MARC HANDLER INTERVIEW – WRITING DUB ANIMATION (2002, 2009) February 16, 2012Posted by shannonmuir in animation, Interview.
Tags: adr, animation, anime, dub, handler, interview, marc, marc handler, writing dub animation
SHANNON MUIR: What are the reasons for dubbing animation?
MARC HANDLER: Sometimes it’s just as simple as translating a film so that viewers can watch it in their own language. In other instances, it means rewriting the entire story of the series — or even merging multiple similar series into one storyline — resulting in a new product that has the look of the original but tells a whole new tale.
SM: Can you talk about where you started as a writer, and how that led to doing dub scripts for animation?
MH: I used to do street theatre, political theatre, we did sketch-plays supporting Nelson Mandela’s movement in South Africa, women’s rights, etc. I wrote some of the plays we performed — and later I wrote plays for independent theatres. Then I actually studied dramatic writing at USC, went through a masters program there, and afterward, became a staff writer for Walt Disney / Disney Channel — that was all original writing. I met a producer named Heidi Lester who was working on the original Voltron series and she introduced me to ADR (dub) writing, which was a very small area at the time. Very few animated shows were being imported at that time.
SM: You’ve written for series such as Voltron, which was recrafted for anAmerican audience by removing or re-editing sequences, and series such asCowboy Bebop, for which minimal editing is done. Can you elaborate on the joys and challenges of each?
MH: I wrote for one series at Saban where we had an episode that just ended half-way through, and the next episode started right there — about 12 minutes in. They had to cut out so much footage — it was wacked. I called up the company and said, “um… this episode ends in the middle…” they said, “oh, I guess we messed up in the editing — well, do the best you can” — somehow I made it seem like one episode — but obviously that’s not very satisfying, because you have to really work hard to figure out a way to connect it up, and in the end you know whatever you do, it’s still going to be pretty bad.
I story edited a show recently where, the whole series was a journey to this mythical place to set up some major event that was supposed to happen at the end of the series, but we didn’t have synopses or tapes for the final episodes so we didn’t know what was actually going to happen when they got to the end of the journey. At the network meetings I kept saying, let’s call Japan and talk to the director or the story editor — they’re real people — I’m sure they’d be happy to discuss this with us and explain what they had in mind — I’ll bring in a translator. Everyone seemed to think this was an odd suggestion, like Japan was Mars and these episodes were artifacts that needed to be deciphered through some mysterious means — and they also thought there might be legal obstacles, like the contracts might not allow us to call the company directly — very strange — so instead, they just made up a bunch of stuff about the characters and their goals and the world they were in with no idea whether these things would continue to make sense as the series went forward. Needless to say, that kind of thing is frustrating.
I worked on a series called Dinozaurs: In one episode, our young heroes are rushing off to bring an urgent warning to the Dinozaurs that evil aliens are about to destroy the earth. But before the kids can get out of town, they are stopped by a neighbor lady who has lost her cat. The kids forget all about the earth being in danger and spend the next ½ of the episode trying to catch the cat. From an American perspective this seems nuts: I’ve never known an American story editor who would approve this kind of story, but in some of the Japanese productions, they’re working with low budgets on very tight schedules, so all kinds of strange things will get through.
