French voiceover actors hard at work as Covid boosts demand for dubbed content

·4-min read

While the French culture sector has ground to a halt, with theatres and cinemas shuttered, the dubbing industry is still going strong, as demand for series and films has increased with Covid lockdowns and curfews. France has the world’s largest dubbing industry, with most viewers looking for French versions of foreign-language productions.

French voiceover actors hard at work providing dubbed shows for those stuck at home due to Covid lockdowns and curfews

“I work every day. In dubbing, there is a lot of work,” says Annie Milon, actress who regularly dubs English-speaking actresses Taraji P. Henson and Jada Pinkett Smith, among others.

Over half of what airs on French television are foreign productions, most from the United States. And though viewer preferences are changing, French people still overwhelmingly prefer French versions (VF) to the originals with subtitles (VO).

While Covid restrictions have drastically reduced the number of people going to the cinema, there is an increase in demand for content at home. But the Covid lockdowns have slowed down the production of the French versions.

“We had to stay home like everyone else,” says Milon of the first lockdown in March 2020. She is the French voice of Maeve Millay (played by British actress Thandie Newton) in the sci-fi series Westworld, which had just started airing on Canal+.

By the third episode, the channel aired a message warning viewers that there would only be subtitled versions until the end of the confinement. Some channels decided to stop airing new shows altogether until the French versions could be made.

Listen to an interview with Annie Milon in the Spotlight on France podcast:

After the lockdown, in May, dubbing studios went into high gear.

“When we came back in studio it was a very busy time,” says Milon “When it was possible to work again we finished dubbing Westworld. We had do everything very quickly, like an emergency.”

Back at work, like in many offices, the conditions were different: actors had to be alone in the studio, which was disinfected between each person.

Working alone

“It’s certainly easier when we can work together,” says Milon.

French dubbing prioritises the synchronisation between the voice and the actor, over exactly replicating the content. Often actors in the same scene record together, after watching the original and internalising it.

“You watch the scene on a screen, with about thirty seconds or a minute of dialogue, and you go through it once, to get it in your head. Then you record it,” says Milon.

French is about twenty per cent longer than English, so actors often must speak fast to fit the dialogue into the scene.

Working alone is more intense, and “requires a lot of imagination”, says Milon.

"The one who records last can hear the others. It's the first one who records who has to imagine the answers of the others,” says Damien Boisseau, who is the voice of Derek Shepherd, the surgeon in the medical drama Grey’s Anatomy (played by American actor Patrick Dempsey), which the French channel TF1 delayed during the first lockdown, for lack of the French version.

Dubbing alone is “possible to do if you are well-directed, but there is a loss in quality, which I find unfortunate.”

Not just karaoke

For Boisseau, a dub is another product, not just a copy of the original.

"I think it is mistaken to try to make the French version identical to the original. It will never be identical, and I think personally that there is no point,” he says. A voiceover actor can add something to a role.

“You can transform the actor on the screen. Often it’s a disaster. But you can also improve them, by adding something.”

The French voice of an actor usually follows him or her in all their roles, especially if they are a star.

"Once you find someone who matches, either with their voice, or temperament or articulation, it’s ridiculous to change the actor,” says Boisseau, who regularly dubs Matt Damon and Edward Norton.

The rise of platforms like Netflix has increased the amount of work for voiceover actors, as the series are often released globally all at once. But it has also increased the pace of work, which has an impact on how the voiceovers are done.

“I feel we are asked to be too close to the original, which I find sad,” says Boisseau. “Dubbing adds something. And if it doesn’t, there is no point. But today, we are being asked to work faster, and so we are not being asked to add anything. It’s just dubbing, you’re not recreating the role. That takes time, and that’s not what we’re being asked to do.”

Find an interview with Annie Milon in the Spotlight on France podcast.