The Long-Practiced Practice of Dubbing


“Dubbing” is one of the oldest voice over genres. We all know dubbing from when a film crosses linguistic boundaries. It’s the alternative to subtitles. If the actors originally spoke English, the film might be dubbed into German, or Japanese, or Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. Or vice versa.

But more broadly defined, the genre includes any situation where the voice talent is putting words in someone’s (or something’s) mouth after-the-fact, in a way that makes it appear the voice is actually coming from the on-screen character.

It might be to replace another actor’s voice, or it might be to replace their own voice. (For example, if conditions on the set were too noisy). It could be a talking-dog video, or a commercial where the on-camera model needs a different sort of voice or accent. This specialized voice over field has come to include all sorts of situations. The one thing it doesn’t include is Animation (a genre unto itself) because in animation the voices are often recorded before the characters are drawn. But there are many times where Animation is produced the other way around, and functionally, that sort of work is Dubbing, too.

We’ve said it’s a specialized field because it typically requires special skills and even special studio equipment. And it’s evolved over a long, long time.

You’d think that dubbing and dubbing technology would date all the way back to the invention of moving-picture technology itself. But first, whether the sound was to be recorded live or added later, the industry had to solve the problem of synchronization.

People did begin working on it right away, but practical synchronized sound didn’t emerge until 1926. Meanwhile, at first a live narrator explained the screen action, later replaced by on-screen text (“titles”).

For awhile, the silent moving image was novel enough that theater-goers were satisfied with whatever musical accompaniment could be provided. It was usually a piano, but in major theaters it could be very elaborate, -- a fabulous organ or even an orchestra. Some notable directors (such as Griffith) contended that artfully-made motion pictures should no more have sound than a still photo should have it. And first, of course, someone had to give those theater-goers theaters.

Eventually though, perfection of audio tube amplification technology and invention of the condenser microphone (in 1916 and improved by 1922) enabled recorded sound to accompany the picture. It still wasn’t perfectly synchronized, because it wasn’t yet recorded on the film itself – it was on a phonograph record, in a system known as Vitaphone. The landmark 1927 movie “The Jazz Singer” had a Vitaphone soundtrack. (Slightly earlier on-the-film sound technology had lower fidelity, so its time was yet to come. The first Movietone newsreel, released a month before “The Jazz Singer,” employed sound-on-film technology to produce a rudimentary narration.)

Although the projector and disc were mechanically synched, the match-up could easily go wrong. In a sense, this wasn’t exactly “voice over” so much as it was “voice next-to.”

There was also another hurdle: The emerging condenser microphone technology was, well, still emerging, and filming equipment (although acoustically isolated) was pretty noisy.

Dubbing saved the day. As fans of the movie “Singin’ in the Rain” (set in the 1920s) are aware, lines often had to be rerecorded under better-controlled conditions.

Origins of the term “dubbing” are hazy, but it developed at that time, probably from the word “doubling,” applied to the practice of having an actor voice lines over what had been produced as a silent film (another scenario in “Singin’ in the Rain”). In a sense, the voice actor was a voice double, just as a stunt actor is a body double. Or, as in the French word doublure, an understudy. Other possibilities, perhaps less likely, are that it was double the work, or as would be said of sound discs (and later of tape recordings), “dubbing” was to make a duplicate.

Whatever its origins, the practice and profession of dubbing were getting underway by 1930. Over the years, fidelity improved, optical-recording equipment was developed for mixing, multiple-track recording was invented, and Hollywood’s most famous actors became accustomed to voicing as many as 220 loops (snippets of video that repeat again and again) in a day.

In the film industry today, the term “dubbing” applies to the entire sound-mixing process of adding ambient noise, Foley and recorded sound effects, rerecorded voices, the musical score, etc.

(Here’s a great two-part article on the history and technology of dubbing through 1995: http://www.msteer.co.uk/analyt/jfilmdubbing1.html)

For today’s voice over artist, the broad definition of dubbing provides a wide range of opportunities. In addition to projects such as changing the language, and voicing existing animation, it includes Automated Dialog Replacement (e.g., the noisy-set or mumbled-line scenario), replacing a singer, or giving voice to an actor (or one’s self) in a commercial that was shot MOS ...

... which, as folks in the film industry know, is a term that has many possible etymological origins but is popularly said to mean “MitOut Sound.”

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