I actually quit working on a network series to do FLCL (Furi Kuri). The network paid more, but it was a chore working with people who really weren’t into anime; I was patching episodes together, and the end result was so-so. FLCL was for a small company (Sync Point / Digital Manga), only 6 episodes — but everyone on the project understood anime and they really wanted to do it right. I was able to write and direct which gave me a lot of artistic input — and we had the original director, Tsurumaki-san, in the studio with us for the first few days, so we could ask him what he had in mind for each character and each scene, and then really try to be true to the original intention. FLCL is a very bizarre series — fun, very wacked — but though it seems whimsical, it was carefully made with great attention to detail, so we tried to honor that in the American production. I enjoyed that a lot. There was a great moment when one of our actors, Bob Kline, was doing a character and I turned to Tsurumaki-san and said, “Y’know he’s doing this differently than the original actor, do you want me to bring it back closer to the original?” and Tsurumaki-san said “No, no, keep it like this…” he said he was never happy with the original performance of the Japanese actor in that role and he liked the American actor better. So this was a case where we were actually improving on the original production with the input of the original director. — Tsurumaki-san grinned when I showed him about 30 pages of script analysis we had done on FLCL, breaking down all the literary elements, character motivations, etc. —
Likewise with the Cowboy Bebop movie (aka Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door), we were in very close communication with Watanabe-san. Yutaka Maseba and Haruyo Kanesaku are the Zro Limit Producers on Bebop and they were trading e-mails with Sunrise constantly, getting answers to very detailed questions about how to interpret the various scenes. On Metropolis we communicated directly with Rintarao-san and the Japanese production team in the same way. I think this is a big step forward in the process of bringing anime to the US — getting into direct communication with the Japanese creators — I credit Yutaka Maseba, Haruyo Kanesaku, Shizuki Yamashita, Stephanie Shea, Hikaru Sasahara, and others like them for building those bridges with the creators in Japan — and also with providing writers like me with multi-layered translations, explaining when words have double-meanings, cultural references in the dialogue, and things of that sort. Those are the kinds of things that are lost in a direct translation. TV studios never provide writers with those kinds of detailed analyses of the text, so this is a case where the good independents are really ahead of the studios, leading the way.
SM: Looking specifically at VOLTRON for a moment, you served as story-editor toward the end of the first series and for the follow-up series. When you know that aspects of the content must be altered for the audience the
company is aiming for, how hard is it to stay on top of the new continuity?
MH: We were not aiming for a special audience in either of the Voltron series — we were aiming for all Americans who might like the show. We assumed this would appeal more to young children — color-coded lions with color-coded heroes is the kind of idea that tends to appeal to children — but we never tried to dumb-down the dialogue or turn it into a cutesy kiddie show or anything like that. We tried to stay with the spirit of the original show in all cases — in fact the reason I was brought in to story edit Voltron 3-D was specifically because they wanted someone from the original show who understood the spirit of the series to make sure we stayed with that and built on it for the new series. Some of the old fans thought the 3-D series was aiming younger – it wasn’t – it’s just that the original fans were older now so it seemed younger to them. The kids who have always been Voltron’s main audience had very strong positive reactions to the old and new versions.
As far as the alterations are concerned, for both the old and new series, in order for the show to be broadcast in the United States, it had to be consistent with US standards – so we had to limit violence and change some
things to make it broadcastable in the US. That was just to get the show on the air, not to reach a special audience.
None of this presented a continuity problem. When we started the new series we had meetings with the staff, made decisions about where we wanted to go
with the new series, and what we wanted to do with the characters in the new season — I then wrote a show bible so that everyone had the same point of reference – and then we began to write the episodes. There were no special continuity issues. The whole writing staff on that show had a very unified approach — we all got along well and had similar ideas about the show.
SM: Can you describe the process of how a script for a dubbed project evolves?
MH: Yes. Let me focus on the heart of the process first, then I’ll give a more technical, step by step description.
The heart of ADR writing entails watching the original scene, looking at the translation, then writing lines that will convey the meaning of the scene, sound like natural English, and fit with the mouth movement of the character. So the writer’s main tasks are:
1) making sure that the story is being told in a clear, step by step way so the audience can follow and understand it. This is by far the most important part of the job.
2) Writing dialogue that sounds natural and colorful, not stiff, flat, boring, or confusing.
3) Making sure the lines will sync to the picture. These are the issues that you are dealing with line by line throughout the writing process.
The most difficult part is the first part, making sure the story is told clearly. The most common problem with ADR writing is that writers will follow the translated dialogue line by line so that each line makes sense, but when you put the whole scene together, the scene doesn’t go anywhere, it doesn’t move the story forward. The essence of the original scene has been lost and the story becomes muddled. — Writers trained in dramatic writing understand that each scene must move the story forward: each scene adds something specific to the story and connects up directly with the other scenes forming a cause and effect chain: what happens in this scene effects the next scene which in turn effects the next scene. If any of the links in this chain are lost, the story becomes confusing. So the writer has to look at each scene and understand how it fits into this chain, what essential developments happen in this scene that will effect later scenes: then he has to make sure that those essential developments get across clearly to the viewer.
