The Craft Behind Dubbing For Animation

This article was originally published by the Entertainment Globalization Association in The Reteller: The Animation Edition (Spring 2022)

Animated content can bring magic to millions. A world full of characters and stories that capture the hearts and imaginations of audiences across the globe.

The visual experience of animation is universal. The artwork itself transcends geographical and linguistic barriers – there for anyone to see and appreciate, regardless of their culture, nationality or native tongue. But so much of the joy of animation comes from the language, voices, personalities, sounds and stories that bring this visual art to life.

This article will explore the craft behind dubbing for animation, delving into the pursuit of artistic and cultural integrity, consistency in vocal performances and age-authentic casting practices.

Authenticity in Character Preservation

The global appeal of animated content continues to grow together with the relentless demand for localized adaptations.

With the formidable rise of streaming, animation is expanding its global audience – dubbed into more languages than ever before. The quest for authenticity within this process is one of great importance. After all, why should any audience be forced to sacrifice the original vision of the creator in order to enjoy animation in their own language?

A character was brought to life with nothing but a pencil and a vision. This original character must be preserved at all costs.

“Dubbing for animated content is all about character preservation,” asserts Raúl Aldana, Vice President of Dubbing at ZOO Digital.

“A character was brought to life with nothing but a pencil and a vision, which then inspired a voice, personality and identity. This original character must be preserved at all costs, no matter the target culture or language of the dub.”

Having acted as Disney’s creative head for Latin American Spanish for over 20 years, as well as voicing an array of high-profile animated characters himself, Raúl is a proven expert in achieving authenticity within localized animation. His final project with Disney brought 32 leading stars to the Spanish version of Coco, which has since become Mexico’s top-grossing film of all time.

“The mission is always to create the illusion that the movie or television show has been produced for the language and culture it is being dubbed into. It is impossible to achieve this authenticity without the perfect script and lip-sync – an even harder task than with live-action content due to the unique labial movements of animated characters. Without these considerations, audiences across the globe will have different experiences of the animated story, with deviations that betray the original idea of the director or creator.”

Animated content should be accessible to children on a global scale and dubbing is making that goal achievable.

Anna Chew, the Territory Manager for SEA and China at ZOO Digital, adds: “With the advancement of high-quality dubbing production, the end-user expects to be able to choose how they consume content based upon their own preference, without compromising on quality and authenticity. This applies to both live-action and animated content but is a particularly important consideration for the latter due to the differing reading capabilities of the genre’s younger audience. Animated content should be accessible to children on a global scale and dubbing is making that goal achievable.”

In her previous role with Disney Character Voices International (DCVI), Anna was responsible for sharing some of the most successful Disney, Star Wars and Marvel films of recent years with audiences in the SEA region, including animated classics such as FrozenMoana, Finding Dory, The Good DinosaurInside Out and Big Hero 6.

“It is also vital to show respect to the original production. Let’s say you write a book and the translation of that book doesn’t match the original. The chances are that elements of the story will be lost, blocking audiences of different cultures and nationalities from experiencing the original intentions of the author.”

It’s like a chess board, where everything must be in the right place at the right time for it to make sense.

Echoing this sentiment, Raúl adds: “Dubbing for animation is like a complex puzzle of adaptation, casting, recording, editorial, track cleaning, cutting and expanding. It’s like a chessboard, where everything must be in the right place at the right time for it to make sense. Adding even one extra syllable can easily remove the core style and intricacies of an animation, taking away the authenticity and feel of the original.”

The craft of animation deserves to be shared in its truest, most genuine form. By allowing character preservation to guide the way, dubbing teams can unlock animated content for global audiences, remaining true to the original animation without forfeiting the authenticity they are entitled to.

Finding the Voice

Casting the right voice is one essential component in executing this authenticity. Around the world, audiences of different nationalities must be able to experience animated characters in the same way as those viewing the original version – and so much of this experience is carried through the voice.

As a result, dubbing teams are tasked with finding and casting talent who can mirror both the voice of the original actor and the story at the heart of the animation.

A voice can create the whole essence of a character.

“In animated content, a voice can create the whole essence of a character,” explains Raúl.

“You often see this with special characters like Stitch (Lilo & Stitch, Disney, 2002), for example, whose distinctive voice is so important to his personality and the audience’s relationship with the story. It is mimicked and celebrated worldwide, and this essence of the voice should be translated into every other localized adaptation to maintain the integrity of the original. The process cannot just be about delivering funny voices, even though this can easily be an actor’s instinct on animated projects. Again, it comes back to character preservation – ensuring that all voice adaptations are recognizable as the character and match that initial, unique vision of the original creator.”

Many popular animations are also used in games, toys, advertisements and beyond, presenting a further challenge in maintaining consistency for dubbing professionals. With so many people involved in the wider project, the uniformity needed to effectively represent the beloved characters of the genre can be even harder to get right.

“Directors can spend a long time listening closely to a range of voices to find the right one for each different language dub. In other instances, they will choose a national celebrity as the voice actor to generate further interest in the feature. Either way, in popular animation there is often a long list of alternates – sound-alikes and voice matches – who can step in for the primary voice actor on lower-profile projects.”

Raúl continues: “Each one of these actors must be able to replicate the distinctive and recognizable voice of their character, without allowing the consistency to slip and damage the integrity of the localized adaptation. Achieving this consistency requires every single contributor to possess a deep understanding of the character’s personality and voice, as well as the wider story. To draw out the very best performances, dubbing teams should prioritize continuous coaching that helps voice talent to develop and cement this craft.”

Deviations in vocal performance can also come from voices that are ‘put on’ by actors for their animated characters. To address this, Anna reinforces Raúl’s prioritization of ongoing vocal coaching throughout the casting process and beyond:

“Live-action content is far easier to dub than animation because the voiceprints and lip-sync are more likely to match the real voice of the actor. You are also recording the voice of a real person, enabling a natural tone and cadence to come easily throughout the dubbing process,” she notes.

