It’s all in the adaptation: The importance of crafting believable dialogue

High-quality dubbing is essential when connecting an audience with entertainment content outside their native language. This particularly rings true for English-speaking audiences, who, unlike the rest of the world, haven’t been as extensively exposed to dubbed content. Where dubbing for global audiences is the norm, typically evoking a wider understanding of an occasional glitch in the lip-sync or differences with word selection, English-speaking audiences tend to be far less forgiving. Being off by a few frames or not correctly matching a facial movement risks alienating the audience. And the key to preventing this lies in the adaptation.


The unique challenges of adaptation

Crafting the perfect adaptation is meticulous, involving many reiterations of rewriting and refining translated dialogue. It combines the integrity of the original with precise lip-syncing. And it's about creating an authentic viewing experience that captivates audiences, keeping them engaged and wanting more.

Good adaptation is just as much technical as it is creative. Every syllable, every breath, every reaction need to be scripted to exist in the dub as it did in the original. It goes beyond translating words from one language to another and simply timing the lines to start and stop at the same time. It’s an intricate process requiring a revised, localised screenplay that is not only impactful when paired with the actors' on-screen lip movements but also sounds believable, aligning with the personalities, nuances and tone of the original.

Adaptors must consider the entire picture, looking not just at the way the actor's lips move, but also where they place emphasis on dialogue with their entire body. It becomes a balancing act of matching this physicality with compelling, natural and tonally faithful word choice: the perfect mix of linguistic accuracy, cultural relevance, storytelling and visual synchronisation, particularly when localising into English.


An increasingly globalised world

Dubbing also creates a unique set of challenges in today’s globalised world, especially for audiences less accustomed to watching it. Where English-speaking audiences historically relied on subtitles to enjoy foreign content, the surging popularity of non-English content shifted this landscape. Growing demand for high-quality English dubbing highlighted the importance of captivating viewers through thoughtful word selection and flawless dubs.

Unlike regions where it has long been the norm, English-speaking audiences are still adapting to this change. They are particularly discerning (and much less forgiving) with any dialogue discrepancies that risk disrupting audience immersion. The smallest error is enough to jar their engagement – disconnecting them from the realism of their experience – resulting in audience churn.

Our aim when producing English dubbing is to elicit the ultimate compliment from viewers: questioning whether they're watching the domestic version or a dub. We have the advantage of leveraging 35 years of hands-on dubbing from VSI’s global studios, but also flexibility because of the absence of pre-existing traditions in English dubbing. Collaborating with the leading studios and distributors, we’ve helped pave the way, pioneering new approaches and establishing best practices tailored to the demands of the English-speaking market.

Safeguarding quality and creative consistency

Selecting a strong creative team is crucial. When assigning projects, our VSI Los Angeles team meticulously assesses their capabilities in the genre, familiarity with language and culture and the potential for creative synergy between writers and directors, ensuring a cohesive team.

By establishing precise stylistic guidelines for adaptors, overseen by VSI’s internal scripting department – all of whom are trained on site and are proficient across the English dubbing workflow – we uphold both creative and technical standards, guaranteeing quality in every project.

We take it a step further to nurture prospective writers and expand our talent pool. Through live sessions, we enhance their understanding of effective adaptation and host tailored workshops to teach the complexities of adaptation and witness their work come to life. Our dedication to refining the process at every turn truly sets us apart.


The people behind the process

A strong script can make or break dubbed versions, especially for English-speaking audiences. But why is it so important to ensure the quality of the script first? Max Quill, Dubbing Adaptation Supervisor at VSI Los Angeles, shared some insights.

At the core of adaptation are dedicated writers who immerse themselves in the original version, analysing each line of dialogue to be adapted. For US English dubs at VSI, this is led by Max. Every writer begins by timing each line and internalising the creators’ vision, dissecting character arcs, plot subtletiesand tone. This guides them through the writing process as they refine the English translation into a polished and compelling screenplay. Once the essence of each line is captured, attention shifts to the sync. Where are the bilabial mouth closures? Where are the fricative shapes? Does part of the line go off-screen? Finding any opportunity to take advantage of the scene dynamics and achieving the seamless integration of dialogue with visual cues ensures naturalism remains intact while creating near-perfect lip-sync.

Departing from literal translations and adapting expressions, they tackle humour and cultural references, crafting creative solutions to ensure they resonate with English-speaking audiences while maintaining fidelity to the original. A threat remains threatening, an insult remains insulting and jokes continue to be funny.


Adaptors go to great lengths to visually cue scripts for actors to follow. To support this, VSI Los Angeles found the use of Rythmoband-like tools, such as VoiceQ, not only helps make the sync more achievable for less experienced dubbing actors and directors but also removes any guessing games. Adaptors indicate exactly what they see as a sync, positioning the new dialogue, down to the syllable, as it scrolls across the screen, making the sync more achievable and freeing up the talent to focus on their delivery while taking direction. Although these tools aren't widely used for dubbing around the world and are more typically used in places like France and Canada, we've found they can help in this newer talent pool, enabling clarity and efficiency throughout the recording. Only once the adaptation is perfected the recording can begin, bringing life to the English version in the studios.

That’s a wrap!

In this ever-evolving landscape of global entertainment, the importance of adaptation in the dubbing process cannot be overstated. It takes passion, dedication, skill and rigorous QC to ensure our clients’ content hits home every time. It’s more than just words on a screen; it’s about bridging the gap between cultures, capturing the audience and taking them along for the ride. So, the next time you find yourself engrossed in the excitement of a dubbed film or series, take a moment to appreciate the artistry behind the scenes. Behind every line of dialogue, every subtle gesture, lies a team committed to crafting cinematic excellence, one frame at a time.