Here’s a crude example of the kind of problems that arise around this issue: A character says (direct translation): “I will now return to the space ship. I wish to go to the cargo area. There I will wait.”
The ADR writer changes this into more natural English, e.g. “I’m going back to the ship. I’ll wait for you in the cargo hold.”
This fits the mouth. It sounds okay. So the writer thinks he has done his job and he moves on to the next scene. But he didn’t stop to ask, why is the character saying this? How does it affect the story? Had he looked more closely he might have realized that something essential is being communicated here, e.g. what the character is really communicating is, “I’m going to the cargo hold to hide the moon pendant so the bad guys don’t find it.” — This is essential to the story. It explains why the pendant shows up in the cargo hold 3 scenes later. Why didn’t the original Japanese writer say this clearly? Probably because it’s typical of Japanese communication to imply things without stating them directly. Stating things too bluntly is considered crude and uninteresting. Implying things is considered intriguing and thought provoking. Japanese viewers are tuned into this, so the original Japanese viewer would have understood that this was all about the moon pendant from the context and the way the line was said in Japanese. But it was lost in the translation and the American writer failed to pick it up, so the American viewer will be confused. – This kind of thing comes up constantly in adr writing. – The good writers analyze the scenes and ask, “Why is this character saying this? Is there a reason that is not readily apparent? What is this scene all about? How does it connect up with the other scenes.” They make sure that the American viewer is able to follow the story just as the original Japanese viewer could.
The next component of the process is to write natural, vibrant dialogue. This is a subjective issue: your idea of good dialogue may be different than mine. However, it’s clear that the visuals should inform the dialogue. For example, suppose in Cowboy Bebop, Jet and Spike walk into some smoky jazz club full of hipsters in sunglasses listening to a cool jazz trio led by an alto sax player. The whole scene is done in a deep blue wash. Jet looks at the musicians and says, (direct translation). “I like the way this music sounds very much.” You naturally want to change the style of the dialogue so that it fits with the mood and motif of the scene. Knowing that Jet is a jazz lover and this is his kind of place, he might say something like, “Man, that sax sure is sweet.” – The words are not the same, but the intent is the same and more in keeping with the mood of the scene. It is probably much closer to the original Japanese if you could translate the nuance along with the literal meaning. So an effective adr writer writes dialogue that expresses the mood, motif and the nature of the character as well as the literal meaning of the lines.
The final issue is sync, i.e. making the lines fit the mouth movement of the character. You’d probably be surprised to know that this is quite controversial within the dubbing community. There are people who think sync is not very important, and others who make a virtual religion of it. For those who focus on sync, it is important not only that the line starts and ends at the right time, but also that it carefully matches the pauses, “labials” “fricatives”, open mouth sounds, and other details. i.e. when a character’s lips come together, they should make a lips-together sound like M, B, or P. If a character’s mouth is open, they should make an open sound like Oh or Ah. In my own writing, I take these things into account and try to write tight sync. I enjoy seeing scenes that sync up well and I know this will make things easier for the director and the actors. However, I’m also aware that these things have very little effect on most viewers. E.g. Disney’s version of Spirited Away has poor sync — it’s clear that neither the writers, directors, nor engineers paid much attention to this issue — and I think it would be a real stretch to argue that this has negatively impacted the success of the film (though I much prefer their dub of Princess Mononoke which had tight sync and more vivid dialogue). The original Voltron series had dreadful sync for technical reasons too complicated to go into, but the poor sync did not prevent the series from being a hit series. That said, most ADR producers and directors working currently are aware of this issue and prefer tighter sync. Many directors will rework a writer’s dialogue in the studio to make it fit the mouths better, including changing a word like “large” to “big” so that the “b” matches when the character’s lips come together. Rewriting in the studio slows them down, so they appreciate a writer who writes tight sync so they don’t have to stop and fix it. This is much more important in close ups where the mouth movement is prominent; less important in wide shots where the mouth is small.
Those three issues, story, dialogue, sync, are the most important things to be aware of. Here’s a more technical step by step of how the overall process works. Bear in mind that each company is different and each project is different. Typically…
The Japanese company sends tapes and synopses, sometimes scripts to the American company.
