Talking Heads: “Dragon Ball Z” and “One Piece”‘s Chris Sabat
by Matt Cohen on August 13, 2013
Few voice actors have left their mark on the industry like Chris Sabat. Providing voices for shows like Dragon Ball Z, One Piece, Fullmetal Alchemist, and countless more, Chris has quickly made a name for himself in the industry as the master of gruff, rough-and-tumble characters and one of the most dependable voice actors around. Also… he’s an incredibly nice guy (which counts for a lot). I recently got the chance to chat with Chris at Anime Expo 2013 in Los Angeles, and chat about his time in the industry, getting into voice acting, and life in general.
NERDIST: Growing up, were you an animation fan as a kid? When did you first become aware of anime versus American animation?
CHRIS SABAT: I was aware of Japanese animation when I was very young, long before I knew what it even was. Because when I was very young, there were things like Voltron; I was watching and had no clue what that was. But I guess when I was a kid, I liked animation like The Smurfs and any of the Saturday morning cartoons. Yeah, all those Hanna-Barbera cartoons and, in retrospect, those terrible Super Friends shorts with the worst voices, and it never dawned at me that anyone actually did those voices. Even the Looney Tunes cartoons, which were really brilliant, it never really dawned on me that there was a voice actor ever playing those things to me as a child, as a kid. It was just a part of the experience. I didn’t think about what was behind it. I got grounded a lot, though, because my parents were extremely strict on me, so if I even got a C, I’d be grounded from television or something like that.
So I did actually watch TV kind of secretly. I’d have these giant 1970’s style headphones on my head, but I would watch TV from an angle, so I could see from a reflection off the fireplace and I kind of started the first dubbing of sorts back then. I couldn’t hear the volume of the TV, I just kind of looked at what they were doing. When I first experienced one of my first anime, no one was calling it anime; they were calling it “Japanimation,” and no one ever thought it was racist back then, which was like, “It’s from Japan. That makes sense.” I was watching Ghost in the Shell, Akira, and Fist of the North Star, which were like the introductory course to it.
N: Going from being a fan, how did you break into the industry? When did you realize “this is what I want to do for a living,” and how did you go about that?
CS: I always knew I wanted to do something with my voice, because I always had this remarkably low voice. In fact, my voice changed from a really high, kid boy high voice practically to what I have now overnight between 6th and 7th grade. It was very young to have happened. Scared the shit out of my mother when I came downstairs that morning. I really do remember going “Hey, mom” (in a low voice) and she went, “Geez! Oh, it’s you Chris.” And so I always knew.
I always messed around as a kid recording my voice. I used to have a jam box in my stereo and this amplifier I found at a garage sale and I tried to plug them all together and make a bunch of sounds, and any time I asked my teacher to do a written report, I’d always ask if I could do an audio report, which is basically a lot easier for me because I didn’t have to write anything and couldn’t. They’d give me an A+ because of creativity.
Anyway, I went to school ultimately for opera at the University of North Texas and I realized suddenly that, even though they were paying my tuition, I hated the opera department. I hated singing like that for a living. But fortunately, it landed me in Denton, Texas, which is one of the hippest, coolest places to go in Texas. There’s Austin and then there’s Denton, and Denton is very hip, kind of counter-culture crowd. There were a lot of heavy metal types and really creative people there. I learned a lot about what I’m doing today from all that. I played in a bunch of shoegazer bands, did a lot of drugs and all that kind of stuff.
One of the people I knew, that played in the band I was with, a friend, whose wife who was one of the four employees at FUNimation Productions, her name’s Carly Hunter and she was a rotoscoper; she used to take out panties and stuff like that from the show so they could put it on network television. I used to joke with her, “Hey, I want to see all the footage of all the stuff you removed from the show. That’s all I want to see.” One time she contacted me and said, “Hey, I know you were working as a disc jockey and I know you do a lot of voices and things like that. Would you be interested in auditioning for this show we’re working on? It’s a Japanese show.” I’m like “Oh, yeah. Sure, whatever.” So I came out there, auditioned, and that’s where everything changed.
