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The art of reversioning

When it comes to international distribution, the flipside of speechless series that require no translation is the art of reversioning dialogue-driven shows for new audiences. Often a great show, even one with universal kid appeal, needs a strong dose of reversioning before it settles into different territories. And this can require more than simple translation and dubbing - sometimes, producers have to go so far as to rewrite scripts and digitally edit visual elements.
October 1, 2008

When it comes to international distribution, the flipside of speechless series that require no translation is the art of reversioning dialogue-driven shows for new audiences. Often a great show, even one with universal kid appeal, needs a strong dose of reversioning before it settles into different territories. And this can require more than simple translation and dubbing – sometimes, producers have to go so far as to rewrite scripts and digitally edit visual elements.

For example, reversioning 4Kids’ Yu-Gi-Oh! from its original Japanese incarnation into a series suitable for North American broadcast required all of the above, and then some. Besides the obvious translation from Japanese to English, 4Kids EVP Brian Lacey explains that one of the first steps was editing the 25-minute scripts to fit a 22-minute format, as well as editing to reflect creative storytelling that jibed with U.S. and Canadian sensibilities. Lacey says that meant tweaking the script to play down violence, sexual references and aggressive behavior that were just fine in Japan, but would have caused an uproar in North America.

‘The common mistake many people make is believing it’s just dubbing; but it’s not, it’s adaptation,’ says Lacey. Adhering to strict US broadcast standards, for example, might mean putting a helmet on a character who’s riding a motorcycle or softening the high stakes in a script to let kids know that when a character falls, he might not necessarily be falling to his death.

But by far the most onerous reversioning that Yu-Gi-Oh! had to go through was changing the Japanese graphics on the trading cards that are part of the storylines and laced throughout the episodes. This transition required rotoscoping the Japanese-language characters out and re-inserting graphic images that worked for not only North America, but worldwide distribution as well. Lacey likens rotoscoping to a surgeon slicing out a torn knee ligament and patching the joint. ‘I don’t care whether it takes 30 seconds or two minutes to do a rotoscope, multiply that by the six million we’ve done, and that’s a lot of work,’ he says.

The team of producers at 4Kids also had to keep track of the series’ 1,200 monsters and translate their Japanese names to neutral monikers meant to work in any language. Lacey says several worldwide broadcasters acquire the program directly from 4Kids, based on the vigorous reversioning the company does, and these deals include a master grid of monsters to which the broadcasters can refer.

Nick Jr. UK went through a less onerous, but similar process with Out of the Blue/Decode Enterprises’ Super Why!, which also required going in and changing visual elements. In this case, the words spelled out during this language-driven series had to be changed when the vocabulary skewed too North American. For example, sidewalk had to be changed to pavement, and the channel’s VP of programming, Debbie MacDonald, says other translations that come up from time to time include biscuit for cookie and rubber for eraser.

For Nick UK, however, Super Why!’s visual hurdles were secondary to the amount of dubbing the broadcaster did to make sure the preschool characters had British voices as opposed to American accents. ‘Outside of preschool, it’s not so much of an issue, but kids under five are learning how to speak, and their opinions are being formed, and it’s so important that we’re relevant to their lives,’ says MacDonald. In fact, Nick UK research has shown that British voices are extremely important to parents in that country. And although Nick is still perceived as an American brand, being referred to in the same breath as UK-bred CBeebies has been a major coup for the channel.

But reversioning shows from American English into the Queen’s English doesn’t stop at voiceovers. MacDonald explains that casting actors who fit the characters’ personalities and tone is essential to making the transition work. Re-fitting Yo Gabba Gabba! involved finding a British Foofa who sounded just like the American version, only with a British accent, and this kind of casting quest that can take several weeks. Besides the life-sized characters, Nick UK worked with international distributor RDF to recast all of the kids and adult actors that appear in the cool tricks segment of the show.

Tony Church, head of post-production at London’s The Little Entertainment Group, is well-versed in the fine art of voice-casting. The service company and prodco has been reversioning series to fit the British market for some 20 years. In the last two years, the studio has worked on more than 350 television episodes that range from five minutes to half hours. ‘There seems to be a style of voice that works for specific markets,’ says Church. ‘Some voices just don’t work over here; they may be too slangy or aggressive.’ Working closely with broadcasters and producers, as well as having a keen ear for the UK market, Church and his team go through an extensive casting process to find an actor with perfect tone and pitch. Likewise, Little Entertainment has a troop of American actors living in the UK when it comes time to send shows in the other direction.

In terms of getting shows ready for the UK market, Church says producers weigh potential license fees that they can obtain from a Brit broadcaster based on reversioning a show that has already proven successful – a lot less expensive and risky than producing a whole new series. Another benefit, as Church explains, ‘is anything done here includes worldwide rights,’ meaning that no residuals or royalties are payable to actors once their voices have been recorded. But where the real potential for profit kicks in is the platform a foreign property holder can build in the UK to deliver ancillary revenues based on its series. In fact, Church says Little Entertainment does a lot of reversioning of series owned by toy companies for just that purpose.

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