Brina Palencia: Of Frogs, Wolves and Butlers
Brina Palencia is considered to be one of the more talented dub voice actresses in North America. Her work in such English adaptations as Sgt. Frog, School Rumble, Black Butler and Spice & Wolf to name has been considered by fans and critics alike as some of the best anime voice work in recent memory. This past Friday myself and a few other members of the press at Anime Boston had the chance to take part in a private Q&A panel with Palencia, where she revealed much about her work behind the mic and within the control booth.
Brina's love for voice acting began as a small child, where she dreamed of working in the animation world.
"I was always obsessed with cartoons, as any little kid was" said Palencia. "I even found a journal entry from my seventh grade English class asking about where we see ourselves in ten years, and I was like 'I wanna voice cartoons.'"
It wasn't until she started directing other voice actors where she became more aware of her career choice.
"I specifically learned a lot from Luci Christian and Monica Rial," said Palencia, "and especially Colleen Clinkenbeard. She was my producer when I started directing, and she basically led me by the hand and sort of taught me the ways of the world. I owe a lot to her. As far as the acting portion goes, most actors draw from their own personal experiences, and then equate that to whatever's happening to their character."
Recently Palencia has taken the role of Rei Ayanami in the Evangelion movie remakes, a role that was originally done in English by Amanda-Winn Lee in the TV series. Intimidation wasn't in the air when she first took the part, but it wasn't until her casting was announced when it really hit her.
"I really didn't find out how rabid and numerous the fans were until they had announced my character," said Palencia. "Suddenly, BAM! Everything blew up in my email, Facebook and MySpace. Doing the second movie was a lot more intimidating than the first one because doing the first one I was totally clueless. However because the first one was so well-received I didn't feel so terrified going into the second one." In regards to when word got out that she replaced Lee for the role, she was surprised by the good feedback she had received. "It was almost all congratulatory, but I did have some people write something like, 'Congrats, it's one of my favorite parts. Don't screw it up!' Now that it's come out I've yet to see anyone come up to me and yell 'You ruined everything!!!' It's all been very kind and acceptive."
When comparing working in either anime or video games, Palencia revealed that it's a whole lot easier doing the latter, especially when you don't need to match the mouth movements in games like you do in dubbing video games.
"However," Palencia began, "it can be a little more difficult because you have no idea what the animation's going to be like, and when you see it you feel like you wanna go back to redo it." Her favorite character she's played in a video game is Mad Moxxi from Borderlands "especially because I never get to play sexy characters."
Her work with Twisted Pixel has also featured some her favorite roles, including Gerda from Comic Jumper: The Adventures of Captain Smiley.
"That script was probably one of the funniest scripts that I've ever worked on in my life," said Palencia enthusiastically. "It's funny because whenever you go for voice work in video games they ask you to improv the comedic stuff to make it more funny. I remember when recording for Comic Jumper they had asked me to do that, and I just thought 'What you had written down was way funnier than anything I could come up with!' I tried not to veer too much from it because it was already so good."
In Black Butler Palencia was cast as Ciel Phantomhive, one of the two main protagonists of the show. Since the series took place in London the American voice actors had to don the proper accents to their characters. I asked Palencia bluntly if it was hard to try and not Dick Van Dyke the role, and responded with a loud chuckle.
"It's hard to not Dick Van Dyke it, since you have to try and be that bad," smiled Palencia. "I did do a lot of research for it, and watched Jane Austen films two hours beforehand to try and repeat every line I heard so as to warm up my mouth. I was more nervous playing [Ciel] than any other character I've ever played because that was the first time I've ever tried to do a legit accent on. I went to a convention in the UK I was certain that they were gonna throw rocks at me when I got there, so at every panel I would make fun of myself and my 'terrible accent,' and no one would laugh when I said it. In fact some people pulled me to the side and said 'Actually, your accent's quite good.' So I'm like 'Yeah! In your face, American fans who think my accent sucks! I'm sure the Brits know best!'"
One of anime's biggest surprise hits these past few years was Spice & Wolf, a series that focused on a traveling merchant named Lawrence and a wolf deity named Holo that he befriends on his journey. I told Palencia how the show has a strong Shakespearean vibe throughout, and asked if she felt the same way about it while recording it.
"It did have a more classical feel to it," said Palencia. "For me I based Holo off of Katherine Hepburn, and while reading my lines I would practice my best Hepburn impression, and then let that color the way Holo spoke. It is a very unique show, and I'm shocked about the amount of people who like it because it's basically two people talking about economics in every episode. There's more to it, of course. It'd be a really cool two-person [stage] show."
Out of all the roles Palencia's played, no character has made me smile more than Tamama from Sgt. Frog, whose dub is perhaps one of the funniest and most well-done out there. With it fitting many references Americans can understand without retracting the original plotline in each episode the series puts itself eye-to-eye with the likes of The Simpsons and Family Guy. In the most straightforward way I could think of I asked her how it felt to beat Seth MacFarlane at his own game.
