Celebrated voice actors Sean Schemmel and Christopher Sabat came to Washington, D.C., for Awesome Con on Saturday to discuss their exciting careers. They have been working with English dubbing studio Funimation since the late 1990s. They first utilized their vocal talents to bring characters to life in a very popular anime called Dragon Ball Z. Each actor has gone on to amass an impressive portfolio of voice work, as well as credits in directing and producing animated projects.
The Dragon Ball story focuses on the adventures of Goku and his friends as they fight dangerous and powerful foes from space. Dragon Ball Super is another installment, which directly follows the events of the Z series. It can be streamed on Funimation and it currently airs on Cartoon Network during the Adult Swim block on Saturday evenings.
I had the distinct pleasure of moderating Schemmel and Sabat’s Q&A session at Awesome Con. Schemmel is best known as the voices of Goku and King Kai, while Sabat holds the distinction of portraying Vegeta, Piccolo, Yamcha, and other characters. Here are excerpts of their answers to topics I brought up.
There’s a gap between when the last Dragon Ball came out and the release of Super in Japan. What were your initial thoughts on coming back for Super?
Schemmel: We were shocked because we thought [Akira Toriyama] just kinda went to early retirement or something. We did not know –
Sabat: Those people who know Akira Toriyama’s personality, the guy who created the show, he’s very, very agoraphobic. He doesn’t like to leave his house. Very nervous. So I just thought he’d just disappeared. By the time we started working on [Dragon Ball Z] in 1998, we finished dubbing the show, we dubbed the show again, and then we did a billion video games. But every single time, it was the same story again and again and again. It was finally so much fun to do something that we – it was like we were revving our engines and we were just getting better and better because we kept practicing. How often do you get a chance to take a show that you made back when you were first trying to figure out how to be a voice actor and a director and get to do it again?
Sabat: That was the case of Dragon Ball Z Kai. I know that Kai is not universally loved by people who watched the original Z series because it feels unfamiliar to them. It feels like they’re watching a bad copy of what it was. Those of you who are interested in knowing what the actual story of Dragon Ball Z was, a more accurate script, a more accurate portrayal of the series, and with acting that has 10 more years of experience onto it, definitely check out Kai. While the original Frieza had his charms, [Christopher Ayres] who plays Frieza in Kai and Resurrection F brings the same exact spirit to Frieza as the original seiyu in Japan did it. It’s definitely a different portrayal of Frieza and a very accurate one, too.
Schemmel: I love his work.
Sabat: Whether you’re going to watch Kai for whatever reason, consider watching it because it is so accurate.
What’s new and what’s the same with Super?
Schemmel: I think it’s going back to its Dragon Ball roots in a lot of ways because Dragon Ball was so comedically driven and story-driven [with] young Goku and young Krillen running around and doing their thing. A lot of people like Dragon Ball even more than Z. Z was so fight-heavy. I like the fact that Super has got a lot of story in it.
I was a little annoyed that the first 26 [episodes] were going to be basically the story of [the movies] Resurrection F and Battle of the Gods. Then when I saw it, I was like, this is really cool because it’s the same story, but they’re doing different angles and perspectives with adding different layers like Vegeta going on vacation, etc. To me, the first 26 are interesting despite the fact that it’s fundamentally the same story of the two movies. … I think Super is going to give everybody what they want because you’re at this really nice comedic alternate take and then we move into some real dark stuff later for those of you who are watching ahead with the alternate Trunks storyline.
Ad lib or stick to the scripts?
Sabat: We stayed for the most part with the scripts, unless we saw an opportunity to add something to the show without taking it away. I do believe that you guys deserve the actual story. Back in the original days when you were watching Dragon Ball Z in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the goal for Funimation out of pure necessity – because they didn’t have any money – was to make the show popular in America during a time when cartoons were still considered shows for children. They dubbed it, wrote it, and expected it to be a show for kids.
Now we have an opportunity to kind of prove that you can use the real translation, tell the real story, and still it applies both to kids and adults. However, there are moments where I feel as a director, or if it’s an actor, an actor feels like we can add something without changing any great meaning of the story. For instance, there’s a scene where Vegeta is sitting on a lawn chair in Super and Bulma is trying to convince him to go hang out with her friends. The original Japanese line was like, “Come on, let’s go see everybody.” He goes, “I don’t want to hang out with your friends” or “I don’t care about your friends.” I thought why not use this as an opportunity to display how awkward it would be that Yamcha is still hanging out? [Yamcha] and Bulma have long broken up. I changed the line to “Sure, let’s go see Yamcha!”
Schemmel: I agree. Our fundamental philosophy now is as long as we can preserve the mechanics of the show, like power levels, etc., and the meaning of the show, after that, it’s fair game. Because we want you to enjoy the show as English speakers in America as much as the Japanese speakers would. The humor doesn’t always translate. I think little ad libs here and there are not a bad thing.
Sabat: …Keep in mind that we’ll go the opposite direction, too, if we feel that a writer has taken maybe too much liberty. If they didn’t understand the core of what the feeling was supposed to be or what the original integrity was, Sean and I will change it.
Schemmel: I’m particularly with you about that. One, I have to face [the fans] forever. And two, I’m a bit of a purist in art in general…
How did directing and producing projects help your voice acting?
Schemmel: For me, I don’t how good of a voice actor I was when I started. I can tell you I got a lot better after I moved to New York and was an ADR director for NYAV Post for three years where I got to direct all the best talent in town such as Dan Green, Veronica Taylor, and Wayne Grayson…Directing is always a great way to get better as a voice actor. I love doing it. I haven’t done it in a long time. Chris can probably attest to this. He directs all the time.
Sabat: …A lot of us in Dallas had no experience doing this type of stuff. There weren’t any people in the office that knew how to do it. They hired me and they said, “All right, we’re going to figure this out.” It is understandable that Funimation would do this because they didn’t have a lot of money…Directing people like Laura Bailey, Colleen Clinkenbeard, Luci Christian, Travis Willingham, and all these other people – it’s nice to be in the director’s seat. I don’t know that I was any better than the people I was working with as a voice actor. It wasn’t like I was such a great voice actor that I became a voice director. I was figuring it out as well…Directing really helped me out. Anyone who wants to be an actor or voice actor, definitely make yourself an intelligent person. Don’t drop yourself so much into acting that you forget how the rest of the world works, because acting is about pretending to be part of the actual world.