The American company sends the tapes or the Japanese scripts to translators to create English language scripts — these are direct translations. If you
read them in English they generally seem very awkward and strange because of the differences in the two languages.
At the same time, if there is any editing to do, the producers and editors are editing the tapes, taking out scenes that won’t work for the US audience. Some shows have no editing, especially if they are for the
anime fan video market. Some have lots of editing, especially if they are for a mainstream broadcast market. Then…
They call the writer in. If you’re lucky, they send you a tape so you can see it. More often you sign on without seeing the show, just a brief verbal description from the Producer. In the case of Metropolis, I actually had no time to work on a new project and I was going to turn it down, but they sent me the tape of the Japanese version and once I watched it, it was such an excellent film in every respect, I knew I just had to work on it.
Cowboy Bebop was just the opposite circumstance. When they called me I said I was unavailable because I was about to leave the country on an extended trip to Asia. But fortunately Kevin Seymour (Animaze) didn’t just hang up on me. We talked for a bit and a little lightbulb went off in my brain: “Any chance I can write these episodes while I’m travelling and just send them in via e-mail?” When Kevin said yes, I signed on immediately, never having seen the show. It could have been a real dog: I wasn’t expecting anything — I think it was the same for everyone who worked on it — just a job. Then as soon as we started working on the first episode, it was, “Hey, this is good…” and as we went forward we all just lit up as we realized what a fantastic series we had stumbled into. … So ya never know…
If you’re story editing a series, you generally have some meetings with the producers to set the direction of the series, what you want to change, what you want to keep the same, formats, etc. In the case of FLCL and the Cowboy Bebop Movie, we had some meetings just to interpret the show, trying to understand all of the fine points and sort everything out — but this is unusual. In the case of Tokyo Pig we had a couple of meetings with the producers in which all the writers were present. I think that’s the only time I’ve been to full staff writers’ meetings for an ADR show. In most cases, as a writer, you have no meetings with anyone — they just send you a tape and a translation script, tell you whatever you need to know over the phone, and you start writing. It’s pretty helter-skelter and you learn the show as you go. E.g. you write lyrics for 3 or 4 songs, which is very time consuming, only to be told later, “Oh, we forgot to mention, the music department is writing all the lyrics, you don’t have to do that…” Or after you’ve written a section, “Oh, the part where the bird flies in, that’s a running gag, it works like this….” So you have to go back and redo the section now that you know the gag.
In an original series, you usually have some writer’s meetings and you get a pretty comprehensive bible and guidance on these things from the story editors, but with ADR writing, there are often no show bibles, or very thin ones, and the story editors often only come into play after you finish your first draft. So a lot of the time you’re just taking your best guess at everything. If you have an idea for a running gag or a signature phrase for a character, you can put it out there, write a note in the script suggesting that the other writers pick up on the idea. Often there’s not enough communication for the other writers to get the message. For instance, on Gatchaman (Eagle Riders) I had the idea that the ship’s computer could have different “personality settings,” so that it would have different character voices in different episodes. Though the idea was used for that episode, it never passed on to other writers. In other cases, however, running gags or signature ideas do get passed around and become part of the series.
For story editors, the process is different than for writers. You attend meetings with producers – sometimes network executives or other executives on the project. We discuss how the series works, the
characters, the arc of the series (how it changes from the first episode to the last) and all other considerations relating to the scripts. Then writers receive tapes and translations – usually one tape at a time – the
translation may be in hard copy, or it may be sent as an e-mail attachment or delivered on disc. The writer is also given a deadline to complete the script (typically ridiculously short).
The writer takes the tape home and works on his own equipment — video equipment with good frame control is essential — or the alternative is to have the tape digitized and work on your computer rather than on a VCR: this is still rare, but will probably become common over the next few years.
The writer generally watches the whole episode, reads the translation, then goes to work. If you’re lucky enough to be working with a savvy producer like Rita Majkut or Jamie Simone at ABC, they may talk you through the episode letting you know what direction they want to go with it – but that’s rare. Most of the time you’re on your own for the first draft.
