Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for
January 18, 2022

Artificial intelligence evolves to bring positivity to a young girl in the anime film Sing a Bit of Harmony, an upbeat and touching tale that seamlessly blends slice-of-life comedy/drama with science fiction, then sprinkles in a dash of music for good measure.

When an android named Shion (voice of Megan Shipman) is placed in a high school to test her ability to blend in with humans, she is immediately drawn to the reclusive and ostracized Satomi (voice of Risa Mei). Through sheer determination, Shion does everything in her power to bring happiness to Satomi, even though she doesn't fully understand the emotion herself. As the earnest AI's actions begin to yield results, Satomi and her childhood friend Toma (voice of Jordan Dash Cruz) make the heartwarming discovery that their connection to Shion goes deeper than a random science experiment.

In this exclusive interview, Megan Shipman, Risa Mei, and ADR song director Brina Palencia talk about their experience of working on the English dub of Sing a Bit of Harmony, from the technical and aesthetic details of translating the movie from its native Japanese, to the story's sunny outlook on the potential of technology. The three talents also take a moment to express their unanimous love for Trashcan-kun, the film's adorable robot sidekick.

Sing a Bit of Harmony will have a limited theatrical run in the US/Canada January 23, 25, and 26, followed by an international rollout in Australia/New Zealand January 27 and the UK/Ireland January 28. Brina, how did you feel about having your worlds of voice acting and music intersect in your role as ADR song director? Music is such an important part of anime, but it's not often that we get the songs get dubbed into English along with the dialogue...

BRINA: I felt really honored that they even asked me to do it, because I've been a little out of the game since I had my son a couple years ago--almost three years ago now. So I never would have expected that they would come to me for this. But I was really honored. And it's such a unique use of music--you know, it's not a musical, it's only Shion that kind of lives in this musical realm, just seeing the way that other people react to her, because they're very grounded and very much in the real world. It was definitely a really unique experience. Even with how much music directing I have done over the years, it still will definitely forever be on my special list of "I don't know that I'll ever get to do anything like that again." And I hadn't done it before, so it was really unique and really special to me.

What were some of the biggest challenges involved in the process, beyond translating the words and "matching the flaps"?

BRINA: Well actually, the matching the flaps is the hardest part for me, especially in this particular movie. There's the main theme that happens throughout the film, and I would adapt one version of it, and that version wouldn't have [Shion's] mouth on camera. And then I'd go to the next version, and then there'd be a verse that was suddenly on camera and none of the vowel shapes would match, and I'd have to go back and redo everything. And it was really important to me that everything still flowed and was really natural, and still had that same depth of emotion that the original had. Because when I would listen to the Japanese and see the translation, it really made me feel very seen. It just had this level of earnestness to it that I really wanted to make sure was still there. So to have that type of pressure on top of still having to constantly re-write it...Right when I thought I had the perfect lyric, I'd be like, "But it doesn't work in this part!" Then I'd have to go back to the drawing board. So that was actually really hard. [laughs]

It obviously takes talent to carry a tune, but doing so in character seems like next-level vocal acrobatics. Megan and Risa, how were your experiences of singing as Shion and Satomi? And Risa, in your case, you even have a flashback moment in which you're performing as Satomi as a child...

RISA: Oh, yes! Actually, that was a test run, because initially, they were going to use actual children to play the roles, and then my voice was just going to be there as a guideline. So it was honestly just me messing around as her child voice, and it happened to work. But it is kind of a whole different thing, because I'm a singer also, outside of doing voice acting, and the things that I sing sound like me, as opposed to me having to go into a character voice. Because you're right, it is a little bit like vocal acrobatics--you're doing different things to your voice, and you have to do it in a way that's safe for you and safe for your voice, because you can really damage your vocals if you're doing character voice while singing. So yeah, definitely something to be mindful about!

MEGAN: For me, luckily, Shion is kind of in my wheelhouse...I'm so used to being that girl in an anime--you know, the spunky or the happy one, the really cutesy kind of like, "Oh yay, I'm here! I love to be alive!"...I mean, if you look at my resume of characters, that's the blueprint, that's the girl I am, and that's my bread and butter. And if I don't audition for those girls, I'm crazy. [laughs] So that wasn't too difficult to bring into singing, because it is so close to me. It's like I was just constantly singing with a smile. Brina [and I] would listen to a line back of a song and we'd go, "No, it needs more smile."

BRINA: [laughs] Never. Stop. Smiling.

MEGAN: And Brina couldn't see me while we were doing it, but I'd be like [smiles widely]--so big it was like a psycho smile sometimes. [laughs] But it worked! It was so great. And it's important to do that so you can convey that through just audio. That's why I'm always like, "Voice acting is acting, and some people forget that." Because we still have to do the things even though you can't see them, so that it sounds like we're actually doing it. Because we are! [laughs] It was so fun, just getting to do that. And I also think that our song recording process has become a lot more streamlined thanks to, like, Brina, and just over the years making it better and better and better, and constantly working to improve it. And I think this is one of the most perfect examples I've seen of how good we can make something. It's really awesome, so I was really glad I got to work with her.

