The Fun Factory: Inside Funimation, the Anime-Dubbing Powerhouse That's Keeping Dallas Actors in Work
Terri Doty is a morose teenager trying to assassinate her teacher. She plays one at work, anyway, where today she’s in the sound booth giving life to Kirara in Assassination Classroom. Her teacher/foe is a smiley face with tentacles who blew up the moon and is on a mission to conquer Earth. “Because anime,” Doty says.
It’s just another day voicing characters for English dubs of Japanese animated television shows and movies at Funimation in Flower Mound. Funimation is one of the main entertainment companies that licenses and distributes anime in North America, and its studio in North Texas is a critical hub.
Headphones on, Doty watches two monitors, one with the script in English and one playing the show in Japanese. Outside, in a studio bedecked with action figures, movie posters and all manner of Japanese tchotchkes, sits the show’s director, Apphia Yu, who feeds Doty the predictably bizarre context of the scene she’s about to voice act in.
“Oh my God, that’s a lot,” Doty says, quickly trying to get in character. But after watching the scene in Japanese just once, she confidently delivers her line — in this case in a monotone voice loosely approximating her regular speaking one. She matches Kirara’s mouth movements almost perfectly, and continues to show her eight years of experience as this process is repeated several times.
Comedy Night At The Muse With Kyle Groom
TicketsFri., Oct. 7, 9:00pm
Do Pehri With Pankaj Kapur & Supriya Pathak
TicketsSun., Oct. 9, 7:00pm
POETRY SMASH #1
TicketsThu., Oct. 13, 7:30pm
African Muzik Magazine Awards
TicketsSat., Oct. 15, 7:00pm
An Evening With Deon Q
TicketsSun., Oct. 23, 7:00pm
Doty says the greatest challenge of dubbing anime isn’t the technical aspect of matching the character’s mouth movements, aka “flaps" — it’s jumping into outlandish, dramatic scenes while working in an isolated environment, without the benefit of playing off other actors. “You could show up for a 10 in the morning session and be like, ‘Oh my God, I’m so tired. So, what are we doing today?’ And they’re like, ‘Well, you’re dying in your lover’s arms.’ And you’re like, ‘Cool. I’ve got to immediately be able to go there.’”
Funimation's North Texas location has also created a vital lifeline for DFW actors who need steady day work, since all of the vocal dubbing is done by locals. It doesn’t pay much, but the opportunities are consistent and flexible enough to accommodate rehearsal schedules, parental duties or other part-time jobs. Doty supports herself through a combination of voice-over work, coaching other actors and producing audiobooks from home.
The female role in Assassination Classroom is slightly unusual for her. In anime, boys are traditionally voiced by women, so that’s more than half of the work that she gets. It’s not something she minds. “Sometimes it’s easier to play a boy because they’re going to expand more on the boy’s character than they would perhaps a girl in certain shows, like if it’s a period piece,” she says.
Another role she’s recognized for is Virgo in Fairy Tail, a magic-driven show that’s been airing for six years. Virgo reflects some of the tropes common to girl characters in anime. “I’m owned, I guess? By one of the main wizards. I wear a French maid outfit, I have hot pink hair and I ask to be punished a lot in a high-pitched voice. I’m very sweet and subservient,” she says. “I tried to show it to my mom once and she was like, ‘I love you, but stop this.’”
If a role is particularly raunchy — there's a genre called "fan service" that entails a lot of female cleavage and bulging male muscles — an actor can choose to take an alias. This only goes so far, since anime fans often recognize their favorite actors' voices.
Doty has never operated under a fake name, although she thought about it after working on a show in which the lead character was technically a 500-year-old vampire but chose to appear as a 9-year-old girl who was in love with a 17-year-old. "There was this giant rumor," she says, "that if you had your name on it, you were going to be put on a [sexual predator] list."
But like many Funimation actors who were unfamiliar with anime when they started, once Doty learned more about it, she discovered there's something for everyone. There are modestly clothed, badass female characters too. Far from being a niche genre, anime is a medium of storytelling that can be applied to almost any subject matter. There are heartfelt anime about relationships between father and daughter, sci-fi anime about alien invasions, political shows that attack the system and horror anime that are more gruesome than anything live action, computer-generated imagery could convincingly depict.
