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Cartoon Connection, Japan's Dragon Ball series gets American touch from UNT alums

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Writer's note: Mother Frieza
Writer's note: Dragon Ball ballet

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Dragon Ball Z

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Kyle Hebert & Christopher Sabat
Kyle Hebert (l) & Christopher Sabat


“I can be really mean to kids and they love it,” he says with a fiendish grin. Sabat, who studied radio at UNT, is the voice director for the animated series Dragon Ball Z. But the best part of his job is voicing the character of the evil warrior prince, Vegeta.

“He’s this character that’s fueled by anger and revenge,” Sabat says. “But somehow he has this huge following of kid fans.”


Coming to America

Vegeta is one of dozens of animated characters in the series voiced by UNT alumni. FUNimation, the North Texas company bringing this Japanese hit to Cartoon Network in America, also consists mostly of former UNT students.

Based on a Japanese myth called “The Monkey King,” the original Dragon Ball follows the adventures of Goku, a little boy with super-human powers and a monkey tail. Dragon Ball Z and Dragon Ball GT focus on an adult Goku and his offspring.

The dragon balls are mystical orbs that, when brought together, summon a powerful dragon who grants the user any wish imaginable. The characters spend much of their time either protecting or finding the dragon balls.

The whole series spanned an unprecedented 11 years on Japanese television, from 1986 to 1997. Internationally, it has a strong following akin to Star Wars, with translations in German, Italian, Chinese and Spanish.

“It’s almost like there’s some kind of magic attached to the series,” Sabat says. “Wherever it goes, it’s incredibly popular.”

The United States was one of the last and largest countries for Dragon Ball to conquer. And the UNT alumni at FUNimation have the task of making all three parts of the series succeed.


Byron Watson
Byron Watson

Friends helping friends

Byron Watson (’97), the animation editor, can’t say why Dragon Ball took so long to reach the United States (the first saga began showing here in 1993). But he can say it’s a huge effort preparing it for American consumption.

He spends as many as 80 hours a week editing animation cels — during Goku’s epic battles, more than a few characters get bloody noses or cuts, something Americans aren’t receptive to in cartoons, he says.

Watson, one of FUNimation’s first employees, started the job working through the night, sleeping on the office couch and attending UNT art classes during the day. The workload was so heavy that he soon asked fellow classmate Carly Hunter (’97) to help out.

Carly Hunter
Carly Hunter

“And that’s how we got employees — friends asking friends for help,” Hunter says. “We were a much smaller company then — that’s what makes this place so laid back.”

The current success of the series has FUNimation expanding into DVDs and action figures, but the casual atmosphere remains. Employees show up in T-shirts and jeans — and, on special occasions, in shirts plastered with Dragon Ball Z images. Dragon Ball toys, videos and posters litter the place.


Getting animated

The number of UNT alumni working at FUNimation has also grown.

Monika Antonelli
Monika Antonelli

Monika Antonelli (’88 M.S., ’92 M.S.), a UNT librarian, voices two of the most lovable Dragon Ball Z characters — Chiaotzu, a doll-faced hero, and Puar, a blue shape-shifting cat.

The hardest part of Antonelli’s job is matching her voice and intonation to the animation. Normally, animators draw characters to match the voice actors, but Dragon Ball Z is done in reverse.

“Sometimes they’ll ask me to do things like sound scared and kind of excited, but kind of happy and sad all at once,” Antonelli says. “At the same time you’re watching the animation on a TV screen trying to talk in sync with the character’s mouth.”

Each week she warms up her voice — singing and talking to herself during the commute to North Richland Hills — before performing the high-pitched tones of Puar and Chiaotzu.

“Usually after recording three hours it feels like I’ve been lifting weights,” she says. “These characters take a lot of energy, really pushing out the sound.”

But she’s a bit of an expert at wacky voices, after stints as a puppeteer and as Whiffles the Bunny, the Denton Public Library mascot. It’s not the kind of career or fame she envisioned, but you take what you get, she says.


Adoring fans

Antonelli can’t help but be impressed by her semi-stardom.

“I occasionally check out some of the web sites for the show to see what fans are saying,” she says. “And I can always find a fan who asks, ‘Are you the real Monika?’ I don’t know why anyone would want to impersonate me.”

Sabat, who compares Dragon Ball Z fans to Trekkies, enjoys the love-hate relationship most fans have with his characters. Along with Vegeta, Sabat voices Piccolo, an evil alien who becomes a good guy.

“I remember at one of the conventions, I was signing autographs and the kids kind of knew who I was,” he says. “When the next kid came up and asked for an autograph, I said, ‘No! Leave me alone!’ in my Vegeta voice. The kids crowded the table screaming and cheering.”

Another fan came to visit Sabat at his new home, getting far too excited about accompanying “Vegeta” to buy a new washer and dryer. It’s kind of weird and fun, Sabat says.

The line between fan and star blurs for Kyle Hebert (’93). He is one of the newest actors on the series, but he’s been a fan since his UNT college days.

“I’ve always idolized people like Mel Blanc (who voiced Bugs Bunny),” Hebert says. “And now I feel like I’m getting to do that with all of the characters I play.”

Hebert voices the teen-age Gohan, Goku’s son in the latest installment of the American version of the series.

“I like to see what the fans think of my performance,” he says. “So far I’ve gotten mixed reviews, and everyone tells me not to take it personally. I just think it’s neat to wake up each morning to do this.

“I’m a cartoon character, and you just don’t know how great that feels.”

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