Language dubbing for emerging markets

I’m a dubbing enthusiast. Don’t worry, it’s not dangerous. I only think that, when well done, dubbing can help audiences of all ages enjoy movies in countries where it would have been otherwise subtitled. I think subtitles are a good thing, but only dubbing really permits the adaptation of a film to a culture, which is our ultimate goal.

If we can define an emerging dubbing market as a country where the foreign product was previously watched in its original language (generally English) with or without subtitles, asking such a country to start dubbing foreign movies in its language is like asking a country that never played soccer to put a team together and start playing in the World Cup. Such a team would have to be selected and learn the rules of the game. But as most people in this country have never played before, under which parameters can this team be selected? Well, on all the parameters that are relevant to the game: physical condition, knowledge of the game (if any), team spirit, cultural history and so on. Language dubbing follows the same idea. It will always be the result of a mix of cultural and technical parameters. Will the actors come exclusively from theater? Will the country have a local film or TV industry? Is there a strong musical culture? Are there recording studios? Dubbing in this new market will be a mix of all these things, and each one will have its own personality, just like soccer teams do.


Historical perspective

Language dubbing is almost as old as sound in movies. It gives the illusion to the audience that they are watching a movie that was recorded in their original language. This illusion can be so good that I, being raised in France, didn’t have any idea for the longest time that most of the movies I watched were made in Hollywood. When you are born in these historical dubbing countries, dubbing is usually well made, natural sounding and finely adapted to the country’s culture. These countries import many movies and can create high quality, expensive dubbed products that produce high revenues. This is a nice ecosystem with professional dubbing studios and a great distribution system. It is important to note that most of the dubbing actors are professionals in this field and can make a living from dubbing. In contrast, the emerging countries don’t have the same ecosystem. The actors are not professional dubbing actors, the studios are usually music studios and the distribution cannot generate the same type of revenue.

There are a few different dubbing techniques. The rythmo band dubbing method was premiered in Germany for the release of a Felix the Cat cartoon in 1927. Immediately following, the French began to use the method and ever since, it’s been used in France and francophone countries like Canada and Belgium. The “band” is actually a clear 35 millimeter film leader on which the dialogue is handwritten, together with numerous additional indications for the actor, including laughs, cries, length of syllables, mouth sounds, breaths and so on. The story really started in 1923 during the silent movie era, when the Frenchman Charles Delacommune synchronized the film with a second projector that was showing a musical chart. The piano player was watching the film and was able to play the score at the same time. Years later, the second projector showed musical signs, comments and finally words, so the actors could read and record their lines exactly synchronized with the movie. This system continued to be used as-is for years, and it was not before the beginning of the year 2000 that we started seeing the first digital rythmo band.

I remember seeing one of the first prototypes of the Voice Q software that the enthusiastic engineers came to present to Warner Bros. around this time. The story is interesting and right to the point of this article. The New Zealand government wanted to dub the Hollywood movies in different languages from the Island, especially Maori. Without a dubbing history, as the main language is English, the New Zealanders were presented with a double challenge. Which technique would be the most efficient and how to quickly train a brand new pool of dubbing actors?

Many dubbing actors in emerging markets come from a classical theater background, and it was a challenge at the beginning to adapt from classical theater to TV programming. In the case of New Zealand, there were no actors with dubbing experience. The choice of the studios in charge of dubbing was quite intelligent, however. Starting from zero, what would the easiest technique be to adopt? After some research, they rightly understood that the French rythmo band was the best system, and this is where the emerging countries can help push new processes. In France, the industry was comfortable with using the same technique and not in a rush to find anything new. New Zealanders, however, understood that the concept was great, but the way the French were doing it on 35 millimeter film was much too expensive and labor intensive for such a small market. They adapted the concept to new software, which after a few years of tweaking became one of the best in the industry. They just saved themselves 50 years of research.


Actors and engineers

The economics in emerging markets are so limited that studios cannot afford to use long, expensive techniques with a pool of costly, qualified dubbing actors. They have no choice but to do the dubbing quickly and easily so their inexperienced pool of dubbing actors can learn and gain experience. I insist on the term dubbing actor, as one can be a great TV or theater actor but not very good in synchronization. The new recording software permits of lot of post-editing to resync the voices, but it’s much more cost efficient with regard to studio time if an actor can deliver a good performance in perfect sync or very close to it. This also avoids weak lip sync and unnatural-sounding dialogue.