To break it down technically: The script will include time codes and dialogue. The time code works like this: each frame has a number, you can see it on the screen — 30 frames for each second of screen time. So when a character starts speaking, we note the frame number where he starts. When he stops speaking, we note the frame number where he stops. Then we write the line to fit in that space. That way, in the recording studio, the engineer can punch these numbers into his recording equipment, so he and the actors and director can
instantly find the location of the line and easily record the new English line at that spot. This speeds up the recording process immeasurably and, more importantly, it allows the actors to maintain their momentum and focus so they can concentrate on their characters and not be slowed down by technical issues.
So the writer’s work is a mix of creative work, writing dialogue, and non-creative detail work, locating and recording time code numbers. Time coding is a boring technical exercise. There are a few people around who only do time codes: sometimes writers farm out that part of the work to these coders (bless them). But usually the writer does his own codes. You can do all of the codes in a single pass before you start writing: some writers prefer that because at that point you’re just focusing on numbers, that frees you up later to just focus on dialogue. Also, by the time you’ve done a numbers pass, you’ve watched every scene and you’re a little more familiar with the episode. Other writers prefer to do the codes as they go, putting in numbers and dialogue one loop at a time. I work either way depending on how I’m feeling at the moment.
With the Cowboy Bebop Movie we did this all backwards. We received tapes with no time code so we had to write all the lines first, then later gave it to a time coder who went back and spotted all the numbers. This is a very difficult way to work, not recommended. Similarly, I worked on just time codes for Laputa and Kiki’s delivery services for Disney because they re-edited after the script was complete, so we had to go back and redo all of the numbers. Along with dialogue, numbers must be spotted every time a character gasps, grunts, or makes any kind of sound. So this process typically involves 15 or 16 thousand code numbers on a full length script: you can easily go number crazy doing it.
Putting in numbers entails finding the start point for each loop. A loop is when an actor speaks or makes a sound. So every time an actor will need to say a line, or gasp, or cry, or make any other sound, you need to find the spot where he will begin and note the frame number. — Those numbers later go to an engineer who punches them into the recording system so that when we’re recording we can move very rapidly from one loop to the next without hunting around for spots. This saves lots of time in recording, but, perhaps more important, it allows the actor to maintain their momentum and focus so they can concentrate on their character and not be slowed down by technical issues.
As I mentioned, the main part of the job is, of course, trying to write great creative dialogue that syncs and moves the story forward, but concurrently, you are trying to provide the director, actors, engineer and producers with what they need to have smooth, efficient recording sessions. So as you work, you always want to keep the recording session in mind. My goal is to make everyone at the session feel that the script is on their side, supporting them, giving them the info they need, notes, codes, whatever it may be. I don’t want them to feel they’re struggling with my script, working to interpret or adjust it, or feeling that there are things missing. Of course none of this ultimately prevents them from trashing the writer. It’s a running joke in the business that when things go wrong at a recording session you always blame the writer, mostly because he’s not there, so he’s a natural target. So when the writer sits in on a session, it ruins everyone’s fun: they have to find someone else to blame. The receptionist!
Back to the writing process: as you’re working your way through the video, you’re stopping at each loop, figuring out what the character should be saying here, and then crafting it to fit into the mouth movement and/or time slot. You come up with a possible line, then speak it out loud while watching the picture to see if it will fit. Then you start adjusting it, shorter or longer. Or you decide it’s not good enough, so you throw it out and try another line. In this way you go over and over the same 3 second spot relentlessly until you nail it down. Then you move on to the next 2 ½ second spot, etc, for 300 to 500 spots per 22 minutes. By the way, this can have in interesting impact on your relationship with the neighbors: if they happen to be passing by as you are repeatedly shouting out “I will take over the universe! NOTHING CAN STOP ME! HAHAHAHAHA!” it may tend to color their opinion of you. Well, you probably didn’t want to be invited to their party anyway.
