International Lip Synching

I finally got around to seeing Finding Nemo this weekend. It’s pretty good, not great, but I suppose I’d appreciate it a lot more if I were a parent. In summary, the story is not as good as Monsters, Inc. but the animation, as one might expect, is the best yet. The immediate prompt for me to watch the movie was having had a chance to meet Dylan Brown while I was in Barcelona last month.
Dylan was supervising animator on Nemo, and as is often the case, I found myself much more interested and engaged in a work when I know someone who was involved in creating it. But the supplementary material on the Nemo disc is actually quite compelling without that connection, and one part in particular caught my eye. A scene which features dialog from a seagull is shown in more than a dozen different languages, showing the translation effort that goes into an international release. Of course, since seagulls don’t have lips, there wasn’t a lot of work necessary to sync up the dialogue with the animation.
But most American films and television shows that travel overseas feature humans, and the fact that they were originally speaking a different language becomes acutely obvious. Last month, I was in Germany, France and Spain, and at least a third of all prime time programming that I saw was American movies and TV being dubbed into the local language. It has me wondering if there’s an entire generation of European kids growing up never having seen lips move in tandem with dialogue on screen. Not to mention the fact that entire soundtracks have to be dubbed, so you tend to get long silent spots when there’s no talking, or really fake-sounding car doors and bird chirps.
Of course, there’s some cool things about having common cultural elements with other countries, ("The King of Queens" sucks in German, too, but it sucks differently, and that’s interesting.) but I can’t help but wonder if some of the resentment of American culture’s global dominance comes from the sheer schlocky crapness of the product they get. I can’t ever imagine middle America accepting a second-rate sitcom from France which was lazily dubbed into English as primetime fare. Even the worst British sitcoms, which are at least nominally in the English language already, are completely revamped, recast with Americans, and brutally gutted of their humor before being foisted on the United States.
It seems like films like Finding Nemo, which was designed with an international audience in mind (the movie was released in Spain shortly after I left Barcelona) are much more likely to find lasting success overseas by being respectful of their international audience. And my experience in software leads me to believe that the thought and care that it takes to make an experience palatable and appropriate for a global audience requires a slightly higher level of pre-planning and thought during the creative process, which improves the end result for everyone, including the residents of the work’s culture of origin.