Assassination Classroom, a surreal action-comedy hybrid, is being produced as a “broadcast dub,” a process that Funimation developed in 2014, which involves a much quicker turn around than a DVD release. Right after each episode airs in Japan, Funimation calls in voice actors to complete the dubbing so that the English version can stream on their website, or on other services like Hulu, just one month later.
Working on an episode-by-episode basis means keeping lots of actors on call, plus the chance of a big opportunity for new actors who are cast, since it’s not always clear which characters will become prominent as the show airs. Classroom has more than 30 principal characters, with many more bit parts, and it’s just one of dozens being produced at any given time.
When Doty’s lines in today’s episode are wrapped, Yu passes out satchels filled with heart-shaped sweets in honor of upcoming Valentine’s Day. “It’s a tradition in Japan to make chocolates for your coworkers,” she says. Flower Mound isn’t quite Japan, but when you’re inside Funimation’s walls, which shut out almost all light and sense of the outside world, you definitely feel like you’re in a land far away.
If it weren't for the name, you might not guess from its appearance that this building contains one of the most colorful businesses in North Texas.
Funimation’s monolithic beige complex on Lakeside Parkway is entirely devoid of personality from the outside. But the drab building hides one of the most colorful industries in North Texas. Hallways decorated with swag, awards and larger-than-life figures from their most popular series, like Dragon Ball Z, Attack on Titan, Hetalia: Axis Powers, Fairy Tail and One Piece, guide you from department to department — directing, licensing, accounting, acquisitions, legal counsel, marketing, sound mixing, project management and more.
Past a pool table — gifted by actress Jamie Lee Curtis after she took a tour of the facility with her son, who’s a big fan of anime — you’ll find sound mixers reworking shows that will appear on Cartoon Network to accommodate Americans’ penchant for big-screen TVs with surround sound. (In Japan, home TV set-ups tend to be more modest, so sound effects, music and background audio are suppressed there to avoid drowning out the dialogue; all of these are brought back up for the American versions.)
Marketing is demarcated by a ceiling covered entirely with Japanese lanterns, and it’s not unusual to see purple hair peeking out of the tops of cubicles adorned with Grumpy Cat stuffed animals. When your work is in anime, eccentricity is not just acceptable, it’s encouraged. The trick, as you take in all 49,000 square feet, is not to get lost. “It’s like a hedge maze,” our tour guide says. “Just stick your arm out and touch a wall, and eventually you’ll arrive back where you started.”
Funimation got its start in 1994, when founder Gen Fukunaga, who was living in Silicon Valley at the time, learned he had a shot at acquiring the rights to distribute Toei Co.’s Dragon Ball Z series, a huge phenomenon in Japan, in the U.S. An uncle who produced for Toei told him if he started his own company and raised enough money, Toie would allow him to license it. Fukunaga approached a coworker whose family owned a feed mill in Decatur and persuaded them to sell their business and become his principal investors. Thus, Funimation Productions took root in North Texas, with its first hit already secured.
Early Funimation directors such as Mike McFarland began pulling in friends with acting chops — they didn't want to shell out to hire professional voice actors — to do the English dubbing at their initial North Richland Hills location, a building with a few offices that had been hastily converted into sound booths.
No one took dubbing very seriously at the time — shows like Speed Racer had earned it a reputation for being hilariously bad — so the English translation was more or less an afterthought. The point was to get the product out there and in front of American viewers. Dragon Ball struggled at first but found success in the U.S. when it had a five-year run on Cartoon Network’s Toonami beginning in 1998, and even now that Funimation has released hundreds of other anime, Dragon Ball is still one of its bread and butter products.
The company has changed hands and locations a few times. In 2005 Funimation was sold to Navarre Corp. for an impressive $100 million, with Fukunaga remaining its president and CEO, at which point it moved to more sophisticated digs in Flower Mound, where it now operates 10 recording studios that are in session all day, every day (and some nights). When the demand surges, engineers can set up portable sound booths called “whisper rooms” for extra recording sessions.
