In June, the actress Ayelet Zurer stood at a microphone in a Los Angeles recording studio, reading English dialogue aloud as it scrolled, karaoke-like, under scenes of Netflix’s Spanish crime drama “La Casa de Papel,” or “Money Heist.”
She voices Raquel, a tough police inspector played by Itziar Ituño, but her performance transcended words: She sighed, she shrugged, she shook her head — all of it carefully synced to Raquel’s actions onscreen — as the dubbing director Matt Kollar coached her from behind the sound board.
“Where did the Professor go?” Zurer said into the microphone.
Kollar: “Don’t say ‘Professor,’ that’s too dubby.”
Zurer: “We’re looking for a middle-aged male.”
Kollar: “Too short. And ‘male’ is too dubby.”
“Dubby,” in this context, means anything that is not speech-like — jarring diction or awkward wording — or is conspicuously out of time with how the actors mouths are moving onscreen. (Think of the vintage Japanese monster movies you watched on Saturday afternoon TV.)
Dubbed versions of shows have long been commonplace in Europe’s TV marketplace, where shows routinely cross borders — it is a thriving industry with its own award ceremonies, and voice actors are famous in their own right. But in the more insular United States, they have frequently been treated as a joke, thanks to decades of schlocky martial arts films and spaghetti Westerns defined by indifferent voice-casting and terrible lip-syncing.
Netflix, which has perhaps the world’s fastest-growing library of international series and movies, wants badly to change that perception. Over the past nine months, it has been actively recruiting actors and filmmakers to build a production chain it hopes will drastically elevate the quality of its English-language versions of foreign shows, making them seamless enough to win over more American subscribers and, in the process, significantly boost viewing of Netflix’s international offerings.
The streaming giant produces content in more than 30 countries. “Money Heist,” which returns for its third season on Friday, is its most watched non-English show, Netflix said (the company has not released viewership numbers). But the field of popular foreign-language shows is growing. Three recent releases — “How to Sell Drugs Online” (Germany), Season 2 of “The Rain” (Denmark) and “Quicksand” (Sweden) — each garnered “12 to 15 million” global viewers, Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, said this week in a second-quarter earnings discussion posted on the company’s website.
The popular series “Elite,” “Cable Girls” (both from Spain) and “Sacred Games” (India) debut new seasons in August and September. Their global appeal, Sarandos said, “is a shift from what we have seen from the beginning of film and television: that almost all content that travels the world is in English from America.”
In its earnings statement this week, Netflix reported a rare dip in domestic subscribers and slower than anticipated overall growth for the second quarter. Those results, combined with increasing competition in the streaming sector, make scanning the globe for compelling content more urgent than ever.
But with that comes a language gap. Subtitles have their own drawbacks in our multitasking age, as evidenced by the fact that many subscribers in the United States already prefer dubbed versions of international shows to subtitled ones. Netflix said 85 percent of its American viewers chose dubs over subs for “The Rain”; 78 percent for the German supernatural mystery “Dark”; and 72 percent for “Money Heist.”
As usual, Netflix is reticent with specific audience totals. But it is betting that it can boost its overall viewership of non-English series among the world’s 371 million native English speakers — most of whom live in the United States — by creating better English dubs that will attract people who might be put off by low quality ones.
From a strategic standpoint, the company hopes to leverage the production it’s already doing overseas as rival conglomerates prepare their own streaming services and reclaim popular Netflix offerings, like “Friends” (destined for WarnerMedia’s new HBO Max) and “The Office” (NBCUniversal).
“We are literally creating a new audience,” said Debra Chinn, Netflix’s director of international dubbing.
“Money Heist” will be a test case: Netflix took the unusual step of re-dubbing Seasons 1 and 2 using the new director and cast it had assembled to dub Season 3, including Zurer.
Last month the service replaced the lip-flapping early versions of the first two seasons — in which Raquel awkwardly shouts things like, “Silence!” to quiet rowdy fellow officers — with the newly-minted ones.
