I recently had the absolute pleasure to interview voice actors Tara Platt (Naruto) and Yuri Lowenthal (Ben 10) for their ongoing web series, Shelf Life. The hilarious series features Platt and Lowenthal, along with Travis Willingham and Bryan Enk/ Dee Bradley Baker, as four action figures confined to a little boy’s shelf. When the kid isn’t around, Hero Lass, Hero Man, Bug Boy and Samurai Snake get up to all sorts of hijinks that are definitely not intended to entertain children. Hero Lass develops a drug addiction, Hero Man and Bug Boy deal with varying masculinity complexes and the mysterious Samurai Snake may or may not be planning global domination. The series, currently in its third season, is kicking off a fundraising campaign to allow the characters to go “off the shelf” in their ambitious fourth season. Hit the jump for my extended interview with Platt and Lowenthal, where they talk Shelf Life, Comic-Con, tips on getting into voice acting and much, much more!
Tara Platt: Well, actually, season four doesn’t start next Wednesday. We’re still in the middle of season three. What we’re actually starting next week is we’re going to be launching our fundraising for season four. That’s what we’re excited about as far as season four. We haven’t shot it yet.
And for people who aren’t familiar with the series, do you guys want to give a little bit of background on the series itself, how it started and each of your characters?
Yuri Lowenthal: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a more adult version of Toy Story…not that the issues that they deal with in Toy Story aren’t adult, I guess more adult like they curse a lot more and we goof off a lot more than they might on Toy Story. And it’s live-action. It’s four characters: Hero Man (Travis Willingham), who’s a lunk-headed Superman-type character; Hero Lass (Platt), who’s his half-sister.
Platt: She’s the token chick on the shelf.
Lowenthal: She’s right. She’s the token chick. And then Bug Boy (Lowenthal), who is the snarky one and Samurai Snake (Bryan Enk and Dee Bradley Baker), who is our token lizard. [Laughs] He’s like our Chewbacca because he speaks a language that the audience doesn’t understand. So, they’re stuck on a kid’s shelf, a kid who will occasionally talk to them, as you do to your action figures…having owned many of them.
Platt: And still owning them.
Lowenthal: Okay, you’re going to call me like that. [Laughs] So it’s watching the antics of the characters on the shelf and we deal with all sorts of different things. It goes from fart jokes to religious commentary and political commentary and it’s sometimes the same joke. So it’s a great platform for us to tell fun stories.
How did this idea come about? What was the genesis of this idea and how did you get started with the series?
Platt: Sure. Well, Yuri always likes to joke about this because he says he’s the resident geek in the household.
Platt: I’m a geek by nature of being married to him. But we were actually in pre-production on a totally different web series and we were down at our studios and we were working and I glanced over and we had a green screen set up that we weren’t using and I said, “I wish we could just do a web series where we could stand in front of the green screen and we could be action figures and we could have fun and talk,” and Yuri stopped me and he was like, “We have to do this.” So I technically came up with the idea and then…
Lowenthal: I’m still kind of jealous that she came up with it. That should have been mine by all rights.
Platt: [Laughs] But we don’t do it in front of a green screen; it’s all practical, we shoot with sets and props. That’s sort of how the idea came about and then, once we had that idea, it was off like a shot. We realized that it was a really fun idea. We very quickly mobilized and started getting people involved and were shooting within just a couple of months.
Lowenthal: Yeah, it moved really quickly. When you have a good idea like that, you’ve gotta act fast.
Yeah and you guys definitely have some gems. I think I’ve watched the season two episode, “Nightbear,” I don’t know how many times; that one cracks me up. It’s gotta be my favorite.
Platt: I’m so glad you liked that. We actually just recently re-watched that because it was screening at a film festival this week and it was one of the episodes that they were screening. I so love the idea of them in the dark. We were talking about, like, in season four they have to be in the dark again at least once, because I love them in the dark. There’s just such a fun quality that comes out. I’m really glad you liked that episode.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s always fun to watch Hero Man get broken down a little bit, too. That’s always a good time.
Lowenthal: It’s what he’s there for.
Platt: We love Hero Man.
Lowenthal: And Travis is such a sport. I mean, don’t get me wrong…I’m jealous because I don’t think people should be allowed to be handsome and funny, both at the same time, but he’s got both in spades. And he’s so great to work with.
The previous seasons of Shelf Life have featured the four of you, the four regulars, but you’ve had a couple of different guest stars come in here and there. I know you have some guest stars coming up in the next season. Would you guys like to talk about them and what we can expect from them?
