Dubbing biz goes modern

New systems provide flexibility for several languages

Talk is cheap, unless you’re in Hollywood, where converting a theatrical feature to something that can be broadcast on primetime TV, or heard in 40 other languages, can be a multimillion dollar expense.

And that’s where two young companies are using new technology to transform the dubbing business.

One of them, TM Systems, just picked up an Emmy for engineering achievement for its industry-first digital system for language translation, dubbing and subtitling.

Instead of shipping tapes across the planet to be localized and dubbed, the TM system centralizes and digitizes the translation process, encrypting it to prevent piracy. The result can be viewed on any personal computer, but the computer must have one of TM’s anti-piracy hardware “dongles” attached.

The TM software creates time-code links for each line of dialogue, simplifying a translator’s creation of subtitles and voice-overs, and standardizing the process from language to language. The resulting translated audio can then be shipped through the Internet or as a CD to overseas customers. And because it’s already digitized, the same translation can easily be used for all the theatrical, television, video, airline and other dubs of each language for a film. In most cases previously, dubs for each of those platforms often was done separately, and redundantly.

“It’s an area that’s been neglected for a lot of time,” says TM chief tech officer Carlos Contreras. “It really hasn’t changed since the radio days.”

Last holdout

Indeed, dubbing is one of the last corners of post-production to succumb to the digital revolution that already has transformed editing, color correction, visual effects and sound design. CEO Ken Lorber says the system can cut translating costs in half, in part because “we’ve done away with the VCR. I think if we’re competing with anyone, it’s FedEx. You don’t have to send tapes everywhere anymore.”

TM started 14 months ago to commercialize a system first developed at a Venezuela dubbing studio. The company set up shop in Miami to serve South American markets, and now is opening offices in Tokyo, Los Angeles and Europe.

And it’s not the only company recently started by dubbing vets trying to transform a stodgy business.

Voxworks Technologies’ system creates voice soundalikes, in a process right out of the recent techno-satire “Simone,” where Al Pacino’s character uses sophisticated computer tools to create a digital actress. Pacino becomes a digital puppeteer, the computer converting his words into an idealized female voice that blends touches of several great actresses together.

The Voxworks system can’t synch the words to the digital character’s lips, as in the movie. But it can create soundalikes, solving a huge headache for those who create foreign-language tracks, have to cover up curse words or otherwise clean up and loop audio.

CEO Elio Zarmati says there’s no bigger hassle in dubbing than finding soundalikes. Normally, a studio must find a sound-alike for each actor to loop fill-in words for a film’s TV-safe version. And when creating a foreign-language version, the soundalike must also be fluent in that language, further narrowing the range of options.

Morphing ability

With Voxworks’ ReelVoice, though, the voice-over talent need only be fluent in the translated language, and able to provide the actor’s timing that distinguishes any talented performer. The technology takes care of the rest, “morphing” the voice-over to sound like any or all of the original performers. It can even turn a female speaker’s voice into a male’s, and vice versa.

“You could have a small, varied crew of dubbers who could do a lot of voices,” Zarmati says. “You can find the best actress/actor you can find and don’t worry about getting a soundalike, because that’s our job.”

To work, the technology builds a library of phonemes, the little bits of words spoken in a performer’s distinctive way, for both the star voice being morphed and for the voice-over actor. The technology then maps those two libraries of phonemes to each other.

The technology isn’t perfect. It struggles to translate female voices to male ones. And Asian languages, with their subtle intonational shifts, challenge the system’s power. But Zarmati is hopeful he’ll have Hollywood talking in a new way soon.

“It’ll be either a total dud or everyone will want to use it,” Zarmati says.

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