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.
Very cool. One of my last questions, at least for Shelf Life…I did like the episode where you had the knock-off character of Hero Lass come in. Can we expect any more of the imitation characters to appear in the future?
Platt: It’s very possible that there will be more Knock-Off Hero Lass. Part of the arc of season four is going to include, perhaps some of the characters you’ve seen before. [Laughs]
Lowenthal: Yeah, we liked a lot of the characters who’ve come in as guests so far and we’d love to bring them back. We’d love to just have more and more guest characters in there anyway, because the world is opening up.
Platt: Yeah, we’re trying to explore and expand the world.
Gotcha, sounds great. I wanted to switch gears a little bit. I’m here in San Diego preparing for Comic-Con, I know you guys are probably going to head down here soon. I think you have a panel this Friday, is that correct?
Platt: We have a panel on Friday night, 7:30 in room 26AB. But we’ll be there Thursday and Saturday signing autographs and doing interviews and various other things and Yuri’s got another panel on Sunday for Ben 10.
Could you guys talk a little bit about your past Comic-Con experiences? I don’t know how many times you’ve been here before.
Platt: My goodness, I think this might be number eight.
Lowenthal: It might be…seven.
Platt: It’s either number seven or number eight in a row.
Lowenthal: They all blur together.
Platt: I know, they do start to blur together. We’ve been coming for a number of years both to enjoy the panels, although, in more recent years, we’ve gotten to see fewer and more far between panels than we used to. We used to get to see a lot more. But we love going to Comic-Con and I know Yuri tells people that growing up, he was a convention nerd. He would go to convention and he would get his signatures of people he admired or liked. All the Doctor Who or stuff like that. But I was very new to the convention scene until I started going to the convention to sign autographs and do panels. So, it’s just been a really wonderful experience and I think that Comic-Con is a great, great time for everybody.
Lowenthal: Yeah. It’s the one long weekend out of the year that all my favorite things and all my favorite people are in the same place at the same time.
Platt: It’s like sleepaway camp.
Lowenthal: It totally is, it totally is. Like Tara said, I grew up going to convention. I was on the East Coast so they were smaller; Star Trek convention this, Doctor Who convention that, comic books and this is sort of the mother of all of those conventions and for us to be able to go in a professional capacity…it really is a dream come true for me.
So since it seems like you guys started as fans before appearing professionally, what are you looking forward to at Comic-Con this year as fans?
Lowenthal: It’s like Tara said, we don’t really have the time to wait three hours in line or 20 hours in line to get into Hall H.
Platt: We’re really excited to see what Geek & Sundry announcements are going to be. We’ve been very excitedly following the channel that Felicia (Day) and Will (Wheaton) have been working on and…Felicia Day, Kim Evey and Will Wheaton have been working on, Geek & Sundry, and we’re very excited about their announcements.
Lowenthal: My favorite…I always like to go to the Weta booth, to see all the crazy models that Weta’s come up with. But for me, Comic-Con is about surprises. Whenever I try to plan Comic-Con, “Oh, I’m going to go to this panel or I’m going to make sure to see this person,” or whatever, it never works out. So I’ve become very Zen about Comic-Con and I just let it take me on that wave. Then, afterwards, I like to look back and go, “I didn’t think that I was going to be at that party with Nathan Fillion and then there was Nathan Fillion and I shook his hand,” or whatever thing it was. So yeah, I don’t really have any plans, I don’t have anything specific.
Platt: We do have plans: we’ve got panels, we’ve got autograph signings, we’ve got interviews, we’ve got things we’re going to, but as far as like…we’re looking forward to being surprised.
Sounds great. Hopefully you guys get to hang out with Nathan Fillion, because who doesn’t want to do that? So the next thing I wanted to talk about, if we can switch gears again, is your voice acting. Obviously you’re both well known for that, a number of different projects from TV shows to games to all kinds of different things. If you could just maybe run down your favorite character to play, I’m sure you get that question a lot, and some voice actors of yesteryear that inspired you.