A large pool of actors with a variety of voices is the best thing for any market. Audiences will enjoy new voices with new programs. I would say that if our goal is to keep consistency between all the voices worldwide for any given character, the ways to get there are very different depending on the market you are in. I’ve recently been to Serbia and Bulgaria to launch new programming channels for Cartoon Network. As you can imagine, the pool of actors is small and the first question that came up was: How do we prevent using the same actors over and over? Most of the actors come from theater. They can perform dramatic, classic plays very well but are not very comfortable with the dubbing technique or animated characters in these kids’ shows. So we have to teach them to forget Shakespeare and immerse themselves in this crazy fantasy world that they are often discovering for the first time in their lives. In a pool of approximately 300 actors, maybe only 20 will understand the dubbing process well enough that they can record quickly in the studio. Most of them can do it eventually, but it takes them longer. Studio time costs money, so in order to control budgets, which are not very big for these markets, the studios need to keep the recording time under control. This is why the studios schedule the same 20 actors over and over, as they are the best and more importantly the fastest. To avoid that and to have a growing pool of actors, the studios need to adopt a system that is easy enough that actors can be trained quickly and without having to spend years in a studio to gain experience.

Another big challenge in emerging markets is technical mastery. Thailand, for example, is getting much better, but 15 years ago they were not using the mixing studio as a creative tool. Most of the time, the engineers from the emerging dubbing markets come from other fields. They often come from music, as you find music studios in all countries, emerging or not. Luckily, music is universal, so the tools are there. The problem is that you don’t mix a movie like you mix a song. In most of these markets the music recorded in these studios is pop or local folk. Being a musician as well as a sound engineer myself, I don’t have anything against it and I can only say that music engineers have great ears. However, when you are dealing with voices to be mixed against music and effects tracks, you have to recreate the perspective you see onscreen, follow the characters from left to right with the pan knob and apply some subtle reverb or effects on the voices. This is the main struggle for these new dubbing engineers, as they have a hard time entering the film world and forgetting their musical background. It will take a few years for engineers from emerging markets to create a good film mixing level. As I said earlier, when you mix a film, you have to mix what you see. This is a difficult concept, as your ears have to work with your eyes. When a speaking character moves from close to far away, the voice should follow this motion like it does when someone talks to you and walks away at the same time. Depending on what they are accustomed to seeing on TV, the engineers will have to make an extra effort to adapt their methods of mixing to the TV product.

A good example of skipping steps in the technical progression is China. They transitioned from mono to Dolby digital 5.1 in most of their cinemas, skipping the Dolby stereo era that lasted a few years in Europe and the United States. The same thing could happen with the dubbing processes, as emerging markets could jump directly to using recording software, which could help them create a technically capable pool of young talent. This could be, now that the technology is finally working, an advantage over the older countries where the pool of actors is reluctant and hostile to any change. Changing a process that worked well for the last 50 years is sometimes difficult to do and especially to accept. But the business is obviously changing, with shorter windows, lower budgets and the necessity to have newer voices for a growing amount of content to dub.


Local issues

Dubbing is an adaptation not only to a local language, but to a local culture, so it is only logical that local cultural tastes appear in a dubbed product.

Let’s travel back to the 1920s at the beginning of sound in films. To export their films, Hollywood majors were performing the dubbing themselves in the languages corresponding to their markets. These first dubbed versions were not very good, so the main buyers in Europe started to dub in their respective languages. By dubbing the American movies to their languages and also to their cultures, all these markets started to differentiate themselves not only in terms of technique but also in terms of taste and local culture. American movies are often action-based with a lot of music and sound effects regardless of whether the dialogue can or cannot be understood in its entirety. This is the style that leads most of the movies: dialogue is an integral part of the complete mix and can almost be used as a sound effect to create ambience. The American audience is accustomed to not understanding every line of dialogue and is absolutely fine with that. However, European countries produce movies that are more dialogue-based. The challenge for emerging markets will be to create a dubbed product that will be accepted by their general audiences, whatever their preference. Depending on their taste and the movies that have been already imported, the local consumers will want a mirror of what they are accustomed to hearing. In this case, the movies may have to be remixed in order to make the dialogue understandable to the public. These days, this is almost a worldwide approach, so it is likely that any new emerging market will follow this pattern.

