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FEATURE The art of re-versioning

Subtitling and dubbing are services central to the global distribution of home entertainment. JAMES GARDNER, Operations Director at IMS Group, says that today's new release is tomorrow’s re-release, and for every re-release, there is a ‘re-version’ waiting to be done, whatever format.

Bill Gates’ assertion a few years ago that packaged media was doomed and all future content would be blasted down fibre optic pipes onto storage devices initially seemed accurate. As content owners and distributors were scurrying around trying to find secure ways of putting films and TV programmes into these pipes, another sector of the media industry also began scratching its head and looking for solutions.

For subtitling and dubbing companies like IMS, the ‘next big thing’ in media distribution is always at the front of our minds. Our funny little post-production sector never used to be known for its innovation, but since the heady days of the DVD explosion, no provider of multilingual services worth its salt has wanted to miss out on yet another opportunity to cash in on further re-issues of thousands of hours’ worth of programming.

The thing is that, despite the appearance of several other optical formats on retailers’ shelves in the last couple of years, distributors have wised up to the fact that constant re-origination of subtitles and dubbing is costing them a small fortune, especially when it’s done for unproven new business areas.

As a result, the ‘versioning’ sector has had to adjust and is finding itself doing a lot more re-versioning than ever before. But what does re-versioning actually involve? And what are the pitfalls and advantages for content owners and distributors?

First of all, it’s probably useful to get the terminology straight, at least for the purposes of this article. Subtitling, dubbing and voice-over – and even audio description for blind audiences – are collectively known by several names. ‘Access services’ pertains largely to subtitles for deaf and hard-of-hearing people, audio description and in-vision sign-language because they give people with disabilities ‘access’ to video material.

Translation subtitling and voice-over or dubbing are often referred to as ‘localization’ (spelled with a ‘z’ probably because the phrase was initially coined in the US). Localization is very often heard in video game and software circles, but applies equally well to other media because the purpose of a good translation for a different territory is to make it relevant to that culture, in other words to ‘localize’ rather than just translate. If we were to choose an overall term to cover all these services, ‘versioning’ seems to me to be the best solution. And if that’s the case, then ‘re-versioning’ is the act of taking versioned assets and adapting them for another format.

There are as many as ten subtitling facilities in the UK alone who are capable of, and have experience in, providing multilingual subtitles for DVD. Many of these saw considerable growth with the massive influx of multi-territory opportunity presented by the great DVD boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The reason there was so much work in this field is that the studios had by and large not kept previous subtitle files from back-catalogue titles and so had to originate all over again. Even those that had kept previous subtitle files and dubs – from theatrical releases, for example – underestimated the amount of additional work involved in re-versioning these files for DVD release.

What does re-versioning entail?

The considerable differences between theatrical releases and versions for subsequent ‘windows’ were, and still are, exacerbated by the fact that many theatrical versions are created on simple word processors or homebrew subtitling equipment that make compatibility with most modern subtitling systems a very tricky proposition. The reason is that subtitle files generally don't just include text, but also feet-and-frame or timecode information in a wide variety of formats, plus on-screen positioning data, italics codes and sometimes also colour information. For this reason, re-versioning subtitle files from one medium to another is not a straightforward import/export procedure, even in the most favourable of conditions.

So, what else is involved in the actual process of re-versioning? Well, one major issue is always frame-rate. The reason is that all subtitles are ‘spotted’ or ‘cued’ to specific individual images, giving each subtitle an ‘in time’ and ‘out time’ to match the dialogue. For dubbing or voice-over tracks, these have to match exactly the mouth movements in any subsequent re-version.

Theatrical (35mm) generally runs at 24 frames per second, but sometimes 25. If you're re-versioning for subsequent media in PAL, it is 25 fps. NTSC video isn't as simple: the re-versioning company needs to know whether it is dealing with drop-frame (29.97fps) or non-drop (30fps).

Recently, with the advent of media being made more widely available online, adapting files for the major media players (Microsoft Windows Media Player, RealPlayer and Quicktime are the big three) has meant getting to grips with milliseconds too. In short, the mathematical conversions required to go from one timecode measurement to the other alone are complex and littered with complications.

Re-versioning time reference information, however, is the easy part. The real challenges come when the content itself has been altered in a way that is likely to change the multilingual and other versions. There are two main ways in which content is altered: when cuts or edits are made to the video itself; and more subtly, when audio is changed or deleted.

The main cause of these alterations is, of course, censorship. It is quite common for scenes to be removed or heavily cut for packaged media or broadcast platforms to meet more stringent home entertainment regulations in a particular territory. More frequently, strong language will be suppressed from the audio or replaced by less offensive terms to suit a wider audience. This is a particularly popular process when companies produce airline versions of their content.

The (unintentionally) funny results of this process have led to a few urban legends in their time, including one classic indie movie where the word ‘motherfucker’ was replaced by ‘melon farmer’ throughout and a blockbuster with a be-vested hero whose famous phrase ‘Yippee ki-ay, motherfucker’ became ‘Yippee ki-ay, Kimosabe’ on the TV release. Go figure, but the point is, if the audio or video changes, then the accompanying subtitles or dubbing have to change also to reflect the new version of the movie.

The post-theatrical release tradition of distributing a director's cut for packaged media collectors editions is yet another example of an instance where re-versioning becomes much more than a straightforward re-laying of the subtitle or dubbing track. In this case, the subtitle or dubbing vendor actually has to originate swathes of new dialogue or subtitles in the style of the rest of the programme.

