Dubbing becomes major migraine

Business frantic due to day-and-date mania

ROME — Dubbing has always been a headache for the film business. But Hollywood’s new dependence on international box office has turned it into a major migraine.

In the U.S. and U.K., subtitles are the norm and dubbing is relegated to much-mocked martial arts films. But dubbing is the custom elsewhere. Rough estimates are that Hollywood pics are dubbed for some 90% of non-English-language territories.The system, however, has been stretched to the limit, as local territories demand ever more elaborate mixes in ever more languages and dialects. At the same time, studios are expanding their number of day-and-date releases, putting pressure on dubbing studios to turn around voiceovers — quickly.

The dubbers are feeling the pressure on nearly every film, for a number of reasons. Dubbers had to deal with three updates on the latest “Harry Potter.” Visual-effects work meant the print of “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” was delivered alarmingly late. Fear of piracy meant “Transformers” was shipped out of sequence, with incomplete scenes.

Things got “pretty hectic” with “Zodiac,” says one expert, due to the number of speaking roles. And with more sensitivity to local dialects, “Spider-Man 3” became the first movie to warrant dubbing into four languages for India; similarly, the slang in “Shrek the Third” meant that auds in Quebec clamored for different versions from France for French-speaking Canada.

“Everybody is complaining about the crunch,” says Annalaura Carano, Warner Bros.’ technical director in Italy, who waxes nostalgic about the days when she could “see the completed movie once, then see it again, and then mull it over in terms of the right translation, and which actors might really have the right voices.”

In the past, overseas box office was a minor ancillary in the big picture of the film biz, and Hollywood pics were dubbed into the local language quickly and cheaply.

But now overseas box office is big business, scoring $4.65 billion for this year’s first half (up 13% over last year).

The majors regularly dub in more than 30 languages, with new ones being added as various international markets open up. For example, the number of dubbed pics is steadily rising in the former Soviet Union and Asia. Since tentpoles average two-thirds of their B.O. from outside the U.S., dubbing is becoming an increasingly key part of a pic’s post-production process and more care and money are being lavished on the process.

  • Russia — which is Europe’s hottest theatrical market, growing in 2006 at a 30% annual clip — has replaced its rudimentary voiceovers with well-synched dubs.

  • “Spider-Man 3” marked the first time a Hollywood title was dubbed into four Indian languages: Hindi, Tamil, Telegu and Bhojpuri.

  • The catch-all Spanish dub has been broken down into Castilian, spoken in Spain; Latin Spanish, spoken in Latin America; and Catalan, which is spoken in Barcelona and the tiny surrounding independent Catalan region that subsidizes the cost.

  • In the Ukraine, where Hollywood pics used to play in Russian, the local government, eager to sever Soviet-era ties, recently ruled that foreign films must be dubbed into Ukrainian.

Dubbing work entails translation of dialogue, finding local equivalents to slang and jokes, and then matching voices and lip-synching the work.

Hollywood tentpoles are primarily dubbed in London for European audiences, Bangkok for Asian moviegoers and Mexico City for Latin American viewers. Otherwise, dubbing takes place in the individual territories, with audiences in France, Italy, Germany and Spain the most avid lovers of such voiceovers.

But the pressure on dubbers is increasing as studios make 11th-hour CGI tweaks and delay delivery of the pics. To foil pirates, Hollywood majors have started to send over top-secret reels that are often very poor quality, likely to have scenes blacked out, boilerplate sound, no effects, and lots of watermarks — besides being out-of-sequence.

These days Carano and her Warner Bros. colleagues must hire dubbing directors and translators even before taking a peek at a rough cut. On “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” Carano had to contend with three updates, which was tough — but not too bad, all things considered.

“I’ve heard of colleagues going nuts having to work with eight consecutive versions of a picture,” she says.

“King Kong” and “Mission: Impossible 3” were “really, really tight,” recalls American global dubbing supervisor Jody Toll of One Voice Prods.

“Day-and-date is very hard to work with because you don’t have final materials,” Toll says. “You have to do retakes, you have to redo lines. It’s kind of like chasing your tail.”