In addition to writing each line, you also put in any parentheticals that will help the actor. Parentheticals such as (sadly) or (harsh) or (shouting out) are usually kept to a minimum in original scripts, however, for ADR scripts, the more guidance you can give the actor, the better. You also have to include notes letting the actor and director know if this line is on camera or off camera and many other technical notations. It’s very painstaking — drives a lot of people nuts. Some people think that’s what happened to me, but those who know me well would assure you that I lost sanity long before I started doing this. That’s probably why it seemed like a good idea.
When I finish the first draft, I do a read through and polish — I don’t know if other writers do this or not. Virtually all writers who write original episodes do multiple re-drafts and polishes, but with ADR scripts I don’t know if they do. I read through to feel the flow of the dialogue, usually making small adjustments as I go.
Everything in the script is laid out so it will be easy for the actors and directors to work with it in the recording studio. When we’re finished with the writing, we create “breakdowns,” “loop counts” and other documents to help with the planning and recording of the episode. A breakdown is a technical sheet listing all of the loops for each character, and a loop count with total numbers of loops for each character. When it’s complete, it is usually e-mailed to the company, along with a synopsis telling the story in brief, typically half a page, and any relevant notes.
Then you wait for the producers/ story editors to send notes telling you what changes you need to make for the next draft. As soon as you read their notes, you realize with absolute certainty that they don’t know squat about writing or anime or anything else, and they certainly do not appreciate the great genius you put into this script —- however, once you begin to make the changes they suggested, you often realize that they’re a lot smarter than you thought, and they actually had a lot of good ideas that have improved the script after all.
SM: Does it help to know the original language?
MH: I think it’s helpful and more enjoyable. I worked on a live-action tele-novella called La Dama dela Rosa — the most-work/least-pay ADR job I’ve ever done. I speak enough Spanish that I could follow most of the dialogue and have my own take on it — that made it more fun and gave me extra-ideas as I was writing. This would be even more true for someone who spoke Japanese; because the structure of the language is so different from English, there are many more options of how to interpret any given line, so knowing the language would be more helpful. I wish with all my heart I could speak Japanese, but I’m still on the same beginning Japanese book I was on a year ago. I don’t know of a single anime ADR writer who speaks Japanese. It would not make a major difference in their writing, but it would be a nice addition for any of us.
As I mentioned, on the Cowboy Bebop Movie and on FLCL I was working closely with Japanese speakers and I was able to ask lots of language questions. The FLCL script had copious language notes — that was ideal. That process makes you realize how open-to-interpretation it all is. E.g., in The Cowboy Bebop Movie, there’s a scene where Vincent leaves Faye tied up on the floor as he goes out to unleash his nano-machine gas. His parting line to Faye is about Purgatory. In Vincent’s earlier dialogue, he characterizes the whole world as a kind of Purgatory. I went over the script with two native Japanese speakers, both with excellent English skills. One of them insisted that Vincent was telling Faye, “After I leave you can watch what’s going to happen to this purgatory,” meaning, to this world, earth, which is a kind of purgatory. But the other Japanese speaker insisted, with equal vigor, that Vincent was saying, “You can watch what’s going to happen FROM your own purgatory” – an entirely different idea: that Vincent was leaving her tied up, alone, miserable, stuck in her own personal purgatory. This kind of discrepancy is very common. It is not a case of one translator being right and the other wrong. The original writer purposely left it open to interpretation, so an attempt at “literal translation” would not solve the problem. As I mentioned before, fans often talk about literal translations in an absolute way, and someone who is from Japan or lived there will sometimes insist that they know what the line actually means, but the reality is, Japanese people tend to communicate in non-specific ways, through innuendo, implication, and intentionally ambiguous phrasings – especially in stories. Plus the structure of the language is very different. So trying to nail down an exact meaning is very iffy at best.
To use a very simple every day example: The Japanese “O genki desuka” is usually translated “How are you?” A very literal translation of O genki desuka would look something like this:
“Respectfully, healthy is?”
The “you” is implied. Obviously if you had a character say this, the American viewer would be totally lost. A more sensible direct translation might be
“Are you healthy?” or “Are you in good health?”
This actually makes more sense when you see how this phrase is used in Japan: they generally don’t use it as an everyday greeting as we do with “How are you?” — implying “How are you feeling today?” or “How are things going today?” They are more likely to use it after they haven’t seen someone for a long time, the way we would use, “How’s your health?” or “Have you been feeling okay?”
