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Dubbing makes 'Shrek' funny in foreign languages

HOLLYWOOD -- At first Chuck Mitchell did not think it was such a great idea to insert a slaughterhouse joke in the middle of "Shrek."

"I said, wait a minute, I don't think so. I mean, it's one thing to have Shrek say he's going to kick Donkey's butt; it's another to have him dragging him off to the meat house."

But then Mitchell isn't Polish. Apparently, in Poland, there is a very funny folk tale involving a donkey and a slaughterhouse. And according to the translator working on the Polish version of the wildly successful DreamWorks film, they would be fools not to reference it. So Mitchell said go with the slaughterhouse.

"We had a great translator," he says with a shrug. "I trusted him. There were lots of things that had to be changed because a lot of the fairy tales they use in 'Shrek' are not known in Poland. So we used dialogue to add some Polish fairy tales."

Mitchell is president of Voices in the Arts, an audio production company that does, among other things, foreign dubbing for theatrical and nontheatrical film projects. As foreign sales have become increasingly important to the entertainment industry -- making up, in some cases, 50 percent of revenue -- the "foreign post-production," or dubbing, industry has grown in scope and expertise. Where once it consisted of literal voice-over translation, often not particularly well synchronized, now entire casts and crews are assembled to re-create the dialogue in a way that captures not only the spirit of the original movie but also provides local nuance to make it play better in the various foreign territories.

Throughout Western Europe, English-speaking film and television has been regularly dubbed for years. In France, Italy, Germany, and Spain (the FIGS, as they are called in the industry), there is a freestanding dubbing industry with studios and talent that can have lucrative careers in dubbing alone. But as Hollywood has ventured into Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa, dubbing is overseen by the American studios, which will hire local actors and directors but, when the budget allows, also provide a production supervisor such as Mitchell to be on set.

Mitchell signs off on everything -- from the script to the performances, where cultural translation is as important as linguistics.

For "Shrek," Mitchell oversaw the Polish, Catalan, and Castilian versions; for "Titan A.E.," he worked in Hong Kong, Korea, Spain, Iceland, and Greece; and for "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace," he supervised the dubbing in Hong Kong and Russia.

"Chuck is part of a very select group who not only understand the creative process but also know how to do all the audio post-production," says Debra Chinn, executive director of international theatrical dubbing for Fox Film Corp., who has worked with Mitchell many times over the years. "Because it's not a question of understanding the language so much as it is understanding the original project."

"In a way, I am a professional American," Mitchell says. "A lot of the [foreign] directors may or may not have worked in the US, so they may or may not get some of the references or nuance. Sometimes I have to explain that this is supposed to be funny, or this isn't."

That cuts both ways. Mitchell remembers asking a Russian director why the actors voicing one film sounded so stern and angry. "I said, 'You know, the characters aren't supposed to be angry here.' And he said, 'Oh they aren't angry. That's just the way we talk.' I hear it's even worse in Turkey; in Turkey they scream at each other."

Mitchell, who got into theatrical dubbing by way of music production and interactive dubbing, is one of a handful of independent dubbing supervisors living in the United States. Occasionally, he works in the FIGS. (If there is a big enough budget for the translated version, local stars will be cast -- in France, Vincent Cassel often dubs Hugh Grant, in Poland Jerzy Stuhr dubbed Eddie Murphy in both "Shrek" movies. )

But much of his work has been in the newer territories. Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa still tend toward subtitles, but that is changing, especially for those films aimed at a family audience. "Kids can't read subtitles," Mitchell says. "So they dub the animation features and some live action. 'Star Wars' is a natural example."

"When I got into dubbing in 1989," says Chinn, who has a degree in linguistics, "I went to Disney because the only studio that had its own dubbing department was Disney. Now most of the big studios have one."

And with the increase in foreign sales has come a greater concern about "protecting the brand." Filmmakers want to make sure that what audiences are hearing in Iceland and Hong Kong and Moscow is essentially, if not specifically, the same dialogue heard in the United States. Which means the studios need more control and more resources.

"So in 'Star Wars,' you have to secure all the various voices of Darth Vader," Chinn says. "Which can be difficult if, over the years, some of the actors have died or retired."

Although it probably isn't the first thing on anyone's mind, every shift in the international community affects Mitchell and Chinn and those involved in foreign post-production. When the Soviet Union fell, when the United States invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq, new dubbing markets were born. When Chinn came to Fox in 1997, the studio dubbed for 28 territories; this year it will be 33.

"Croatia may not provide a huge revenue," Chinn says, "but it's revenue."

Although it is cheaper to deal directly with a director in a given territory, a dubbing supervisor gives the studio more control. There are countless ways a translation must be modified for each audience. "I [Heart] Huckabees," for example, opens with 45 seconds of swearing, which doesn't play well in France. So the tenor of the language had to be changed. Directors such as David O. Russell and Baz Luhrmann are becoming increasingly involved; many will sit through each dubbed version with a translator and sometimes demand a new version if they aren't happy with an actor.

"It isn't like the old days when films just got a voice-over translation," Mitchell says. "Everything is much more nuanced."

Yet cost-cutting at every level has recently decreased the number of jobs Mitchell has gotten abroad. It has been suggested to him by several studio executives that he move to Europe, which would make him competitive for projects without the budget to fly in and put up a US-based supervisor. So far, he and his wife have resisted, and a nascent local dubbing market is filling in some of the gaps.

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