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Read My Lips

Viewers watching a film in Germany, Italy and Spain will notice the lips don’t exactly move in synch with the words, and famous actors suddenly have a different voice. That’s because almost all the films are dubbed.


Synchronizing a film requires more than just lip service

Actually, a perfectly synchronized adaptation of a foreign film shouldn’t be so obvious as to be out of synch with the movements of actors’ lips. An entire branch of speakers, cutters and dialog authors all work to ensure that film viewers in Germany, Italy and Spain are not disturbed by incongruent dubbing. Unfortunately for them, much of their hard work goes unnoticed.

Take for take, cut for cut and in minute detail, the film synchronizers work their way through foreign films. Whether spoken in English, French or Spanish, each film sentence, each word, is carefully examined and the lips closely watched.

Once the pronunciation of each word is analyzed the dialog authors begin translating the original text. And the translation must be as close to the original as possible – ideally word for word. After that, actors and speakers begin working on the lip synchronization.

More than lip service

The German author Marianne Groß has a great deal of experience in the language juggling acrobatics that go into synchronizing a film. She has lent her voice for the German versions of Cher and Meryl Streep and understands the difficulty of making the words fit the lips.

"Take for example donnez-moi ces papiers," she says explaining her work on a French film. "When you say ‘donnez’, the mouth is open. But in German I have to say ‘geben’ (give) and the mouth is only half open. So I have to play around with the sentence until I find the German words that fit the movement of the actor’s mouth."

Actors and speakers practice as much as needed in the studio until their voices "fit on top" of the originals. Then they begin the taping sessions.

The work is difficult and tedious, and not everyone appreciates having to subjugate him or herself to the actors on the screen.

"It’s a very absurd creative process. Which actor would want to divest himself of his most personal asset – his voice," says Lutz Riedel, himself an actor and synchronization speaker.

Making money with synchronization

The majority of movies are "germanized" in Berlin, where the numerous theaters provide a steady reservoir of trained voices.

For many actors, working in the dubbing studio is the only possibility for a steady income. And experienced voices can earn big bucks. On average they complete 300 takes a day, that’s about a third of a full length movie.

The basic fee for a speaker varies between 25 and 75 euro a day depending on the quality and qualification of a voice. In addition, a speaker earns a set rate per take, and sometimes, depending on the film's budget, there are even flat day wages.

No name recognition

Synchronization is a permanent feature in the film industry, at least in countries like Germany, Italy and Spain, where subtitles are seldom used for box office hits. But synchronizers hardly ever get recognized for their work. When the credits roll at the end of a film, the dozens of speakers involved in the production are never named.

Joachim Kerzel, the German voice for Jack Nicholsons, is frustrated with the lack of recognition in the business: "We only have our selves to blame, we’re not organized. Everyone fights for himself, and the industry can do with us what they want. We give up our rights for all time, for all the still to be developed media on all the still to be discovered planets."