the bold Japanese cartoons and the voice actors who dub them in English.
“We produce more anime than anyone in the world,” he said. “Except for Japan.”
Far from the entertainment centers of Hollywood and Manhattan, Texas has lured an industry with its cheaper business costs, lack of unions and cities big enough to draw and retain talent. And in Houston, the story of the success of anime voice acting is also a tale of two nerds — and the anime powerhouse they founded in the back of a video game store.
Known for its wide-eyed and jagged-haired characters, anime — pronounced ANNA-may — is the Japanese term for animation. With complex plots geared toward adult viewers, anime TV series stretch across every genre, from horror to fantasy to comedy.
The artsy cartoons started more than a century ago in Japan and came stateside later, gaining popularity through VHS tapes and later through streaming services.
It’s more available here now than ever but, still, when it comes to bringing traditional anime to America, there’s a catch: Every-
thing is in Japanese. That leaves two main options to make it watchable for U.S. viewers: subbing and dubbing.
Subbing — slang for subtitling — is an easier proposition, as it involves only translating. But not everyone likes reading their TV.
Dubbing — the sort of voiceover work Swasey does — requires not only translating the film but also retooling the words so the speech matches the lip flaps, the movements of the cartoon figure’s mouth.
Traditionally, American companies license the rights to sub, dub and distribute the shows after they’ve already aired in Japan. Then, they hire voice actors to record each part, one at a time. Some people do the main roles, and some fill in the “walla” — background murmurs in busy rooms.
In 1992, Matt Greenfield and John Ledford holed up in the Gametronix storage room to watch spirits and slayers duke it out on a small screen.
Ledford owned the place, a video game importer nestled into the grit and heat of west Houston. Greenfield, who’d spent his career working for and around NASA, ran the area’s largest anime club: Anime NASA.
They’d met at the Chimney Rock store, introduced through overlapping nerd circles. Together they decided to take a gamble.
Talking fast and dreaming big, they launched ADV Films, a bootstrap operation that would grow into an unparalleled anime powerhouse, churning out voiceover and dubbing work for American audiences taken in by the exotic thrill of foreign heroes and villains.
At a time when other forces in the market focused on robots, Ledford and Greenfield turned to fantasy. The inaugural title — “Devil Hunter Yohko” — told the tale of a 16-year-old girl battling demons and crushes.
It was a risk.
“Even the Japanese company we licensed from was like, ‘Are you sure want to license this?’ ” Greenfield recalled.
That first translation was done in a Houston-area living room with translators from the local anime club. It started in subtitle only; when ADV turned to dubbing the following year, they didn’t have their own setup and had to sneak in time at the sound studio across the street from Astroworld.
But once that first dub hit the market, it all took off.
“We had one title, then three, then 12, then 40 titles a year,” Ledford said, talking at a high speed about heady times. (“I’ll reduce to half a gigabit,” he offers, when asked to slow down.)
By 1994, Ledford and Greenfield were ready to up the ante; Greenfield had quit his job and Ledford was ready to sell the gaming business. So they found a spot in southwest Houston and founded a studio, believed to be the first anime-specific dubbing operation in the country.
There, between the immigration lawyers and knock-off boutiques on Harwin Drive, rose a cartoon empire. According to one expert, ADV became “the 900-pound gorilla in the market,” putting out a few dozen titles a year.
Their success was Houston’s success, and by the end of the millennium, the Space City had quietly turned into an anime voic-eover cynosure fit to rival bigger cities.
If ADV was the mad scientist’s haphazard experiment, then Houston was the petri dish with all the right conditions.
One factor in the city’s favor was just a quirk of the process. Because dubbing involves bringing in a finished product and adding sound, it’s essentially something that can be done anywhere; it’s not any easier in Los Angeles or New York.
According to Marc Hairston — a University of Texas at Dallas professor who teaches an anime class — the Lone Star State has a major advantage.
“Texas can employ non-union actors to do voice-over work and so pay them less, thus keeping the costs down,” he said. “Even at its peak, the profit margins on dubbed anime releases were never very high.”
With a lower cost of living and cities big enough to nurture a niche talent pool, Texas beckoned and the industry came.