"That's a pretty big compliment," Palencia said in a surprised manner. "It feels pretty good. Jamie Marci was pretty much the head writer on that show, and she's probably the funniest girl I know, and one of the funniest writers at FUNimation. We were really lucky to have her write in all that stuff."
Palencia is currently the host of GameStop TV, which can be seen in every store across the country. In regards to what kinds of games she plays she tends to stick with the more indie-based styled video games. There is, however, one upcoming title that she can't wait to try.
"I'm really excited about L.A. Noire!" exclaimed Palencia. "That's groundbreaking that it made it into Tribeca Film Festival. We did a spot on it for GameStop recently, and I was reading the script mid-sentence and exclaimed 'OH MY GOD, REALLY?!!' That's the thing that's going to give video games more street cred and legit because it will really help with voice actors. A lot of people don't see voice actors as real voice actors, which is bullshit. It's really cool that something like that has made it into a respected film festival, and I can't wait to see what they do with it."
Later on this year Palencia will be reprising her roles as Tamama, Ciel and Holo in their respected shows, and she is eager to be playing them again.
"It's really awesome," said Palencia. "Those three are some of my favorite characters that I've voiced. It's sad when you get really attached to a character, and then [the series] just stops. It's really fun to return, and I hope to return to [One Piece character] Chopper soon." She hadn't heard news of Shin-Chan returning -- along with the final two episodes of School Rumble -- though hoped it happens in the future. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Season 3 of Shin-Chan was announced at Anime Boston this past weekend by FUNimation.]
Regarding Shin-Chan I was surprised at what had gotten into the show, considering that it's originally a kids show in Japan. Palencia assured us, however, that just about everything in the English scripts was okayed by the Japanese producers.
"They actually have to approve the scripts, so they know what's going on," said Palencia. "Everything you see was stamped and approved by them. I know there were things that they had to change before we had to record, but I don't know much. I do know that they didn't like any religious references, but that's the only thing I could remember. It didn't seem like they were all fazed by it."
In March of 2010 I had the privilege of seeing the New England premiere of Summer Wars at M.I.T., where its director Mamoru Hosoda was in attendance. I had the chance to ask him about his thoughts on how recent anime tends to be more focused on fan-service than actual plot, and decided to do the same for Palencia.
"I don't know if it's an issue with the actual production companies," said Palencia. "I think it's more of an issue with the fans. The reason why they're making this panty-service crap because people buy it and like it. I've voiced in a lot of that crap, so I can't really judge, but it's not good. You can argue that it has some sweet stories, and some of them really do. It's just totally debunked by all the panty and titty shots. It's silly; I'll give it that, but it's ridiculous that more stories like Summer Wars aren't getting told. There are the stories, and there is the talent to do that, but if no one is going to buy it then they're not gonna make it. So it just comes down to the fans and having better taste, to be honest. There are some of us out there that prefer to watch stuff like Summer Wars and One Piece and Evangelion that have better storylines and story arc that are in depth and character-driven. Unfortunately we're starting to be in the minority, and I personally don't understand it. I would totally voice on it and get the paycheck, but I rather never have to watch [fan-service] stuff.
"[Fan-service] makes it harder for [anime] to get mainstream, because when people think of it they think of fan-service. They think of panty shots and bouncy boobs, and it gives [anime] this stigma against something that's actually a very beautiful art form and can tell amazing stories if you let it. I can't really answer that, I have no idea and I hope it's remedied soon."
Besides all her work in anime Palencia has a few projects that will be bringing her away from the microphone and pushing her forward into a video camera.
"I am working on a film with Chuck Huber," said Palencia, "and a lot of other voice actors are in it, as well. It's called Arbor Day, and it's a musical essentially. I get to use my Honduran accent in it, which I'm excited about because I'm half-Honduran, which essentially came about from years of making fun of my father. We've made a trailer, but we haven't finished filming it. We still have a couple weeks of filming to do. There is a web series that I finished that I'm in for a very short while, and it's called Throwing Stones. Right now we're in the process of trying to get a second season of the show, which would be awesome because if there is a second season then I'll have a much bigger part.
"There's another film that I was cast in that we'll probably be starting work on in the fall called Archaic Redemption, and it's based on the Necroville portion of Second Life. There's a whole section of the world called CoLA, and it's made up of vampires and zombies and monsters and stuff like that, and humans try to coexist with them. I'm one of the zombies, but it's not a 'brainless' zombie. We still want to eat your brains, but we're intelligent. It's like how vampires are portrayed, only my body's rotting."
With all of these projects in the world of anime, video games and movies lined up it appears that the next couple years will be pretty good to Brina Palencia, and she seems just as excited taking part in all of these roles as we are excited to see them.