In dubbing industry, talk is cheap for voice actors
Just for the closing comment, “Come with me. Our journey is just beginning,” Lee went through more than 10 takes.
“His breath is far longer than mine. It isn’t easy for me to match his lips,” said Lee after he finished voicing an hourlong documentary that took him nearly three hours.
His colleagues at the studio call him Mr. Lee, but for the most part he goes by Mulder, a fictional character from the TV series “The X-Files.”
Twelve years have passed since the 59-year-old voice actor finished dubbing the American drama, but when Lee speaks in public, even if it’s just a simple “hello,” strangers - mostly those in their late 30s, 40s and 50s who grew up watching the popular drama series - often stop and look to see where the voice came from.
Lee dubbed the character Fox Mulder, the FBI special agent who believes in extraterrestrials, from 1994 to 2002. Thanks to this, Lee is probably the most successful, well-known voice actor in Korea, yet he is also one of the last to enjoy star status.
When his career was at its peak in the 1980s and 1990s, foreign films and TV shows, from sci-fi series to preteen dramas, were televised almost every day during prime-time hours, keeping voice actors busy. Anyone who was adequate at voice acting could become a star, just like him.
In the early 2000s, however, the glory days came to an end. Numerous cable channels sprung up, but they opted for subtitles instead of dubbing because of budget issues.
Dubbing usually costs twice as much as subtitling.
Major networks also began to air fewer foreign films. Currently, KBS, the state-run broadcasting station, is the only major network that schedules dubbed foreign films, usually at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., when most viewers are fast asleep.
Instead, during prime-time slots, variety shows and Korean films fill the void left by foreign films and drama series. It’s clear that the environment surrounding these voice talents has changed dramatically.
Luckily for Lee, however, he has lived off his stint as Mulder for his entire career. His old alias brings him lucrative work, from dubbing TV commercials to radio skits to documentary narration.
“Thanks to him [Mulder], I’ve been living well so far,” said Lee. “But looking at younger voice actors, I feel sorry for them.”
Except for a few famous voice actors, the rest struggle to make ends meet. Some obscure voice actors even dub audio dramas, which often include steamy sex scenes, for a living.
The Voice Performance Association, home to about 750 Korean voice actors, said that its members earned a total of 6 billion won ($5.8 million) last year, meaning that each individual brought home 8 million won per year on average - far lower than the minimum cost of living.
As these voice actors find less and less work over the years, the recent success of dubbed versions of the Disney animated feature “Frozen” and British drama series “Sherlock,” which aired on KBS, brings up one question: Can voice actors rise again?
Love it or hate it
It seems that many Koreans, especially those in their 20s and 30s who grew up receiving a good foreign language education, shun dubbed films, considering them a final option or an unavoidable choice when accompanied by young children.
A 2012 survey from the Korean Film Council showed that Koreans weren’t too thrilled about dubbed films. According to the survey, 37 percent of moviegoers criticized subtitles, complaining that they were too long or disappear too quickly. In comparison, 52 percent of those surveyed said they don’t like dubbed movies because of the actors’ mismatched voices and the poor quality of their vocal performances.
The survey was conducted on 2,000 movie fans aged between 15 and 59 across the nation.
But despite the negativity toward dubbed films, the Korean voice-over version of “Frozen” received high praise for its quality. It even made some avid fans of the movie, who had already viewed the subtitled original, watch the dubbed film.
“People who prefer to watch the original hardly ever watch the dubbed version,” said Shin, a 20-something salaried worker. “But I was drawn to the dubbed version out of curiosity and fell in love with it because the performances were stunning.”
Shin said she looks forward to watching the dubbed version of the fourth season of “Sherlock,” too.
Another difficulty for voice actors is that established actors and news presenters do much of the TV commercials and documentary narrations these days.
Responding to the rave reviews “Frozen” and “Sherlock” earned, Lee Geun-wuk, the director of the Voice Performance Association, said, “Many animated feature films cast comedians or K-pop stars for promotional purposes.
“But these public figures already have their own public images, and it often degrades the overall quality of the animated films.”
He continued, “With ‘Frozen,’ though, people got to have a chance to appreciate what a well-made dubbed film is like.”