Some of today’s talent staples — like Swasey — once planned to leave Texas to build a career, but ended up staying after discovering the glut of anime work in Houston and Dallas.
For David Matranga, it started with a chance audition at a studio he’d never heard of. He’d just finished up college in San Marcos and had come back to his hometown, when his agent surprised him with a local audition for a cartoon series.
“My first reaction was… here? In Houston?” he said. “I thought, ‘No, that happens in L.A.’ ”
He’d never envisioned himself as a voice actor but landed the lead role. He eventually headed east for grad school at Yale, but nearly two decades later, he’s back living in Houston, still doing work for the company formerly known as ADV.
Colleen Clinkenbeard, a wellknown anime producer and voice actor, was living in the Dallas area when she discovered anime voice work — again through a chance audition. Her plan had always been to move to New York. But she tried out with Funimation, the Big D anime heavyweight behind “Dragon Ball Z.”
“Funimation just sucked me in,” she said. “That happens to a lot of people — you get sucked in. All we want is to be doing something in the entertainment industry and then you realize you can do that here, without moving anywhere else, and suddenly it becomes an affordable life.”
By 2003, ADV was pulling $150 million in revenue, by Greenfield’s account. They’d launched an on-demand anime channel, had offices in Tokyo and London and boasted more than 350 employees working in five studios.
Blockbuster and Suncoast carried their titles, and anime was everywhere. The popular Pokémon series and the acclaimed releases of Tokyo-based Studio Ghibli had helped rocket the entire anime industry to new levels of fandom. But it was all too much, too fast.
“Basically from the early 2000s to 2007-2008, the anime and manga industry overexpanded with U.S. companies buying up as many properties as they could,” Hairston said. “The thought was — as it was in all bubbles — that this will just keep growing without end.”
Across the industry, the quality of the work started to decline, as more and more companies tried jumping in on the craze.
“It was already starting to show the cracks when the main economic downturn dealt the industry two fatal blows,” Hairston said. First, Suncoast filed for bankruptcy and closed its stores. Then, Borders began withering and eventually shut down.
Instead, anime-lovers turned to online pirating, where they could get their favorite series for free. Suncoast’s parent company — which accounted for half of ADV’s revenue, by Greenfield’s account — shut its doors in 2005. By 2009, the signals were clear: The industry was changing, and they needed to adapt.
They demolished ADV in a fire sale and started fresh with new companies.
“If it’s a Transformer, ADV broke into five little parts,” said Greenfield.
One of those parts is Sentai, the studio where Swasey spends his days shouting at ghosts.
Today, Texas is still a center for anime voice work, although now a larger portion of that is in Dallas and Austin, a clear reversal from ADV’s heyday.
“At one point, ADV was the king and Funimation was this little studio up in Dallas,” Swasey said. “Now Funimation is the king. But if Funimation makes the big blockbusters, Sentai makes the big art house films.”
And the talents at the center of it — voice actors like Swasey — have turned into stars of a niche industry, flying from convention to convention across the globe. Even 20 years in, sometimes the flashes of celebrity are still unexpected.
“One time I was flying to Dublin with my wife,” he recounted, “and I said, ‘In the world of anime, I’m kind of a big deal.’ ”
She spit out her drink and laughed.
But then the plane landed, and they stepped out into the airport lobby.
“There were six people standing there with signs like, ‘I love you John Swasey,’ and she’s like, ‘Oh, my God.’ ”
He’s become one of the most prolific male voice actors in the U.S., and his job has taken him to Australia and England. Last year, he moved from attending conventions to hosting one of his own — a new gathering in Dallas, where a portion of the proceeds went to Harvey disaster relief.
But despite the fans and the travel, voice acting is not generally a glamorous life. Much of it, he said, is spent not in front of fangirling nerds but before a brightly lit computer, or alone in a darkened room, screaming into a mic in southwest Houston.
“My first reaction was … here? In Houston? I thought, ‘No, that happens in L.A.’ ”
David Matranga, voice actor
John Swasey, voice actor and director, unleashes a full-throated bellow as part of his job dubbing anime.
A car hood can’t escape the enthusiasm for anime at Sentai, part of a powerhouse in Japanese cartoons.
Voice actor Brittney Karbowski works behind the scenes at the studios of Sentai Filmworks.