Foal Duke's Galacon Interview with Rebecca Shoichet

How they allow such explicitness in a kids story is beyond me
While everyone at Galacon were drinking their beer and eating some good non-processed sausages, A reporter sat down with the lovely Miss Rebecca Shoichet. So, take a look!

Rolling Pone: Interview with Rebecca Shoichet at Galacon 2016!
By Foal Duke, International Affairs Correspondent, not Chelis, and The Famous Eccles.
Audio cast here. Intro/outro clips © Spike Milligan, George Martin et al.

Rebecca and I talk voice acting... Practical insight into the art form for YOU... Hurdles and hype.

Hi readers, this is your old pal Foal Duke, here! Two I mean four ??? weeks ago I was lucky enough to visit Germany to take part in Gala Con 2016, Europe’s largest My Little Pony convention. As you’ve no doubt read, the other members of the European Division had quite a fun time – and they weren’t the only ones, let me tell you. There was plenty to do and plenty to see, from acts to panels to artwork, and all of it interesting...

Especially trying to get her name right, because I fail.
...but one of the most interesting parts of it, for me, was when I was given the chance to sit down and have a little chat with Rebecca Shoichet. Rebecca, Twilight’s singing voice and the voice of Sunset Shimmer in the three >no hooves spin-off movies, has had a varied and interesting voice artist career, and like all voice artists, has her own, unique perspective on the art form. There have been three of the movies now, and with a lot of growth and experience gained during those long shifts in front of the mike, there was clearly a lot to talk about – and surprisingly little coverage of it over the past two years. With this hindsight and the knowledge that she had to share from them, we spoke at length about the more personal side of a voice acting career – particularly from her perspective, post Friendship Games – in an attempt to catch up on some of the lost ground and provide some practical insight for aspiring voice artists.

This, then, is the wisdom she had to impart.

We started with some of the basics of Rebecca’s career, which she reveals got its first major kick-start the same way as most other voice actors’, out of a seemingly mundane chance opportunity or meeting or two – and of course, those meetings prove that it’s who you know as well as what you know: sometimes, friends in your work circle have other mutual friends and they can be the connection you need – friendship is magic and all that!

FD: Firstly, um, how did you get into voice acting?

RS: Uh, well, I started out doing musical theatre, and, um, when I was in college, I uh, had a place where they had an incredible animation program – Sheridan College – and some of the students there needed actors to do their lip-syncing for their final lip-syncing pro exams (I guess?). So they had to animate to somebody saying something, so I was brought into the studio to do a few of those. And, I happened to have an experience or two, um, as a younger person, doing some work in the studio for... [she pauses for recollection] once my choir was invited to come and sing on the album of a pop artist in Victoria and that was fun. And then we had friends in radio and I was on a television commercial as a child, but nothing big. And then when I worked in Vancouver, it just happened to be that there were a lot of voice acting opportunities. But, I met somebody at a party, and told her “I do voices!”, because she said she was a producer of animation and does anime, and so I auditioned for her casting director and I started getting work!

FD: That’s fun! What made you want to get into voice acting first off, though?

RS: Well, it’s just another form of being an actor – I really enjoy any kind of opportunity to perform. And then, when I started to experience doing voice acting, it was a chance to be a lot of different characters, regardless of how you look which is kind of cool!

FD: What is it about acting, just in general, that you like? What was it that made you decide “I want to become an actor”?

RS: Oh... That’s... You know, that happened from a very, very young age, and I think I just really enjoyed, um, performing and being on stage and um... and, ah... just expressing different characters, expressing different emotions and stories, and just, being a storyteller.