N: Was that Dragon Ball Z?
CS: Yeah, it ended up being Dragon Ball Z.
N: What was it like cutting your teeth on the show that introduced many American audiences to anime in general, Dragon Ball Z, as Vegeta and Piccolo, two of the biggest characters on that show? What kind of experience was that?
CS: It was very humbling over time. When we were first working on it, as I said, the company had four or five employees. I didn’t understand the global impact the show had or would eventually have when we first started doing it. In fact, we had very little communications with the Japanese company. I was just a dude that got videos and, as I said in a previous panel, a lot of the videos we dubbed to were the Mexican version of the Dragon Ball Z dub because we couldn’t get the materials fast enough from Japan. They had just finished dubbing the series in Mexico, so we were getting a lot of those tapes in. The cool thing about it is that when I first started working on Dragon Ball Z, they only had about 70 episodes worth, which only gets you up to right around the time of Captain Ginyu and the Ginyu force, so I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know that Vegeta wasn’t gonna get killed off or that Piccolo was gonna stick around. Or that Yamcha wasn’t gonna stick around. I should remind you, if you were lucky, you could have an internet connection strong enough to maybe download a photo overnight. There weren’t sites that were all dedicated, there was no Wikipedia, there was nothing that you could do.
N: You were lucky if there was a GeoCities fanpage.
CS: [laughs] Oh, yeah, and there was! It was like some GeoCities page that made no sense. The cool thing about working on the show is, I got to experience what a lot of people experience watching Dragon Ball Z in the booth playing the character. Vegeta would be beaten to a pulp by Frieza. That was actually a bit emotionally devastating for me too. I was like, “Oh, crap!” and I know I can speak for Sean Shimmel, the voice of Goku. Dragon Ball Z was really his only main gig and he said that Goku’s health was in direct proportion to how much money he had at any given time. He was broke when Goku was injured and really happy when Goku was doing really well. A lot of us were, so I went through the steps and the stages of the series in the same way that a lot of other people did too.
To add another layer to it, doing the voices was hard, man. Voicing Vegeta and screaming and screaming and screaming and screaming — it was exhausting. I felt, I don’t know, like a pregnant woman that had just given birth every time I finished an episode. When good things were happening, I was really charged for it. And when I’d leave the booth for it after voicing Vegeta for a certain amount of time, I was a dick. I was a real dick for hours afterwards, because you just get into that angry place.
N: Speaking of other angry characters, you also voiced one of the main characters on one of my favorite franchises in the world, One Piece, as Roronoa Zoro. Is it true you were involved with the FUNimation dub from the very beginning and you originally voiced a different character for the pilot?
CS: They did a test episode. There wasn’t really even a pilot day. I think FUNimation was testing the show to see if they would even like it. They did just this one early, early episode and I played Helmeppo in that.
N: This is after the 4Kids run, which had only done like 10 episodes or something?
CS: I actually don’t know how many episodes. What I’m talking about is actually before 4Kids even got it.
N: When FUNimation was originally trying put it on air, you guys put out the original test?
CS: To be even more specific — I wasn’t in the executive offices so I don’t know, but my assumption is, and I think I’m right about this — they were looking at One Piece and 4Kids and other people were investigating whether they wanted to air this. I think FUNimation wanted to dub it so they could sell it to some people or they could look at it and say “Is this something we want?” I think after seeing swords and bullets and guns being shot at a child, FUNimation passed on it and gave it to 4Kids, and FUNimation eventually got it back.
N: And that’s where we got the Luffy rap from.
CS: [laughs] Aren’t we lucky?
N: So going from that initial process and, years later, becoming the second member of the Straw Hats and arguably the most bad-ass swordsman in all of anime, how has that been? Also, speaking of shows with a lot of work to do, there are what, 600 plus episodes in Japan? You guys have not stopped dubbing. What’s it like knowing that that job is just gonna last forever?
