Avatar in Spanish, or French, or German

How dubbing works.


James Cameron’s Avatar has earned over $440 million at the domestic box office but has raked in more than twice that much internationally. The viewing experience in many non-English-speaking countries is naturally quite different—since audiences hear dubbing artists read Sam Worthington and Sigourney Weaver’s lines. While Americans generally associate dubbing with out-of-sync martial arts B-movies, the technique is no joke for audiences around the world, where most of the big-budget films are from the United States. How does dubbing work?

First, pick your languages. Big Hollywood movies are always dubbed into French, German, and Spanish, since those respective countries all have sizable film-going communities. There are often two Spanish versions, one for Spain and one for Latin America. Otherwise, the decision depends on the type of film and its perceived market value in a given country. Animated films are dubbed into more languages than live action, since animation is primarily aimed at children who may not be able to read subtitles. Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, for instance, will be dubbed into 38 languages, while the studio’s live-action offering The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is only scheduled for nine.

The studio then hires translators, who typically reside in the local country. They start by creating a raw, word-for-word translation. In many cases, the translation is then tweaked to make the words fit better with the actors’ English-speaking mouths. The translator will try to make the “labials”—the consonants that cause the mouth to close, such as M, B, and P—match up with the labials in the English version.

Next, the studio starts casting voice-over actors in each country, often with the help of local studios and, occasionally, the film’s director. The foreign actors’ voices have to match the age, texture, and comedic sense of the original. For a big celebrity such as Johnny Depp or Jim Carrey, a single actor in each country will dub all of the star’s films. Koichi Yamadera, for instance, is the official Jim Carrey of Japan. Studios also sometimes employ local celebrities, like when Disney hired the French singer Charles Aznavour to do the voice of Ed Asner’s protagonist in the movie Up. On rare occasions, the original actor will do the dubbing himself. Viggo Mortensen speaks Spanish, so he did a Spanish dub for Hidalgo. For the Castilian dub of G-Force, Penélope Cruz was unavailable, so her sister, Monica Cruz, got the job instead.

To record the parts, actors read from a script while watching the video. Before each line of dialogue, they’ll hear three beeps, and at the moment when the fourth imaginary beep should have sounded, they start their line. That, at least, is the standard method. The French use a completely different technique known as “rythmo band.” As the movie plays, lines of dialogue scroll across the bottom of the screen in calligraphy, which stretches and compresses in different places, indicating precisely how to shoehorn the words into the character’s mouth movements. While actors using the regular process record about 10 lines per hour, those using rythmo band record two or three times as many and are more in sync with the character’s lips.

Performers often develop their own recording tricks. Natasha Perez, an actress in Los Angeles who does Spanish dubbing, says that since Spanish sentences typically take longer to say than the equivalent in English, she has to say her lines as quickly as possible and will often start speaking a tad early. To record a kiss, she’ll either kiss the top of her hand (for a peck) or put the tip of her thumb together with the tip of her index finger and kiss the hole (for a French).

To finish the process, the studio takes the film’s main soundtrack and strips out the English voices, creating what is called an M&E—music and effects track. Once the foreign actors’ voices are recorded, sound editors take the M&E and stick the foreign dialogue in the right places. The sound mixers then blend the dialogue with the music and sound effects so that everything sounds fluid.

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Explainer thanks Rick Dempsey of Disney Character Voices International, Mark Graziano of Dreamworks, and Natasha Perez.