4Kids - Behind the Magic

Back at 4Kids, once you got past the audition process and were fortunate enough to get cast, your life was ruled by the fine folks at Talent Central. They were responsible for booking all the talent; acting as a liaison between producers and talent. They usually booked a week at a time, so by Thursday or Friday, you’d hear from them with their plans for you for the following week. After a little give and take, you worked out a schedule that worked for everyone involved.

Most of what 4Kids did is dub acquired cartoons into English, in a process called ADR, or Automated Dialog Replacement, in which each line is replaced one at a time. Typically, you showed up at the studio and were handed a script. There was rarely an opportunity to pre-read, or otherwise prepare, so being able to cold-read confidently was always a plus. You'd head into the booth, slap on a pair of headphones, and spend the next hour or two trying to stare simultaneously at a screen and a script, while performing and taking direction from a director and an engineer behind the glass.

In a nutshell, the goal of ADR is to be able to read the line and make it match the on-screen character’s lip-flap while still sounding convincing. Perhaps the oddest thing you have to get used to with ADR is “The Beeps.” Before you record each line, you hear a series of three beeps in your headphones. They’re there to let you know when to speak. When the beeps stop beeping, you start speaking. You watch the screen and the script, trying to match flap, sometimes hearing the other actors, if they’ve already recorded, or reacting to nothing. Sometimes you’ll hear a scratch track laid down for reference by a writer or producer where one voice will (rather flatly) read all the lines. After each take, the director will either say “that’s great!” or get some kind of direction to adjust the performance, get some technical note, like, “We had a little noise in there,” or “you banged the copy stand. Do it again!” And then the real magic happens. The engineer will massage your last take in ProTools, squeezing, stretching, editing, tweaking until it fits just right. In most cases, the director is extremely helpful, especially since he or she is much more familiar with the material than you are, and knows what the producer wants. Depending on the studio, you may or may not hear the original language track as a reference. After you’re done with your initial session, you may be called back in to do fixes if a producer heard something odd, or rewrote a line, and stuff has to be re-recorded, Between three and six months later, you’ll see what you did on TV.

There was one notable exception in the 4Kids lineup: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was done as a pre-lay. In other words, all—or at least most—of the actors recorded as an ensemble. You'd also get the advantage of seeing the script a few days in advance. When you came in in the morning, the cast would do a table read. As the name suggests, you sit around a table and read! It gives you a chance to familiarize yourself with the material, and work out any kinks. After a quick break, it’s into the studio. Usually, four or five actors recorded together, with other cast members wandering in and out as the session went on. In the case of TMNT, the director was off-site. You'd only hear her over headphones, while producers and the engineer maintained a local presence on the other side of the glass from you. While recording separately in ADR, as mentioned above, has its advantages—like privacy and fewer people getting pissed when you screw up—ensemble recording also has its advantages. You really feel like you're part of a big production, and have other actors you can play off of, for more authentic reactions. There’s one other real big advantage. Although it took up to nine months to see the finished product, it was cool to know that the animation was actually based on your performance. Once the episode was animated, and before it aired, you might be called back in for fixes, if necessary.

—Mike Pollock, November 2005 (Revised to past tense.)