It’s been 20 years since my first voice-acting job. I was playing V-Daan in KO Century Beast Warriors, and I was going for the growly, shouty, gravelly bad-guy routine. It sounded pretty awesome, if I say so myself, although by the second day my throat was getting a bit tickly. More experienced actors plied me with honey and cough sweets, and warned me off the coffee, but the damage was already done. By the third and final day of recording, I was struggling to maintain the pace. The next day, I realised that I had lost my voice. Totally.
Pretty much nobody cared. Possibly my family and friends even enjoyed such a brief respite. Luckily for me, I didn’t rely on my voice for my entire livelihood. I wasn’t doing an audio book recording the following day, or an advertising voice-over. If I had been, I would have lost the work.
Jessica Calvello wasn’t so lucky. She was the original voice of Excel in ADV’s Excel Saga dub, who screeched and screamed so much that she had to rest her voice for up to six weeks between recordings. She ended up losing the gig entirely in 2002, and was replaced by another actress mid-run. Like a dancer who sprains her ankle, or a stuntman who brains himself on a pylon, she had somehow forced herself out of the workplace, simply by trying to do a good job in it.
I bring this up now because of the dire forebodings issuing from America’s actors’ union SAG-AFTRA, which is threatening industrial action over working conditions for voice actors. Their particular bugbear is computer gaming, where actors rarely benefit in residuals even from a million-selling property, and where conditions are tough enough to recall my V-Daan incident. Meanwhile, the gaming companies recently put their foot in it by trying to introduce a bunch of draconian terms, including fines for actors who somehow aren’t up to scratch, and a clause that permits them to not hire union labour at all. SAG-AFTRA is seeking an agreement on working conditions that will force directors to limit the daily hours of voice-actors to preserve their vocal chords, and remunerate them suitably. They have also been pushing for some interesting extras, such as stunt coordinators for motion-capture work, in order to stop some low-ranking thespian on McDonald’s money from breaking his arm while running away from an invisible monster.
I suspect that, as is traditional when American lawyers get involved, both sides are throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, in order to have bargaining chips they can afford to discard later on. Ironically, much anime voice-work is non-union, so SAG-AFTRA’s latest campaign would have done very little to benefit me or Calvello in our salad days. But you never know – demands forced on the gaming industry and mainstream movies might trickle down. It’s nice that someone is speaking up for those who don’t have a voice.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #144, 2015.