Inside the Weird World of International Dubbing

Christoph Waltz in "Django Unchained"
Christoph Waltz in "Django Unchained"
 The Weinstein Company

This story first appeared in the March 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When Antonio Banderas was recording the titular role for DreamWorks Animation's Puss in Boots, he couldn't help but get tongue-tied. The actor had signed on to voice the feline hero in no fewer than five languages: English, Italian, Latin American Spanish, Castilian Spanish and Catalan. "After a while, he would start a line in one language and then slip into a second language in the middle of the line," DWA head of postproduction Jim Beshears recalls of Banderas' exhausting sessions. "But he had everyone cracking up. It definitely made for some comical moments."

Dubbing has been popular in countries such as France, Italy, Spain and Germany since the '30s, while smaller territories got subtitled versions, which are cheaper to produce. But as international box office has become increasingly important, especially for animated and family-oriented films, the studios are making ever-bigger investments in dubbed versions at a cost of up to $100,000 to $150,000 per territory. When Pixar's Monsters University is released this summer, it will be offered in at least 34 languages and possibly as many as 40. "These films are doing so well that you can justify the cost of all these extra languages," says Imax's Andrew Cripps, a veteran international executive who previously headed up Paramount's international operation.

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Today, Disney employs 85 staffers around the world in its character voices division. A typical animated tentpole is dubbed for 39 to 43 territories; a four-quadrant live-action film like Pirates of the Caribbean is translated into about 27 tongues, while a more typical live-action movie usually is dubbed into 12 to 15 languages.

"We redefined what dubbing can be," says Rick Dempsey, who oversees Disney's character voices division, which was started in 1992. "We ensure that the lip sync is as close as possible. In animation, it's uncanny. You would think some of it was animated in the local language."

VOICE-OVERS ARE PUTTING A PREMIUM ON STARS WHO ARE BILINGUAL

Acknowledging the growing foreign market, the contracts of Hollywood's multilingual stars now frequently include options for them to dub their English-language roles into foreign tongues. Jodie Foster and Helena Bonham Carter (who both speak French), Sandra Bullock (German) and Viggo Mortensen (Spanish) are among those whose agents negotiate the right of first refusal. (Fox hopes that Bullock will have the time to do the Deutschland dub for her upcoming comedy The Heat.) According to agents, actors receive no additional compensation for their foreign-language dubs for live-action movies -- though they typically do for animated films -- but often choose to display their bilingual abilities as a way of demonstrating ownership of a role. Most foreign actors who appear in American films traditionally dub themselves in their native-language versions as well: Jean Reno handled the French version of The Da Vinci Code, Giancarlo Giannini did the Italian version of Casino Royale, and Banderas took on the Spanish versions of many of his films. Christoph Waltz and Diane Kruger voiced their Inglourious Basterds roles in both German and French. And because Waltz's voice is as distinctive in German as it is in English, some of his German fans will seek out a dubbed version of a movie like Django Unchained, even when they have the option of watching a subtitled, "original language" version just to hear his Teutonic tones. Still, some buck the trend. Penelope Cruz agreed to voice the Castilian Spanish version of Disney's G-Force but then found herself too busy, so instead her sister Monica stepped in for her.

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BERENICE BEJO CAMPAIGNS FOR A PART

Even Oscar nominees are campaigning for plum voice-over assignments. Casting the teen protagonist Merida for the French-language version of Brave, Disney initially set out to find a teenage actress. But Berenice Bejo, the 36-year-old Oscar nominee from the best picture-winning silent film The Artist, sought out the part, auditioned and proved she could bring a youthful energy to the role. She then enlisted her husband, Oscar-winning director Michel Hazanavicius, to voice the character of Gordon (played by John Ratzenberger in the original). And with the couple promoting the movie on the Parisian red carpet, it grossed $27 million in France.

DUBBING STARS' CAREERS RISE WHEN THEIR AMERICAN COUNTERPARTS' DO

The voice actors who dub Hollywood stars into German, French or Japanese usually remain anonymous, but a handful have parlayed dubbing success into celebrity status in their home countries. Christian Bruckner -- the actor whose deep rumbling bass has been synonymous with Robert De Niro in Germany for nearly 40 years -- has become a star in his own right, using his aural connection to the two-time Oscar winner to build a successful career in commercials and audio books, where he operates his own boutique publisher. "Over time, there has become a sort of De Niro-Bruckner symbiosis in Germany," says Bruckner. "People here very closely identify my voice with his performances. When I get a new role of De Niro's, if I can, I watch the film in English and then pore over the German script. Then I go into the studio and, working with the dialogue director, a lot gets adjusted and changed during the recording." He found De Niro's move into comedy with 1999's Analyze This a challenge. "It was difficult -- a dictate came from Hollywood that 'Bruckner should tone down his voice' -- I was asked to make it a bit lighter, not as deep and serious as I typically do," he says. "It was also hard because I had the feeling De Niro was struggling a bit with the comedic roles." But that wasn't the case with De Niro's Oscar-nominated performance in Silver Linings Playbook, he insists. "It was a convincing performance and a delightful film to voice."

