Mike McFarland and the Artistry of Voice Acting, Writing, and Directing

Voice actor, script writer, and ADR director Mike McFarland is probably a bigger part of your anime experience than you realize, even if you rarely listen to American dubs. He’s voiced major roles in classic series like Fullmetal Alchemist (and Brotherhood), Fruits Basket, Ouran High School Host Club, and One Punch Man, though his voice is probably indelibly burned in your brain as that of Master Roshi in the Dragon Ball series. He’s also done production work on series and movies including Wolf Children and the Dragon Ball Z and Rebuild of Evangelion films.

I caught up with Mike at the Wizard World Austin convention, and immediately picked his brain about the process of adapting anime for American audiences. He’s been working in this field since the 1990s and he had plenty to say about the topic.

You’ve been working in the anime industry for two decades—how have it changed since you started?

Technology wise, the advances have been great. When I started dubbing, we were still “chasing tape.” We had big beta max-like studio masters and we would sync them up to a recording device. Every time you wanted to do a retake of something, it would take about a full minute to stop, set up, and go at it again. But now we have Pro Tools and Quicktime and all sorts of other software we can use at a very high level of quality; it makes that process a lot faster.

The people involved have changed a lot, too.

I was going to ask about that. The voice actors I grew up on, like Steve Blum, Crispin Freeman, Spike Spencer, and others, have given way to a new generation of VAs. Why aren’t those guys working on anime anymore?

They still work. They probably don’t do as much anime as they used to. There’s a lot more different kinds of work to do as a voice actor. You can challenge yourself to do other things, like in the video game sphere and with American cartoons. There’s more work now and especially for a lot of those guys in the southern California area, there’s more opportunity to do lots of different things. They’re still very busy.

Have there been any changes in the anime industry you don’t like?

I don’t know about not liking, but there are aspects about it that make it more difficult. I think working right behind Japanese broadcast recordings is a bit difficult. Keeping up that pace and getting all the information you need to start a show in a tight time frame rather than letting a whole season come out, when you could research and examine it, and hen dub the whole season.

Are Japanese production companies sometimes slow in getting you what you need?

It depends. Sometimes you’ll get a show bible and a bunch of other things in advance and sometimes we won’t have nearly as much to go off of as we would like. It’s possible to still do it and it seems that people who love that we chase it so close to the Japanese broadcast understand that every so often something’s going to happen—a glitch of information or hiccup of some sort—and they’re very forgiving about that and it’s very much appreciated. But I’m a perfectionist: I want it to be perfect the first time. Its hard to keep up that high level with [our broadcasts] coming out that immediately after.

So you’ve touched on all these different hats you where. If you were to pick one to describe yourself, which would it be: director, script writer, or voice actor?

I probably wouldn’t pick those. I would pick “artist” because I love doing all of those things. I love the adaptive writing. I love the original writing I’ve gotten to do. I love acting. I loving being on the stage. I love being behind the microphone and I love being on camera. I love directing. I love being in charge of the tone of a project and the casting and those sorts of things. It’s really hard for me to pick one over the other. Some days I’m really into one and not into the other, but next week, that could be totally different.

Is there a project you found particularly challenging?

There have been several that have been challenging in different aspects for different reasons. Some have been physically challenging, like Dragon Ball type shows because of the wear and tear on your vocal chords, the drain of energy you get from putting forth that much screaming over periods of time. And then there are series where the subtleties of finding the right way to handle such things can be difficult, like Mushi-shi, or where there’s a nice combination of emotional things that happen and also screaming like in Attack on Titan or Tokyo Ghoul.

Your work on series like those has been fantastic, but my personal favorite is Summer Wars. Nowadays I usually watch subtitled anime, but with that movie, I always listen to the dub—it’s fantastic!

I appreciate that very much. I worked very hard on that dub and that was one that I went and asked about in advance when I had found out we had licensed it. I checked it out and I said, “If it’s at all possible, I would love to be the director of this thing. I can understand if it doesn’t work out, but I would love to do it.” I had an idea and a concept of how I wanted it to sound, paying as much homage as possible to Hosoda and what he wanted, and being able to bring that energy and that sort of sound and tone with English-speaking actors to an English-speaking audience.

Be sure to check out Mike’s work at Funimation, and follow him on Instagram and Twitter for more insights about voice acting and dubbing.

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