Preserving the Magic

The most essential quality for dubbers, says Cohen, is a musical ear, which enables actors to hear the melody and intonation of each word, and to replicate them.

"No, you'll see! I want you to understand exactly whom you're dealing with here!" Orna Banai reads angrily in a heavy French accent. "How many women do you see in this kitchen?" She lowers her voice in a sarcastic and threatening tone. Sharon Cohen, who is sitting in the adjacent control room facing three computer screens and a keyboard, looks pleased. "Good, let's see it," he says as he processes the voice files.

Banai is voicing the character of Colette, the French cook in "Ratatouille," the new animated movie from Walt Disney-Pixar. With a few keystrokes, Cohen replaces Colette's English with Banai's Hebrew. The scene is set in a Parisian kitchen, Banai's anger suits the frightening expressions on Colette's face, and the sarcasm dripping from her Hebrew is no less threatening than the knife Colette jams into the table.

But Cohen is not satisfied. "The 'exactly' doesn't fit with any of her body movements," he complains, running the dubbed sequence repeatedly and examining the fit between Banai's voice and Colette's actions on screen. "That's not it," he rules and turns to the screen on his left. There he has the Hebrew text, which Banai can also see on the screen in front of her. Here, he makes endless changes during his long hours in the studio.

"Maybe we should try 'Get it into your head?'" suggests Banai. Cohen likes this, types in the new sentence, changes another word or two and motions to Banai that the recording is starting. "No, you'll see! Maybe you should get it into your head whom you're dealing with here!" Banai's French accent curls through the space once again. Cohen once again processes the voice file on the computer and combines the animation with the sound, but still is not satisfied. The Hebrew word for "here" requires a round movement of the lips, where as the French cook closes her lips at the end of the sentence. "Let's try ending the sentence with the word 'sir,'" he suggests.

The door opens and in walks Netta Ben Zvi, the director of the Elrom dubbing studios. "Is this what you've been doing until now?" she demands. "We have to send a reel down today!" Ben Zvi is shocked that Cohen and Banai have thus far dubbed only two lines out of 42. Nevertheless, after she leaves, the pace of work does not appear to change. The director and the actress return to the slow, Sisyphean work, full of experimentation and mulling. The main thing is that Colette's Hebrew sound and look convincing.

The workdays at the Elrom studios in Tel Aviv are especially long at this time of year. The studio starts work at 9 A.M., and the lights go off at 4 A.M. the following day. Since the studio needs to dub four children's films for the summer, employees work long hours on weekends and holidays as well. To keep up with the pressure, two dubbing teams work on each film.

"A few days ago we finished work on 'Shrek the Third' from Dreamworks Studios, now we are in the midst of 'Ratatouille' from Pixar, meanwhile we have started preparing for the dubbing of the new Harry Potter film, and immediately after that we will start to work on the fourth film, 'Surf's Up,' from Sony," says Ben Zvi. "The dubbing of an average film takes about 200 hours of recording, and at a busy time like now, this means a week and half to two weeks of recordings. However, a long film like the new 'Harry Potter' (142 minutes - N.A.) needs more studio hours."

Cohen, the chief director at the Elrom dubbing studios, got married last Wednesday. His colleagues went straight from the dance floor to the dark studio, and the bridegroom himself was back in the office the very next morning. There is no time for vacations now. Cohen found it hard to clear time even for a newspaper interview. The problem was solved when an actor didn't show up for recording, leaving Sharon a rare hour of leisure.

Cohen says he always starts work on a new film by identifying the challenges the film presents. "In 'Mary Poppins,' for example, one character had a Cockney accent and all the rest had other British accents. I had to figure out how to transmit this to the Israeli audience. Or if it happens that there are songs in the film, we must confirm we have the rights to translate the song. Only after that can we start."