The fact is, more auds around the world are getting used to seeing Yank stars but seeing them speaking in the aud’s native language. “In Eastern Europe over the past three years we’ve added six more languages,” says Toll.

Toll recently handled the “Shrek the Third” dub for Asian territories. It wasn’t too problematic, because it wasn’t a day-and-date release.

But the pic did run into some snags. In France, Hollywood titles are dubbed in Paris for French-speaking auds in Canada. But the Gallic dubs on “Shrek the Third” hit a cultural snag because Eddie Murphy’s Donkey slang was morphed into Parisian argot, which turned out to be totally incomprehensible to the Quebecois.

Even Italians have struggled with the new demands. Italos consider themselves the industry standard-bearer, partly because locals have been honing their skills since Benito Mussolini’s heavy censorship days.

The practice gained popularity because dubbing gave fascist censors more control over politically sensitive content than subtitles.

But Roberto Morville, creative director for Italy for Disney Character Voices Intl., recounts that on “Pirates 3,” because of the special effects crunch, “we got the final reels very, very late.”

“Day-and-date, OK — but not like overnight! You’ve gotta give me a few days to update and make sure I make the right translation,” vents the Italo dubbing specialist.

Another day-and-date release, Michael Bay’s “Transformers,” scaled new heights because DreamWorks and Paramount were especially concerned about making sure nobody could see even a single frame of what the toy franchise’s latest CGI wonders looked like.

With two dozen key characters, things got pretty hectic with “Zodiac.” “The fact that Canada was releasing ‘Zodiac’ in the first week of March made it a seven-days-a-week-job,” says Lori Rault, Warner Bros.’ technical director in France.

What exacerbates the problem is that voice talent has to be booked way in advance — especially those very talented local thesps who become the regular voices of Hollywood stars like Al Pacino, or Clint Eastwood, or Eddie Murphy. Stars often personally pick their vocal alter-egos in what becomes a strange symbiotic rapport.

Some dubbers fear that the crunch is giving them less time to capture local nuance.

Linguistic nuances of a Hollywood pic are less likely to get lost in dubs done in the French, Italian, German and Spanish territories than they are in Asia, where, basically, “American jokes just aren’t funny,” says dubbing supervisor Duy Bunyapana.

Bunyapana, a former head of Disney’s global technical operations who as a freelancer recently handled “Pirates 3” for Thailand, says Yank humor gets completely rewritten across the Asian region where “the only goal is to synch the dialogue with the visuals of that scene.”

But even that isn’t easy when you’re under the gun. “One of the biggest problems under time pressure is the vocals: The voice is not quite right, the singing is not quite right, the recording is not quite right because you don’t have time to do it properly,” he laments.

Depending on the language, lip synching can be especially tricky. Nicolas Cage, for example, is almost impossible to dub into Cantonese “because the guy never opens his mouth,” says Bunyapana, whereas Cantonese is a very “open-mouth” language.

But despite day-and-date time constraints and some censorship issues, Bunyapana says the quality of translations is steadily improving in Asia, with more effort to convey the flavor of a pic and not simply translate the words.

Still, it might help if around the world dubbers had a little more leeway to properly process the vocal software of Hollywood’s relentless simultaneous releases.

If nothing else, they’ll be able to finesse those lip synchs.

Dubber’s dilemma

Dubbing begins with a so-called spotting list on which there is a literal translation of the dialogue.

This rough translation is then reworked, and adapted to lip synch when the dubbing studio receives the visuals, and mixed once the final version is in. For dubbers, the paradox of our day-and-date age is that the push for simultaneous releases worldwide has been prompted in part by piracy concerns.

It takes anywhere between two weeks and six weeks to dub a feature film, depending on such factors as local labor laws, length and availability of thesps. As many actors are used to dub movies as are used to make the film, although some really marginal parts may be done by the same thesp.

With 3-D animation, the characters dubbers have to work with are often sort of like stick figures. “It’s like they are undressed. They have no hair. It’s very basic; they just move from A to B, while their mouth doesn’t move at all,” bemoans Roberto Morville, creative director for Italy for Disney Character Voices Intl.

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