Many thanks to Cindy, Don, and producer/director Rick Dempsey for their time and answers and to the multitude of people who submitted questions.
Q: Can you go through the process of how you get the original script, what you do with it, and how you get the script approved by Ghibli. How much contact do you have with the folks at Ghibli when you're working on a script?
How long does it take for you to do a script, from the time you are handed the literal translation and tape (or DVD) to the time you turn in your script? And how long does it generally take to make the dub from the first session with the first voice actor to the final voice actor being finished?
A: It starts with us receiving a direct translation of the script (I think it's always done by Jim Hubbert) and a video tape with subtitles. First we watch the subtitled film and note what we don't understand, as far as plot or character development goes. Then we read over Jim Hubbert's translation (which differs from the subtitles) and look for answers. We discuss what we'd like to clarify or underscore, then we start writing dialogue. We count the number of syllables available for each line, and then we write three, four, sometimes ten different options with the correct syllable count for every single line. By this point, we usually have wicked headaches, get really crabby, and start wandering around our home muttering lines in Japanese (after Totoro, we yelled "Mah-tay!" at each other nonstop.) This process usually takes about 2-3 weeks. Then we will email our script to Disney and Studio Ghibli.
A team of people at Studio Ghibli go over the script, then they send a list of revisions back to us. We incorporate the revisions, often offering various options for the lines (due to lip sync or flow.) Then we will submit the new script to Studio Ghibli. Sometimes this step is repeated several times. But on Howl's Moving Castle, Steve Alpert flew in from Studio Ghibli, and we spent 3 days at Disney reviewing the film and our script, line by line. It was a very thorough process.
Once we have an approved script, the voice recording begins. It generally takes about 3 weeks for the recording process, but that time often gets extended to accommodate actors' schedules. Billy Crystal, for example, was performing a one-man show on Broadway, so part of the team had to fly to New York to record Billy. Logistically, it was a pain, but the performance we got from Billy was definitely worth it!
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Q: Why were the extra lines for Chihiro and her dad added to the very end of the English dub?
A: Adapting a film to another language is a fluid thing. Words are representations of emotions set in a cultural context. Sometimes simply translating word-for-word does not express the emotional experience. We try to capture the experience of the movie as a whole, not just the specific words.
Many of the reviews which we read prior to writing the script mentioned how abrupt the ending felt. Chihiro's emotional journey did not seem complete. So we wrote a short ending to the scene and submitted it to John Lasseter and Studio Ghibli. The extra lines were unanimously approved.
Q: This is another question that has been debated frequently among the fans. In the Japanese version, when Chihiro first sees Haku in dragon form fly off, she doesn't say anything. In fact it appears that she doesn't yet realize that the dragon is Haku's other form. Yet in the English dub she says "That's Haku" even though nothing has happened yet to tell her that Haku has a dragon form. It's as if she just intuitively and magically recognizes him. (And since this is a fantasy, that's entirely possible.) So the question is what exactly was the reasoning behind putting in that line? Was it just to help make the audience understand that Haku could change forms (something the Japanese audience intuitively might suspect, but the American audience wouldn't)?
A: (Answer from 1st interview) "Haku," means white in Japanese and is the name of a mahjong tile with a white dragon on it. Very few people in America play mahjong, so very few Americans would be able to make the link between the character Haku and a white dragon. Therefore, we added a line of dialogue to help the non-mahjong-playing Americans follow the plot.
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Q: In Nausicaa the name of the forest has been variously translated as "Sea of Corruption" and "Sea of Decay," but in the English dub the name is "Toxic Jungle." Was this the official name you received from Ghibli or was it chosen by you to match lip flaps?
A: We discussed this extensively with Studio Ghibli, and we all decided that the name "Toxic Jungle" was most accurate.
Q: Also, in the manga her glider is referred to as "mehve" but the word isn't used in the English script. Was this left out simply to avoid introducing more jargon into the script, or was there more involved in the decision-making process?
A: The direct translation we received did not use "mehve."
Q: Why was the name for the giant insects changed from "ohmu" to "ohm"? That one seemed rather arbitrary. And who had the final say on deciding how names and places were officially pronounced in English?
A: We preferred "ohmu," but Studio Ghibli preferred "ohm." Also, they are very specific about how they want each name pronounced.
Q: Did you ever see the original (and edited) English version of Nausicaa, Warriors of the Wind? If so, did you consider it an example of how not to do a dub?
A: We've never seen it.
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Q: In the Japanese version (and still in the subtitles in the US version) Curtis says he's from Alabama. But in the dubbed version he says he's from Texas. Why was it changed? Was it a matter of number of lip flaps or did Cary Elwes feel he could do a better Texas accent than a southern accent?
A: We went with "Texas" for lip flaps.