Platt: Sure, we’re really excited. This season, we actually have Phil Morris, who many people from his work on Smallville as Martian Manhunter and Seinfeld as Jackie Chiles, as well as his work in Black Dynamite and a number of other movies. He’s coming on and he’s sort of the big bad guy this season. He’s in a two-episode arc at the end of the season which we’re really, really excited about. He’s just such a joy and a delight to work with. He’s a consummate professional and amazing. We really all had a great time working with him.
Lowenthal: Yeah and the other one we’re excited about is Aaron Douglas, who played Chief Tyrol in Battlestar Galactica. Who, also, we’re huge fans of and it was such a joy to work with him. It’s a wonder we got anything done.
Platt: We were laughing so hard.
Lowenthal: Yeah, we spent most of the time laughing. But we’re excited to bring in more guests as we go, because I think that the way the show is going, we keep opening up the world bigger and bigger, it’s inevitable that other people will creep in.
That brings up an interesting point. I did have a question about how the writing process goes, because you guys have a really, really short time to get your sketch across. Episodes are only about two-and-a-half minutes long usually?
Lowenthal: Yeah, in general. Yeah.
So can you walk us through the creative process of writing that? Is there a lot of ad-libbing? Do you have a general structure to begin with or do you have the whole thing plotted out?
Lowenthal: We have scripts for every episode. I’m not saying that a certain amount of ad-libbing doesn’t happen on set; some of it actually gets kept. But we do have typed scripts going in. Just from a production standpoint, to keep costs down and make it possible for us to shoot everything that we need to shoot, we try to keep the scripts down to that time. Scripts are generally about three pages. It’s important for us to do that. So, it’s all scripted out in advance, but on the day, as is inevitable, things happen, especially when you’ve got really good actors.
Platt: We always try to make sure to get several takes just as scripted and knowing that we have it in the can before we start to goof off and go off script. But I would say 95% of what you see on screen is totally scripted.
Lowenthal: Yeah. The nice thing is that the characters have become, as we’ve all learned who the characters are and they’re played out and became more developed, it becomes…the scripts change because we know the characters better and the improve gets better because people have been playing these characters for so long and our director, Steven Calcote, who has directed the second and third season, has gotten really good at leaving the…at the very end of the episode when normally you would have the last words on the script, he just lets it go and doesn’t yell cut.
Platt: Like, in the episode “Pushing Buttons,” I don’t know if you have seen that particular one, but it’s where we’re all tapping the back of Hero Man to hear what he will say, based on his voice activation button thing. The whole end of that with Yuri as Bug Boy is just laughing hysterically, that technically wasn’t really part of the episode, but it was too funny not to keep in there, so we just left it.
That was a hilarious episode when you forced him to loop and make him go back to the beginning of his sayings. That was pretty good.
Platt: Yeah, but then the whole end of it where he’s just laying on the floor laughing, that was technically not in the script anymore. It was like the end of the line would have been the end of the script.
Lowenthal: Travis is an improv machine. Generally, the stuff he comes up with is really funny, so it’s hard to let any of that stuff go.
It’s definitely nice when you catch those moments like that on camera and it definitely comes across as natural and organic, too.
Lowenthal: Another reason that we like to keep the stuff short, too, is that we don’t want to fall prey to beating a joke to death and for things to get boring. So we really wanted to make sure we did the Robot Chicken rule for comedy, which is, if a joke’s only funny for four seconds, cut after four seconds. We didn’t want to let it go on and on and on and then get boring, so that’s also something that goes into consideration when we’re writing.
First of all, I think you guys have done a really good job with that so far, because I always look forward to the next episode and they’re very interesting and pretty hilarious. You had talked about your characters’ progression, so I wanted to talk to each of you individually and get an idea of where your characters are going to go in the next season. I know that Hero Lass has had some addiction problems in the past, so I’m wondering if we’re going to see a little bit more of that.
Platt: Yeah, definitely. Well, actually, one of our goals for season four is we have scripted it out in A storyline and B storyline format, much like regular television shows where it’s got a thruline for the entire season, whereas previously all the first three seasons, even though there’s been recurring themes, it’s all just been a standalone episode. So, for season four, it’s going to be like, “Tune in every week and you’ll get more story than if you just tune in from time to time,” but we’re very focused on the four characters and what their stories are going to be.
For Hero Lass, like you said, you brought up this whole idea of addiction, we got to the crux of that and what that is, that she’s searching for something and she’s trying to figure out who she really is and finding love and figuring that out. There are some really fun things in store for her and the whole gang, but that’s her particular direction.
Platt: But still stay funny!