CS: I couldn’t be happier to be involved in that. I feel like I’ve got the easiest character to play on the boat. I still get to be a Straw Hat pirate, but I don’t have to do anything, really. I fall asleep, I wake up, I drink some beer, I get to kick someone’s butt in the most epic, incredible way. I tell Luffy he’s an idiot, then we all cheer, high-five and it’s the most enthusiastic thing of all time and he’s back to sleep again. I will say, though, as the series has been progressing to where we’re at now, I had no idea the show would get to where it did. I’m not gonna give out any spoilers here, but I’m sure many people who would be reading this would already be up-to-date on some of the manga, it gets really dark. Like, really dark, and it’s amazing. It’s such a great payoff. You know these characters in a lighthearted, fun way, and then it just dips down into the darkest, darkest place, and it’s remarkably fun. In my opinion, some of my best work I’ve ever done is in those moments. There’s some really great stuff that happens.
N: You’re known for playing gruff characters, obviously. Do you ever wish you could step out of that a little bit and show more vocal range? I don’t know if you’re typecast specifically, but do you know what I mean?
CS: Honestly, I love doing goofy, fun high-voiced characters. One of the few people who has ever let me do that is a game company out of Austin called Twisted Pixel, and they did a video game called Comic Jumper. It’s an Xbox Live downloadable game. It did really well except it’s as hard as shit. Such a hard game. Twisted Pixel makes really hard games. These are the guys that made ‘Splosion Man and Ms. ‘Splosion Man. He let me play a Yamcha-style character in that. That’s always fun and refreshing, but I will say this: I don’t know if it’s because I’ve played so many evil characters or something, but I can’t stand really super nice characters. I hate Goku. I just don’t even like that character. Luffy’s fine, but if given the choice, I’d rather play the bad-ass than the super nice guy.
N: Other than just your voice acting work, you’re also a producer and a line producer and you’ve got your own company, OkraTron 5000. Do you wanna talk a little bit about that?
CS: Yeah, OkraTron, we started, like, nine years ago. I left FUNimation at the time because I realized there was a point where my only way to kind of move up in that company was to either take my boss’s job or to quit. I didn’t want to take my boss’s job and I also realized, at the end of the day, video games were my first true love. I think that’s what led me to doing what we do now. We provide audio production services, video game sound effects, music, voiceover casting, and recording for lots of different games. We’ve worked with so many people. Most recently, we finally started working with Gearbox and we did all the voices for Borderlands 2 and all the subsequent DLC and I’m sure there’s gonna be plenty more of it. We worked with Ensemble with Halo Wars. We provided assets for Guitar Hero and Tony Hawk and Pirates of the Caribbean. We’ve really been really fortunate.
Making a video game is like making a movie, but sometimes takes even longer. They have to conceptualize it, get all the scripts ready, and then they’re programming the games and the audio production job normally happens towards the end. A lot of companies don’t have a lot of in-house audio guys, because they know they’re just gonna be sitting on their asses for a long time. That’s where my company comes in, as hired guns, to be just a turn-key audio production department.
N: To finish up, any other exciting projects coming out? Any new voices you’re stoked about working on?
CS: Actually, uh, there’s some stuff we’re doing I wish I could tell you about but I will say that there’s a new downloadable set of content for Borderlands called “The Assault on Dragon’s Keep.” If you’ve played that game at all, Tiny Tina is a dungeon master in a game of D&D, and it will make you spit-take anything you’re drinking. I’m also really genuinely excited, and, I’ll be honest, I’m not always excited about every Dragon Ball Z video game that comes out, because it tends to be really repetitive, but this new one called Battle of Z looks to be an outstanding game. They’re taking some really new approaches to it. Eight-player, kind of battle royale-type of battles. The characters are kind of grouped into classes where some are support classes, some are healers and things like that. I’m really looking forward to playing that game. We’re absolutely right in the dead center of recording all the voices for that right now.
N: And where could folks keep up with you online?
CS: I hide from people online a lot, but I do have a Facebook fan page that I was I was a little bit more diligent about and keeping up to date. I think I’m on Twitter, but I think it just regurgitates whatever’s on Facebook. I could be a lot better at social media, but, unfortunately, I stay pretty busy.
N: Better than being busy at social media.