Ellyn Stern is one of voice acting‘s most iconic performers, as she’s been an actor, writer, director, and producer in the anime and video game industries for over 35 years. Anime series like Bleach, Lupin the Third, Ghost in the Shell, Mobile Suit Gundam, and Skip Beat! and video game franchises like Blue Dragon, Shadows Hearts, Star Ocean, and Wild Arms are among some of the properties that Ms. Stern has lent her talents to.
We got a chance to sit down with Ms. Stern at this year’s Anime Boston to learn how the industry has transformed and where she sees it headed in the future. Discover all about the medium’s evolution and its shifting dynamics below, and find out how the Me Too movement could change everything for the better:
KeenGamer: When you transitioned into voice acting, what aspects of your classically trained acting did you find most useful?
Ellyn Stern: I don’t really see myself as making a transition. Acting is acting to me. Whether I’m doing a voice or doing a film, television, or stage role, I consider it to all be acting. The difference lies in the subtlety. Years ago, the style was very big. People tended to over-dub. It was very large – overacting, if you may. Slowly, it transitioned. What we do now is much more naturalistic.
Back then, we’d have people play multiple roles. I like to call these actors Swiss Army Knifes. Today, if a show has a little boy, we’d rather have a real little boy doing the role. There’s a certain energy and nuance to a child’s voice that an adult doesn’t have.
Even games used to be very Game of Thrones. There are still those types of titles out there today, with very high bars, but a lot more games now have characters that just talk. To me, the more naturally it sounds, the better it is.
Ultimately, classical acting and voice acting is one and the same. The real difference just lies in how big you are. On stage, you’re very big. Television and film are very subtle. In voice acting, you have the mic right in front of you. You can have intimate moments with your audience.
As a casting director, I look for people who have acting chops. I don’t just look for people who have funny voices. Like a play, there’s an arc to follow. You have the first act, the second act, and the third act. Every scene has a little bit of that. Even if it’s a bird chirping in a tree, you have to ask what the bird is feeling. It could be singing happily in a tree, and something suddenly appears that frightens it and makes it fly away. There’s an arc to follow there. If you only have a funny voice, it’s hard for you to make something sound real. It’s hard to be authentic.
KeenGamer: You mentioned in an interview three years ago that female voice acting roles are much more limited than male roles. With the industry beginning to include more shojo-friendly shows and shifting gears to craft series for women to enjoy, are you finding that this trend is changing?
Ellyn Stern: It’s absolutely still the case the men have more roles available to them than women. As an actress, I don’t even get the number of auditions that a man does. The best actresses don’t have access to as many opportunities. Look at Lupin the Third. There a couple of female voices, but it’s mostly made up of men.
That’s generally the case, but it’s not only in animation. It’s in film and television, too. Sometimes you have a show that’s strictly geared towards women, and that’s great! But shows that do cater to women are still geared towards men and the male fantasy, in my opinion. As opposed to having women who have real guts and emotions, a lot of shows appeal to what a man imagines a woman is like. It starts with manga, a lot of which is male fetishism.
Sailor Moon is a strong magical girl, but skirts go up, body parts are shown, and many aspects are very titillating. I know it’s a genre that the Japanese have grown up with, but I think we’ve got to evolve past it. Anime has changed for the better, but it still has a long way to go.
KeenGamer: What’s it been like to see anime transform over 35 years? Where would you like to see it go in the next three decades?
Ellyn Stern: For one thing, voice acting today is much better than it was back then because it’s much more natural now. The roles of women are getting a little bit better because people are starting to wake up. You’ve also got the Me Too movement, which is going to change everything for all female writers, producers, and directors. These people are needed, because they’re the future. They’re responsible for spearheading realistic roles for strong women who don’t have to act like men.
As far as technology is concerned, digitization has changed everything. When we first started, we did not have beeps. We just had a track. You’d look at a scroll on the top or the button of the screen to find out where the loops were positioned. You would have to watch the numbers to know when to stop and when to start.
It used to be like guerilla dubbing. We all had to be really good at syncing, because we’d have to catch everything on the fly. Now, there’s no more joystick. You don’t have to turn a little wheel. You can just do everything with Pro Tools. You can expand a line, you can shrink it, and you can play around with it in ways that we were never able to before. Pro Tools changed everything about dubbing and gives us the opportunity to dub more succinctly. That’s definitely a good thing.
You used to have to do a line 10 to 20 times before you got it into the pocket. That was totally religious back then. It was the American ideal to have really good sync. Everything had to fit into the mouths of the characters on screen. That’s not necessarily true for other countries. Japan doesn’t ask for perfect sync. I worked with a director from another country, and all he wanted was performance. He didn’t care about sync. However, Americans became experts in syncing throughout the years, and we grew accustomed to getting every line in the pocket every time.
We have a little more leeway with animation than we do with live-action. In live-action, it has to be really perfect. In other words, we say it looks like English. That’s what you’re aiming for, at least. You don’t want to ever see extra mouth movements.
It was kind of like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. In addition to that, you had to put on a good performance! You had to make this character believable and follow in his or her arc.
KeenGamer: You’ve said that you work directing the Navajo version of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope is one of the highlights of your career. Would you have any interest directing the new trilogy?
Ellyn Stern: Absolutely. The Native American languages are dying. To be a part of history and to inspire the people of this culture enough to relearn their indigenous tongue is really significant. I’ve had hundreds of roles throughout the years, but this is something that’s very important to me. I spent three weeks on the Navajo reservation, working with actors who had never dubbed before. I had to teach them how to act and how to use mics. I also had two translators who were professors at the University of New Mexico. They were telling people how to say the words.
I even started to learn the nuance in the Navajo language. It’s something that’s so precious, because you’re helping to revive something that’s been dead. I’m very good friends with the people behind this project. There’s talk of more stuff, and I really hope it happens. I need to relearn the language, but one word I remember is Nizhóní. It means “beautiful.”
Thank you Anime Boston for the wonderful opportunity to interview Ellyn Stern.