“In animation, you can get away with some questionable alignment of sync because it’s a fantasy world, not someone shoving a gun in someone’s else’s face in a car,” said Chinn, who prepped “The Flintstones” for global markets in an early job at Hanna-Barbera and worked at four Hollywood studios before joining Netflix. “Live action has to be truer to the character.”
Netflix dubs most commonly into nine languages: French, Italian, German, Turkish, Polish, Japanese, Castilian Spanish, Latin American Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese. (It offers subtitles in 27 languages.) But in April the company created a new position, creative manager for English dubbing, and gave the job to David McClafferty, one of its dubbing supervisors.
McClafferty had already been working to build an informal network of creative talent, starting nine months ago when he hired Kollar to helm the dubbing for the Israeli series “When Heroes Fly” and then for “Money Heist.”
Zurer, an Israeli actress whose acting credits include Netflix’s “Daredevil,” “Munich,” “Angels & Demons” and “Hostages,” was a voice actor on both series. She went on to direct the English dub of “Kidnapping Stella,” a German film that recently premiered on Netflix.
McClafferty brought in the “black-ish” writer Christian Lander, a friend from college, to direct the English dub of “Boi,” a Spanish film about a young chauffeur in Barcelona, between seasons of his primary show.
A chat with a colleague in the Netflix I.T. department led McClafferty to the actor and director Joel David Moore, who directed the English dub of the Flemish-language Belgian series “13 Commandments” with Max Osswald.
In each case, McClafferty encouraged the filmmakers he hired to approach their dubbing projects less as a recording session than as its own production.
“The way for English dubbing to evolve is by inviting artists in and giving them the freedom to cast and direct performances with their own vision,” he said. “I want them to feel that they can go to a place where they both respect the original version and get natural performances without my interference, or the creative interference of the studio.”
In some cases, Netflix uses the original foreign cast when the actors’ English is good enough, as it did with “The Rain” and “Dark.”
McClafferty hired Torsten Voges, a German actor, to direct English dubs of both series. Voges is now a dubbing production supervisor for Netflix.
“It’s not always easy to convince the actors,” but they are often the best candidates, Voges said. “They really understand the characters.”
Good dubbing requires actors who can give a naturalistic performance and explore the nuances of their characters behind the words, said the casting director Dorit Simone, who has worked on multiple Netflix series and casts each project as if it were an original production.
“Saying, ‘I hate you’ can mean ‘I love you,’ and you have to get that across in the voice,” she said.
For “Money Heist,” she and the director Kollar auditioned and cast actors with credits including “Homeland,” “The Young Pope” and “Hawaii Five-O.”
At the recording session at VSI Los Angeles — an outpost of the global company VSI Group and one of the 125 audio facilities Netflix partners with on dubbing around the world — actors put finishing touches on all three seasons.
“Remember, we’re looking for a middle-aged man,” Zurer said, and then looked at Kollar.
“Still too short?” she asked him, before trying again: “Remember, we’re looking for a man, a middle-aged man … ” Elsewhere in the studio, the actress Hollie Sokol waited to run her lines in a red jumpsuit that matched the one her character Tokyo wore in the show.
“We treat these like real scenes,” Kollar said.
McClafferty is currently working on 10 English dubs and has eight more teed up over the next few months, and she has begun reaching out to established directors like Andrew Bujalski (“Support The Girls”) to see if they are willing to experiment with the process.
“I’d like to give it a whirl,” Bujalski said. “I imagine most filmmakers are intrigued by the magic trick of imposing one performance on top of another.”
The ultimate goal, said Moore, who worked on “13 Commandments,” is to ensure that if viewers tune out, it’s not because of the quality of the dub. The hope is that the changes in thinking he has already observed in the studio will eventually take place among the viewing public.
“On the first day, I know all the actors were thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’” he said. “But when they left, they all said, ‘This is so much cooler than I thought it would be.’”