A group of investors including Fukunaga bought the company in 2011. This time the price was only $24 million, partly because the deal allowed Navarre to remained Funimation's exclusive distributor in the U.S. The recession had also hit anime licensing companies hard, and in the mid-2000s, many of them — such as Houston’s ADV Films — even shut down.
During theearly boom of anime in the '90s, many licensing companies had sprung up, initially with a wealth of great backlogged anime titles to choose from. But even when these began to get picked over, greedy companies continued to distribute products at the same pace. Anime was quite expensive then — the Japanese creators charged exorbitant rates because they had been able to get away with it, and this cost was passed along to consumers. But as the quality of the products being released began to deteriorate, and anime fans' wallets grew thinner because of the economic downturn, they became unwilling to pay $60 for a VHS of two dubbed episodes.
Funimation and San Francisco-based Viz Media were two companies that managed to survive that rocky period. Funimation did take the approach of acquiring rights to anything it could get its hands on, knowing that many shows would be direct-to-DVD flops but some might carve the same path to Cartoon Network, and that it was often hard to tell which would be which. But as Funimation began to put out more anime, they began to see the value in improving the English dubbing process, and that contributed to the company's health.
Even in the early days of the Internet, versions of the subtitled shows were fairly easy to find online, since anime fans are a pretty savvy lot when it comes to pirating. But a produced and edited dubbed version of a series was a new product that they could offer — and one that wasn’t available on the Internet.
Plus the American voice actors also proved to be a great way to hype the product when it was financially or logistically impossible to get the team from the original Japanese version to sign autographs and speak on panels at conventions. Because of conventions, the American voice actors have built huge followings. Even anime fans who watch the subtitled shows and not the dubs will wait in line for hours, sometimes by the hundreds, to get their DVDs autographed and have pictures taken with actors who they know are involved in their favorite shows.
Recent innovations like broadcast dubs and simulcasts — shows that are translated, subtitled and available for streaming two days after they air in Japan — have been critical to Funimation’s continued success. By figuring out how to turn anime around quickly, they’ve largely overcome the pirating problem. And Funimation has also greatly reduced the cost of anime, with a Netflix-like program that grants access to its full catalog for $8 a month.
Keeping the entertainment company based in the Dallas area rather than somewhere like Los Angeles seems a strange choice, but it turned out to have many advantages, not the least of which was the huge pool of actors and other creatives more than eager to make some extra money doing the fun work of voicing animated characters. And because Texas is a non-union state for voice actors, Funimation had the freedom to hire whomever it wanted at whatever rate it could afford to pay.
Many of the novices Funimation hired in the Dragon Ball days have grown into the most talented, reliable voice actors in its stable today, well known in the anime community far beyond Dallas. Now the company practically has people beating down its doors for voice work, ranging from aspiring amateurs to formally trained actors who regularly take the stage in productions at Dallas' many theater companies.
Funimation's halls are decorated with larger-than-life figures from its most popular anime series.
Ricco Fajardo has been working for Funimation for only a couple of years, but his training as an actor and lifelong love of anime have quickly helped him secure his place there. In 2009, when he moved to Dallas from LA to attend grad school for theater at SMU, he noticed something unique about the actors he encountered. “They had very crafted voices, very clean in terms of sound,” he says. “I was like, ‘What is that?’ And then I realized there’s a voice-over community. Because most of the actors out here make their living off of voice-over, they bring that to the stage sometimes.’”
It wasn’t until his second year at SMU that Fajardo became a part of that community himself, when he met Funimation actress Brina Palencia on the set of a student film and she invited him to an audition.
Nowadays, as the value of dubbing is better recognized, the property owner in Japan typically has some say in the casting. At an audition, an actor will be given four or five lines and a photo. The director provides a brief description of the character, the show, and direction as far as what the voice should sound like. Once an actor is hired, he or she will be called in to do all of the character’s lines, one or a few episodes at a time.
Typically, new actors to Funimation will be booked to do “walla,” or bit parts, before they’re entrusted with a significant role. If a marketplace scene needs to be fleshed out with “How much is this orange?” or “Look out!” it’s a low risk way for a director to try out someone new. If it goes well, that actor will be given more work; if not, no big loss.