On the subject of local aesthetics, the voice pitch and normal speaking projection can vary from country to country. By projection, I mean the intensity or strength with which the voice is emitted, which is different from the volume. This means that the local way of speaking will be reflected in the final product. Southern European actors will generally have a lower voice pitch than Americans. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Asian actors will usually have higher pitches. The dubbing process has to take that into consideration. What would be the point of changing an actor’s voice pitch to match the American model if it doesn’t sound natural in a local market? The same applies to voice projection. I remember the first time I supervised a recording for one of our titles in Japan. I was surprised, as the actors sounded upset to me even when they were supposed to be speaking normally to follow the English version. In fact, after a few days in Tokyo, I realized they were all talking like that and it seemed absolutely normal to them. The emerging markets will also have to make sure that the actors are imitating a normal way of talking, or the dubbing will not sound natural at all. If the pitch and the projection are different from the ones in the domestic version, so be it. We dub for a culture, not for a language. The ultimate judge is the public.

Another important point to take into consideration is censorship. Besides the obvious general rules (nudity is OK in Scandinavia but blood must be censored, which is the exact opposite of the United States), the emerging markets will have to adapt the dialogue to what is acceptable for them. I remember the launch of Cartoon Network in India. At this time, around 1998, India did not have many dubbed products on TV. We dubbed our animated shows and after a few months, we received negative feedback from the viewers because of offensive translations. The word dog was used several times and, to our surprise, was perceived with a negative connotation. We had to do a lot of pickups to correct the tracks and deliver an updated version. This is a good example of an emerging market discovering the correct way of adapting dialogue for TV.

For an emerging market, it is important to understand how to translate correctly to be loyal to the original content, and at the same time propose a translation that will be accepted by the local audience. Dubbing is really the art of adaptation.


Emerging cities in historical markets

A few years ago, historical markets started to think about cost reduction as the main clients were negotiating lower rates. A lot of new emerging cities appeared in historical dubbing markets and only for cost reasons. The Spanish traditionally dubbed in Madrid and Barcelona, but one of our main dubbing studios opened a new facility a few years ago in Galicia where the actors work for less. They were able to produce dubbing at a lower cost, as the rules in Galicia are not the same as in Madrid and Barcelona.

In France, where everything is centralized in Paris thanks to Napoleon Bonaparte, the dubbing studios started to dub more and more in Belgium where the actors can now speak without any noticeable accent, and the prices are reduced due to lower actors’ rates. It’s always funny to talk to the actors in Brussels before the recording session. During the briefing, they all have their local accent, but as soon as the red “record” light is on, they mysteriously lose it, as if by magic.

An interesting phenomenon is the specificity of certain cities for the type of media. Germany is doing most of its movies in Berlin, most of its TV in Munich and most of its games in Hamburg. Same for Italy, where the movies are done in Rome, and the TV and games are done in Milan or Turin. Of course the emerging markets won’t have this issue as they will set their actors’ rates from scratch without this long history that forced the historical markets to find new cities inside or outside of their territories. Normally, the cities with universities, theaters and a strong cultural life will be the best ones to train a pool of actors.


Future of dubbing

So what is the future of the dubbing industry? It looks pretty encouraging based on the latest surveys. We have seen a lot of new dubbing countries such as Ukraine, Serbia, India, China, Pakistan, Vietnam and also new regions that are now dubbing in their regional languages such as Catalan, New Zealand Maori and Irish Gaelic.

The new emerging markets will need some time to master the art of dubbing. Some will be great, some a little less so, but everything will be based on the critical choices they will make regarding the processes and techniques involved. I encourage people I meet during my travels to go outside their countries and watch how other markets handle their dubbing. This is the only way they will be able to learn, see what works best and adapt it to their market to raise their level of expertise. Unfortunately, unlike soccer where you can see on TV how the good teams are playing, you cannot do the same for dubbing. I’m dreaming about a world where all the people involved in this art will travel to see each other work so everyone can learn the best practices from the others. Then we will really get some serious dubbing insight, and help dubbing give the illusion to audiences that they are watching the movie in their original language. At this point, the dubbing enthusiasts will have won!