Megan, as a pop culture fan, you're no stranger to science fiction with robots and androids and aliens who are "trying to understand these things you humans call emotion." Did you have any classic characters in mind while approaching Shion and her interpretation of happiness?

MEGAN: It's so interesting, because usually you have robots that maybe will sound confused, but never quite so constantly happy. I feel like you get very robotic characters, or AI characters that might be like, "I don't understand this thing"--almost kind of Spock-ish, but maybe with like a waifu skin on it or something. I don't know, but you know what I mean. [laughs] But you don't really get an AI character [like Shion] that's just honed in on exactly what she wants to do, and is [so enthusiastic]. It's just so endearing, yet so unlike any other kind of AI character...Brina said it great earlier in another interview, that Shion is kind of like a child's mind, where if you're happy crying, a kid might not understand and go, "Well, you're still sad." So Shion just has this mind of a child that wants to learn, and wants to just be a part of something and make people know "I love you!" Like a golden retriever or something. [laughs]

The scene in which a group of AIs team up to support Shion may very well be the cutest robot uprising we've seen put to film...

MEGAN: Uh, yeah. Yeah.

BRINA: I think it's very definitively the cutest. [laughs]

RISA: Oh, yeah!

MEGAN: I want Trashcan-kun on a t-shirt. I can't stop talking [about him]. Like, I'm pretty sure Brina and [ADR director Caitlin Glass] got tired of me. Every time I saw Trashcan-kun, I was like, [squeals] "There he is! I love him!" [laughs] "We get it, you love him."

BRINA: No, man, I felt it! He's so cute! So cute! [sobs]

RISA: I'll take a Trashcan-kun shirt! [laughs]

...In that spirit of adorable robot uprising, what do you think about Sing a Bit of Harmony's portrayal of technology? Any thoughts on the inevitable robopocalypse that will play out one day?

RISA: Oh my God...Especially during the pandemic, we've become just so much more reliant on technology. I don't think it's too far off! But then again, we thought hoverboards weren't too far off when Back to the Future released, and see how long that took! [laughs] And it's still not something that everybody can buy right off the shelves. But yeah, I think it's so cool to be a part of a world where it's very, very closely related to our current world, but also vastly different, if that makes any sense. We're definitely like right there in that day and age. It's coming up on us! [laughs]

MEGAN: I was saying earlier, too, whenever some kind of media comes out that talks about "the near but distant future," it's fun to see what people think that we as a human race are capable of technology-wise. And it's so fun to see people's different takes on that. I love a lot of the technology they show in this movie...This world is so believable...Basically, what I want now is a Trashcan-kun. I think I might have someone just make a little decal of his face and actually stick it on my trashcan. [laughs] I think that's what I really want now.

BRINA: [laughs] I think something that makes Sing a Bit of Harmony really unique, and something that I really like, is that typically whenever you see stuff that's "the distant future of technology," it's more Black Mirror-esque, where it's just like, "This is how we all get destroyed, and everything is ruined and awful!" Whereas this is kind of like, "No, this is just delightful! It's going to be really wonderful." I really appreciate that it didn't go the very predictable route, and was just like, "Actually, technology is pretty dope, guys." [laughs]

Like the best anime, Sing a Bit of Harmony lobs in a few unexpected bombshells to pull at the heartstrings. Do any of you get choked up in the recording booth while performing emotional scenes, or do you have to build up a certain immunity to do your job?

MEGAN: I feel like for me, it takes a really special kind of show or movie when I'm acting to really pull me in. This movie was one of them...And then the only other show that kind of really did that was the ending of season two of New Game! because [ADR director Clifford Chapin], the jerk, didn't tell me what was going to happen. [laughs] But yeah, it was kind of the same thing here. There's something special about this movie. And not just the vocal songs, but also the score that plays throughout is so, so powerful. Like, it was not an afterthought--it was very much just as important that the score be as impactful as, I think, the things with lyrics and vocals to them. So it was like, [gasps] "Oh, my heart! I can't..." And sometimes it's hard because you do it so much that it can kind of just be like, [nonchalantly] "Eh, cool...We're doing another? Someone's dying? Let's do that now. Great." And then I just fake cry. So it really takes a special project, I think, to really tap into those emotions like that.

BRINA: I'm the complete opposite!

MEGAN: Are you weepy...? [laughs]

BRINA: Literally any time that there's any emotion of any kind, I'm in tears. I'm a puddle. I just fall apart. [laughs]

RISA: Ooh, see, I'm the same!

