As a rule, Dietmar Wunder prefers his martinis shaken and not stirred. However, do not ask him to order one at a Berlin bar, at least not in German.
“I would never do that,” said Wunder, who was born in Berlin. “I would be too embarrassed.”
Since the 2006 release of Casino Royale, Wunder, 48, has been the German-speaking voice of James Bond, and he is now so closely associated with the role that strangers often ask him to repeat some of Bond’s better-known catchphrases.
“It can get tiring,” he said.
Wunder is part of a small, but tightly knit group of actors in Germany who make a living dubbing the voices of English-speaking movie stars. In addition to the Bond star Daniel Craig, Wunder provides the voices of Adam Sandler, Don Cheadle and several others. Since he began in 1992, he has worked on more than 500 movies and 125 television series.
Over the past few decades, especially in Western Europe, dubbing has emerged as something close to an art form, with actors making a living speaking for cherished global movie stars. In Germany, dubbing, or synchronization, as it is known, has also become a big business.
The German-speaking market, which includes Austria and Switzerland, is the largest in Europe, with more than 40 dubbing companies, most of them around Berlin and Munich. The industry generated US$125 million last year, according to the country’s Institute for Acting, Film and Television Professionals.
While subtitles remain the most popular way of watching a film in Norway, Poland and the Netherlands, in other countries, particularly France, Spain and German-speaking nations, dubbing is a prerequisite for market access. Of the 175 or so English-language films released here last year, the German Federal Film Board estimates that more than 90 percent were dubbed.
“If an American major distribution company wants to place a movie successfully in a German market, it has to be dubbed,” said Michael Johnson, head of production at Film & Fernseh Synchron, a dubbing company with offices in Berlin and Munich.
“There’s no way around it. Otherwise, they are going to lose a lot of the audience,” he said.
It takes an average of two weeks to dub a feature film, with each actor usually working two or three days. On average, Johnson said, voice actors make about US$700 a day. Top performers like Wunder can make US$15,000 to US$20,000 per movie.
Overall, dubbing is expensive: A two-hour film can cost upward of US$150,000 for a single language, and some films are dubbed in dozens of languages. The process involves marathon recording and editing sessions to match actors’ voices to the sound mix. While it makes sense to produce a dub for the German-speaking population of Europe, which is 80 million strong, the same cannot be said of, say, Estonia (population 1.3 million).
Moreover, as the technology has radically improved, good sound has become paramount in filmmaking, and dubbing has had to keep up. Gone are the days when dubs were an afterthought, hastily added after a film was long finished.
“In the last decade, there’s much more attention on perfect dubbing,” Johnson said, requiring the kind of devotion to detail that the German film industry takes pride in.
“It’s really in the German heart to have a good dub, and German studios are perfectionists about them,” said Sven Sturm, vice president and managing director of Paramount Pictures Germany. “Sometimes a film can live or die with a good or bad dub.”
With dubbing quality so much improved, casting has become much more selective. Actors are chosen for their ability to match the cadence and vocal peculiarities of a particular star closely. In many cases, a voice actor will become the official voice of a specific Hollywood actor.
“It’s a lot of pressure,” said Claudia Urbschat-Mingues, who dubs Angelina Jolie, among others.
Sitting at an editing console in the Berlin studio, Wunder showed how different actors require different postures. His Daniel Craig stands erect and speaks in a low, menacing monotone; his Adam Sandler slumps and speaks through his teeth.
“The best compliment that you can get as a dubbing artist is that no one actually realizes it was dubbed,” Wunder said. “Our job is to vanish behind the original version, so you don’t think about it.”
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