[Here follows a deleted twenty seconds of me getting Sunset’s name wrong. Rebecca is very cool with it, thankfully! Rebecca then provided us with some of her personal perspectives on the art of voice acting, and in particular, a titbit on the auditioning process – she’d auditioned for a lot of the characters, believe it or not. She also let us know that, while it’s pretty much a given that most characters in a voice actor’s portfolio will grow on them, having a character that one can actually voice all-round and express the normal, everyday emotions for certainly has a more fulfilling side – especially in a special case such as this, when one is already part of a large fandom – as it allows them to take greater part, connect with the fans more and leave more of an impact. To flourish.]

FD: So, when you were first approached to play Sunset, how did you feel about that, at first?

RS: Well I was excited to have the job because, like, many of the other actors in the city it’s great to be a part of this show. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is quite a phenomenon, how it’s taken off throughout the world. So, I was already lucky enough to be singing as Twilight, but to have a character, uh, meant something special, especially to the fandom, but also to me, so I got a chance to express my thoughts through the acting as well.

FD: When you were first billed to do the singing voice for Twilight, that was obviously your first foray into Pony, how did you feel about that? I assume you were excited, but what did you first think? Were you, like, surprised? (RS: Um...) Because it’s not every day you get asked to voice a cartoon horse!

RS: Well, you know, when you’re doing animation you’re already doing crazy characters of all shapes and sizes, so it wasn’t that surprising – it was just fun, because, it’s, you know, “Yay! It’s My Little Pony, and a new generation of it.” So, that was pretty cool, and I had auditioned for all the characters – or a lot of the characters, anyways – when the first set of auditions went through, so I was just really glad to be a part of this new show. I had no... nobody had any idea how big it was going to be, though.

[We also got treated to some technical information and with it the reminder that as a voice artist, you’re not just doing voices – you’re bringing the character to life and have to bear in mind the journey that you’re going to take them on. As Rebecca demonstrated to us, this is fundamentally important, as it dictates the very technical processes and workflow the production team takes, and before that, the very process you take in getting the role to work for you and deciding what the voice and mannerisms of the character should be. For example, it is not as simple as to declare an all-round role (such as Sunset) to be more challenging merely because of the greater amount of lines...]

FD: Which character was the most challenging to voice?

RS: Between Twilight or Sunset Shimmer?

[A significant pause as she mulls this over.]

I suppose, uh... just because of her story, Sunset Shimmer goes through a lot of ups and downs – quite a huge character arc. So she was probably the most challenging character to play.

FD: Because, you know, singing a character’s voice is one thing. It’s more physically challenging – I know from firsthand experience it’s more physically challenging – but to actually voice a character on the whole and to help them to grow is another thing entirely. Um, as for... [Now I pause for thought – my lack of sleep is getting to me, apologies.] When it comes to voice acting, what would you say is the most enjoyable part of it?

RS: Um... The most enjoyable part of it... I think, watching and hearing other actors doing their thing. When it comes to pre-lay, you get to be in a room with a whole bunch of other actors and there’s a lot of interaction between the actors, the director and the engineer and producers... and, that’s... I think the most fun part of it.

FD: What is pre-lay, would you mind telling us?

RS: Pre-lay is when they haven’t animated yet; they’ve done maybe storyboards and some pictures and they have the storyline. And then they record the dialogue first, and then they animate after.

FD: Did ever feel strange being a grown woman voicing a teenage girl?

RS (with a grin): No, because I’ve been a teenage girl, so it’s not that much of a stretch! But sometimes I don’t feel super perky going into the studio. But, you have to have a good night’s sleep and be prepared to sound younger, or sound like your character, whatever your character happens to sound like, whether it’s a teenage girl, or a little boy [Sota Higurashi, Inuyasha], or a bug [Willy from Maya the Bee, 2012], or whatever – there’s a lot of different ways you can prepare.

FD: Yes. On the subject of that, what sort of process do you use to decide what the best voice for a new character would be when you go [into the studio] for the first time?