Voice actress Park Ji-yoon, who soared to stardom with her role as Anna in “Frozen,” disagreed. She said she has experienced barely any difference between before and after Anna, except that she has done countless of interviews in recent months compared to over the past nine years of her career.
“People ask me whether I’m getting busier or not after Anna,” said Park, “but my workload is about the same because there are not that many animated feature films that hire voice actors.”
Negativity toward dubbed films
Voice actors used to receive praise for connecting viewers with their favorite Hollywood stars, but these days some are considered an irritation because of their exaggerated high tones and accents. Critics say this makes it impossible for viewers to relate to characters in dubbed movies.
Lee explained that it is the voice actors themselves who are partly responsible for this.
“Back then, everyone voiced [the characters] that way by making up voices because we thought it was cool,” said Lee after he finished dubbing “Cosmos.”
“But we also had to match the lips of the foreign actors. That’s how everything went wrong.”
Lee said viewers can’t feel raw emotion from actors and actresses with made-up tones and accents, which turns many people away from dubbed films.
“We didn’t even have time to think what we’d done wrong or right. And we lost the chance to prove ourselves when we realized something had gone wrong,” said Lee.
The advent of high-speed Internet also played its part. Anyone could download a foreign film with just a few clicks and hear the voices of the original cast.
“Overeducated Koreans now feel that languages of other countries are less foreign,” said Ha Jae-keun, a culture critic.
Dubbing or subbing?
Supporters of dubbing have their reasons, too. Yu Seon-ju, a producer working at CIC Media who is involved in everything to do with animation dubbing, said the industry is not simply about replacing the voices of foreign actors and characters.
“Localization preceded dubbing,” said Yu. “The names of regions and characters have all changed and some national sentiment that is only good for a certain country is also modified through the localization process.”
Yu used the Japanese animation series “Atashin’chi” as an example, saying, “It’s Japanese, but many think of it as Korean because the localization is perfect.”
She continued, “From my experience, people who hate the dubbed version of a film don’t change their preference. People who love the dubbed version are the same.”
Regarding the mixed feelings over dubbed films, some voice talents including Park, who played Anna in “Frozen,” agree that giving options to viewers might be one way to find a happy medium.
Right now the documentary series “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” is one of a few shows that provides a choice between dubbed and subbed versions.
“We had mixed views over dubbing inside the company,” said Karen Kim, who promotes the National Geographic Channel show. “But our conclusion was to dub it because it would appeal to a broader audience.”
In the end, the channel decided to provide a subtitled version of the show right after the dubbed program ends.
But not every company can supply both formats because of budget constraints.
Meanwhile, many voice actors say viewers should look at the dubbing issue from the point of protecting the Korean language.
Hong Shi-ho is one actor who feels this way. With his macho, booming voice, he used to dub characters played by Antonio Banderas and Tom Cruise in the 1980s and 1990s.
“I don’t understand why Koreans hate Korean dubbing,” said Hong. “They are Koreans, but they are pointing their fingers at us. Something is wrong.
“The only hope for now is making it mandatory to dub foreign films, like some other countries do. France is one of them.”
Many other voice actors referred to France as an ideal example. But Daniel Kapelian, the head of film, TV, new media and digital content at the Embassy of France in Seoul, said France has no such policy.
“Not all the foreign films are dubbed in France,” wrote Kapelian in an email interview. “It has changed for the last 15 years with globalization and access to the Internet.” Kapelian argued that dubbing is not good for cinema in general.
“When Scarlett Johansson sighs, whispers, cries, her special voice, tone and texture are part of the movie. If you dub it with French or Korean, it is not the same movie anymore.
“What we are talking about has nothing to do with the protection of the mother language. It is just one more group who is fighting for not losing jobs. All countries should remain open to the original language of the films. It is also a matter of respect to the artwork.”
BY SUNG SO-YOUNG [email@example.com]
More in Features
Nothing's fair in love and Covid
Top culture stories of the year
[ZOOM KOREA] The pipe organ master with plans for a uniquely Korean instrument
ENFJ-LMNOPQ what does the MBTI say about you?
A war wages on online over Korea's most-loved heritages