International Theatrical Dubbing: It's More Than Meets the Eye

by Debra K. Chinn

Twentieth Century Fox dubbed their first animated feature, Anastasia into 28 languages for international release. Exclusively for this article, Animation World Magazine is offering four Quicktime movies featuring selections of dubbed versions of the production. All of the images and movie clips herein are © 1997 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.


  1. Anastasia sings "Journey to the Past" in English and Portugese. 1.5 MB.
  2. Anastasia sings "Journey to the Past" in German and Hebrew. 1.5 MB.
  3. Anastasia sings "Journey to the Past" in Hungarian and Russian. 992 K.
  4. Anastasia sings "Once Upon a December" in Turkish, Polish and Greek. 1.6 MB.

International Theatrical Dubbing has recently been the focus of many major studio "players" here in Los Angeles. With the growing interest in feature films worldwide, American studios are realizing how to capture yet another revenue market and greater box office share by dubbing their feature films into foreign languages.

A well-managed dubbing process ensures that the integrity of the original version is preserved, creating higher standards in the international environment. This not only makes a positive impact on the U.S. films' international release, but also assists in increasing the value of the product by "branding" recognition and cultivating a reputation which is synonymous with quality. In order to achieve a high level of quality, it is necessary to implement a dubbing process which includes many components.

True dubbing "re-creates" all aspects of the original version of the film into a foreign language. It should not be confused with "voice-over work," which has limited parameters. For instance, voice-over work suggests merely reading dialogue from a script without dubbing's mandatory voice testing and casting. Voice-over work also includes limited editing, meaning there is minimal synchronization and minimal on-screen or off-screen dialogue checks.

Download a Quicktime of Anastasia singing "Journey to the Past" in English and Portugese. 1.5 MB. © 1997 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.
What Does it Take?
Once the dubbing studio in the international territory receives a Voice Test Kit ("VTK") from the U.S. studio, the voice testing process begins. The VTK contains items such as: dialogue lists, character profiles and synopses, voice casting recommendations, edited voice testing tapes with edited voice samples for each character, and when needed, storyboards, model sheets and size comparison charts, as well as cast lists of the original version's actors with profiles on each of them. The dubbing studio is responsible for auditioning and casting talent for all of the characters in a film. In some cases, if the film involves a well-known actor, the local territory may have a voice talent already cast for that celebrity. In animation, some studios contract certain actors to play their trademarked characters. No other voice actors can then portray that character in the defined territory.

As soon as the cast is in place and approved by the U.S. studio, the dubbing studio will schedule the work sessions. A script is sent to the dubbing studio even if it is not final, so that the dubbing facility can begin to translate and adapt U.S. slang and terminology to the native tongue. This is not easy! Imagine taking out all of the street talk in a U.S. rap song, re-interpreting it and then translating it into Italian to the rhythm of the music. Once the dubbing studio receives dubbing materials, recording begins. Dubbing materials include: a betacam SP with designated track configurations, a finalized script, a viewing cassette of the final picture, vocal playbacks which are guide tracks to help singers perform vocales, and finally, a 35mm picture and 35mm sound track elements for the facility to use to perform final mixing. The overall dubbing process of recording, editing and mixing takes approximately six to eight weeks.

Before dubbing takes place however the U.S. studios need to do a little homework in order to make the process complete. Clearly separating music and effects tracks from dialogue tracks is imperative. The music and effects, or M&E, track needs to be clean, in other words, not contain any sounds that may need to be dubbed. For instance, if a song is playing in a scene's background and the singing is in English, we need to think if this needs to be on the M&E track, meaning it will stay, or if it should be on the dialogue track and replaced with a native language. Nothing is worse than marrying a dubbed dialogue track back to the M&E only to hear English! It can also be very costly and time consuming if the original version needs to be re-mixed, and the dubbed version re-done.

Download a Quicktime of Anastasia singing "Journey to the Past" in German and Hebrew. 1.5 MB. © 1997 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.
The U.S. studio also needs to provide textless titles for the film as well. Each title card needs to be shot blank, without any writing on it, and provided to the dubbing facility. This way, the facility can write the credits in the native language and superimpose them over the blank title cards. Otherwise, the titles would be too confusing to read with both English and the territory's language battling for attention. Another consideration that goes all the way back to the pre-production artists is limiting the amount of signage in the cartoons or animated features. Signs on buildings, placards that people hold and food cartons, are all hot spots for trouble. If drawn into the final cartoon, they cannot be replaced and just remind viewers in other countries that the product was not originally made for them.