The initial translation of dialogues into Hebrew is no more than a draft, which the director and the actors edit during the course of work. Ultimately, hardly a sentence remains unchanged. "After the translation of the text comes the adaptation, in which, among other things, the style of the language is set," says Cohen. "In 'Ratatouille,' for example, I am intentionally trying to mess up the language a bit. Because the film is set in France and all the characters speak with a French accent, I wanted the Hebrew not to be too good. A person who has a heavy accent isn't usually entirely fluent, and therefore it is natural that he makes mistakes when he speaks," explains Cohen. "However, a comic character makes more mistakes, and a less funny character makes fewer mistakes."

Along with the determination of the style, the adaptation also includes an attempt to match the syllables to the character's lip movements. This is the most Sisyphean part of dubbing, admits Cohen. "You can rebuild a sentence 10 times, change it again and again, test dozens of options. Sometimes they tell me I'm too fussy and I'm the only one it bothers if a line doesn't exactly fit the lip movements, but that's really not the case. When you watch the film you can feel it, and it's not pleasant. Film, after all, is magic, and when the dubbing isn't good, the magic doesn't work."

However, so as not to harm the cinematic magic, the dubbers must not sink too deeply into the technical aspect of synchronizing the words to the lip movements. The danger lurking in the hasty replacement of words and frequent changes in the translated text is damage to the original line. "It often happens that we have to compensate for the loss of meaning in a certain sentence by means of changes to the line before or after," says Cohen. "But sometimes, after we try to say the same thing in different words and discover this is not possible, there is no alternative but to make some kind of concession."

The most essential quality for dubbers, says Cohen, is a musical ear, which enables actors to hear the melody and intonation of each word, and to replicate them. However, dubbers' professionalism is also measured by their ability to identify all the relevant data in a scene and to act accordingly. "When good dubbers watch a scene in the original language, they take in a great deal of information. They learn the character's intentions, the situation, and what factors are causing the character to speak in one way and not another," he says. "They notice the movements the character makes and understand how they affect his speech."

In regard to casting considerations, Cohen says he first chooses actors similar in age to the characters. "The speaker has to sound like he is the same age as the character he is portraying, even though this doesn't always necessarily mean they are really the same age. A person's voice changes with age. Hoarsenss and roughness are usually suited to older characters (and also fat or evil people), whereas a clear, soft voice is more suited to young characters (and also good-hearted or naive people)."

But the casting, it turns out, is not determined by such considerations alone. "Sometimes the client - the company that is distributing the film - says the main roles need to be played by big names, to help with the public relations," says Cohen.

"We aren't always comfortable with this," Ben Zvi admits, "but we understand this is part of a film's success. Nevertheless, in most cases when we worked with famous actors, they surprised us for the better."

Once the casting is done, the dubbing studios send "tests" to the filmmakers: Each actor dubs a short sequence and the recording is sent to the studios abroad, where they decide whether to approve the casting. "Sometimes they don't approve an actor because he sounds too young, or too old, or because he does not understand the character well enough," says Cohen. The decision-makers abroad don't usually understand Hebrew, but Cohen insists that this does not matter. "If you show me a sequence dubbed in Japanese, I too can say whether the actor is dubbing the character well," he says.

After Cohen and Banai repeatedly recorded the same sentence, changing it and improving it to meet the demanding character of Colette, French accent and all, Cohen was at long last satisfied with the result. "Oh, they're going to applaud us for that line in the theater," says Banai, stretching in her chair and laughing. "Applaud us?" smiles Cohen. "Just at that moment the child is going to spill the popcorn on his mother, she is going to yell at him and neither of them will hear anything."

Even Cohen agrees that dubbing can sometimes be frustrating. "Sometimes you invest a lot of time and work in a line, but in the film it goes by in a second. This can be frustrating but you mustn't despair, because if you despair it is better to leave the profession. Bad dubbing is a horrible thing. Our role is to give Israeli children an experience that is as close as possible to the viewing experience in the original language, and this aim necessitates a lot of effort."