Q: There was an earlier English dub of Porco done for the in-flight version and later released on the Japanese DVD version of Porco. Did you folks ever look at that or did you start with a fresh translation?
A: Yes, we saw this one. But they took a very different approach to the film than we did. Theirs seems to be a bit cartoony and aimed at kids, whereas we felt the story should be much more real, like Casablanca.
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Q: The one question we got most often is something you had nothing to do with, but you might be able to answer it anyway. The both sets of subtitles on The Cat Returns were just the dubbing script rather than the usual dub script and literal translation. Since there was a literal translation subtitle script on the Japanese DVD release of Cat, the fans have been very puzzled about why that wasn't used in the US release. Was this a deliberate decision on the part of Disney or was it just a mistake that was overlooked in the disc's production?
A: Sorry, don't know anything about that one.
Q: The King of the Cats keeps referring to Haru as "Babe." Since that wasn't in the original Japanese script was that something you folks added or was that something that Tim Curry added?
A: We added it. Often, characters' voices feel bland in direct translations, because their quirks and idiosyncrasies are dropped. We try to find a voice for each character. The Cat King's posture, attitude, and actions implied to us that he was the type of groovy dude who might call everyone "Babe" and say "Ciao," so we added that to his dialogue.
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Q: In doing the script for Howl's Moving Castle, did you just use Miyazaki's script or did you also use Diana Wynne Jones' book as a backup reference?
A: First, we watched the film several times. Then Cindy took the first pass at the script, while Don read the novel. Cindy purposely didn't read the novel, so she wouldn't start accidentally blending in elements from the book which Miyazaki hadn't put in his film. If Cindy didn't understand an aspect of the film, she would ask Don if the book could provide an answer. But we always made sure to keep the book and the film distinct, since the film does vary from the book significantly.
Q: In the same vein, did you ever have any contact with Ms. Jones about the script or her ideas for how she thought the English-language voices should sound?
A: No, but hopefully we'll get to meet her in the future.
Q: I am so glad they cast Christian Bale, a Welshman, for the role of Howl. I really feel there that they cast someone to fit the role instead of trying to make the role fit the person. Was Christian always the intention? I liked him a lot in Pocahontas as Thomas. He's a really good VA.
A: Ned Lott at Disney came up with all the casting suggestions. And Christian is great (and incredibly sexy! - Okay that was Cindy's comment) as Howl.
Q: When Spirited Away was first released in fall 2003, it never got to more than 150 screens at a time in North America (compared to a typical wide release US film that will be on 2000 to 3000 screens). There was a report in a Japanese newspaper saying that Disney was planning to go with a bigger release for Howl of around 800 screens. Do you know and can you tell us how wide a release Howl will get in June?
A: Actually, Disney went to over 700 screens after Spirited Away won the Oscar, but that was 2 weeks before the video release. The final decision regarding the number of screens has not been made. But I can tell you that Howl's tested very well on its test screening. Even the widest release would still probably be well below 2000 screens.
Q: Please don't read the following as hostile! - I think you and Disney have done a fantastic job in making Hayao Miyazaki's films more accessible in the West and I for one am extremely grateful. You made it very clear in your previous fascinating interview that you're aiming your work on the English dubs at an American audience. Which is quite understandable, except that it can read and sound very uncomfortable for English-speaking audiences elsewhere. I'm curious to know, has this issue ever been considered by Disney? Selfishly, I wish there was a British English script and dub for these films.
While this may seem parochial, don't forget it's normal practice for US networks to redub any British children's programmes they buy. Perhaps we should benefit from similar considerations, especially since most of these films are intended for younger audiences. This point is going to gain some sharpness when Disney releases Howl's Moving Castle in Britain since it is based a British book. I'm afraid some of us are going to be wincing at hearing the US accents/vernacular/words etc. (not to mention the spellings ^_^ )
A: Howl's may be very annoying to the British since there are three actors from the UK (Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, and Emily Mortimer) and they are not using their accents. Sophie and her sister Lettie (played by American Jena Malone) all speak with a mild "Mid-Atlantic" accent, which is neither American nor British - it's somewhere in between.
Films are released by territories. Studio Ghibli's deal with Disney is for the USA (and Canada.) Unfortunately, we have no control over what is released in the UK and other English-speaking non-American countries. It is our understanding that the company that has released some of the Studio Ghibli films in the UK purchased the rights to the American dubs.
Q: Tell us about how Pete Docter and Rick Dempsey went about doing the directing on Howl? Was their style different or similar to the style of the other dub directors? Any good "behind the scenes" stories about the dub?
A: Pete and Rick are two of the best directors we've had the privilege to work with. They both are very positive and very specific - actors are always praising them for knowing exactly what they want.
Sorry, don't really have any good stories other than the fact that everyone was extremely nice and a joy to work with. Pete Docter does eat too much sugar, though - often in the form of marshmallow chick peeps.
