In interviews and commentaries on anime discs, I often hear English VAs state that they like to be surprised regarding their characters and the story, which would be good if most of your work involved turning up to a booth, reading the lines, and relying on the voice director to guide the performances to what is required for the show. But why do they say that they prefer working this way when the rest of the acting industry is anything but this, where in film, television, theatre, and indeed animation, actors get the full script before starting work, and get to develop their characters?
While it’s true that, ideally, most actors will get to know their characters and prepare ahead of time, the fact of the matter is that many, many TV shows and movies do not really allow their actors much of a chance to prep their roles. It really isn’t uncommon for an actor to show up on set without a script in hand, and for shows and movies to still be getting written while they’re being shot. It’s not usually a sign that a production is going well, but it happens all the time.
Voice acting is really a very different craft than on-camera acting. On-camera acting often needs to be very quiet and subtle, relying a lot on body language and eye movement. Less ambitious projects like sitcoms might not require much deep digging for their cast, but serious roles require a lot of very deep understanding of their characters. Compare the first season of Mad Men, when the young cast was just starting to “do the work” and was really just dipping their toe into their roles, to the last season, when the characters are so entirely fleshed out and “real” that they are given life. That’s the difference it makes.
This preparation is even more important with stage acting, where an actor must also learn potentially dangerous staging queues, a hundred pages of dialogue and/or song, AND deal with the increased scrutiny of an audience that is actually there. There’s no taking a break, no retakes, and no hiding bad performances with editing and trick camera work. You actually have to live that character for the duration of the play, or the spell of the storytelling will be broken. Even harder, the performance must be fine-tuned ahead of time, and then repeated as flawlessly as possible every night. It’s the hardest type of acting, and many actors find it to be the most rewarding. It requires an incredibly intense and deep understanding of every moment of the script and every facet of their character.
With voice acting, particularly with anime dubbing, this sort of deep character work is almost never done. The give-aways that a performance is fake that we subconsciously look for are not happening on-screen. We never see an actor break character and smirk for a second, or look off where they’re not supposed to. We never see a blank emotionless face during a very emotional scene. Everything comes from the voice. Tone of voice is far easier to manipulate in the moment, without having the full emotional weight of a character behind it.
As such, many actors doing voice work routinely don’t worry about things like preparing their character. ADR, the process by which anime is dubbed, comes from the practice of re-recording of dialogue in a studio for live action projects, to replace footage from a shoot where the audio was unusable, either due to noise or technical problems. ADR (or “looping”) is a very slow, technical process, and it’s something most actors don’t really like doing, but they do it because it’s part of the job. Doing one line at a time in isolation, it can be very difficult to feel the emotion of a scene. Contrast this with pre-lay recording for yet-to-be-animated cartoons and games, wherein they ARE usually working with other actors and can at least build a scene in their heads. ADR ends up being far more technical, and the concentration usually ends up on whether or not they’re matching the lip-flap of the characters on screen.
And so, rather than get involved in the character and their emotional underpinnings, many of them just sort of choose to “wing it” and rely on the ADR Director to guide their performance. The result is not necessarily a great performance, but it would be considered serviceable because the visuals — in this case, the animation — is doing half the work. What’s more, the visual half of the character’s performance is already set in stone. The voice actorcan only try to match what’s already there, and they don’t have much latitude to work with.
The process can be very dull for the actor, particularly if they’re not that engaged in the show (or anime in general), and so many of them are using the fun of watching the show as they’re recording it, and seeing how their character progresses to keep them present and interested. Keeping alert and engaged can be very difficult in a stuffy, silent booth as they spend hours and hours repeating the same lines over and over with the right timing and intonation. It is not easy work — more challenging than on-camera acting in many ways — but it’s more technical than most acting types, and nowhere near as exciting as many fans think it is.
This is true of most, but definitely not all voice actors. There are a handful that really study their characters, and really get to know what’s going on behind their eyes. They go to great lengths to learn the character’s emotional beats, and try and figure out where they’re coming from emotionally for every scene. These actors are rare. Voice work does not pay very much, and most of the time a superficial performance will still end up lauded by fans, so unless the actor REALLY loves working on anime, they likely won’t bother.
In my opinion, doing the work for an anime dubbing role is often what separates the good voice actors from the great ones.