The Voice of Gaara – Liam O’Brien

The versatile Liam O’Brien, probably best known as the voice of Gaara in Naruto and Captain Ukitake in Bleach, visited London at the October 2012 London MCM Expo. We were lucky enough to get a few minutes to talk to him.

AUKN – Gaara has matured as character throughout the Naruto series; what do you think of the growth of the character?

O’Brien – It’s been really surprising to me. I’ve been very involved with the show for a long time. I started as an actor and eventually I got tapped to adapt the script for the English dialogue track and also, whenever our grand ADR director Mary Elizabeth McGlynn isn’t available, I often come in and direct the show as well. And I read very far into the future, but back when I first started, I think that he comes in Episode 20 and he is just our little red-headed murderer and he ends in a totally different place and I never saw that coming! He was the role that I hoped to get when I saw the big stack of character descriptions back when I auditioned years and years ago, because, well, you know, a ten year-old killer. A fun prospect – and I had no idea where they were gonna go with it.

AUKN – Does his growth makes it easier or more difficult to play Gaara?

O’Brien – Oh, it’s easier. Just on a technical level, on a physical level, voice-over is easy except for when you are shrieking your lungs out under the table and with Gaara he does a lot of raging. We do a lot of video games as well, and in addition to your dialogue scenes you have pages with attacks sounds, getting hits, hurt, and killed and game after game we’re going “raargh;” morphing into the giant was quite harsh. Now he’s very relaxed and chilled.

AUKN – That’s called growing up, right?

O’Brien – Yeah, ahem.

AUKN – Your answer actually leads to our next question, because you mentioned you saw Gaara on the character list and you expected to get him. Wiki says “O’Brien is usually cast in some of the most unusual roles, as such he tends to play characters that show signs of insanity or are complete evil geniuses.” Was that on purpose?

O’Brien – I don’t know how that happened. When I first started, I played goofy characters, I played a lot of dorks and weirdo. Maybe three or four years in, people realised I was good at, you know, losing my nuts…

AUKN – Evil geniuses?

O’Brien – Yeah, and I love it. I feel like I’m the John Malkovich of the gaming and animation world. And it’s fun to do, I do play heroes once in a while, and I like to, I like variety, but I have more fun tearing up the scenery and shaking my fist at the world.

AUKN – So, it’s basically something you can relate to?

O’Brien – Or it’s maybe what helps me not to do that in real life.

AUKN – I see, it helps vent.

O’Brien – Yeah, it helps venting. You sit in traffic in LA long enough you want to turn into a large sand monster.

AUKN – Do you get to “ad-lib” a lot in your roles?

O’Brien – It depends on the project. If the director is open to it, I often ask if I can try a different version of something or if I get one in the can, and I know it’s the way they’re written or the way they wanted, I tweak as we go. Some people are cool; you learn who likes it and who doesn’t. But it’s fun.

AUKN – You mentioned how your involvement with Naruto grew from just being a Voice Actor to actually start writing the adaptations and also the voice-directing, so I was wondering how much you add of your own.

O’Brien – Actually, when it’s just dubbing in general, when you’re taking something that started as a Japanese language series, or any language and localising into your own country’s language. When you’re adapting stuff, you’re sitting looking at a mac computer, I’ve got a movie file and a document open, thinking, ‘What kind of line? What kind of line?’ sort of read along with the cartoon. Most of the time, you get it right, but sometimes an actor’s natural pacing mismatching [AUKN: the video], I take longer with my reads, some people are faster talkers. And so, you might think that you wrote something that is just perfect length and works just right [when writing something] for an anime dub, then the actor comes in and it’s too short or too long, there’s something wacky about it. You used the word ‘waffle’ three times in one sentence and then you go ‘Wow, I used waffle too many times, I gotta pull one of those out’ so you tweak as you go.

In the world of original animation and video games where you don’t have to match to a picture that already exists, there is much more room to play with language and just do anything, but with dubbing you’ve got these rigid guidelines. If the character goes like this (he opens his mouth wide), you can’t just go ‘cheese’ because it obviously wouldn’t match. American or not American, the English-speaking audience immediately goes ‘uh?’ and checks out [[just like a fraction]] everytime that happens.

AUKN Is this the biggest challenge in being a voice actor? Matching the timings?

O’Brien – Matching is just a subset of voice-over; it happens a lot for us in LA who work a lot with games and animation. It happens a lot with Japanese games coming over. It is a definite challenge. For me, in my life, shouting is more of a challenge, it used to be matching pictures. But I’ve got into games a lot more recently and every game is an FPS and every character gets shot in the face – then it’s just ‘argh’, ‘urgh’ over and over again, multiple times a week that eclipses matching pictures. Matching the pictures is a very tricky subset of skills; some people are awesome at it, some people are like, err….

AUKN – Between the three roles you work on, voice acting, script adaptation and voice directing, which one is your favourite?

O’Brien – It’s a close tie between acting and directing. Acting probably wins out, but I do love directing. I love having my thumbs in the whole story. When you work in games or animation you only know what the director tells you in the moment – we are not given a script of the whole Gears of War or something in advance to know what’s going on. So it’s just like ‘what am I doing? I’m running over a ridge? Oh, they’re shooting at me? Okay. Am I talking to the guy on the right, oh he’s over there? Oh, I’m in love with them?’ and as a director you got the bigger picture and it’s fullfilling in that way.

AUKN – What has been your favourite project so far and why?

O’Brien – Favourite project? Can’t pick one, it’s like picking kids! Well, I love Gaara, I love how long the journey has been and I really love the series, as I worked on it. I loved working on Wolverine the X-Man, ‘cos I’m a big dork and read X-Men as I was growing up. I’ve got a lot of satisfaction from working on the Resident Evil series; I directed the VO for a bunch of them and more recently Resident Evil 6 and I did Resident 5 as well. And I take a lot of pride in the work that I did, from casting and my work as a voice director on it, and I love zombies.

AUKN – Matsuyama-san from CyberConnect is also at the Expo, so are you meeting him?

O’Brien – I hope so, I love CyberConnect’s work, it’s amazing.

AUKN – They’ve been working at the Naruto game series as well, and you also worked on their .Hack. [At this moment, we are told we only have time for one question.] This question came from a fan. What was the process of dubbing Duel Masters? It seems quite chaotic, with lots of voice changes; was there even a script half of the time?

O’Brien – Oh, there was a script. But just like any dubbing series, things will change on the fly. You also often play multiple characters, so you have your main character and they come and say, ‘We need you to be this old man, a cowboy and a pirate, go go go!’. With anime dubs in the US, the budgets are smaller than, let’s say, video games, and time is money, so they want people who are good and quick and can do stuff on the fly.

AUKN – Have you got any idea of what an average budget is?

O’Brien – No, I just know that as an actor I make a little less and there’s more pressure to make sure you get things done on time, so there’s less studio time and you have less time to tweak and revisiting something that wasn’t quite right, so you fix as that happens.

AUKN – Well, thank you very much for talking to us.

O’Brien – Thank you very much, my pleasure.