Lowenthal: Yeah, I’m clearly a nerd from way back and I have been watching cartoons and playing video games since I can remember, since I had to put quarters into video games. Some of my favorites that I’ve done, I keep going back for this dream come true thing, but it really is. The Prince of Persia from The Prince of Persia video games is still one of my favorites, I love playing Ben 10 on Ben 10. Getting to play Superman for Legion of Superheroes? I mean I got to play Superman for God’s sake. I just assumed that that would be the pinnacle of my career and I’d just have to retire after that. Getting to work on Afro Samurai was a great experience. Just one thing after another, it’s so exciting. Getting to work on, this isn’t a voice acting credit, but getting to work on the Terminator show, Sarah Connor Chronicles, I mean that’s why I got into acting, so I could do stuff like that. It’s been terribly, terribly exciting, but as far as people that…the great thing about being in this voice acting community is people, if they’re good, have a long lifespan, so a lot of the people who I admired from yesteryear are still working in animation and videogames and I’ve gotten to work with them. That’s another nerd-out time for me when I show up to work on a show like Ben 10 and I see that Rob Paulsen has signed in in front of me, or Maurice LaMarche or Clancy Brown or Phil LaMarr, those people and I’m like, “Oh my God. Not only are they in the building but I’m going to go and work with those people.” That’s something that I still have to summon every little bit of will that I have to not freak out and get my nerd juice all over them. [laughs] I’m trying to act like a professional when I go in there, but it’s still a thrill to work with guys like that. The community, the voice acting community is super strong and really, really welcoming. It’s full of really good people.
Platt: Yeah, I would agree. Working in voice over is just a wonderful experience because it really boils down to your work. It has nothing to do with what you look like or your age or what your gender is, it really has to do with your skill set and if it fits into whatever the project at hand is. I feel like it sort of separates the boys from the men and the people who stay in the industry and are working all the time are the people who are really, really good at what they do. And so it’s a joy to be able to work with those people and to work alongside them.
Some of my credits that I’m particularly proud of or that I like, I mean I got to be Wonder Woman, in DC vs MK, and just like Yuri said with Superman, it’s Wonder Woman, right? That’s awesome! And I’ve loved playing Tamari on Naruto and all the iterations of the various video games. Recently I got to do motion capture as well as performance capture, doing the voice work, for Ellie Martinez in Resistance: Burning Skies as well as videogames like Saints Row, it’s just fun to be doing what we’re doing.
Absolutely. And before we had started this conversation, I had mentioned that you guys put out a book, “Voice Over, Voice Actor,” which was an informative guide about getting into voice acting and the behind-the-scenes things that go along with that. Do you have any advice for people who want to get into voice acting or are considering it or are at least interested in it? And do you have any new projects that are coming out that are related to the previous book?
Platt: Sure! Well, the advice that I always like to give people, it’s totally free, all you have to do is read out loud, like really start pulling words off of the page and getting used to the sound of your own voice and getting used to reading for comprehension. I think that’s a huge thing and that’s a skill that will help you in many, many ways, whether or not you end up doing voice over, it’s a wonderful skill, that kind of communication and getting comfortable with your voice and being able to read very quickly for comprehension.
Lowenthal: I think people, because it sounds so simple, would say, “Oh, I know how to do that,” but so much of our job is getting scripts, we don’t get a lot of time to work with the script, we don’t necessarily get to read the full script or get it in advance. Sometimes we’ll show up for a job with a videogame or a cartoon and they’ll hand us a script and they’ll say, “Okay, let’s go! Do you have any questions?” I don’t even know what the questions would be! I haven’t even finished the script! So the more you practice reading out loud, the better you get at making decisions really quickly and pulling comprehension out of whatever you’re reading. You can pick up anything: a newspaper article, magazine, comic book, whatever it is and just practice reading out loud.
