ADR Director/Writer: Steven Foster

steven foster 01

If you’ve been a fan of dubbed anime at any point over the last sixteen years or so, you’ve no doubt encountered the name Steven Foster. For over a decade, Steven has been working in Texas creating some of the most memorable and sometimes infamous ADR scripts in anime history while also directing dozens of titles.

Recently I had the chance to talk with Steven regarding his career and future. Over the course of our time together Steven talked to me about his start in the industry, what it was like to work in an ever changing market and ultimately what led to his departure from Sentai Filmworks.

Please keep in mind that I did not censor or edit any of the comments made below so if you’re offended by strong language or are in a work environment, you might want to turn away.

Otaku Review: Let’s start at the beginning; how did you get into ADR writing/directing?

Steven Foster: I had a pretty successful run in advertising and was writing scripts. One was getting some heat in LA but I had two little kids and I wasn’t going to leave them so I was staying in Houston for at least 15 years. Then a friend of mine left her job at the post house where I put together my TV spots and she called me.

“There’s this studio in town and they’re doing this… Japanese animation.” And she’s fumbling with the words, the concept, like most of us dumbass gaijin did back then. “Anime. They want to grow and I think you can help us do that.”

That studio was ADV.

Now I missed Robotech and never really got into Speed Racer. The only real knowledge of anime I had was stumbling across Pokemon toys in a funky shop in Seattle. I thought they were cute and I asked the counter guy what they were.

“Duuuuude,” he told me. “Those guys are gonna be huuuuuuge.”

So when I did the script test for ADV to see if I liked it I had no idea really about anything in the anime world. And the show was horrible, Galaxy Fraulein Yuna. It had like 30 girls all talking over each other and it almost killed me. People have no idea what a bitch it is to write an ADR script. I almost didn’t take the gig. But the characters really appealed to me. Not the characters in the anime, but the ones at ADV. We used to joke that the real show was everything except the anime. That was so true. From the start! Here was John Ledford, in all his Red Bull go-go-go, and Matt Greenfield was all fanboy and geek mystery. The two together? John was cocaine and Matt was lithium. Genius. It was a Chuck Lorre show before there was a Chuck Lorre. A living yin and yang in every sense of the concept. And they were very good for each other. When I came on, it was the beginning of that fusion that, like comics, began happening everywhere. The fringe and mainstream began to meld in the corporate arena, for better or worse. Both in most cases.

OR: When you started anime was still growing in the US, what was it like to work in that era of anime history as compared to now post bubble burst?

SF: Looking back I think so few of us knew what was going to happen, how big the business would get. I know I didn’t. I did know I could help ADV grow, though. And that’s why they hired me and that’s why I signed on. It was time for them to leave the garage and get out in the street. Unfortunately, Main and Easy are just one wrong turn away from Skid Row. So’s Dead End.

But before the big bottom falling out? Oh my god. It was crazy. The industry went from a foot-wide rack at Best Buy to a practical 30-foot alley of anime titles. And ADV shows were running on G4, Cartoon Network, Showtime. Shows became much more polished, nuanced, the content was so much stronger. We had so many shows in production I was combing the streets looking for actors. Plus we had to train them all and as any actor will tell you, it’s not an easy gig. I remember hearing one woman in a bar and she had such a little girl helium voice. Couple days later she’s in the booth. And the fans, even the ones that hated me, appreciated that. It seemed so low rent to have five titles in one month come out and three had the same lead actress I actually felt bad when it happened. So I worked like a madman to find and cultivate a legion of actors to populate all these shows. And I didn’t talk to the press very much and I never went to conventions so no one really knew what I was doing behind the scenes.

And the actors were amazing. I always had their back. And they were so generous with us, just showing up gratis for everything—photo shoots, videos, interviews, commentaries, even scripted content. Matt, curmudgeon he could be, jumped on that bandwagon with a sock puppet theater gag which was hilarious. Soon everything around the industry grew too. Cons got bigger, distribution channels increased in size and number. So did we.

There was a second studio in Austin, offices in London and Tokyo. There was a magazine, a cable network, a toy line, it was nuts. You wanted to pinch yourself. Is this a dream? But when you were in it you didn’t have time to question, you just moved. One day I was in Cannes for the market where shows are sold for international licensing. I wasn’t in sales! What the hell was I doing there? But, sure enough, I share a cab with this guy, we talk. I tell him about this little T&A show I worked on, moments later he shows up at the ADV booth, checkbook in hand. He’s the head of programming for Skyy TV which was, at that time, the largest broadcaster in the UK. Twilight Zone moments like that happened all. The. Time. It’s unbelievable.

We began to license non-anime titles. At the stupid end of the spectrum: wrestling videos and cop/arrest shows. On the platinum side: Sci-Fi’s biggest hit ever. Suddenly I’m holed up at the Chateau Marmont staying up all night to watch Farscape so I can meet with the Henson company in the morning. It was wild. Couple months later, I’m recording commentaries in New York with Claudia [Black] and Ben [Browder]. It was my very first time in New York.