The technical aspects of dubbing can be a challenge for actors who are new to it. Unlike in LA, where the anime is typically created after the voicing is done, Funimation actors are working with characters that are already drawn to mouth the Japanese lines. To make the English look realistic, actors will, for example, have to say a line in seven mouth movements with the third and seventh movements being longer and larger, all while trying to give an emotional performance. It’s a weird skill that has very little to do with acting ability, but it’s essential.
Thankfully, the burden of matching the flaps doesn't fall entirely on the actor. It's also the script writer's job to write the correct number of syllables for the actor to speak. To produce a script, the anime is first translated word-for-word from Japanese to English and then a script writer is assigned to mold it into something more compelling that still fits the flaps. The audio engineer — during recording it's just the actor, a director and an engineer in the room — can often squish or expand lines to fit if they're slightly off.
Fajardo’s most recent role is in Prince of Stride, in which he plays a “super stoic, cool guy.” He’s often cast as the young hero, and this suits Fajardo since he has something of a reputation as a heartthrob around Funimation’s halls. You may have seen him play another famous heartthrob, Romeo, in last summer’s production of Romeo and Juliet at Shakespeare in the Park.
Fajardo had always been most interested in performing Shakespeare and classical texts, which he calls “the ballet of acting,” but since he signed with Mary Collins Agency in his second year of grad school, he’s found commercial and voice-over work to be the best way to support himself acting. He doesn’t rely entirely on income from Funimation — it doesn’t pay enough for most actors to survive on voice acting alone — but it’s the bulk of what he does, and sometimes he gets more attention for small anime roles than the theater roles he puts so much energy into. “I’m not surprised if I’m some funny skeleton and everyone’s like, ‘You’re the best!’ and I’m like, ‘Dude, I played Romeo,’ and they’re like, ‘What’s that?’” he says.
Fajardo grew up watching anime. “I remember when I first saw Akira when I was 12 years old,” he says. “I just couldn’t believe all the things that were being thrown at me. There’s incredible imagery, and often graphic, political, philosophical, spiritual aspects. I was blown away.” He says his familiarity with the character archetypes gave him an edge as a new kid on the block at Funimation, helping him to communicate more easily with the directors.
Sometimes he’s even able to draw surprising connections to works he's performed on the stage. “[A character might be] similar to Shakespeare. It’s not quite Iago. He’s not sinister. He’s not trying to burn it down because he wants the world to burn — you can give notes like that,” he says. “It’s all food for acting.”
Outside of Funimation, Fajardo is writing a play called Icarus and doing a reading of King John at the Dallas Theater Center with Shakespeare Dallas. He’s grateful that his steady stream of work at Funimation affords him the financial freedom to pursue projects that are more artistically fulfilling. “When things are paying it’s like, ‘Oh, let me work on the stuff I want to work on,’” he says.
A voice actor doesn’t get to play for an audience that is reacting to his or her performance in real time — sometimes it’s a year or more before the fruits of their labor reach the public — and that is an experience Fajardo will always crave. “It’s not as gratifying as live theater where you do the performance and then people are like, ‘Wow, excellent work!’” he says. “It’s more like, ‘Thank you, it’s a vague memory,’ versus, ‘I just did that. I just drank the poison two minutes ago.’”
But working at Funimation isn’t something Fajardo does just for cash while he pursues his real passions. He still loves anime as much as he did when he was 12 and relishes studying his characters. “It’s not like homework for me,” he says. “Like, I still have to read King John, but I’m gonna watch anime first.”
Last summer, Fajardo realized he wasn’t a rookie in the voice-acting world any longer. He was performing the last monologue in Romeo and Juliet, and he caught himself polishing his voice like the actors he’d observed years before: “I wasn’t emotionally there, so I was using some craft to light all the words up. I caught myself singing it a little bit, and I thought, ‘Oh, I did the thing!’”
Austin Tindle's first love was stage acting, but now he spends his days in the sound booth at Funimation, voicing anime characters like Kaneki in Tokyo Ghoul.
I t’s a Thursday afternoon and Mudsmith on Greenville Avenue is packed when Monica Rial walks in, her hair bright pink like one of the 400-plus characters she has voiced. Rial is the most prolific anime voice actor in the world — if you want to know where that career path ends, she’s it.
