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Rockwell: Anime is evolving from hedgehogs to heavy messages.
Steve Lowry

Dan Rockwell has a wide grin and an enthusiastic woo-hoo! for Sonic the Hedgehog's current position on the Billboard video-sales charts. He whoops, "Move over The Mummy, we're coming to town!" Like many at ADV Films, Rockwell is an anime jack-of-all-trades and is devoted to the cause, which is bringing Japanese animation to the people (and to the profitable rental-store market). Since 1994 ADV has produced the English-language versions of more than 600 anime titles, including the adventures of games enthusiasts' beloved blue hedgehog.

Producing The Mummy takes bales of Hollywood resources -- and the lovely and talented Brendan Fraser. ADV is one of a dozen studios in the States producing English-language versions of mostly Japanese TV shows and movies. ADV's requirements are easily met in a slowly growing warren of offices in a warehouse building off Harwin, and with Houston voices instead of A-list movie stars. There are stars, but they don't get trailers.

ADV veteran voice actress Amanda Winn has the kind of power that draws invitations to science fiction and anime conventions, but in Houston she has a hand in scripting and direction, and also provides the human audio of ADV office voice-mail system. Actress Tiffany Grant has a similar workload of acting, writing and making personal appearances, but has escaped voice-mail. ADV folk stress that the work calls for on-the-job training, that everybody does a little bit of everything.


The process may not be quick or easy, but the good people of ADV think it's bang-up fun. It starts when ADV acquires the rights to something like

Daimajin

, works up an English-language script and then casts your friends and neighbors as

Daimajin

's various samurai, brutal overlords and fierce young rebels. One at a time, the voice actors troop into a sound booth to moan and wail and try to bring life to the legends of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Sound engineers such as Christopher Bourque, working on a severely modified Power PC, take the sound clips and "cut 'em, paste 'em, stretch 'em, make 'em match the lip flips as best we can." Producer/director/co-founder Matt Greenfield has a rep among voice actors for wanting precision with the lip movements. The results are, both in dubbing sync and animation quality, well beyond the quality of the earliest anime most of America saw, Speed Racer.

Credit Speed, Chimchim and the cartoon crew of that series for helping Houston become a home for an entertainment business seemingly suited more for Hollywood or the Far East. ADV founder John Ledford was inspired by those characters and UHF reruns of Battle of the Planets and Robotech. He was also influenced by hours and hours spent playing video games at Goodtime Charlie's, as the Sharpstown Mall food court was known in the seventies.

Before ADV, Ledford says, he owned the second-largest U.S. mail-order company for imported Japanese video games. Ledford considered his hobbies -- electronic games, comics and animation -- all visually stimulating media, to be closely related in terms of market demographics. With enthusiasm that would shame any of TV's motivational speakers, Ledford reports, "When I discovered that there were animated films based on video games that were some of my personal favorites, I had to get involved." Rockwell and current ADV marketing director Rod Peters introduced him to post-Speed Racer anime. He brought in anime fanatic Greenfield and credits the business plan of fans selling to fans for their success. Being fans also helped them understand American anime tastes, which led to significant growth for ADV.

Most of the videos (and DVD) sold directly and for rental are the traditional anime that fans know and love: gobs of action, shrill, hyper-produced pop music and childlike characters with giant, almost insect-size eyes. But the array is richer than the uninitiated might imagine. ADV's catalog also offers the Those Who Hunt Elves series (with more nudity than one might expect), Tekken (based on the game and with Stabbing Westward on the soundtrack) and bastions of sci-fi such as Gamera (a fanged superturtle) and adult-oriented cartoons promising to "take the girls-in-armor theme to the limit." And all this has a growing audience.

A big, blond corn-fed type, Rockwell was lured from his Ohio job in video equipment sales early in ADV history. Despite the ten-hour and 12-hour work days, despite the commercial failure of some of his favorite films and despite group viewing sessions of films so bad there is no reason on earth to consider acquisition, he has no regrets. Even screening lame films has an upside: He says when the staff members gather to watch a film that stinks, they start imitating the quirky MST 3K -- the televised feature of a robot and friends ad-libbing to C-grade movies -- and turn the viewing room into an impromptu dubbing studio.  

