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NYAF 2007: Peter Fernandez and Corinne Orr Panel Report

by on December 9, 2007

The inaugural New York Anime Festival was host to two legendary anime performers: Peter Fernandez and Corinne Orr, better known as the voices of Speed Racer and Trixie on Speed Racer, the show that led the first wave of anime to penetrate American pop culture consciousness. The two appeared on Saturday on the Tokyopop stage to hold forth for about an hour on their long careers as voice actors.

Corinne Orr, Peter Fernandez, and the moderator whose name I totally forgot to write downThe panel began as the moderator asked how they got their start in show business. Corinne Orr stated that her start was in children’s theater as a girl in Montreal, performing in multiple roles in a production of Alice in Wonderland when she was 10- to 11-years-old. Peter Fernandez recounted his career as a child model at the age of 7, which ultimately led to his first role on Broadway at age 11 with Ethel Barrymore in a play called White Oaks. This led to a career as a child actor on Broadway and in radio shows out of New York City.

For Orr, her path to animation voice acting began when she followed her acting teacher to New York City to dub movies into foreign languages. While she began this work in her early 20’s, she was able to get many roles because she could do younger voices in addition to adult ones. According to Orr, she didn’t know if she had the talent for it, and added that she “just needed a job.”

As for Fernandez, he had begun working on dubs of foreign films until producer Fred Ladd contacted him to do the dubbing for a Japanese animated series called Astro Boy. Fernandez revealed that he was the ghost-scripter for Ladd for most of Astro Boy, and also served to script Gigantor, another early Japanese animated import which he also did voice acting duties on. With these successes under his belt, he began work on two different Japanese cartoons: Speed Racer and Marine Boy.

Marine Boy was an unusual cartoon, beginning work after Speed Racer ramped up. It also happened to be a joint US-Japanese production, which meant that vocal tracks were recorded before any animation was done. Fernandez added that Marine Boy isn’t very well known in the United States, and that most of its fans are in Britain, New Zealand, and Australia. However, Orr landed the title role in Marine Boy at her audition, against the wishes of the producer who wanted a real boy to do Marine Boy’s voice. Fernandez stuck his ground on casting Orr, however, stating that a boy couldn’t double for other characters, and that it would give the show more flexibility if he could cast a woman like Orr, who could also do a boy’s voice. He paid for a 5-minute demo tape of Orr as Marine Boy, after which the producer finally relented. Orr also noted that she would need to jump between roles within the same scene while recording, and that this was probably the most challenging thing about Marine Boy. The two noted that the producer of the show was Stanley Jaffe, who went on to become the president of Paramount Communications.

Speed Racer gave Fernandez a chance to stand on his own, without Fred Ladd, and he said that his only instructions when he began working on the show was to “Americanize it.” That left him free to do whatever he wanted, and he chuckled that he “really got carried away there.” The translations he had to work with were rudimentary, at best, and he said he had to make up a lot of his scripts. When scripting, Fernandez said he tried not to stray too far from what was happening on screen, but that he was really on his own.

The names for the characters were changed from the original Japanese, with Speed Racer being Go Mifune in the original. Orr stated that she thought Fernandez was brilliant at coming up with names for the characters, but Fernandez claimed he didn’t know where he came up with them from and just made them all up as he went along. He also commented a bit on his role in coming up with the famous English theme song for Speed Racer, saying that the music existed already but was re-arranged by Billy Muir and recorded by Danny Davis, who still plays regularly in Nashville. Interestingly, Fernandez’s financial compensation for the show only comes from royalties from the theme song (which he stated all went to New York State for income taxes). At the time Speed Racer was made, the residuals system was never set up, so the two were never paid anything beyond what they received up front.

Fernandez and Orr said they were unaware of their status as anime pioneers or their enduring fame until relatively recently. Fernandez stated that he had never heard of “anime” at the time he was doing Speed Racer — to him they were just Japanese cartoons, and he had never heard any special terms for them. He also said that he and Davis often laugh that of all the music that Davis has worked on over his career, it’s the theme to Speed Racer that has truly endured. Orr added that she wasn’t aware of how beloved Speed Racer was until about 10 years ago, when people started coming out to promote it. At that time, it was airing on MTV and then Cartoon Network, which brought the cartoon to a whole new body of fans, according to Fernandez.

The pair were asked who their favorite roles were, both on Speed Racer and over their careers. Orr stated that on Speed Racer, she loved the episode where she played Prince Jam and his girlfriend, and also loved doing a lot of Spritle. She also added that one of her favorite roles was being the voice of the Snuggle fabric softener bear, which drew a groan from Fernandez, who hates the voice she uses for it. Fernandez said he didn’t have any real favorite roles on Speed Racer.

When the topic came to the distinctive rapid-fire speech of Speed Racer, Fernandez said that it was born out of necessity since his major goal was to match up the lip flaps to colloquial English. He said that he was trying to write dialog that matched up with the 3 sounds made where your lips are closed (M, B, and P), and that this meant he had to have a lot of dialog “to fill that flappy mouth.” He also added that the show was difficult because of the number of mute reaction shots from Trixie or Speed, which is why the show has so many moments where they can only make “Oooh!” and “Ahh!” exclamations.

As a performer, Orr statd that she needed a lot of breath to get through the lines. Fernandez said that the only way they could get through the sessions was to do it in loops, meaning a short strip of film would be run through the projector in a loop over and over until the voice actor could record a workable line of dialog. Needless to say, this was a hard process, but Orr said that they loved it because the cast got along so well. She said she had a nice friendship going with all of the cast members, and still calls up Jackie Grimes (the only other living cast member from Speed Racer) all the time.

When asked why he thought Speed Racer has endured over the years, Fernandez said he felt it was because it was about cars and kids like playing with cars. He also said that the show was distinctive for an adventure cartoon because of the core family dynamic of the show. Unlike many other similar cartoons, Speed has a family with strong bonds between them, and this gives the show an extra dimension as opposed to other series.

Fernandez talked about his brief cameo in the Speed Racer movie, where he is an announcer for a race, and noted that the Wachowskis told him that they were fans of the show in its original run, rushing home from school to watch the new episodes. He also added that he will be in the Nickelodeon revival of Speed Racer as a grown-up Spritle, teaching Speed and Trixie’s children how to drive. This drew a mock protest from Orr, who said she couldn’t believe that Fernandez was going to be playing her character and that she couldn’t stop laughing when he called her up to tell her. However, Fernandez was mum about whether the original Speed Racer would be appearing in the new Nickelodeon cartoon.

Orr said she was not approached to appear in the live-action Speed Racer movie at all, nor will she appear in the new Nickelodeon cartoon.

More recently, Fernandez was the voice director for Cartoon Network’s Courage the Cowardly Dog. Fernandez said that he loved working with John Dilworth, creator of the show, who would often lob spitballs at Fernandez during recording sessions. He recounted an anecdote when Linda Lavin was guest-starring in a role and Dilworth crawled along the floor to pop up and make funny faces at Lavin through the glass. Fernandez marveled that she kept her cool and didn’t break character.

Although Fernandez said he never knew what to tell young people who ask about how to become voice actors, the two had some worthwhile advice for those looking to break into the business. Fernandez said to try to get around as much as possible, and also to have something to fall back on during dry periods as an actor. Orr was more specific, saying she had several people telling her, “I have a weird voice,” but that it was the only voice they had. Orr said it had nothing to do with just the voice, but with the acting. To be successful, Orr believes you need to be able to act and be able to do more than one voice. She also tells would-be actors not to give up, and that they have to be persistent and keep working at it, adding that it’s a business and that you need to promote yourself to get any roles.

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