She orders her much-needed coffee — she’s jet-lagged from a trip across the Atlantic to London Anime & Gaming Con — and pulls up at a table. No one in the shop does a double take or at all suspects how many fan pages and threads are dedicated to discussing Rial and her work. If she were known for acting on screen she wouldn’t be able to move through life with this anonymity, but as a voice actor, Rial’s fame is virtually a secret. That is, until someone Googles her or she arrives at a convention, where she’s been seated next to William Shatner and Orlando Bloom.
Rial moved to Funimation from ADV Films in Houston when it shut down operations in 2009. She began doing voice work there in 1999, when she was a student at the University of Houston with dreams of Broadway. A friend encouraged her to audition for a role voicing anime, and ADV booked her immediately.
She thought it would just be a fun gig to put her through college, but as anime experienced its boom in popularity and she started getting more work, she began to wonder if she’d stumbled into her true calling and should give up her plan to attend grad school for theater. She decided to stick around and ride the boom a little longer.
Her “itty bitty” voice, perfect for voicing children, young girls and cute animals, is now her biggest asset, but as a kid, Rial was teased for it. It continued to be a problem as she pursued serious adult roles in the theater. “When I was trying to be a Shakespearean actor, I would start talking and [the directors would say], ‘You’ll never learn to play Lady Macbeth with that voice,’” she says. “My experience was always, ‘You’ve gotta do something about that voice,’ so I studied to learn how to get away from it, and then when I found anime it was like, ‘Oh! No, no, no! That’s the voice we want!’”
Rial’s only knowledge of anime at that time came from translating episodes of Dragon Ball Z for her little brother when they would visit their parents’ family in Spain. When she was buying Dragon Ball manga books and bed sheets for him, she had no idea that someday she would voice Bulma in Funimation’s reboots of the series. “When I got [the job] and called him he threw a huge fit,” she says.
Rial worked tirelessly from the start, also gaining acclaim for her characters Mirajane on Fairy Tail and Flying Mint Bunny in Hetalia — a fictional retelling of World War II, where all of the countries are people. But she had no idea that she had earned the title of "most prolific anime actor" until her agent looked it up. “I knew that I’d worked on a crap ton anime,” she says. “I just didn’t realize to what extent.”
Exercising her voice so consistently means that Rial has to be careful to drink lots of water, do vocal warm-ups every day and occasionally take an oath of silence when she’s at home with her fiancé. “I go home and have to say, 'I love you, but you have to text me everything,'” she says.
Like Fajardo, Rial does sometimes crave the rush of performing in front of a crowd again. But she says she’s also come to value the creative liberties that are unique to voice acting as a medium. “You don’t have to worry about how you look or what age you are. I play children all the time, I play critters, I play little boys or old women — and so the creative aspect of that was awesome to me,” she says. “Especially in film, once you get to be a certain age, there’s just nothing for you.”
A big part of Rial’s job is attending conventions, where there’s a huge demand for her. It can be overwhelming, since it’s not uncommon for anywhere from 50,000 to 150,000 people to attend. The time she found herself backstage with Bloom and Shatner at a pop culture convention, she remembers thinking, “I don’t belong here, how is this happening?”
Working alone in a sound booth in Dallas, it’s sometimes hard for her to process how she could be so famous. “When you go to a convention you realize, ‘Wow. People actually watch this stuff. That’s awesome.’ But when you’re doing it and you’re going to the studio every day, it’s like, ‘Oh, my job’s fun. But it’s my job.’”
She says the fans at cons are much calmer and more polite than they used to be. She stopped attending conventions for six years after one crazed fan began harassing her mother trying to find her and another took to sleeping outside of her hotel room.
There’s no one kind of fan Rial tends to attract these days. “I’ve got guys that are in their 60s or 70s that come up and have old school stuff that they’ll have me sign. And the next person that comes up will be a 12-year-old girl who’s screaming and crying. Then there will be a 30-year-old dad with his 5-year-old son who both watch Dragon Ball,” she says. “It’s really neat to see.”
She’s often gifted fan art of her characters at conventions, which she collects in binders. “I figure someday I’ll be an 80-year-old lady and I’ll want to remember that people loved me,” she says. For a couple of years she received chocolate at every convention, since she once mentioned in an interview that she likes it. “I asked for a Mini Cooper too,” she says. “But that never happened.”