Platt: And then I guess the other two things I would recommend to people are, if you really are enjoying the idea and the work of reading and knowing you can format it and perform with what you’re doing, consider getting involved in some sort of theatre group or some sort of play. Just start honing your skills as an actor, because acting is just using your imagination and your creativity to bring a character to life, and the more practice and experience you have doing that, the more comfortable you’ll be doing that behind the microphone. So get into your local theater group or take an acting class or make your own short film; somehow start yourself with the process of acting, make sure you enjoy it and you like it, because it’s really easy to look at a career from a distance and go, “Oh, I want to do that!” but are you actually sure you want to do the work that is involved in doing it? So, get into an acting class, get on the stage, start working, and then always remember that what acting at its core is is asking questions and using your creativity, so ask your who, what, why, when, where, how, you know your English class questions, ask those about the character, about the scenario, about the situation and use your imagination to answer it. Then, work from there because that’s really what acting is.
Lowenthal: Yeah, we found that the people who really have longevity, who we really noticed have succeeded and kept succeeding in this field are not only just good voice actors but good actors. I know a lot of people say, “Hey, people always tell me I should be a voice actor because I do all these crazy voices or because I have this really cool voice,” and that’s a great place to start, but the fact of the matter is it’s the acting that will win out. A lot of the jobs that we do don’t involve lots of different crazy voices, it’s just us in our natural range, but then you add the acting in and, on top of that, to make it a good round three things as far as advice is concerned, just be professional. Be a good person to work with, a nice person. Often times we’ve found that you don’t have to be the best actor, the best performer to get the job if people like working with you. Show up on time, make sure you’ve done your work, make sure when you leave the booth you don’t leave half-empty bottles of water and gum stuck to the bottom of something or other, learn how to take direction. Just be a pleasant, polite, professional person to work with and that also seems like something really simple, “Oh yeah, I know how to do that,” but it’s so important, so important.
Platt: Yeah, professionalism is key. Then, to answer your last question, not about the advice we could give, but as far as what’s coming up, in terms of our publishing company, that is how we published our book, we actually have a novella that Yuri co-wrote that’s going to be coming out later this year, a film noir novella that’s going to be coming out and we’re really excited about. It’s called Tough City, so that’s exciting. And then we’re working on a movie.
Lowenthal: Yeah, we’re working on a movie called Con Artists that is all shot and done and edited and now we’re working on some of the other post things, color and sound and music. It’s about us as voice actors, or at least slightly…it would fall into the mockumentary domain. It’s about voice actors doing the convention circuit and it’s called Con Artists. It’s actually about half documentary, because we shot at about 10 or 11 cons over the course of a year. So a lot of it is real interviews and real people talking about the convention scene and then the rest of it is us…
Platt: Being silly.
Lowenthal: Yeah, being silly. So we’re looking forward to that. That should be coming out soon. It’ll probably be available for some sort of viewing in the fall. We’re excited about that.
Platt: Busy, busy.
Anything else you’d like to add before I have to let you go? We’re about at the end of our time.
Lowenthal: I guess I would just say, we’re having a really fun, live interactive webcast party for Shelf Life on Wednesday the 18th, so next Wednesday at 8PM Pacific time. All you have to do to take part is go to your friendly internets and go to thestream.tv/live and we’re going to be answering questions; the whole cast will be there.
Lowenthal: Yeah, give-aways, question and answer. We’ll be doing a little bit of a performance and some other fun stuff.
Platt: And a special announcement.
Lowenthal: Yeah, a special announcement and talking about the launch of our IndieGoGo campaign to help fund season four.
Platt: And you can always go to shelflifeseries.com and it has all the information there as well and that’s always a good place to start with getting more information about the show. And we’re very easy to stalk online: I’m @taraplatt and he’s @yurilowenthal on Twitter and on Facebook and whatnot.
Be sure to check out the Shelf Life fourth season launch party. You can find the details here.