Dubbing a Picture

MALCOLM MORLEY November 15 1938

Dubbing a Picture

MALCOLM MORLEY November 15 1938

Dubbing a Picture


TAKE out the sound!” It is an ominous command. The film is now to run without the reproduced voices of the actors who made it. Only their visual images remain; face-making caricatures, working the muscles of their mouths in heavy silence. What a curiously uncanny effect is there, when speech has been taken from a talkie and only photography is left. The people appear like ghosts of the original players—far more so than in a purposely silent film of the old days.

Technique in a talkie is subject to the sound track, that strip which, imposed upon the celluloid, reproduces speech. Take away the sound track and the result is silence, even though the lips of the people shown on the screen are moving up and down, round and round, giving emotional values to words that no longer exist.

The good ancient verb “to dub” has today in the moving picture studio an extended use. It is applied to the process which changes the tongue of a film. The art of dubbing takes one language from a picture and replaces it with another. It is a method of allowing a film to be served universally, and to be understood in countries foreign from the one where it originated. All that has to be done is to replace the original sound track with a new one in a new language.

It would seem simple enough, but in the doing strange things happen. The art of the drama is completely eclipsed by the science of mechanics. At least so it appeared to me during my experience when converting the French of Harry Bauer into the English of my own voice for a film called “The Golem.”

There were some 150 shots in the picture, and Harry Bauer, rightly placed as the greatest of French film actors, was seen in almost every one. Each shot, representing of course only a small part of the completed picture, was run off, over and over again, in its original form with the French in full blast. The Gallic players had each a counterpart to voice him or her in the English studio where the dubbing was being done. Like big-game hunters on the alert, the counterparts stood watching the mouths of the French actors who paraded the screen before them.

From the sheet issued French. In due time, when the scene had been digested by the onlookers, came mutterings from them in English. They were making a first attempt at placing their own voices into the mouths of the screen characters. After considerable repetition the mutterings grew louder. The English team was acquiring confidence and beginning to speak up.

It soon became a competition between French and English, both going at the same time.

At the word of Ted Fox, the young American in command, the volume of the French sound track was lowered. The picture spoke in whispers. It was barely heard, yet sufficiently so to be a guiding factor to the intense onlookers pouring forth the English text. The French words still provided them with cues. They spoke when the film spoke, though over and above it.

Then came the awesome edict, “Take out the sound.” and the French was cut entirely out of the picture.

One Must be Calm

MORE anxiously than ever the humar. • watched the shadows of the originals. On the screen was the figure of Harry Bauer as the mad King Rudolf of Bohemia watching the elaborate experiment of a magician who had claimed to have discovered the secret of perpetual motion. I knew that when the monarch turned his head for the second time, after pursing his lips thrice, he was to call the magician a liar—or rather I, as Bauer’s counterpart, had to call him a liar. Then, when the king in a frenzy seized the magician by the throat, shaking him as a terrier does a rat, that unfortunate was to beg piteously for mercy. That is, the counterpart of the magician standing next to me was to do so. We did our best.

In the next shot. King Rudolf in the person of Harry Bauer had to roar the punishments that were in store for the trembling magician. “To the Hirschgraben! To the lions with the liar!” ran the English translation I had learned for the occasion. The two characters struggled across the screen. We, the counterparts, had vocally to abandon ourselves to it and still remain cool and collected.

Bodily and mentally we were cramped, overconscious of the controls regulating the mechanism of dubbing. As we voiced that struggle we dare not look at each other. Our eyes had to be glued upon the ghosts on the screen. Every word we uttered, every gasp and grunt—and there were a large number of grunts in “The Golem”—must be made to coincide with their lip movements. Nor dare we stir to the left or to the right for fear of evading the microphone which conveyed our voices to the sound expert in charge of the new sound track.

We stood there at attention in our street clothes, looking anything but like the characters in the film. Ted Fox was telling us to be higher, meaning the tones of our voices. The sound expert was telling us to be lower, meaning the volume of voice which naturally had to match up with the volume in other shots.

At last came the time when we fully remembered all the things to do and the many more things not to do. We were ready for the actual recording. And in a deadly calm we voiced the noisy battle between king and magician. One must, indeed, be calm to manipulate so much mechanism. The shot was finished, after a few re-recordings, to everyone’s satisfaction. and “put in the can” as studio slang describes it.

There were scores and scores more shots to record. Day after day. from nine in the morning until near eight at night, we stood in front of that sheet, watching the mouths of those Frenchmen. On and off we turned our mental taps, hoping they would flow with the right imagination, the brand of emotion suited to the scene. We hoped for drama as the result of our efforts held in leash.

And when ultimately exhibited on the screen, what a synthetic showing; a story illustrated in the forms of players, with the voices of others loaned for the occasion. To misquote Shakespeare:

“Lend me your voice. I come to speak another language, not to use mine own.”