“Animation allows for more freedom to experiment and venture away from the natural voice. On the one hand, this freedom leads to the formulation of iconic vocal performances that are known and loved worldwide, such as that of Winnie The Pooh. On the other hand, delivering consistency across many different languages while remaining true to the original character becomes a more challenging task, because the artificial voice must be replicated and reproduced as accurately as possible in every recording session. It is incredibly difficult, for example, for an actor to deliver a voice like Winnie The Pooh’s in a consistent way over an extended, disjointed period of time while matching the animated lip-sync, especially in a long-running television or film series.”

It is not necessarily how we find the talent but how we manage and coach the talent through the relationship.

The solution, Anna argues, can be found in preparation and practice: “It is not necessarily how we find the talent but how we manage and coach the talent through the relationship. In my experience, regular coaching and training go a long way in finding the balance between a dynamic character voice and one that can be replicated time and time again. Behind the scenes recordings that can be saved and listened to before future sessions are incredibly helpful and informative for both the dubbing team and the talent.

“It is also important to note,” she continues, “that a voice performance, particularly one that is put on for an animated character, can be jeopardized by overworking the actors, so planning, rest and patience are imperative to the dubbing process.”

The right voice can shape an audience’s experience of an animated story, adding indispensable depth to the characters at its center. Working closely with talent to mold and maintain this voice, as well as their understanding of the original production, will help dubbing professionals to celebrate and preserve the identities and personalities of characters that mean so much to so many.

Age-Authentic Performance

Casting children has proven to be a compelling and desirable way of finding the right voice for animated characters, both within the original feature and in post-production. Child actors have a unique ability to express themselves naturally in voice recordings while capturing the positivity and joy that is characteristic of so many animated productions.

During her time at Nickelodeon and DCVI, Anna pioneered the casting of age-authentic voice acting on hits such as Dora The Explorer, Spongebob Squarepants, Sofia The First, Finding Dory and The Good Dinosaur.

“Using kids to record dubbing is such a pleasure. Children give the sort of raw performance that lends itself perfectly to the emotion and feel of an animated piece, and simply cannot be achieved with adult talent,” she says.

Children give the sort of raw performance that lends itself perfectly to the emotion and feel of an animated piece.

Raúl shares Anna’s enthusiasm for age-authentic dubbing performances, with his own wealth of experience in working with child actors on Disney features and beyond.

“It is often said that children and animals make the best actors. One of the joys of working with children to record dubbing for animation is that they don’t need to be anything but themselves to deliver outstanding performances,” Raúl puts forward.

“The localization of animation should always be based upon the values of the client, especially when children and families are the target end-user. For example, the key goal of the Disney Channel has always been to provide the perfect babysitter – an entertaining and educational stream of content that shields kids from any form of negative learning. These values should be reflected in every element of working with children in a studio environment. Creating a safe, enjoyable space for children and mirroring the values of the client’s original content should always be a priority in developing the best performance possible for localized animation.”

“Working with children requires the right environment, and preparation is key,” Anna agrees.

“Inviting the child actors to come into the studio long before recording begins is a great way to increase their familiarity of the environment, set-up and team, and ensure that they are entirely comfortable when the project gets underway.”

From a directorial point of view, the goal should always be to empower the child actor to be their natural self, letting the performance come from within them.

Keep them happy, keep them curious and keep them having fun.

“As a director, it is important to let them be, to let them talk. Being strict and stern might help you to get the job done faster, but it certainly won’t help the quality or energy of the dub itself. Keep them happy, keep them curious and keep them having fun – this is the key to capturing the magic and vibrancy of animation,” Raul explains.

Offering a similar outlook, Anna adds: “Children tend, of course, to have short attention spans and require frequent rest breaks and a shorter pace to optimize their concentration, while playing games and making jokes maintains the light-hearted nature of the original animation.

“Overall, I believe that the best thing a director can do is to connect with the child and understand their likes and dislikes, allowing them to bring the character to life using their own experiences.”

Creating a secure and entertaining environment will enable children to excel in their vocal performance and, again, enhance the authenticity and emotion of an animation. While it is true that not all animation targets children and families, working with child actors on the ones that do is a powerful way to bring further life to localized adaptations.

The Future

The magic of animation should flow through every moment of production. The localization of content within the genre is no exception.

By prioritizing character preservation, coaching on consistency and age-authentic performance with this process, dubbing teams can encapsulate the core essence of an animation while keeping authenticity at the heart of their adaptation.

As we look to the future, the demand for localized animation seems likely to increase, along with the involvement of studios and audiences alike in the dubbing process.

Speaking on the continued development of dubbing for animation, Raúl states: “There has been a big change in how involved the client is with the dubbing process. For television productions in particular, it used to be that we wouldn’t know whether content would be dubbed or not, largely due to the prioritization of subtitling in localization projects. I think The Simpsons marked a big change in this approach, with Matt Groening hand-picking the voice actor for every single character in each native language. Now, much more importance is placed on dubbing in the post-production environment, motivating studios and OTT platforms to pay closer attention to the craft behind it.”

We are seeing the extent to which audiences truly care about the dubbed content they consume.

“There is an endless stream of animated content that needs to be localized – spanning across a growing abundance of platforms, languages and cultures – with no room for compromise on turnaround, cost and, most importantly, quality,” adds Anna.

“We are also seeing the extent to which audiences truly care about the dubbed content they consume, making audience satisfaction an even more vital consideration. Digital transformation is amplifying the voices of these audiences across the world. Listening to their voices, as well as striving for the authenticity they seek, is sure to guide the future of dubbing for animation.”

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