I used to make excuses for dramas that dub, citing restrictions on accents, technology, and all that good-stuff. Unfortunately, I’ve since realized that’s not really true. The only real reason? That lovely little thing called self-interest.
The voices you hear in a TV show came through one of the three ways:
- Dubbed by a dubbing team – ex. all of Empresses in the Palace,
- Dubbed original voices – ex. some leads of Nirvana in Fire.
- On-site Recording – ex. Ode to Joy, The Interpreters
Dubbing methods often vary character-to-character, and dramas can use a mix of all three.
Let’s go down the list of excuses I used to believe :
- China doesn’t allow accents
The TV regulators at SARFT specifically said they do not object to the use of accents. Just look at First Love 柠檬初上, where Hawick Lau speaks with a Hong Kong accent, their daughter with a Taiwanese accent, and Gulnazar in listless whispers.
In fact, several recent dramas have actually asked the actors to learn accents to fit their characters (ex. Tong Liya and Yuan Hong in A Simple World)
2. Too many Chinese accents are distracting.
Accent coaches. They’re great, more people should use them.
3. Big Brother is listening
Primetime airing requires screening, and getting final approval may require multiple edits. For example, Ode to Joy had to dub over a Qu Xiaoxiao line that used a line from a nature documentary to suggest it’s time for mating, although not one referring to Dr. Zhao as viagra for women. But most shows only have to change a few lines which shouldn’t take more than a day to dub. Surely you can spare a day for your poor, voiceless character?
Even if it’s something drastic like changing the name of the leads (which is rare and only occurs if it’s an important historical figure, someone complains, and you are Yu Zheng/Tangren), recording shouldn’t take more than a week. Plus, you would think by the number of times Yu Zheng had to go to court for plagiarism, he would have a good enough lawyer to write requirements for re-recording into the contract.
4. Noise-control is expensive
This is the only semi-legit reason for historical dramas.
Yes, Hengdian probably gets more visitors than the average drama gets viewers, and noise-control can be difficult. Dubbing a whole drama takes a minimum of a week, which is a lot of money in actor time.
But The Three Heroes and Five Gallants, which used Chen Xiao’s on-site recorded voice, sounded perfectly fine despite not even trying too hard since they had originally planned to dub it. That drama was filmed at Wuxi Studios, which is also flooded with tourists.
Actors get paid really well in China, and their time is measured in gold. Compare the upwards of 100k per day A-listers receive for a variety show to a few thousands for dubbing, and it’s not hard to see why neither actors nor production teams are incentivized to get the actors in the studio.
And it takes time to prepare lines. It’s hard to imagine the leads remembering all their lines for a 70-episode show filmed in 30 days, not to mention say it with the right emotions. That’s why you get reports of actors just counting instead of saying their lines or having their assistants tele-prompt them while filming.
Another growing reason is the large number of non-mainland actors/producers/directors. Many of the hottest Chinese idols have strong accents and haven’t bothered to get an accent coach, and producers often chose their fame and face over the drawback of dubbing. On top of the fact that most historical idol drama directors are currently from Hong Kong, there’s an increasing number of Korean companies investing in Chinese dramas, often with the requirement that the production teams and many of the leads being Korean. This means that actors who can read their own lines are often simply not valued by many teams, and it’s not like the rest of the team can tell the difference anyways.
Is there any hope?!
Luckily, with increased competition for dramas and airing, production speed has become important. Almost all of Hunan TV’s Sunday dramas, including many I almost wish were dubbed, have so far used mostly on-site recording. These dramas often are filmed while airing, with no time for dubbing.
In 2010, exactly zero of the top idol dramas from the mainland used the actors original voices. Although to be fair, only two modern idol dramas from the mainland had over 1% in viewership (Meteor Shower 2 and Strands of Love). I’m ignoring rom-coms like Ugly Wudi and iPartment.
With a surge in mainland idol dramas and mainland idol actors, we’re seeing more and more dramas using either on-set recording or getting its leads to dub themselves. In 2015, two of the most acclaimed dramas, The Disguiser and Nirvana in Fire, suddenly made no-dubbing cool. 2016 has already seen The Love of Happiness, The Interpreters, So Young, Ode to Joy, Love O2O, etc. Upcoming, we have Hu Ge’s Hunting Ground, Wang Kai’s When a Snail Fall in Love, and the epic Storms of Prophecy to look forward to. And for the first time, Yu Zheng had the leads dub themselves for Memories Lost.