September 11, 2001.

Boom.
Pinch. Not a dream.
All of the stories were pretty unreal. But that doesn’t mean all of them were happy ones.

But to be honest, most were. So when ADV and I parted ways, you know, you look back on things. And when I looked back I had to admit it was a wild ride. Crazy. And funny. Very funny. Not always flattering, of course. But when you look at your life, you have to look at the good and the bad. My ego fought with it. I mean, most of the stories show what a dumbass I am. Why tell the jokes if the butt of every joke is yours, right? But then the story wins out over the sense of self.

For example, no one wants to tell a story about being punched by a black man for dancing with his wife. But when it’s a gay man being punched and he’s dancing with the black guy’s wife at a company christmas party being held on a yacht? Dude. You have to tell that story. It’d be a crime not to.

And Fosterizing? My god. I still can’t deal with that. Unfathomable. Do I love the “actual” definition? Of course not and it’s wrong. Being the namesake of the word, I feel I can validate or refute it’s correctness. But do I secretly like that there’s now a word that I inadvertently created in the lexicon? I’m an urban dic? Please.

That’s when I decided to write a book about my very “animated” life.

But the bionic production schedule off the past decade is so ingrained in me I knew I was never going to be physically able to wait the 9-18 months to write and publish the book, whether I did it on my own or Hachette did. So I started scanning and digitizing… everything, learned a little web design and realized I could create an enhanced online reading experience which is kinda badass. It’s not quite the New York Times’ “Snow Fall” piece but it has aspirations. There will be premium content, a lot of interactive features. I might forum if the kids can play nice. And it’ll deviate from the bio form of the usual blog quite a bit, just to keep things fresh for me and that way it’s not just some abject history lesson. The past is just a scrapbook unless you apply it to your future.

Christ. Look at me. Can you tell I’ve been locked in a studio for 16 years? I’m like Jodie Foster in Nell. Shut up, Nell.

OR: You were around back in the days of ADV and you’ve managed to stick around in the Sentai Filmworks era. What was it like during the transition? Was there any fear that things weren’t going to be around in a couple of years?

SF: And I did stick around as long as I could. But it’s a different place now. And the time when the old was being ripped apart, it was awful. Soul sucking, physically exhausting, and emotionally damaging. When I started, ADV had one ADR studio, one director, I made two, and a handful of artists, sales, and support people. Maybe 20, if that. In the heyday, it was close to 200. And then every shitty card got played and each lousy card was dealt our way. The company overextended itself, the industry saturated the market, then the internet came along and, hey look free anime! Then there was that whole deal where the national economy slid off a cliff. It’s a miracle anyone survived. ADV was a ghost town.

You’d come to work and one day there would be 3 people gone. Next day, 20. Eventually something like 120 people — talented people — all gone. And in a supreme example of masochism the building wasn’t downsized commensurately. So every day you had to walk past all these offices and studios that were dark with just little dusty mementos everywhere and neon colored show posters on the wall. It was like The Leftovers.

OR: So why did you leave Sentai Filmworks?

SF: Ha-ha. I’d love to say follow my passion but it was more like a survival tactic. More than anything though it was time to go. Maybe one day I’ll talk in more detail about it. But it’s pretty personal and a little raw. And I’m about to bare enough of my soul with this new venture. I was never a Tweeter or Instagrammer. I’m not a big public speaker. Well, looks like I’m about to be. All of that and more. And you know what? That’s okay. This is my path. ADV/Seraphim have theirs. Am I happy they phoenixed? Of course. I just didn’t care much for the bird that emerged from the fire.

OR: Getting into the technical side of things, how do you decide how much of a script to change when you’re handling the ADR scripts?

SF: It was on a show by show basis. Something like Pani Poni Dash you can juice it a little bit. Chevalier not so much. Then again, Chev didn’t need a tweak it was a near perfect show. But a lot of anime? I’m no heretic by pointing out that a lot of anime, narratively speaking, just goes off the rails. Even Miyazaki, who’s a genius, can get a little shaky in Act Three with the storytelling. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about Horizon in The Middle of Nowhere. That show just made no fucking sense. And then toward the end of my run at ADV or Seraphim — I swear to god I still have no idea what company does what and who’s running which company — there was a real drive to stay faithful, which was fine. The blush was off the rose by that point.

OR: How do you balance the demands/requests from Japanese production committees with your own creative vision for a series?

SF: There wasn’t any balancing act. I swear. Some hardcore otakus in house would make a snide comment every once in awhile but that’s their opinion, that’s fine. And most otakus dug my the work. Like YouTube comments were always usually “if more anime were like this, I’d be all over it”. The more anime-centered sites, which you can’t call as mainstream as YouTube, the numbers of course skewed differently. The only time I heard anything spoken from a negative Japanese perspective was toward the end of my run and someone just threw it in my face during an argument.

“You know, one Japanese studio doesn’t want you to touch their shows!”

That pissed me off. Who? I wanted to know. I mean, if I fucked up or I pissed someone off I wanna know. I have no problem apologizing. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong. Nobody’s perfect. But I kept asking. Who? What studio?