RS: I think you just have to really read through it several times and get it, get an idea. If we’re lucky, we have a picture; but if not, you just get a character description of what that person is like (or thing) – what that character is like. And, sometimes, it’s fun to try something crazy. It just depends on what speaks to you. You know, the writing will speak to you in a certain way. And sometimes, you have to take risks. You have to try something a little bit crazy, or coloring outside the lines, as they say. And, sometimes you can do an audition with two takes of a character: you can do take one as sort of something more normal, regular, conversational style; and the next one can be more cartoony. It depends on what they’ve asked for.

[It pays to note that the procedure used in pre-lay makes sense, should the need for any changes in the lines arise, from improv that turns out to be a bit more fluid to the executives demanding some small change – e.g. Faust’s troubles with the use of “egghead.” Rebecca than laid down some wisdom for us on the hurdles of this approach to the art form (but hey, if you don’t experiment, it ain’t art) – you might need to get more info in order to be able to do it, and you’ve got to be observant when experimenting thanks to the sheer collaborative nature of the work.]

FD: Has there ever been any time where you’ve thought of going outside the box, but then decided, “Actually, you know, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”? Have there ever been times when you’ve been afraid to experiment, say, if you thought the director was not going to like the idea you’d had?

(Rebecca thinks.)

Because I when I first started voice acting I had that.

RS: Yeah. I think as long as you’re – I wouldn’t say I’ve ever been afraid to do that, but there’s times to choose to offer something up, and other times it’s best to just say “I’m pretty sure I can gauge from the direction they’re giving, maybe it’s not the right character (or the right time, or right considering how the character is involved in the script). Maybe, it doesn’t need to go really, really far.” Sometimes, you’ll work on a show and there is a need for the characters to be extreme, because they’re maybe a very fast-paced show, with a lot of slapstick or something, and you have to go way over the top. Sometimes, not so much.

FD: When you talk about the setting of the show, and its themes and atmosphere, have you ever had any hard-to-conceive roles? You know when you try and use the process to figure out a new voice, have you ever had any that were so enigmatic and difficult that you’ve actually had to ask for more detail on the show itself?

RS: Oh, definitely. And sometimes I’ll just choose not to audition for certain characters. We’re often given maybe five characters to pick two from to audition for. There’ll be ones that speak to me, and ones that don’t. And I’ll go to the ones that speak to me, that I also think I’m more likely castable for. You have to sort of be your own judge for what your stronger talents are.

FD: What would you say your biggest influences have been – your biggest artistic influences have been – on your performances?

RS: Oh wow! Um, that’s a really tough question!

[Rebecca wasn’t able to answer this question despite giving it some serious thought – it just goes to show you, the process is far more involved than people think. She also treated us to some more info about her time on the Equestria Girls movies, taking me back to what I said before and demonstrating that point further – you have to think about the character’s role on screen and how they will develop.]

FD: Which of the films you’ve starred in (the three Equestria Girls films) has been the most challenging role to date?

RS: ... I would probably say Rainbow Rocks, because it was the first time where you get to see Sunset Shimmer coming up and learning how to fit in with this group of friends and to experience friendship – true friendship.

FD: And of course, you’ve got Twilight’s singing voice, as well, to do – it must be quite the strain at times!

RS: Sometimes, but not really – we do them on different days!

And there you have it! A little bit of insight into how the voice artist works, how they (and you) might start their careers, and the interplay between them and their colleagues and their various work process and art forms.

The Lessons

Right, so where does that leave us now? Let us delve a bit further.

You will note that the requirement to do the voice animation after the vocals (pre-lay) makes a lot of good sense – not just because of the possibility of mistakes, but in case there is the need to change a line later on should an executive want something altered, or the team are waiting for lines to be greenlit with some uncertainty (see: Faust’s trouble with the executives over the use of the word “egghead”).

This is how the character’s role and journey affects the production process so fundamentally – the more complex the character’s writing is, the more complex their role and journey, and the more complex and varied emotional reactions they have, making the character more complex, as Rebecca said above; but this means that the voice actor has more work to do pinning down the character’s personality and their actions and reactions in their world, which makes them harder to grasp, and introduces more uncertainty... and that requires that they have freedom to improvise lines to accommodate it better, emphasising the need for the lines to be done before the animation.

