How to become a Dubbing Voice Over Actor

Voice over artist Paul J Rose in a voice over session

As a voice over actor, the spectrum of work that comes in on a daily basis is what makes the job truly fun. Every voice over artist will strive to find what they consider their niche. Some voice artists will have developed their careers through one established and well regarded voice which works within a specific genre.

Others will have the ability to do impressions, yet it’s a common misconception that being a good impressionist will make you a good voice over artist.

There exists, certainly within the UK, certain laws which prohibit any brand from ‘passing off’ one’s voice as somebody else’s. For example, if a well known car manufacturer wanted to use the voice of David Attenborough, they’d either have to employ the man himself or put a disclaimer on the advert that all celebrity voices are impersonated – and no commercial producer wants to add in even more audio ‘small print’, eating up valuable seconds in their commercial.

What the impressionist needs to do is use his or her range of voices as a jumping off point into the creation of new characters. Granted, the sharp eared listener may well work out the origin voice of the new character, but that’s all the voice over artist is doing with it – using it as source material for a new voice.

Taking an example from the world of animation, voice actor Hank Azaria freely admits that all of the voices he provides on The Simpsons are just bad impressions. Moe the Bartender is Al Pacino, Lou the Cop is Sylvester Stallone and Chief Wiggum is WC Fields. To his credit, he also plays Professor Frink with a flawless impression of the original Sherman Klump from Jerry Lewis’ The Nutty Professor.

What does a voice over do with all these characters?

The dream job for any voice over artist looking to work with character acting is in animation. Of course, high profile animation work is usually granted to those actors with celebrity status. But let’s take a look at what animation voice over acting is – a character is on screen and the voice actor has to truly bring that character to life with their voice. Which, rather neatly, also describes another aspect of work for the busy voice over artist, and that is the world of dubbing.

What Dubbing is NOT

When most of us think about dubbing, we think of it as something which is done rather badly. Spaghetti Westerns and Kung Fu movies from the 1970s were most famous for it, and with good reason. Poor lip syncing, second rate acting and shoddy post production mixing all contributed to a movie or TV show that was never to be taken seriously. We watched them for the comedy value of the bad dubbing, and that was never the intention of the film makers.

But we should offer a vote of sympathy. Dubbing today has evolved due to advances in technology, with dedicated software for the dubbing recording studio which can guide the actors towards much tighter lip syncing. Add to that the advances made in audio recording and the voice over actor now has the freedom to show more expression and truly mirror the original actor’s performance.

So Who is Dubbing Anything?

The simple answer to that question is everyone. Production companies, film distributors and TV channels alike make a lot of their money from the international sale of their products, and nowhere is that more popular than on streaming services such as Netflix.

Netflix are on a mission to change the way people watch television, and many would argue that they are succeeding. But this change goes way beyond the ability to binge and entire series or never have to fast forward through the adverts. No – this change is about how people watch the programmes themselves, and the array of choice that’s available to them.

With every show come language and subtitle options. Viewers can watch a show in its original language with subtitles, or can elect to watch the whole thing dubbed. With hundreds of thousands of hours of content available on Netflix, it will be a while before every show offers that level of choice, but they are definitely working towards that.

And this has opened up countless possibilities for production companies too. Now, after finishing a particular show, streaming services will make recommendations of other shows that the viewer might enjoy, and they’ll be pulling that information from a truly international library.

The early part of the 21st century saw a rise in the popularity of Scandinavian dramas, and viewers were prepared to broaden their pallet. Now, the likes of Netflix will offer up shows from every part of the world, leaving viewers truly spoilt for choice, and for the dubbing actor – a very varied schedule.

The role of the Dubbing Actor

For a voice over actor working in dubbing, it’s important that respect is paid to the original actor on screen. If a particular voice actor is felt to have similar speech patterns and inflections as the actor on scree, then there is a much more likely chance of their being cast in the role.

Dubbing casting directors are looking to make as few (if any) changes from the original. Granted, some phrasing will get lost in translation – there’s very little that can be done about that, but ultimately, the dubbing engineer’s role is to have the audience forget that they’re even watching a dubbed show. And when it’s done right, this can be possible.

