International incident

Dragonball Z is the Cartoon Network's top-rated show, thanks to a Fort Worth-based company that's unleashing a controversial American version of this Japanese hit

In some cases, he has redone small scenes; Byron is the one responsible for Gohan's being picked up by his shoulders rather than by his hair. He makes the alterations that can't be simply clipped clean by a video editor, as in a too-skimpy bikini or a cigarette in someone's mouth. The work load is a lot less now that FUNimation has left syndication with Saban and moved to The Cartoon Network.

"I remember those days," he says, referring to preparing the first 53 episodes for syndication. "Sometimes we'd have 14-hour days. And when you'd sit there for that long erasing a woman's breasts, you'd just have to tie one on that night."

Byron Watson knows that, as the man hired to carry out FUNimation and The Cartoon Network's censorship instructions, he doesn't have the most glamorous or beloved job in the company. But it pays the bills. It beats house framing, which is what he had been doing. The hardest part, at first, was getting the hateful e-mail messages from strangers. It seems Dragonball Z fans are so passionate, they don't just criticize what FUNimation edits -- they criticize how they edit.

Cynthia Cranz -- otherwise known as "Chi Chi," her Dragonball Z character -- goes over the script in the FUNimation studios.
Cynthia Cranz -- otherwise known as "Chi Chi," her Dragonball Z character -- goes over the script in the FUNimation studios.

"I'd get an e-mail from some 14-year-old saying, 'That guy sucks dicks. I could do a better job repainting Gohan with my Commodore 64,'" Byron recalls. "I don't take it personally anymore, but when you first start getting that shit, man, it hurts."

Although FUNimation was incorporated in Fort Worth, the company has been using area voice talent for only a year. Prior to that, producer and voice director Barry Watson would fly to Canada to supervise loops at a Vancouver studio that handled some 300 animated shows a year. With executive offices in California and licensing headquarters in Alabama, Watson and crew began to feel as though they were being jerked all over the North American map. Shipping delays began to affect the rate at which Americanized versions of Dragonball Z could be recorded and mixed.

The decision was made to consolidate in Fort Worth (although licenses are still sold out of Alabama). Initially, Watson says, there was some trepidation. "There were a shaky few weeks here while we surveyed the scene," he notes.

National and international companies brought $60 million worth of business in TV commercials and corporate and industrial films to Dallas in 1998. But it could take approximately 40 hours a week for six months to create a cycle of new Dragonball Z, and that's not typical for the studios and the available talent who want to make a living off their voices. Not to mention that most cartoons are looped first and animated around the voices. Even seasoned, professional voice actors aren't used to trying to sync their voices to lips on a TV screen.

"It's kind of like dancing," Watson says. "You have to have rhythm. Some people we auditioned had amazing voices, but when you tried to get them to do it rhythmically, they just couldn't."

"The rhythm part wasn't difficult for me," says John Freeman of Denton art-rock band Dooms U.K., who played supervillain Vinegar -- "a big purple killing machine with Viking horns" who was destroyed after about 10 episodes. "What was hard for me was having a naturally higher voice and then doing this evil character who had a deep, gravelly voice. At the end of the sessions, I'd sound like Tom Waits. But I didn't have too many lines. Most of it was grunting. About 80 percent was evil cackling. But I had a blast. I hope I get to tour all the fantasy conventions and sign autographs."

The new vocal talent are stage actors, standup comics, singers, librarians, even mothers from Denton, Fort Worth, and Dallas whom FUNimation casting director Chris Sabat enlists for characters both major and minor. He actually does about 20 different characters and is the only on-staff voice talent for the show. He insists he was instrumental in convincing Barry Watson and FUNimation that all the vocal chops they required could be found in the surrounding area. They began recording Texas voices in February 1999, and those shows, Dragonball Z's third season and its first post-Saban episodes with the Cartoon Network, began airing last September.

"The fans are just beginning to get over the shock of the voices being changed," Sabat says. "I think you'll find the e-mail starting to shift in the positive direction. I mean, in some ways, I can sympathize with the fans. When they changed actors on The Dukes of Hazzard because Tom Wopat -- God bless him -- thought he was going to start a singing career, I was pissed."

Sabat is currently a Dentonite who came to UNT on an opera scholarship, went back to Houston to tend to an ailing parent, came back as a Radio-Television-Film major, then chucked the whole college thing because he was already getting voiceover work -- a lot of phone-service announcements, along with radio and TV -- while folks with advanced degrees were scrounging for gigs. Sabat has a deep, rich, inflective voice that belies his small stature and kid face; there probably wasn't a lot he learned in UNT broadcast classes that didn't already come naturally. This background fuels his determination to look for talent, not credentials: Some of the performers they've used had never done this type of work before. He cites a UNT librarian, a woman with "one of the most incredible high-pitched voices I've ever heard."

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