Rial is happy she’s found love with a guy in “in the real world.” Her fiancé is a loan officer for a mortgage company; they met when he was managing an apartment complex where she lived. She says meeting in person, plus the fact that he knew nothing about anime, was essential. Before that she had tried online dating and found it to be impossible.
“All the girls at Funimation have at one point or another talked about how horrible it is to find dates, because [the fans] are gonna find you,” she says “Even if they try to hide it, after a while the truth is gonna come out.” Until they’d been out a few times, she instructed her now-fiancé not to Google her. When she gave him permission, his reaction was utter confusion at first — “What do you do? What is this?” — but after starting with a small convention and working his way up, he now finds joining her in her anime world an exciting escape from his regular-Joe day job.
Aside from planning a wedding, Rial is working on expanding into voicing more Western animation. Last year she voiced Jubilee, a parody of Dora from Dora the Explorer, for the Adult Swim show Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and she’s been auditioning for more shows on Cartoon Network. The voice-over was done through a patch, which means the studios in Dallas and LA were connected so that she sounded as if she were in the next room.
The ability to work remotely in that way is one of the reasons Rial cites for staying here. “People say, ‘Oh, if you went to LA you could be on the Saturday morning cartoons,’ or, ‘You’d get a lot of work out there,’” she says. “But I like Dallas. I don’t see any reason to leave.”
During recording sessions, a director and engineer help guide the actor and ensure the audio fits the "flaps," or character's mouth movements.
For many of Funimation’s actors, like Jeremy Inman and Robert McCollum, Dallas was the last place they ever expected their acting careers to take off. They were both pursuing totally different lines of work when acting opportunities fell into their laps.
After trying to make it as an actor in LA, Inman moved to Dallas and became a firefighter. “I didn’t have any idea what the market was like here,” he says. “I thought, ‘I already tried being an actor, let me try something else.’”
In 2000 he was in paramedic school when a friend of a friend mentioned he was doing voices for anime. “Just like anybody, I said, ‘Hey, how do you get into that?’” Inman says. He’d never thought of trying voice acting; his experience with it was limited to doing impressions of Gaston in Beauty and the Beast when he was a kid.
Inman auditioned in a file room with a microphone, and two months later was given the part of Android 16 in Dragon Ball Z, still the character he’s best known for. “In class that night I was telling my partner at the fire department about it and he was like, ‘What is it?’ and I said, ‘I have no idea!’” he says. “But this girl who sat in front of me turned around and freaked out. I thought, ‘OK, great. If you like it, I love it.’” Even now Inman says anime isn’t part of his personal “entertainment diet,” but he watches it to the extent that he needs to for work.
His days imitating Gaston have ended up coming in handy after all, since he’s often cast as the villain. “My normal speaking voice isn’t anything special. I use a deeper, bassier voice and it usually has a lot of growl in it or gravel quality," he says.
Inman could tell how much he and the other novice voice actors he started out with at Funimation had advanced in their craft when he compared the first run of Dragon Ball Z with Dragon Ball Z Kai, a re-make Funimation did five years later. “We’re all really bad in Dragon Ball. When I re-watched it I thought, ‘Gosh, how did this take off at all?’” he says. “For Kai they cut out a lot of the filler and everyone has more acting experience. It sounds way better.”
For eight years, Inman fought fires and voice acted on the side. But when he was forced to go on light duty after he injured his back and it required surgery, his neurologist advised him to find a new career path.
Inman went back to school for radio, TV and film at Tarrant County College and began picking up jobs voice directing and script writing to fill out his schedule. Those jobs pay better than acting, so veteran actors looking to support themselves working there will frequently try their hands at different roles in the production cycle. Now Inman has built Funimation into a full-time occupation; he passes by his old fire station in Grapevine on his way to Funimation’s complex every day.
McCollum, who was in marketing and sales when he moved to Dallas, was just as surprised as Inman to discover “there were people acting for a living in Dallas,” he says. “I didn’t know that was a thing you could do.” The wealth of ad agencies and corporate headquarters means lots of commercial acting jobs, so McCollum began picking some up on the side. He got an agent and, at the encouragement of his friends, started taking improv comedy classes to boost his acting skills. That’s where he met Mike McFarland, who cast him in Dragon Ball Z.