“I can’t say.”

Really?

I’ve got an inbox of raves with names on every comment. And I’m supposed to listen to some unnamed studio you claim say doesn’t like me? Move along, man.

OR: More than any other director, you seem to be put under a microscope by fans. Is it difficult to do your job when there is that much pressure from the audience?

SF: (pause) Sometimes it was. But you just cannot listen to every voice. And that’s the thing is that I was adapting other people’s work. That’s always a slick slope. But in the latter years, the haters just got nuts. I saw something just a year ago where people would comment on my work and then when other fans would push them turns out they’d never even seen my work. They just “heard something.” Well listen to this, dude: Shut the fuck up. Your inactivity, your lack of knowledge means you don’t get the talking stick. You wanna play, fine, put some skin in the game. If not, you’re just some shitty parent yelling at the kids or the umpire at their soccer game who is pissed off over their unfulfilled dreams. But more often than not, an unnerving amount of them are “critics” who seem to have some undisclosed artistic background that gives them a wealth of experience to pronounce credible judgment on casting, directing, or script adaptation. I’m not saying you have to know everything about film theory or the Stanislavki method to have an opinion. But is what I’ve done really what makes them so enraged? My work is that provoking? Hard to believe but great. Thank you. At least I wasn’t boring. And sometimes things need to be shaken up. But is that really what they’re angry about? that’s not what they’re angry about. Or are they just seething because they’re not in my chair? I think it just galls some of them because I’m where they want to be, or where they feel they should be. Well you know what? The chair is vacant. You can have it. And you can stop trying to live your failed fantasy through my skin.

And what’s sad to me is those people always seem to have the loudest voice. And that drowns out all the other music. Because the fan world is rich and diverse and fun and accepting and gloriously nuts. I’ve always respected them but mostly for one reason. The one reason I could really relate to: They are passionate. Deeply, madly passionate about this art form. Do you know how many people go through this life and don’t find a passion? Or worse, don’t live their passion? That’s no way to live your life.

OR: You’ve worked on some very big name titles including Clannad and Kids on the Slope, is there a title that was particularly difficult to work on either as a writer or as a director?

SF: Yeesh. I was afraid you’d bring up those two. But they’re not a big deal to me. If you get the book when it comes out or read the blog you’ll see. Neither of those are the show that haunt me. And there is one that does. I don’t know if they’ll have me at the cons now, I’m old news, but if they ever do, that’s item #1 is to talk about. The show I feel really bad about. But that’s a discussion that happens directly to the family in person. Seriously, dude. To me, it’s that bad.

But I just did not get Clannad. That’s why I cast it with ADV all stars. I knew they could perform those parts that, frankly, I just didn’t understand. Clannad. Who are these people? I could relate more to an Osmond Family tele novella or a gang of serial killers more than the Clannad clan. But it was so beloved I could have cast Shailene Woodley and Michael Cera and they’d still say “Foster ruined Clannad.”

OR: You’ve been fortunate enough to work on dozens of titles throughout your career, are there any titles out there that you wish you could’ve worked on but didn’t get the chance?

SF: That’s a great question. I would have killed to do Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040. But I really can’t grieve too much because I think it’s some of Matt’s best work. And certainly the girls’. But Jason Douglas and Chris Patton really shine as well. I just loved the whole of that show. All of it. Done.

OR: Is there anything you’re working on right now, anime related or not, that you can talk about and are particularly excited about?

SF: Let’s see… I’ve been doing a lot of painting, mixed media, combines, installations. So much that my house is turning into a kind of evolving gallery. Kitchen, for instance, has — swear to God — a river of fruit moving along the ceiling toward a duet of triptychs of New York City. It’s a metaphor on the low hanging fruit. Don’t just reach out and pick the easy stuff. Jump, stretch, go for the high branches. It’s sweeter there. Sounds bizarre but it’s totally badass.

Oh shit! I never told you the name of the blog. Did I? I can pimp anything by anybody else but I’m the lousiest self promoter. Which is why know I’m totally whoring myself on Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Pinterest, etc. And until you called me I wasn’t going to tell anyone anyone about the blog. I was just gonna let it just appear and see what fireflies came round.

It’s going live four minutes and fourteen seconds after ten in the morning on October 4, 2014. I wanted it to be more seven-centric because of this long-term thing I’m working on but I was never gonna be ready On July 7. But this worked out so cool. See? Charmed life.

Here we go: 10 + 4 = 14 14/2 = 7 So that gives you seven. Add a T to seven, get steven. Coincidence that the month and the day combine and you get the year? Yeah. But what are the odds that’s also my birthday. Right?

Web address is Kawaii Me dot net.

The site is

Kawaii Me
How the most hated man in anime became the happiest guy in the world.

Cuz I am, LB. I really am.

I’d like to thank Steven for taking the time to talk to me about his career and future. If you’d like to keep up to date on his future projects be sure to check out KawaiiMe.net when it launches at 10:04 a.m. Central/Standard time on October 4, 2014.

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