JA­PA­NESE CAR­TOONS, TEXAS VOICES

Lone Star State an un­likely mecca for dub­bing after boot­strap op­er­a­tion trans­formed into an­ime pow­er­house

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Keri Blakinger STAFF WRITER

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

Marie D. De Jesús / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

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.

Marie D. De Jesús / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Voice ac­tor Brit­tney Kar­bowski works be­hind the scenes at the stu­dios of Sen­tai Film­works.

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