McCollum is currently playing Reiner Braun in Attack on Titan, Funimation's most-streamed anime in 2014. The anime's success carried over from the manga, which to date has sold over 50 million copies, several million of which were in the U.S.
He tends to play noble heroes and bad guys equally, and says he's lucky that his regular speaking voice works for most of his characters. “The complaint is always that guys get to do themselves and girls have to do all of this crazy stuff," he says.
McCollum has played hundreds of characters in his time acting with Funimation, but it was 10 years into his career before he learned how large his fan base is, partly because his gig hosting WFAA’s Good Morning Texas — he was long ago able to give up marketing — had prevented him from attending conventions.
When he got to his first convention, he was inundated with autograph requests. "They were like, ‘Oh my God! You’ve never done a con! Here, I have a stack of 45 things I want you to sign,'" he says. McCollum says he often has a very dim recollection of what he's acted in since he does so much of it — although he tries to brush up on the big shows he knows he'll be quizzed about by superfans — and his fans, who can identify his voice, help him keep track of his work by maintaining his profile on sites like Anime News Network.
McCollum enjoys going to the conventions now since it means free trips to nice places. “I’ll sit for four hours and sign autographs if I get to be in Oregon for a weekend,” he says. They're also a good way to supplement your income if you're struggling to make a living out of voicing for anime.
He says some people might be surprised by how little you can bond emotionally with the roles that you play, since you can wrap a 12-episode season in two days. The bonding only comes later if you choose to watch it. Another thing that surprises fans? The lack of interaction between the actors, who he usually only encounters in Funimation's parking lot, or when they're called in to do DVD extras. Half of the time when he meets another actor, it will be, “Oh, I’ve been in eight shows with you, it’s so nice to finally meet you!”
McCollum also does corporate training videos, audiobooks, commercials and political ads; the latter will be big for him this year because of the upcoming election. The flexibility of voice work is ideal for him since he often has to pick his kids up from school or shuttle them around. The only downside is driving to Flower Mound so many times a week, because he refuses to move from East Dallas. “We buy fuel-efficient cars," he says.
McCollum is glad he got into Funimation at the ground floor, because the blossoming of the anime convention scene — "now there's a convention in some city, somewhere, every weekend of the year" — has caused a huge spike in the number of people interested in voice work. “There's a limited number of outlets to do it for and it’s very hard to get in the room of the people that are doing it now," McCollum says. More than ever, it's about who you know.
Another of Funimation's bigger stars, Jad Saxton, says before she started working there she had tried for years to get an audition, but with no luck. Now she's played a title role in Michiko & Hatchin, which made it to Adult Swim's Toonami, as well as a character in the full-length feature Wolf Children. She played bit parts for years before she landed a character with so much as a name. Even now that she's well known in the anime world, she doesn't get enough work to fully support herself doing it — she still works part-time at a marketing firm.
Anastacia Muñoz, who will have the leading part in She Stoops to Conquer at Shakespeare in the Park this summer, auditioned for 30 parts at Funimation before she got a speaking one, and her first leading anime role — arms dealer Koko in a lesser-known anime, Jormun-Gand — came seven years later. But the rewards of working at Funimation are more than financial. Even though she already had an acting degree from University of Alabama, Funimation has taught her things she has applied on stage.
"I love to cry for Funimation, and I have used that sometimes," she says. "You might do 51 performances of a show, and the goal is to be really in it and present, and feeling and listening as that person, and when you're doing that, tears should come at the right time," Muñoz says. "But if it doesn't, you rely on your training. There have been some times when I've thought, 'Thank God I know how to vocally cry!'"
Even if the Monica Rials of the world are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to success and financial security while voicing anime these days, it's still a fun way to earn a paycheck, not to mention one of the only ways to consistently make money acting in Dallas. Although for actors like McCollum, getting work on the stage or in film may still be the more exciting dream, he says having a career at Funimation is the best substitute he can imagine. "It's a way to feed that [acting] addiction," he says. "And not get a real job — let's be honest."
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Dallas and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.