So a translator could choose any of these phrases, “How are you?” “Are you healthy?” “Are you feeling okay?” “How’s your health?” etc., and each would have a different implication in the context of the scene. So if the writer spoke the language, he might look at the scene and say, “Oh, the translator is saying “How are you?” but in this case, the character has been ill so it would be better to have the character say, “How’s your health?” In short, you could make better choices with more knowledge of the language.
SM: Would it help to be more familiar with the original storyline?
MH: The more familiar you are with the storyline, the better.
SM: What kinds of spec scripts are used to get jobs doing ADR?
MH: I have never seen full ADR spec scripts used to get ADR jobs. It may happen, but I haven’t seen it. Saban/Fox ran a few workshops where they taught adr writing and they had people write a scene or two on spec. That’s enough to see if the writer understands the form and can write to picture, and to get a sense of how they write dialogue. So I guess you could write a few scenes of something and hand it to a producer along with the tape — it’s a bit complicated. Usually, when they hire someone for this, it’s kind of a leap of faith. One comedy show I worked on asked for non-ADR sample scripts — they just wanted to see if you could write funny. Many of the writers being considered didn’t have any non-ADR samples; they only wrote ADR, and the ADR scripts don’t work very well as comedy samples because you can’t get most of the jokes from just reading the dialogue without seeing the picture. ADR scripts are only dialogue and technical notes – there are no scene descriptions, so when you read it, there’s no context for the jokes. In original scripts it’s much easier for the reader to get the joke. So for an ADR writer looking for work, it might be helpful to have some good strong non-ADR writing samples for an adventure script and/or a comedy script, depending on the kind of project it is, just to give a producer or story editor a feeling for the kind of dialogue you write. But this doesn’t come up often.
SM: Is dubbing animation more of a popular fad now that will fade, or do you believe it is here to stay in the mainstream?
MH: Ha. I talked to someone recently who had a possible investor for new projects. I said, “Ask if he’s interested in investing in importing shows from Asia.” He checked with his inside-the-business friends and called me back a few days later announcing that the consensus was: anime is just a minor trend and will soon be out of style.
My answer: That’s what they said about rock and roll.
I have been living in various Asian countries about half the time for the last few years and it is crystal clear to me that, in the coming years, more and more entertainment projects will be imported into the US. This is just a small part of a much larger global trend of countries trading entertainment products the same way they have long been trading food products, technical products, etc. Imagine asking a Thai four hundred years ago when they first brought peanuts and chile from the Americas whether these foods would catch on in Thailand. I can just feature some Thai old-timer saying, “These chile peppers are too hot! And the peanuts taste funny! Our people will never eat these strange foods!” — Most Thais today eat so much of this stuff, they don’t even realize these foods aren’t native to their country. The music we listen to in the US is a mix mostly of European and African music with some other influences thrown in — but you forget about where it came from and just think of it as American music. The Astro Boy series that I’m working on now is a cultural mix. It’s definitely Japanese, but it there is heavy American influence. We’re moving toward something that would be neither Japanese nor American, but a genre of it’s own with influences from both.
Overall, I think Americans have a very inflated view of the value of their own entertainment products. It’s true American movies are sold around the world. I’m very happy about that — but if you watch TV in any Asian country, flip the channels and you are much more likely to see period Chinese dramas (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon style); Thai soap-operas; Baliwood Indian musicals; Hong Kong kung fu movies; and of course Japanese Anime. These shows are imported and exported from one Asian country to the next, and dubbed into the local language, usually very badly (although I recently saw a superb live-action Japanese dub of an American sit-com, so they’re starting to catch on).