This can be a tricky process in itself. Subtitling houses use large numbers of freelance translators so there is no guarantee they will be able to use the same subtitler to complete the translation. This may not be particularly noticeable to the layman in the case of subtitling, but re-versioning dubbing faces its own set of problems.

What if a distributor wants to re-version the dubbing for the director's cut of a movie that was dubbed many years ago, perhaps by a company that has now gone out of business or, say, with child actors who have since grown up? Re-versioning dubbing is in this sense a completely different ballgame and, realistically, there are only a couple of options: find exactly the same voice actor to re-voice the missing sections or re-dub the entire movie. In some cases, it's also possible to find an actor with a very similar voice to the one used in the original version but this is often only done for minor characters or non-star talent.

Rights, intellectual property and piracy

You can see why, in some cases, re-origination is preferable to re-versioning for other media. But it does not stop there: a distributor commissioning re-versions of previous subtitles or dubs also has to ensure that they have full legal clearance to do so. In many countries, both the translations and -– in the case of dubbing – the work of voice-over artists are viewed as intellectual property and subject to copyright.

Most vendors these days have supplier contracts with all their translators and artists that sign over all rights as part of their initial fee, but distributors should always check before proceeding as illegal re-distribution of versioning can be very expensive in the long run. France in particular has seen a whole list of disputes recently regarding droits d'auteur for dubbing artists and translators that have cost some Hollywood studios and French TV channels thousands of extra euros in payouts for re-versioning their work in other media.

The flip-side to the rights issue, of course, is that if a distributor has bought out all rights for originated dubbing or subtitles, those assets become saleable articles in their own right. For instance, if a distributor asks a vendor to create the FIGS (French, Italian, German and Spanish) dubs for a new movie and they have asserted ownership of these versions in their contract with the vendor, they can sell on the dub to whoever distributes the same language version on packaged media or another platform further down the line.

Alternatively, some vendors have arrangements with their clients whereby if they re-version subtitle files for another distributor, the commissioning client gets a cut of the revenue from that language stream. It can be, to coin a phrase, a nice little earner for all concerned and the legality of the entire situation prevents any problems with rogue dissatisfied translators further down the line!

Having said all that, another factor is increasingly rearing its ugly head in our brave new online world: subtitle piracy. There are now dozens of sites where illegal downloaders of content can further push up their outlaw credentials by stealing somebody else's work in the form of subtitle files, to be played over the dodgy movie through either homebrew software or within the standard media players.

The sites are fed by hackers who basically rip the subtitle data, including navigation files controlling timecode in and out points, straight off of DVDs with increasing levels of sophistication. To my knowledge, nobody has yet been prosecuted for this practice and yet these people are effectively stealing the DVD distributors' property and contravening all copyright and intellectual property rights.

It is the online arena, however, that looks like being the Next Big Thing for companies such as IMS. As has been proved in the past, some of the best ideas to emerge from the Internet age started out as semi-legal yet, some would say, pioneering activities. Just look at Kazaa, Napster or BitTorrent. If people are currently ripping subtitles so they can watch their equally ripped movies in their own language, surely there is a market for approved, quality, paid-for versioning of the kosher online video content that is gradually being made available to a huge worldwide audience.

And if there is a market for online language versioning, a business model will eventually appear. As a result, many distributors and content owners who currently hold the multilingual keys to these markets will have yet another platform to distribute language versions on, and the vendors will have more re-versioning on their hands in the future too.

Windows and archives

It is this endless list of release windows for content that is making archiving and storage of existing language versions a high priority for many of the majors right now. I can think of at least three Hollywood studios who have an entire department devoted to sourcing, checking, archiving and distributing subtitle files, dubbing tracks, audio description and even in-vision sign language interpreting versions. If you think about it, this is an extremely sensible policy.

The reason re-versioning is such a major concern is that many distributors have learned the hard way that not keeping tabs on language versions means having to pay full-whack to re-subtitle or – even more expensive – re-dub their content for international markets. Re-versioning in general costs between 30% and 60% less than origination, depending on the amount of additional work involved. This is a saving that justifies the investment required in these centralised sourcing departments.

Re-versioning, however, is not always the perfect solution and, even if subtitles or dubs do exist, it can sometimes be better to just start over with a fresh new language version. First of all, you can't always guarantee where the original version has come from or what circumstances it was created in: perhaps the subtitles were rushed through at the last minute using several different translators, or the original dubbing studio used too few actors with not enough range of voices to differentiate between characters properly. A dub may also have been created many years ago using out-of-date or unacceptable terminology. All languages are alive and change over time.

A translator today would think twice about using a term that has developed another meaning over time, such as ‘queer’ or calling someone ‘coloured.’ This is why it is always a good idea to have existing assets quality-checked by the vendor or in-house language experts prior to giving the go-ahead for re-versioning.

You may think that any vendor would automatically turn down all existing versions in these circumstances, but most reputable dubbing or subtitling studios have a fair and objective quality control policy and make this part of their service.

So, in the same way as packaged media generally is always looking for new outlets for its source material, the subtitling and dubbing companies on which these media distributors get their message across world-wide are constantly adapting their techniques and re-visiting previously created versions of that material.

There will always be new material on offer, of course, which gives everyone something to get their teeth into in terms of design, distribution, presentation and multilingual versioning. Today's new release is tomorrow’s re-release and for every re-release, there is a re-version waiting to be done.

JAMES GARDNER is Operations Director at IMS Group plc in London, a leading independent provider of dubbing and subtitling services for DVD, TV and New Media. James has worked in the language sector for more than 15 years and was responsible for some of the first ever subtitles created for DVD. He has managed hundreds of projects for DVDs for all the major studios and distributors since the early days of DVD. Contact:

Story filed 11.06.07

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