Kung Fu Flick Dubbing
by Graham Earnshaw
In the mid-1970s, I worked with a film dubbing group in Hongkong which dubbed Chinese movies — mostly kung fu flicks — into English for distribution around the world. The group was run by a English entrepreneur named Ted Thomas, and one summer he needed a stand-in script-writer/dubbing director. I was drafted.
At the time, there was more film dubbing work to be done in this little territory than we could handle. Bruce Lee, who popularised the Chinese Kung Fu movie around the world, had died in mysterious circumstances in 1973 just as he was about to attain superstardom (one of the early members of Ted’s dubbing group was proud of his claim that: “I was Bruce Lee’s voice.”).
But Bruce’s undoubted charisma opened up markets for Hongkong movie makers which they were not slow to exploit. Throughout the 1970s, Hongkong movie studios, big and small, churned out Kung Fu films, all with a similar story, and with almost identical fighting scenes. The fans didn’t seem to mind.
The combination of action and colour, a story laced with revenge and violence and set in exotic ancient China was popular with audiences around the world, especially, I was told, in South America and the Middle East.
Almost all Chinese movies — including those made in Hongkong, Taiwan and mainland China — are filmed silent and dubbed later in order to save time and money on the shooting. Most of the films are dubbed first into Mandarin, the official Chinese dialect, and a few into Cantonese, the predominant dialect in Hongkong and the Chinese communities of Southeast Asia and beyond.
Sometimes, when we were really rolling, we told each other that the English soundtrack was more accurate than the original Chinese. And often it was.
The core members of the group had been dubbing films for several years, and were uncannily adept at matching the English words on the script to the Chinese lip movements on the screen. Many of the dubbers were, and still are, working for television or radio stations in Hongkong and moonlighting in various seedy dubbing studios to make a bit of extra cash. And also to have a few laughs. Film dubbing is tiring, but given the right bunch of people it can be a lot of fun.
The man who usually wrote the scripts and directed the dubbing sessions for the group, named Ron, was a senior Hongkong government official, since retired. He took a long vacation in 1977, and Ted called on me to fill the gap. I am not sure how much Ron was getting, but it was certainly more than I was offered — HK$1,500 (then worth about A$300) per script. I asked for a raise before I had done even one, but Ted said no, and I never asked again. Before Ron left on holiday, he took me for a cup of tea and gave me a brief run-down of how to do the job. I was then pushed in at the deep end and told to prepare my first script.
I was given a large, ancient reel-to-reel tape-recorder which I set up in the middle of the basement room that I called home. Then I went to the dubbing studios.
At the studios, usually very small with a miniature screen at one end and a glass panel at the other through which the technicians could watch the proceedings, I was given a script on which was written the English sub-titles and sometimes the Chinese sub-titles as well. The version of the film I saw was always black and white, and consisted of only the parts which included dialogue — that is, many of the fight scenes were cut out. Theatrical grunts, howls, and death-rattles sound the same in any language. The only fight scenes we had to do were those that included the odd line of dialague: “Ah-ha! So it is you. Take that!” etc etc.
A movie is divided into “loops” a minute or two each in length, and the loops are dubbed separately. For the purposes of dubbing, the film is literally cut up and each section joined into a loop which is run through the projector as many times as is necessary for the dubbers to get it right. When all the loops have been dubbed, the soundtrack is spliced together and fitted to the original film along with the special effects — swords clashing, foot-steps, coconut shells galloping etc.
Every minute or so, in the middle of scenes or at strategic points in longer scenes, there would be a loud beep, indicating the end of a loop. I drew a line across the page and gave the loop a number. When it was finished, I took a tape of the soundtrack home and set to work writing out the English dialogue in long-hand, a job which took several hours, but got easier as I went along.
Some of the English sub-titles provided allegedly as a guide were incomprehensible. Luckily I can read Chinese, otherwise I would have been completely lost. I have no idea how Ron, who did not speak Chinese, ever managed. Here is a sample excerpt of the English sub-titles from a film called Bruce’s Fingers, a story of Chinatown gang battles over a book containing the secrets of Bruce Lee’s own “Finger Kung Fu” technique:
– Can I hear the phone, wife?
– No, disgusting.
– Please give me some heroine.
– No, it’s all consumed.
– Did you obtain any new calling girl?
The key to dubbing is lip-flaps, as they are known in the trade. The English script must match as closely as possible the lip movements of the actors on the screen. This causes more problems with Chinese movies than I imagine it would with a European language film being dubbed into English, because of the huge differences between the two languages. Not only are words, and therefore lip movements different, but also sentence structure and sentence length can vary enormously. For the script writer, the challenge was to take a Chinese phrase, and match it with an English phrase of the same number of syllables and also (hopefully) with a similar meaning.
As most of the movies were set in Imperial China, the dialogue also sometimes included long strings of formalities for which there is no satisfactory English translation. It was always a great relief when actors spoke from off-screen or with their backs turned to the camera, because it meant their lines could be written in proper English, instead of being bludgeoned to fit Chinese sentence structure.