Now, obviously, the simple, common sense reason is animation can’t be done first in case they make a mistake and it didn’t sync with the vocals, so if it sounds like I’m overthinking this, I don’t blame you. But I say this to lay out the flow of cause and effect, and how it dictates the flow of production, to demonstrate that if the animation was done first, then it wouldn’t only constrict what the voice actor could say, but it would go further back up this chain and limit their freedom to work in general.

All the way back up to their freedom to interpret and shape the character, their ability to provide feedback to the producers and writers and help influence the character, the flexibility the production team needs to act on this in order to write and re-write the character, and the ability, as Rebecca ruminated on, to choose and play with a variety of voices to find the right one - in short, to even be the character.

All this would be hemmed in if the lines were more strictly chosen or done at different points, and if experimenting with different voices is “thinking outside the box”, then the lines themselves, in a way, are the box itself. To swap around any two parts in the order of the production process at all would force the entire process to be completely rearranged in order to get the convenient workflow and its freedom back.

So it all ties in.

Plus, it even serves to emphasise the disruptions that can be caused when the vocals are forcibly altered halfway through the process of creating an episode, such as when executives innocently and politely ask that the word “egghead” be removed: lengthy phone calls from coast to coast about the nature of Rainbow Dash’s personality, and how it totally is a thing she would say; greater work, uncertainty and stress for the voice actors at the prospect of having to do these lines again; the animation team having to redo little bits, which involve 24 drawings for just one second and storyboard sketches, so aren’t so little.

An ever increasing pile of empty bottles at the foot of Larson’s desk; more waiting and disruption and eventually, possibly, more hiatuses, more bored fans, more shitposting and drama... and more things for us at Horse News to giggle at, so it ain’t all bad... more piles in the in-tray, more revisions, more frustration, more sleepless nights for Larson, more and more length to his beard, more and more a resemblance to Alan Moore and less to Keanu Reeves, more and more crazy until he gives every character in the show wings and a tiara one by one, more and more new Princesses from Haber, more and more civil unrest and rioting in the streets, more and more burning effigies of Flurry Heart, more decay, more collapse, more and more Kim Jong Un decides the time is right and pushes the big red button and more and more death and desolation as Capper hides in his bunker under his house in Seoul and more and more Larson bangs on the door pleading to let us in but Capper says NO because you did all this by making Twilight a princess and more more I argue with him and demand we say YES because it made Twilight more and more perfect and she is mai wai

So this goes to show you – the ability to improvise and experiment is an important part of the voice acting occupation, like any art form, but unlike most other forms of art, this is part of a greater collaborative piece of art and the ability to experiment is fundamental to the larger whole. So the lessons to learn from Rebecca are
  • always experiment, but VAs must use judgement – be observant as to what the crew need;
  • don’t be afraid to ask for more information – the more info, the more to experiment with;
  • network yourself like crazy – friendship is important;

  • Attention to detail with everything – plot, character arc, etc., which takes back to pre-lay, and the need for more info, as going in with more lets you come out with more, because you can ask the producers (in pre-lay, for example) more questions, and give more opportunites to yourself to give answers to them.

  • In conclusion, approaches can be worked out if you break things down, so don’t fear – but know that it’s not as simple as how many lines you do or how long it is to maintain a difficult voice, or just going with what you’re given or doing what you’re told, and you must assess EVERYTHING.

  • Oh, and part of that approach is planning a good work schedule – a good night’s sleep, different voices on different days, and time to just grab the info, sit, think and read, goddammit.

I hope this has been a little insightful for you, and maybe it can provide you with some extra insight if you want to take up the noble art of voice acting (and indeed, I hope my particular example wasn’t too unintelligible for you).

I’ll be returning soon with more, so sit tight and save that mescaline!

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