Dubbing: A Modern Day Must
Dubbing animated features is now becoming the mainstream for major U.S. studios. Some studios have been dubbing animated product for the last 30 years, but have been limited to home video and television releases. The potential for large audiences for animated feature film product promises widespread attendance and thus, dubbing is becoming a must. Young children in non-English speaking countries are usually limited in their English skills so dubbing has always had a presence in the animation realm. As the world grows smaller, dinner and a movie have become a common family event all over the world. As a result, American movie studios are finding a greater opportunity to increase audience size due to the attendance by both child and parents. Return visits to the theater are also now becoming commonplace because in animation, there is always a hero, heroine and villain, as well as many other funny, colorful characters which children can relate to and want to seeover, and over and over again!

Live-action features such as Titanic and Armageddon are new to the dubbing world but are now making their own production and financial niche within the international dubbing circles. International theatrical distribution groups in many countries are now actively participating in assisting major studios with the distribution of both subtitled and dubbed films. Dubbing, rather than subtitling, makes films more appealing to a broader audience, and if marketed correctly, can help turn a pretty penny of profit for the U.S. studio.

Download a Quicktime of Anastasia singing "Journey to the Past" in Hungarian and Russian. 992 K. © 1997 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.
Dubbing is often referred to as "foreign post-production" due to its similarities with the domestic post-production process. Dubbing not only involves voice testing and casting of international talent, recording, editing, and mixing, but also, ultimately, shooting an optical soundtrack negative and manufacturing a check print for distribution in the respective dubbing country or territory. Though this foreign post-production process increases the costs of international distribution, it ensures more "value-added" advantages when a film actually goes out for marketing in a territory. Countries such as France, Italy, Germany and Spain are prime territories for dubbing feature films, not only due to their respective market share in the international distribution community, but also due to the recognition and presence that the internal companies working with U.S. film industry counterparts gain.

Expanding the Need to Dub
In assisting 20th Century Fox with dubbing their first animated feature,
Anastasia into 28 languages, I had the opportunity to travel to Russia to help direct the Russian language dub version. Once the voice tests were submitted by a local dubbing studio in Moscow, reviewed and approved by Fox, the dubbing process began in the middle of December on the coldest day in 150 years! In the -41· Celsius, very old, but substantially equipped, dubbing studio, I remember sitting next to the director, finishing up a McDonald's cheeseburger, and working on the direction of the character, Rasputin. Suddenly, I thought, `Is this one of life's unspoken ironies or what?' I was sitting in a film studio which was originally built and used for propaganda for Lenin. It was Lenin's uprising that caused the downfall of the Romanovs.

In some countries, like Russia, 90% of the feature films, television and home video product are dubbed due to the fact that less than 20% of the population speaks and understands English. Due to the recent social and political events which have occurred in Russia and many of the other C.I.S. territories [the Commonwealth of Independent States, or C.I.S., is the new determination for the Eastern European countries that used to be part of the Soviet Block], these areas are now embracing the "ways of the West," which includes everything from dubbed DVD product to dubbed film features and "sing-along" toys and books.

Another reason why dubbing is becoming a greater necessity is due to the fact that a new breed of international filmmaker is making a mark in their own countries by emulating, and thereby competing with, the work of many American films and filmmakers.

Download a Quicktime of Anastasia singing "Once Upon a December" in Turkish, Polish and Greek. 1.6 MB. © 1997 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.
Being culturally aware is a must in dubbing. A good dub is based on accurate translation and creative and efficient adaptation, in addition to a good director, sound engineer and mixer. A good facility with newer equipment helps too. Once we had to record voice actors in a room that was home to not only the recording studio, but also the accounting department! Without a wall to separate the two departments, recording had to stop each time accounting wanted to send a fax or received a phone call.

Theatrical dubbing is no longer seeing a "dubbed" movie with amusing lip synchronization and very awkward and compromised voice acting. It's an art, as is creating an original filmed feature version. Let's take it a step further. We produce the entire film all over again, in another language, and ensure that the voices match the original talent, the performances match the characters, and most importantly, if Eddie Murphy in Dr. Dolittle says, "I'm so cool," we need to make sure that the audiences from China to the Czech Republic know, he means he's proud of himself--not freezing of cold.

Debra K. Chinn is director of Fox International Theatrical Dubbing at 20th Century Fox Film Corporation and handles all international live-action and animation theatrical releases.

Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to

Table of Contents
Past Issues

About | Help | Home | | Mail | Register

Animation World Magazine | Animation World Store | The AWN Vault 
The AWN Gallery | Animation Village | Calendar of Events | Career Connections | Forums & Chats | Home



©1998 Animation World Network