In some cases where the Chinese was just too obscure for any foreign audience to understand, it was possible to change the script altogether, sometimes for whole scenes. As long as the English dialogue did not contradict anything happening on the screen, the script writer could conceivably invent a whole new story.
Once I had finished a script, I handed the almost-illegible draft over to Ted’s secretary who typed it up, one loop to a page, in time for the dubbing session.
Next I had to draw up a chart indicating the order in which the loops were to be done, and apportioning roles to the various dubbers available. As there was always more character roles on the screen than there were dubbers, everyone had to do at least two parts and sometimes more. Thus, the ability to do a range of different voices was highly valued. “I’ll make this my 36b,” the dubber would say.
Warren, a broadcaster with a Hongkong radio station, was the most versatile of our main dubbers, and I remember one night when due to bad organisation on my part, or perhaps a shortage of dubbers, two of his characters found themselves talking to each other in a certain loop. He recorded it straight off, talking to himself in two different voices for nearly a minute, switching voices back and forth, and simultaneously matching the English words to the Chinese lip flaps. A virtuoso performance. A pity there’s no Oscar awarded for dubbing.
The chart was also important in order to cut down on the amount of time any one dubber had to spend cooped up in the claustrophobic and icy-cold studio. The idea was to dub all the loops requiring the presence of the minor dubbers first, so that they could leave early, or even miss the second session altogether. Ted was especially keen on this as it meant he could pay them less.
As a result, we did not start with the first loop and work our way sequentially through the film until we reached the last loop. We tended to do crowd scenes first, and end up with a marathon string of more intimate conversations amongst the main protagonists in the movie, in no logical order at all. The dubbers, therefore, generally had little idea of the overall story line. Which was why the script writer (me) was also the director of the dubbing session — he was the only person who had seen the movie through from beginning to end and knew what was going on.
So the dubbers, five or six exuberant Westerners, would crowd into the dubbing studio and the Chinese technicians, who had a copy of the order in which we wanted the loops displayed, would roll the first one. The dubbers taking part in that loop would crowd round the lectern overshadowed by a large old-fashioned microphone, and try out the English dialogue on the script in front of them, matching the phrases to the Mandarin dialogue, and watching the lip flaps to make sure they corresponded to the Chinese soundtrack — sometimes they didn’t. Changes were sometimes made to the script to fit it more closely to the lip movements and actions of the actors on the screen.
After viewing the loop two or threee times, the dubbers would shout the immortal words: “Lok Yam!”, which in Cantonese means “record”. The tapes would roll. The loop would appear on the screeen again, this time silent, and the dubbers would read their parts. Then it would be played back to check that the words matched the lip flaps. If they didn’t, the loop would be re-recorded.
A couple of hours rolled by, and then there was a brief stop for dinner, take-away Chinese food brought in from a nearby restaurant. After the meal, dubbing became very difficult because of stomach rumbling. Your stomach is making noises all the time, but you are rarely aware of it because of all the other noises around you. But in a sound-proofed dubbing studio, a trickle of gastric juices gurgling its way through the alimentary canal can ruin a loop.
Most of the dubbing sessions were held at night or on weekends, and it usually took two sessions to finish off a movie.
One kung fu epic called Killer Clans, we did in one all-night marathon session in a large studio owned by Shaw Brothers, the biggest movie-making organisation in the Far East. It was well after dawn before we finished, and the experience left me bleary-eyed for days.
Another film, that piece of rubbish called Bruce’s Fingers, we managed to complete in a record two hours and thirty five minutes, mostly because there was almost no dialogue, and some of what there was in English anyway.
With some films, there was a clutch of X-rated loops to be dubbed separately for inclusion in versions of the movie for distribution in more permissive markets. These were fun and always involved a lot of heavy breathing. Recitation of the five vowels was found to be most effective in the passionate scenes — “”aaa, iii, uuu, eee, ooo!” Say it a couple of times breathlessly and you’ll see what I mean.
I personally did little actual dubbing — it is not a skill that can be picked up very quickly, except by the gifted. But I helped to provide babble in some crowd scenes. The first time round, I think it was a restaurant scene, I ad-libbed as anyone brought up on the Goon Show would have done. But hearing the play-back, my “Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb” stuck out like Captain Seagoon in a Manchu dynasty teahouse, and we had to redo the loop. Dubbing Rule number 17: don’t say “rhubarb, rhubarb” in crowd scenes.
—— * ——
Finally after a dozen or so movies, Ron returned from holiday. There was some talk of a second dubbing group being started with me as script-writer, but Ron was clearly jealous of his source of unofficial income, and it never came to anything.
I went to one more session, but I wasn’t much help because I couldn’t do any serious dubbing, and Ron had written the script.
After the session, Ron drove me home, and gave me $400, far more than my services that night had been worth.
It took me a couple of seconds to realise that this was the good-bye pay-off.