The first time I saw a rythmo band crawl across the top of a cartoon with words matched in time to the little animated mouth flaps, I was mesmerized, and a little scared. The script scrawled in a racing cursive with weird curlicues and indecipherable symbols which flowed past a black bar on the left. An actor stood at a wooden bar, gesticulating wildly, spewing out words in a kooky voice in perfect time to the running script and to the action on screen. It was challenging. It was technical. It was creative. And I was hooked, I wanted in.
Dubbing. A form of voice acting not for the faint of heart, dubbing, or versioning, is a whole different world of voice over. So what is it? A simple definition of dubbing is the process of adding new dialogue or other sounds to the soundtrack of a motion picture or animation that has already been shot. It requires an actor to “follow the flap” (watch the mouth movements of the animated or live-action character) and provide the dialogue such that it matches the rhythm and cadence and mouth movements of the character speaking – no small feat for dubbing in the original language and even more difficult when dealing with translated dialogue!
A Very Brief History of Dubbing and Its Uses
A brief jaunt down history lane tells us that dubbing is generally considered to have been created in the 1930s in New York when an enterprising Georgian-born filmmaker named Rouben Mamoulian wanted to add audio effects to his film Applause, one of the early “sound films”. Mamoulian experimented with editing all the sound on two interlocked 35mm tracks and thus beginning the standard film tracklaying/dubbing practice. Later, to achieve ‘unreal’ sounds in his 1931 film Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, he experimented with a number of photographic techniques creating ‘sound’ directly onto the optical negative.
This synchronization was extremely limited by the number of tracks that could be used and it is remarkable the achievement of those early sound films in dubbing additional audio. Essentially what today can be accomplished with a powerful laptop, a Source Connect session, and an adept sound engineer wasn’t as easy in the 30s.
Voice Dubbing For Live-Action Film (and now streaming)
Less expensive and troublesome than synchronized filming (voice and picture recorded together), voice dubbing for live-action film today is employed in the original-language version of a soundtrack for many reasons. Defects that arise from synchronized filming can be remedied, dialogue that is unclear, muffled, overwhelmed by ambient sounds or lack of concealable microphones can be dubbed to overlay high-quality audio, regardless of the conditions while shooting.
It is also used to replace a voice with another – as in the case with foreign language films being dubbed into other languages, or when poor singers are dubbed with a more pleasing voice. New York Dub, a production house that specializes in dubbing has a pretty good montage of samples of live-action dubbing.
The key takeaway for the voice actor when dubbing live-action film is that it relies heavily on the ACTING part of voice acting. Time is of the essence – not only for sync but also for production costs. So the actor needs to be able to dial into the character, understand the choices the original actor made and match the emotion, intensity, and intent while paying attention to the art of obeying the technical rules of being in sync while also conveying the dialogue in a convincing manner consistent with what is on screen. And they need to do it on the first (or second) take. Again, not for the faint of heart.
A game changing tool which is now used in pretty much all the ADR studios in LA is VoiceQ. A subscription based DAW-less dubbing tool, (that syncs with ProTools and is bound to iLok) it makes the process easier for all involved. As actor/producer/studio owner Marc Graue says, “many times the client sends us a QT movie with mirrored Time Code on our version and theirs which allows them (or us) to control beeps, transport etc.” In Marc’s studio, they’ve also used Zoom to connect (talent, director, sound engineer, etc) remotely. “It can be a little difficult to synch,” he says. “So we’ll do a loop….move it around, compress or expand to make it match lips flap then move on to the next… it’s a little cumbersome but works great!”
Versioning – Voice Dubbing for Foreign Language Replacement or Regionalisms, Accents, and Dialects
Versioning is another term for dubbing that is used more in reference to projects where the live-action or animation project was originally written in a different language and the voice actor is brought in to provide foreign language dialogue replacement. Sometimes, it can refer to projects that are not translated, but rather require a character to have a regionalism, accent, or dialogue and find that it needs to be adjusted or replaced post-filming. Here too, the voice actor has to focus on acting and syncing and now they have the added joy of doing it in a language that likely doesn’t follow the original flap. Not easy.
Voice Dubbing in Animation – A Character Actor’s Dream
Another popular use of voice dubbing is for animation projects. A character actor’s dream, voice talent are often hired to provide more than one character in an animation dubbing project. There is still an emphasis on acting, and here consistency is going to be key, especially if the character needs a character voice or vocal “mannerism” that the actor needs to keep consistent while dubbing. Anime, such as Pokemon, is a popular style of animation that is dubbed into English and voicing not only the dialogue but all of the vocal efforts (grunts, gasps, sighs) is done as well. Following the flap in animation can sometimes be harder if not all normal mouth moves are accounted for in the animation, or if the translation means that extra sounds in the language need to be added or removed to make the dialogue fit the mouth movements (this is true in live action, but can be easier to match).
Can I Do This From My Home Studio? What Are The Rates for Dubbing?
Dubbing rates, as with other styles of voice over can vary by project, studio, and even country of your client. Dubbing work is almost always paid in studio hours, however. Using the GVAA Rate Guide for a general guideline, a typical non-union session can be anywhere from $75-$200/hour with a 2-hour minimum and the Union Rate is $64.25/hour.
Though some studios like Zoo Digital are starting to work with some voice talent remotely and Source Connect allows for remote voice to picture work, the majority of dubbing work is still done in studios. In the new Covid-19 world, it will be interesting to see what happens in this VO space.
How to Be Successful As A Dubbing Actor
In order to really succeed as a voice actor in dubbing, as the saying goes, practice, practice, practice. Above all, your acting has to be top-notch, and being able to find and embody a character quickly with some depth and complexity where required is going to set you apart in this field. VoiceQ has a voice actor subscription plan and comes with a demo project you can try out. (But it’s just one project) You could also see if you could apprentice or work part time in an ADR studio to observe any chance you might get. A better option is to sign up for one of the many classes you can take that will help you develop your eye/mouth coordination and allow you to spend some time getting used to looking at a screen and a script all while speaking accurately, acting and fitting words often into a mouth not speaking the same language. It’s not something you can do cold. But it is a skill you can develop, and if you’re like me, you’ll be hooked and want to get in on it.