American “youth culture” was turned on in the 60s by English rock bands (who were, oddly enough, imitating American black blues artists). Today young people are turned on by Japanese Anime, Salsa dancing, and World Music, among many other influences. These things are beyond the control of US industries that would rather keep them buying home-grown entertainment products. It is very clear to me that in the coming years, young Americans will be more and more influenced by interesting trends and styles and ideas coming at them from many different cultures: as a country becomes more economically viable, people have more leisure time, and young people start producing new interesting kinds of music, dance, film, animation, and new art forms emerge that reflect their culture. As they burst onto the scene, these forms will often have strong appeal to people in other cultures. Satellites, the internet, and other global technologies allow these new forms to be disseminated quickly to other countries where they can catch on and rapidly become a part of that culture as well. The way hip-hop can move from black neighborhoods to white neighborhoods today, that is how trends will move from one continent to another in the near future: we’re most of the way there already. In the near term, look for powerful cultural trends coming into America from Japan, China, and Brazil (Handler predicts!)
Viewers in most countries are used to watching dubbed films, and American viewers are also starting to get used to it. As dubs get better and better and foreign products get more and more attractive, it’s inevitable that importation and dubbing will expand.
SM: Where are the dub companies located?
MH: Don’t know. I just work for the ones that call me up. If I had to track them down, I guess I’d go to anime websites, check the credits on anime video releases, and/or check the Hollywood Reporter annual animation issue. In the Southern California area, they tend to be in and around Burbank (where Disney and WB are located), and in the Hollywood and Santa Monica areas. Of course there are also dubbing companies in Canada where they pay even less than American companies do. Going north anyone?
SM: Do you have any final advice for people who want to get into writing scripts for dubbing animation?
Man, this is always the hardest question. I want to give good helpful encouraging advice but if I sounded very encouraging it would be a big fat lie. The truth is, it’s very hard to break into dub writing and if you do break in, it’s very hard to make a living at it. It doesn’t pay well as entertainment jobs go, and no benefits. Many ADR writers are also actors or directors: only by juggling 2 or 3 jobs do they make a passable living, and even then, it’s up and down — good years, bad years.
The problem with breaking in is, there just aren’t that many jobs and it’s so technical that most producers are very reluctant to try a new writer. It has nothing to do with the new writer’s talent. He may be very talented – but it’s still going to take him a while to master all the technical aspects of adr writing and to get the hang of writing to a picture that’s already there.
A lot of people never get it; others try one script and swear they’ll never write an ADR script again. They hate it. I’ve known several writers like that. A big issue is writing short or long. You have to be able to speak your lines out loud to the mouth movement in the picture and time the line accurately. It’s very typical for a new writer to write too long, i.e. all of his lines have too many words for the mouth-movement of the character — or too short, i.e. all of his lines have too few words for the mouth-movement of the character. In either case, the director ends up cursing the writer because he has to rewrite every line at the recording session. That means the sessions go long and the producers blame him, the director. And all of this ultimately costs money. This is why, when producers do try new writers, they often choose ADR actors. Typically, the actors have no training in story structure or writing, but they know how to speak lines to picture, so they can accurately time the lines. That’s what you’re up against.
Beyond that, your best chance of breaking in is by contacting a company when they are just starting a new series and they may need to fill out their writing staff. Be persistent in a nice way. It’s hard to find the line between friendly-persistent and obnoxiously pushy. Try to find it.
If you get a shot at a job, it would be ideal if you could get an experienced ADR actor to help you go over your lines and determine if they are short or long or fit picture. Or ask the producer if you can turn in your first 5 or 6 pages and get early feedback so you can make adjustments at an early stage.
Also, get a high quality VCR with a jog wheel with very good single frame forward and back. It shouldn’t jump when you try to go one frame forward or back, and it should hold a steady picture when it’s on pause, no jiggling. This sounds like funny advice, but it is much more important than you would think. If you’re very technically savvy, you may be able to skip the VCR and do it all on your computer, but you’d need to digitize the picture from the tape.
Also, take your first opportunity to sit in on any ADR recording sessions you can. When you see how the directors and actors work with an ADR script, you get a much better idea of how to give them what they need, and you can personalize the script to the particular director and cast.
Of course the other way to do it, the best way, is the Spike Lee way: do your own project. Import your own OVA or whatever and write and produce it yourself. Then you have a finished product to show, not just a spec script. If it’s successful, people will be coming to you for jobs, not the other way around. In fact, now that I think about it, my official suggestion is: import a whole series. Then, when you need some more writers to complete the project, give me a call.
(interview originally conducted 2002, revised and released 2009)