Even with his enthusiasm for Sonic's Billboard climb, action and comedy titles are not at the top of his personal list. "Something like Sonic, you're running through a room, you're shooting stuff, and then you leave. Nothing very deep or psychological. With something more complex, like Neon Genesis, we put special stuff on our Web site to ease the viewer into it."

Neon Genesis is shorthand for a 13-part series, Neon Genesis: Evangelion, a saga of top-secret government agencies and Biblical prophecy set in a dystopian 2015. It's one of ADV's top sellers, and Rockwell lovingly calls it "ADV's biggest mind trip." In his cluttered office/editing studio he cheerfully explains how anime artwork led his lapsed-Catholic self back to the fold. This reintroduction took several viewings: Rockwell initially followed a fairly obvious story line involving some children. Subsequent viewings revealed a complex subtext in the high-action, supersaturated hues and exquisite artwork of the animation, a plot he describes as more the Judeo part of Judeo-Christian ethics.

The latest twist for ADV is co-producing and producing new shows in Japan. Ledford says it was always his "goal to grow ADV to the point where we were no longer completely dependent on wherever the Japanese market was going." Japanese and American tastes in anime aren't in sync, and by producing its own shows with Japanese studios, ADV can script for elements popular with Western audiences.

They began with a co-production of Burn Up-W (the W stands for warrior). In mid-2000, ADV is scheduled to release Sin, based upon the highly successful PC video game by Dallas game developer Ritual Entertainment.


Some do dubbing for the love, some for the fun and a one-time check. Royalties are not typical, but fees range from $50 for an hour in the studio to per-episode payments of hundreds of dollars, even four figures.

Greenfield believes actors love working for ADV. "They get to play characters they could never do on stage." And there is something to that. Peter Fernandez, the original voice of Speed, was middle-aged when he spoke for the junior racecar driver. Certain ADV actresses who shall remain nameless get a kick out of expressing the ecstasy of foxy combat vixens.

Rob Mungle is straightforward about his hundred-plus ADV roles. "It breaks down into three types: I do generals, big bruising guys, and when the part requires a really squirrelly homosexual voice, they call me in." For the latter, he uses the nasal singsong of Franklin Pangborn, a character actor perhaps best remembered as frequent guest-twerp on I Love Lucy.

And unlike several female actresses, Mungle isn't modest about having done the explicit subgenre known as softcel -- he's quick to point out that there's nothing soft about it. Whether space wars or naughty pictures, Mungle says it's fun, "especially the one where they let you play around with it and leave the script a little bit, use a bizarre voice and take a weird turn with your mind. Of course, you're limited because the animation's already done."

Actors not only have to hit the right note of terror or outrage or comedy, but they also must hit that note at a pace roughly matching the mouth movements on the monitor. But actors have it easier than engineers.

At the sound console, and a big bank of computer stuff that makes up the editing bay, engineers can tweak all kinds of things. Screens in the sound room display ragged oscilloscope waves with selected bits of dialogue shaded like the highlighted text in a word-processing document. Each of the bits can be sped up or slowed down, one at a time. Carefully syncing all the lines (and various explosions and traffic sounds and transmorphing effect sounds) is painstaking work.

It may seem like the kind of tedious work that could make any employee want to scream -- and that's exactly the situation at ADV.

When needed, most of the staff gets pulled into the dubbing booth for double-duty "scream sessions." They are no longer clerks from ordering, or shipping, or customer service. Instead, they become primitive villagers giving voice to the final terrified moments of, for instance, an entire village crushed by an avalanche. Or they might be space rangers yelling as their ship implodes under the pressure of supernatural forces.

Being able to scream at work is great, and, according to Ledford, so is working in Houston. He cites the availability of talented people -- actors, musicians, studio professionals -- with experience in the theater, commercials or corporate videos.

"They're here, and so is ADV," Ledford says. "We're a little slice of Hollywood right in their own backyard Š and after all, why should L.A. and New York have all the fun?"


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