Lowenthal: Yeah, and I think that’s the thing, when you look at good comedy, there’s a lot of stuff going on. I know we have our fair share of fart jokes and getting hit in the nuts, which I’ll always find funny. There’s going to be a lot of heart and a lot of story coming into this next season. Everybody gets a journey. Hero Man will have his hero’s journey, which is kinda perfect. Snake is not immune to that either, and Bug Boy as well. We’re looking forward to exploring a lot of that stuff.
That sounds great. So you mentioned Bug Boy, your character, so I’m wondering if you can give us some teasers about where he’s going. One of my favorite episodes was where he gets made fun of for his lack of powers because his transformation powers were essentially other figures. Is there any extension or expansion on that?
Lowenthal: That’s exactly where we’re going with that.
Platt: I love that you picked that out because that’s the crux of his thing, too.
Lowenthal: Yeah, it’s his lack of self-confidence. It’s one of the reasons why he’s always making jokes and being as snarky as he is, because he has very little confidence. He doesn’t feel like he has any powers or any worth, per se. It’s going to be about him finding what strength he does have and the things that he can do and what his gifts really are. I’m glad that that stuck out because as we were going over what the story was that we wanted to tell in season four, we went back over seasons one through three and said, “Now what were the interesting things in each of these characters? Where do we really, not only laugh, but go, ‘Oh, that’s kinda sad.’”
Lowenthal: Yeah and so we’re taking those and building, so I’m glad you saw that.
Platt: Yeah you’re picking out all the good stuff, which is great! [Laughs]
Well, let’s see if I can go three for three. You mentioned the humanity of the characters…I’m interested to see how you’re going to explore that with Snake. I’m wondering if he’s going to go back to his despotic ways or where he’s going to go in the next season.
Lowenthal: The beauty of Snake is that he’s at once this wise character with all the answers and also this huge, huge mystery. So we had a lot of different ways we could go with him. We’ve got plans for him, too, and for Hero Man.
Platt: Yeah he definitely has a story, but now that…
Lowenthal: I don’t want to ruin it.
Platt: Maybe we should keep it a secret, because he’s a mystery character.
Lowenthal: Yeah, it’s kind of exciting.
Platt: So we definitely have plans for him. Each of the characters throughout season four will have their own individual arc and change over the season, which is wonderful.
Yeah, definitely looking forward to that, too. I know that your tagline, I don’t know if it’s the official tagline for the upcoming season, but in the teaser that you sent out, you did mention the phrase, “Off the Shelf.” So I’m wondering if you just want to leave that as a tantalizing bit or if you want to talk a little bit about that.
Platt: Well, our plan for season four is to physically get off the shelf, which of course is a big undertaking, because there have been a couple episodes where you’ve seen glimpses off the shelf, but as far as these characters really living and experiencing the world off the shelf, we haven’t been able to do that and so, because we’re trying to really get off the shelf, it’s actually one of the reasons that we’re launching an IndieGoGo campaign this next week to raise funds to do season four, because it’s going to be bigger, better and off the shelf! [Laughs]
Lowenthal: Yeah, for these three seasons, we’ve managed to do our best to keep costs down and to produce very frugally and finance ourselves, but with what we want to do with the next season, we wouldn’t be able to do that. So that’s why we’re going to start the fundraiser.
Platt: That’s partly because of the stories we want to tell and getting bigger and better and more humanity and all these themes. It’s just that the show is becoming more than it started as, which we think is really exciting because it means that people, fans of the show, are excited about it and excited by it and we’re excited about it and excited by it, as are all the people who are working on it. I hope that that’s evident when people watch the show, that they’re seeing that the quality is increasing and the excitement is increasing and there’s just more there.
Yeah, absolutely, it’s great that you’re getting more ambitious with the seasons as they go on. That’s something to look forward to.
Lowenthal: We’ve been blessed with the director that we’ve got right now. He’s really into it, as Tara mentioned. We’re just really excited that everyone who works on it is so excited about the show and they really all go above and beyond. Our director’s crazy about it and he really takes the time to make it as big as it can be.
Platt: To make the Barbie Corvette second unit shoot [laughs] of the action figure driving around.
Lowenthal: Yeah we didn’t even know that that was going to be in the episode. He went off and did a whole…got a remote control car and got a Barbie shell to put over it and then…one of these days we’ll have to do a behind-the-scenes of that…and then he surprised us with that in an edit session. That wasn’t even part of the original episode. And then, all of a sudden, Snake is in a dream sequence, driving Barbie’s pink Corvette and then crashing it and the dog’s running around…we were both floored. Had no idea what was happening because we never shot any of that. It’s really exciting to see how the show inspires people to make it bigger and better.
That was a great sequence. Can we look forward to seeing more things like that that are “off the shelf” and push the boundaries of what you’re able to do a little more next season?
Platt: That’s the plan, absolutely.