The Dubbing Technology

The key is in lip syncing, and modern dubbing studios use a piece of technology known as Bande Rhythmo – a technique developed in France.

The script scrolls along the bottom of the screen, and the voice actor needs to read the dialogue as it passes under a red line on the left hand side of the scroll. This red line is lined up to where the original actor starts and stops speaking.

The latest version of Bande Rhythmo is Voice Q and it goes a step further by having the original waveform on screen as well, so that the voice over can see where the original actor starts and stops.

So a scene is played so that the voice over artist can study the original performance in terms of speed, pitch, volume, emotional intensity and even location – for example if the original actor is speaking outside, it’s unlikely they’d be using their ‘indoor voice’.

Once the voice over artist feels he or she understands what’s happening, the lines are recorded, and the engineer will then make minute adjustments to get the dubbed dialogue as close to the original a possible, paying particular attention to any words which are the same in both languages – such as a person’s name – because perfect syncing on things like that work very well at ‘fooling’ the audience, as their brains will fill in a few of the gaps created by dubbing.

Mixing

The production company will usually provide a track known as M&E, which stands for music and effects. This track contains all of the sounds that are not spoken by the actors, and is vital in creating a mix which is as true to the original as possible.

The dubbing engineer also has to pay close attention to the position of the actors on screen. Most people watch their content in stereo at the very least, with some enjoying a full Dolby 9.1 experience in their own home.

If there’s an actor on the left hand side of the screen whose voice is coming out of the right hand side, then there is a ‘disconnect’ on the part of the viewer – they’ll pay more attention to the technical errors than they will to the storyline, and that really can ruin a whole production.

So Many Characters, So Little Time

If there’s one thing a voice over artist enjoys in the world of dubbing, it’s variety. And it’s not just the variety of voices. If one visits the studios of The Dubbing Brothers in Paris, there’ll be an array of voice actors waiting outside drinking coffee and socialising and waiting to be called to their next assignment.

That assignment could be voicing ‘Man number 3’ in a television drama who has two words in the entire production, quickly followed by moving to another one of their 18 studios to dub the lead role in a major Hollywood production.

Whilst the ability to change one’s voice quickly is certainly an asset, in the world of dubbing, it’s not really entirely necessary. A full take of one character will be done either across multiple episodes of one series, or for an entire movie, before moving onto the next character.

With smaller budget productions, there is an increasing likelihood that one voice over artist will end up having a conversation with himself, but with major studios like Netflix putting more and more investment into dubbing every day, this is happening less and less, and an original production with a headcount of 25 may well have 25 voice actors providing the dubbing.

Cartoons

Children’s cartoons are great fun for a voice over artist, and when it comes to dubbing, there’s even more opportunity dubbing from English – into English!

Many cartoons are produced in the USA, but programme makers are wising up to the fact that young children copy what they see and hear, hence if they are over exposed to American accents, it’s more likely that they will develop one of their own, despite living in the UK.

For this reason, many cartoons aimed at younger audiences are localised – sometimes also called re-versioned. The process is a little quicker, in that no translation is required, and many cartoon mouth movements are not so precise, hence there is a little more wiggle room for both the voice over artist and the dubbing engineer, although precision is still the keyword here.

Services like Netflix Kids will automatically play the version for the territory that the viewer is in, so a child in the UK will hear the UK sound track. It’s important to note that the on screen credits will still refer to the original US actors. In fact, if the viewer waits until after the credits and even the Netflix logo, they’ll then be treated to a series of dub cards, which are the credits for the multitude of dubbed versions that are available.

But let’s fact it, unless it’s a Marvel movie, does anyone watch the credits any more?

The Future of Dubbing

Streaming services, cable networks, satellite stations and terrestrial television have access to hundreds of thousands of hours of content. As well as having it localised, these services also need to cater for the visually impaired by providing Audio Descriptions, and subtitled for the hearing impaired.

Fans of The Matrix will remember that Neo said, “The problem is choice,” except that it’s not a problem, it’s an incredible opportunity, and one which any voice over artist or voice actor would be wise to explore.