Dubbing, at least for English-speaking audiences, has been a joke for decades. Dodgy lip syncing and weird language tracks have been parodied in everything from Police Academy to Bad Lip Reading.
It’s easy to laugh when so much of what we watch is in English. For anything that isn’t – Scandi drama, Japanese anime – viewers tune in precisely because it’s in a foreign language, and so presumably they’re happy to read the subtitles.
Now, however, the joke might be on us. Dubbing is back – thanks to Netflix.
“Dubbing was dead in the US. People weren’t dubbing content,” Todd Yellin, Netflix’s Vice President of Product, said during a recent speech. “At Netflix we said, ‘Shouldn’t we? Let’s see what happens.’”
According to Yellin, because Netflix releases its original shows around the world at exactly the same time, more and more subscribers who wouldn’t normally watch foreign language shows are checking out international imports.
“It used to be that an American series would come out in the US, and maybe two or three years later it would come out in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia,” he said. “And boy, I didn’t see any Italian series in the US like Suburra when I was growing up, or even recently. Nor did I see German series, or titles in Arabic or Turkish. They weren’t available, there was no such thing.
“At Netflix we think that’s ridiculous: internet TV and the technology involved, the distribution network involved, makes it so that when we come out with a great new Original, we flip a switch and everyone gets it at the same time.”
And audiences are biting. Netflix viewing data reveals that nine out of every ten people who watched German TV series Dark lived outside of Germany.
It’s an encouraging statistic, especially from a company normally so fiercely protective of its viewing figures. It suggests that whether a series is filmed in Essex or Estonia, good TV will find a global audience.
That said, there is a caveat. Anyone used to watching foreign language series might assume that all those Dark viewers were watching in the original German with English subtitles, but apparently not.
Instead, 81 per cent of people in English-speaking countries watched Dark dubbed, according to Netflix. Perhaps viewers are not as open to foreign language dramas as they say they are?
Dark isn’t an isolated case, either. With Italian series Suburra, 52 per cent of viewers in English territories watched it with an English language dub. It works the other way around too: in Italy, 75 per cent of users watched 13 Reasons Why dubbed with Italian actors.
“We want to give consumers choice,” Yellin said. “So when you go to the Netflix controls in the user interface, you can easily choose. Do you want subtitles? In many countries we have subtitles and dubs.”
For Netflix, the gains are obvious: more subscribers watching more shows. “Think how much you’re expanding the audience,” Yellin explained. “Sure, we can watch it in subtitles if we want, or we can watch it dubbed. Or we can watch it with both.”
On Friday 4th May 2018, Netflix releases its first Danish original series, dystopian sci-fi The Rain (watch the trailer above). UK fans of dramas such as The Killing and The Bridge may be used to watching Scandi series with subtitles, but on Netflix that won’t be the default.
“With our upcoming Danish series The Rain, we came up with a lucky situation, because most of the young cast of The Rain speaks English,” Yellin explained. “So when we dub this into English, most of the actors you see did their own dub. It’s wonderful because they were able to capture the reality of the performance they gave in Danish in English as well.”
The stars themselves are less convinced however. Dubbing involves the actor going into a studio, watching the action on screen and recording the prepared translation over the dialogue. It is rare for an actor to record their own lines, so what was the experience like for the actors in The Rain?
Lucas Lynggard Tønnesen stars in Netflix’s Danish series The Rain (Netflix)
“It was so weird dubbing yourself,” says 17-year-old actor Lucas Lynggaard Tønnesen (above). “In English you feel like you’re not getting the right emotion. You’re dubbing, not acting. You’re just saying it in English – it was a challenge doing the dubbing, definitely.”
Actress Alba August (below) was not available to perform her dub, but she has watched the series back in English. “When I listened to someone else dubbing me I was like, ‘What?’” she says.
Star Alba August in Netflix’s new Danish original series The Rain (Netflix)
“I never understood the dubbing thing,” August adds. “I’ve never seen anything dubbed. Maybe it’s just a cultural thing?”
Co-star Mikkel Boe Følsgaard agrees, saying he would prefer viewers watch the series in the original language: “I really think that it gives something more to the characters and story if you see it in the original language. We’ve done this show for five or six months, and we shot it in Danish. Then you go into a studio half a year after and dub it into English, and something’s just missing. You’re not there with your co-actor, you’re there alone. It will never be as good.”
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It seems the actors’ view is very different to the executives. Then again, the stars will never see the viewing figures – and Netflix’s experience with Dark suggests that viewers are actually more likely to watch their work when it’s dubbed.
“I think when it all comes down to it, we just want as many people as possible to be able to see it,” The Rain creator Jannik Tai Mosholt says. “In that vein it’s great that the more languages it’s dubbed in, then we’ll get more people to see it. That makes total sense to us.
“Personally for us it is a Danish show made in Danish, but the more the merrier,” he adds.
“It’s actually giving people choice and they can decide for themselves. I really like that. It’s not up to us to force you to watch it in this or that way; you can choose to watch it the way that you want.”
That, essentially, is the deal subscribers strike with Netflix. It’s their choice how they watch shows just as much as when they watch them. If viewers are unimpressed with bad lip syncing then it’s on them to change the settings. If they don’t like those settings defaulting to dubbed, then users need to make their preferences clear.
And, as the statistics above show, whenever we’re watching Netflix, Netflix is watching us – and they can tell what we really want. We might say we prefer subtitles to dubbing, but, for now at least, the data doesn’t match what our lips are saying.