Korean-born Niki Yang achieved her goal of studying animation, graduating from CalArts and becoming one of the most sought-after storyboard artists in Hollywood. Becoming a voice artist wasn't part of the plan. Yet now she’s playing three roles on two hit animated series: BMO and Lady Rainicorn on Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time and Candy Chiu on Disney Channel's Gravity Falls.
With the BMO-packaged Season 3 Blu-ray and DVD set arriving in stores this week, it just computes to get to know the voice behind both the multi-purpose electronic game console pal of Finn and soul mate of Jake. Is BMO male or female? How many uses does BMO have? Can BMO core a apple? Zip, zip!
We still don't know those things. But we got to know the genuinely nice Ms. Yang when she sat down to talk with us about her chosen careers—and her extra surprise one.
GREG EHRBAR: Did you every expect to become a voice actor?
NIKI YANG: Not really (laughing). It just happened to be that way. I’m originally a storyboard artist and most of us have some kind of acting skill in them, because we constantly pitch the ideas and the boards. We act them out in front of people, but I never really dreamed about being an actor or voice actor.
GREG: Do you feel you’ve become more comfortable doing it than when you first started?
NIKI: Oh yeah, definitely. I was totally insecure; especially because I was recording with those big names like Tom Kenny and John DiMaggio. They are amazing voice actors, so I was quiet and standing in the corner, listening to what they would do. I was super nervous all the time, but now I feel a lot more comfortable.
GREG: I have heard that there can be a lot of joking around at those sessions.
NIKI: Sometimes! We record as a group, there’s lots of energy going on. Kent Osborne does the voice directing and he kind of knows us, and we have been working together for six seasons so it is a really comfortable kind of environment and everybody knows each other. So there’s joking around with everybody laughing, especially with John and Tom saying goofy things here and there. Unexpected acting can come out of it, and the crew really likes those kind of things, so it’s really fun.
GREG: You’re a storyboard artist on other shows and you’ve done boards for shows like Family Guy, Gravity Falls and Fish Hooks. How do you feel about your work on Adventure Time?
NIKI: Since I worked on Season One, I feel, seeing the show now, it has evolved in its own way, so I might look at Season One differently than I did then. Right now, it has a kind of different "color." I think the people working on the show today are amazing artists and so talented.
GREG: For some of us who don’t do storyboards, I’d like to ask you a little about that, too. How do you decide how many frames to give an action?
NIKI: That depends. It just depends.
GREG: Is it instinct?
NIKI: Yeah... We are basically animators. I think many people came from comic books but I come from an animation background. We think in terms of how to animate so we tend to put a lot of poses, which is more panels. We write in the dialog and stuff, so if there is a "crunch time," we can’t put as many poses and then it gets more focused on story. If we have time, we like to put in a lot of poses. It is good for animation. In my opinion, the charm of Adventure Time is its funny poses and funny animation. So we have to spotlight the storyboard artists who put in a lot of time and effort to do the poses.
GREG: The nice thing about a program like Adventure Time is it is very charming, but it's edgy, it’s irreverent and it has levels for everyone. It’s a fantasy for children, it’s a satire for older kids and adults, but it also has a reality to it. We get to know the characters.
NIKI: Um-hmm. Yeah, I get asked a lot about the magic of Adventure Time - why it’s so popular from 8-year-old kids to college students and above. What is special, I think, is the characters. It has really strong characters. You can relate to the characters. They just happen to be in a magical world, but every single character went through a break up or they are falling in love. They have friendship problems, parenting problems, things that people can relate to. I think that is the key to why it is popular to a variety of audiences.
GREG: BMO has made TV and animation history as perhaps the first electronic device that doesn’t have a stilted, electric voice. But as Lady Rainicorn, you speak in Korean. And, as another part of history, Lady Rainicorn is TV’s very first pregnant unicorn.
NIKI: (Laughter) I know. And then I had five pups! That was what I was afraid of in real life - that I was going to have 5 kids!
GREG: Did you give birth at about the same time as Lady Rainicorn?
NIKI: Oh yeah, that's the funny thing! It happened before, but it was very close.
GREG: So it’s like the classic TV comedy show I Love Lucy. Lucy had her baby on TV while she was having one in real life. So it’s you and Lucy, making history.
NIKI: I didn’t know. Wow, I’m flattered. (laughing)
GREG: I’ve read that you are a very big fan of Hayao Miyazaki
NIKI: Yes, I am. I think all the kids who grew up in Asia were big fans. That’s what we grew up with, like Bugs Bunny here. I love Nausicaa. I watched it when I was young and when I watch it now, I feel pretty different. The animation is a little bit slow and there are a lot of "scenery" scenes. It is quite different from the animation here. Maybe it is not as popular here, but Miyazaki is doing well.
GREG: Do a lot of Korean kids enjoy Adventure Time because they understand what Lady Rainicorn is saying?
NIKI: Yeah - I couldn't believe it. So many people found me somehow - they are second generation here, or their parents are speaking Korean, so they kind of know Korean. It was a joy that as they were watching the TV, Korean just popped up! They write emails to me and just enjoy the moment. By now, I think Adventure Time is getting popular even in Korea, so it’s amazing.
GREG: And not only are you this signature animation voice, they just designed the third season Blu-ray and DVD package to look like your character.
NIKI: Yeah! There are a lot of good episodes in the third season. Also, there is a contest with the BMO box. It will be fun. People can put together their own BMO, take a picture and share it in a contest coming up online. I’m going to pick one. We’re just having fun. The audience out there loves our work and is inspired. It is just overwhelming.
The contest Niki mentioned is explained below. Basically, this week you can add arms and legs to the BMO Third Season box (from inside the box or a downloaded PDF) and the rest is up to Niki
Adventure Time: The Complete Third Season is coming out this week and, as you know by now, the Blu-ray and DVD packaging comes complete with cut-outs of BMO’s arms and legs, allowing you to build your very own BMO. So, with that in mind, it's PHOTO CONTEST TIME!
Cartoon Network wants your help in finding out whose BMO is the most adventurous! Snap a photo of BMO giving your dog a hug, updating his Facebook status or helping Finn and Jake defeat Magic Man. Then post it to Facebook with the hashtag #ShowUsBMO and on Friday, March 7th, Cartoon Network will share its favorite B-MOment on its Facebook page with a special shoutout by Niki Yang. Just make sure you post your pictures between February 24th and March 4th.
#1 Promotion starts on Monday, 2/24/14 and will end on Tuesday, 3/4/14.
#2 Winner will be announced via the Adventure Time Facebook page on 3/7/14.
#3 Fans can submit their BMO photos through Facebook ONLY, using the hashtag #ShowUsBMO. Just remember, BMO likes to be the center of attention, so no photobombing, please. (Our legal team thanks you in advance)