Across the globe, other voice-over stars have emerged. Spain's Constantino Romero has given voice to Clint Eastwood for decades. In Japan, Koichi Yamadera is the go-to voice for pretty much every big African-American star from Eddie Murphy and Denzel Washington to Will Smith. Not wanting to become typecast, Yamadera also has provided the Japanese voice for Charlie Sheen, Jim Carrey, Brad Pitt and Tom Hanks. The prolific dubber recently pulled off an impressive double play, providing the voice for Don Draper in the Japanese version of Mad Men and Walter White for Breaking Bad.

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VOICE-OVER ACTORS ARE NOW STAKING CLAIMS FOR A BIGGER SHARE OF THE SPOILS

A growing awareness of the added value they bring to dubbed films and TV shows is leading voice actors to claim a larger share of the pie. In France, The Association of Voices, a professional group formed in 2009, now has 180 members. There is a wage agreement in place that sets the voice-over rate at €6.22 ($8.09) per line of film dialogue and €5.91 ($7.69) per line for TV. Dubbing one hour of a TV show results in about €750 ($976). But big celebrity voices can command much more -- as much as $30,000 to $80,000 for a role in France. To save cash, though, some French producers are moving dubbing sessions to Belgium, where production costs are cheaper.

In a case that could have repercussions for the industry, German actor Marcus Off, who voiced Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies, sued two German subsidiaries of The Walt Disney Co. as well as the U.S. parent company for additional compensation when those movies became enormous hits. Off argued that his voice was a significant factor in their success in Germany and demanded a bonus under the German copyright act, which provides for "fairness compensation" in cases where the fee paid for a work of art is considered disproportionate to its financial success. Off originally was paid about $1,700 for the first Pirates film and $5,200 each for the following two. Other compensation brought his total fee to about $23,000. He sued for a percentage of the theatrical, DVD and television revenue from the three films in Germany, claiming that he was owed $230,000. His initial suit was rejected by a Berlin court, but that decision was partially overturned on appeal. A federal appellate court said that a dubbing actor might be regarded as a "co-author" of a work, and the case was sent back to the original Berlin court, which will decide Aug. 21 exactly what compensation Disney owes Off.

Benjamin Volz, the German actor who dubbed Charlie Sheen in Two and a Half Men, on hearing of that actor's much-publicized salary demands, decided he was underpaid as well. Voicing a lead character in a successful U.S. show on German TV typically pays about $600 per episode. But he demanded that German broadcaster ProSiebenSat.1 pay him five times his fee. ProSiebenSat.1 rejected the claim. "We refuse to be blackmailed in this way," said one executive familiar with the case. In the end, of course, Sheen himself was fired, and Volz fulfilled his original contract, though the broadcaster now is considering offering extra compensation when a U.S. series becomes a hit. 

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THE STUFF THAT'S BEEN LOST IN TRANSLATION

Dubbing also can be used to make adjustments for local sensitivities. In Germany, the "Heil, Hitler" salute is illegal (it counts as hate speech). In historic dramas, it can be depicted as part of the factual record, but in comedies, it sometimes gets changed. Famously, the German version of '60s sitcom Hogan's Heroes dubbed around its "Heil, Hitlers" by having characters say things like, "The corn's grown THIS high already." Sometimes, dialogue is altered because American idioms don't translate. So Clint Eastwood's Harry Callahan, in Italian, says, "Go ahead, make me happy," and Bruce Willis screams, "Yippee-ki-yay, pork cheeks!" in German.

A BOON FOR CHINA'S CENSORS

In Hong Kong, films rarely are dubbed into Chinese because the market is comparatively small. But on mainland China, films are dubbed into Mandarin/Putonghua, and dubbing artists are considered respected actors. Qiao Chun voiced Dumbledore in all the Harry Potter films, substituting for the late Richard Harris and then Michael Gambon, and Zhou Yemeng has voiced all of Daniel Craig's Bond films. Dubbing also allows the Chinese censors to exercise control. In the recent Skyfall, a reference to a prostitution ring in Macao was replaced by a mention of the mob.

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