MEGAN: Wow. I'm a robot, then. So they picked the right person. [laughs]

BRINA: It doesn't even have to be an amazing show. It can be very mediocre, and if my character is going through anything emotional, I'm like, [gasps] "Oh, my baby! Oh, God!"

MEGAN: Maybe because I always played the happy-go-lucky girls, there's not a lot that really happens to them. [laughs]

BRINA: That's fair.

MEGAN: I feel like I don't get the chance to be weepy all the time, because they're always like, [cheerfully and triumphantly] "It's fine!" [laughs]

BRINA: [melodramatically] "I've been many the tragic character!" [laughs] I've definitely been in the booth where my neck is wet from the amount of tears that have just been flowing. In this movie in particular, I would cry even while I was adapting the lyrics. [laughs] And that was kind of my barometer of, "Is that a good lyric?"--like if it makes me kind of [break down] when I'm singing. But it's difficult when you're voice acting and you do get swept up in the emotion, because you still have to match flaps, and you still have to get the same timing. That's why it's so important to hone your craft and hone your skill. Because if you can have that perfect marriage of being able to do the technical aspect while still accessing that vulnerable part of you, that's when a scene is magic. And that's when it's the most fun, when you can accomplish that.

RISA: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, I'm a crybaby, too. [laughs] But for the emotional parts especially, because they were so connected with the music itself, I would just get them to replay the Japanese audio with the music to kind of get me into the emotional pocket that we needed to be in. And that was what helped me get into those moments. And it's not something that you get very much with a lot of shows, I feel.

We learn that Satomi has watched a movie called Moon Princess 1,138 times. It's clearly left a mark on her. Do each of you have a particular film or TV show from your childhood that may have influenced the course of your career?

MEGAN: I don't know if it influenced my career, but the movie that it doesn't matter how many times I watch it...I mean, I feel like it's such a softball answer, but it's Spirited Away by Miyazaki. Like, it's my favorite thing of all time. They were showing it in theaters a few months ago, and I got to share it with my sister who's like ten years older than me. And she's not super into anime, but she genuinely wanted to watch it. And I was giving her a rundown like, "It's kind of melancholy, so don't expect a happy ending or anything." But she was dying laughing, because you could tell she was the only person in that theater that had not watched it before. Like, all of us had watched it a hundred times, and we were like, "Oh, that's so cute." But yeah, it left such a big impact on me that that's kind of the thing that I want to do any time I'm making something. Especially [with Sing a Bit of Harmony], because I can imagine another 12-year-old somewhere is watching this and going, "This is my favorite thing in the world, and I want to do something like that!" I also say Spirited Away because sometimes I say Fruits Basket, and then it makes people that I now work with feel old. [laughs] I'm like, "I watched it in middle school!" And they're like, [deadpans] "I was in that." And I'm like, "I'm sorry! But you did great, you made 13-year-old me cry! Thank you!"

RISA: Actually, I grew up on Spirited Away, too. So when you said Spirited Away, I was like, "Yes! My girl! You get it!" That was the one show that my sister and I would keep replaying over and over again in our household. We had the VHS for it, so it was one of the shows that we recycled. [laughs] And I don't know why my brain did this any time I watched Spirited Away, but I would always think [about how voices were dubbed]. Because from a young age, I was already exposed to both the Japanese versions of shows and then to the English versions of shows. So I--in my brain at the time and growing up--would always think, "How the heck did they do this?" And now that I'm here, it's funny because every once in a while, I'm recording anime, my brain goes back to thinking about my memory as a child and what I used to wonder. And then my adult brain [goes], "Well, child Risa, this is how it's done." [laughs]

BRINA: I want to give a quick shout-out to the woman who did the singing for Moon Princess, which is Bethany Lorentzen. I don't think she's been credited on any of the press releases. She's a local singer in Dallas. She's incredible. I've literally seen her belt high notes while upside-down doing the splits. I'm not kidding, I'm not exaggerating. [laughs] She's that type of performer. [sings] "She's increeeeedible!" So you get to hear her a little bit as Moon Princess. But I would say my biggest influence as a kid would probably be...I feel like Batman: The Animated Series changed the way that I viewed cartoons in general. But I think probably what affected my career the most was watching Dragon Ball Z, because I was a huge Dragon Ball Z fan. And it's because of being a Dragon Ball Z fan that I took a tour of Funimation when I was like 16, and I got to watch Chris Sabat recording Piccolo, who was my favorite character. And now Sabat is like one of my closest friends, our children have play dates all the time. [laughs] But I remember watching him record and just being like, [whispers] "I want to do that." I just had never even thought of it as a career before, until that happened. So yeah, Dragon Ball Z, forever and always. [laughs]

Thank you all for your time today, it's been a blast!

BRINA: Thank you!

MEGAN: Bye! Thank you.

RISA: Thank you!

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