When Technology and Art Meet: How a New Technique is Revolutionising Film

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Sound transformed global cinema a hundred years ago. And now, new dubbing techniques are radically reforming the film industry.

Sound plays an enormous role in the ambience of a film. From jump-scares to scores that bring tears to your eyes, the way we understand a film is communicated heavily through what we can hear. In the era of silent film, a story could simply be subtitled with cards and recut to match a new language. The German film industry rivalled that of Hollywood, with such films as Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari moulding the genres of the medium. But with the dawn of soundtracks, everything changed.

Suddenly, actors had their own languages and accents. A strong accent not only destroyed their believability to audiences, but also transformed who could understand and engage with a film. Clumsy dubbing and unconvincing voiceovers have became a topic of much hilarity, while subtitles quickly exhausted the energy of the viewer. Overnight, the global industry began to splinter into set markets: German films for German speakers, French films for French speakers and American films for American audiences. The doors to foreign films were closed, making them an exclusive, often snobbish, hobby for the elite.

Today, those doors have been reopened.

A revolutionary dubbing technique looks set to make foreign language films more popular across the globe, creating a smoother line of speech and a less obvious divide between what is said and what is performed. The rythmo band method, where words are stretched and altered to perfectly meet lip movement, represents a huge step forward in dubbing films into different languages and offers opportunities to boost overseas sales, creating a market where, whatever language we speak, we can now watch films from different cultures, locations and styles.

We are living in a global world, with language being one of the last hurdles to conquer. The technique, originating in France, is now increasingly being adopted in the North American market and elsewhere, and its multi-language capability and frame-accurate cueing will have a huge impact on international distribution.

Most foreign language movies released abroad have subtitles over the original dialogue, or feature poor-quality dubbing out of time with the mouth movements of the actors. This barrier stops us from engaging with different cultures and ideas in cinema, making what is often an excellent piece of artwork into something that translates– literally– into a clumsy and unconvincing mess. But the rythmo band method allows words to be stretched, compressed or even changed to perfectly synchronise with lip movements on the screen, allowing the pace of the dialogue to flow more evenly.

One of the newest movies to use it was Chinese World War II drama Unbreakable Spirit, released as Air Strike in the US and The Bombing in Europe. With over 55 speaking roles dubbed over a four-week period, followed by six weeks of sound mixing, the task of translating the film was a mammoth one.  

Talent is so often blurred by an unconvincing dub, but for the first time, the film’s pioneering techniques allow Chinese star, Fan BingBing, to appear to Western audiences as she appears to Chinese speakers, every word delivered at the same pace and rhythm as her own voice. It’s fascinating to watch, and the success of Air Strike backs up how much it is transforming the industry. Sold to over 100 countries, the impressive dubbing was among the key factors that made it so attractive to distributive buyers.

This method has gone largely unnoticed by the press, but it is one of the greatest game changers in the film industry. Now we can have international casts, speaking a range of accents and languages, and watch them in a coherent way unhindered by uneven dubbing. The way we perceive culture and nationality is so heavily influenced by film, and being able to watch a range of actors speak fluently in a tongue we understand breaches the last of those borders.

Once again, technology is transforming the arts.

 

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Anthropologist, Liberally Jewish, Cat enthusiast, Nuance extremist.

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