Q: What was it like getting screen legends like Jean Simmons and Lauren Bacall to play characters in Howl? How did you get them in the first place? What were their reactions to the film?
A: Both Ms. Simmons and Ms. Bacall were amazing. They both loved the film and seemed to really enjoy playing their roles. Once again it was Ned Lott who suggested and secured them. (And the fact that Spirited Away won an Oscar always helps when trying to convince an actor to consider a project...)
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Q: The new dub of Totoro was originally supposed to be released last August (along with Nausicaa and Porco), but then they were delayed and Totoro was replaced with The Cat Returns. The only official explanation from Disney was that there were "technical problems" with Totoro that caused them to push its release back further. Can you expand on that any?
A: Unfortunately, I can not go into specifics, but I can say that the "technical" problems were actually more "legal" in nature and our allowable release dates were restricted. Aren't lawyers fun!
Q: Legal problems? Is there anything more you can say to explain this?
Rick Dempsey: It's a matter of expiration and rights terms between Disney and Fox. We have to leave it at that...
Q: Was there anything particularly tough about the redubbing of Totoro?
A: No, it was actually quite easy. We were worried because it has such big roles for two young girls. But Dakota Fanning and her little sister Elle Fanning turned out to be such amazingly talented young actresses that it was a blast. Eerily, the way Dakota and Elle relate to each other is so similar to Satsuki and Mei, that you would think Miyazaki had known the girls and based the characters on them.
Q: Some of the fans really liked the original 1990 dub of Totoro that was on the Fox version. Was there a reason Disney couldn't use that dub, or did they just want to do it themselves?
A: We liked that dub, too.
Rick Dempsey: Disney doesn't have the rights to release the Fox version, so once we obtained the opportunity to release the film under the Disney Banner, we were obligated to recreate the English version. Selfishly, I do think that the latest version is an excellent dub.
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Q: The dub for this was completed some time ago, but it still hasn't been released. Can you tell us what the hold up for it is? There has been a lot of speculation among the fans that there was a problem in getting the rights to the song "Country Roads," but that's just pure speculation. Unfortunately, since Disney has never said anything, this speculation is now accepted as fact by a lot of fans. Can you help settle this debate?
A: Actually the recording was halted back in 2003, and the film is still not complete. Just this week we began to record again, and we should have the film completed soon. I believe the film will be released next spring with My Neighbor Totoro and Howl's.
Q: Why did they suspend the dubbing of Whisper?
Rick Dempsey: Another legal hurdle regarding music rights. Without going into specifics, we had to iron a few things out in regards to the song "Country Roads," and it took longer then we anticipated. Studio Ghibli also wanted to change the release order of the films after we had already started Whispers - they pushed Whispers back. So between the legal/music issues and a deadline that was pushed back, we stopped production and moved onto the other films. We are now back in the studio completing it for a release in Spring '06.
Q: Since one of the key plot points of Whisper is Shizuku's work to write a translation of "Country Roads" in Japanese, how did you handle that in the English dub? Did you leave the translation in Japanese in the soundtrack or did you have her new lyrics translated back to English and sung in English? (Several fans asked this question and told us that the scene of her singing with Seiji and his grandfather and friends is their favorite scene in the movie and they're very worried about how it will be handled in the English dub.)
A: Instead of having Shizuku translate "Country Roads" into Japanese (which wouldn't make much sense in an English dub) we had Shizuku come up with her own lyrics for the tune. Her first attempt is a little rough. Later, as she's growing as a writer, she writes another version which is better, because she writes it from the heart. Hopefully these scenes will play much the way they did in the original.
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Q: It's uniformly agreed that the one Ghibli film with the most Japanese cultural references that will confuse a Western viewer is Pom Poko. Are there any plans to include an explanation of all these references either as an extra on the DVD itself or as an insert with the DVD?
A: Actually that's a great idea, but I think the DVD is complete. I'm not sure what extras will be on it.
Q: Tanuki are not raccoons, but a native Japanese species that are similar to raccoons. In the dub are they called "raccoons" or did you stick with "tanuki"? Given the large amount of Japanese folklore about tanuki that most Western audiences don't know, how did you go about trying to explain their powers and their significance in Japanese culture?
A: We went with "raccoon." (Once again that was what was on the direct translation we received.) There's a long section of training the young ones that did a great job of explaining the raccoon powers, so it wasn't necessary to add any explanation.
Q: Since Pom Poko involves jokes about the tanuki's testicles, how is that being handled in the English dub and will that affect how Disney markets it?
A: Actually, their initial reaction was that they were not going to release it. So we looked up "scrotum" in the dictionary. (It's the scrotum, not the testicles that the raccoons are stretching.) The definition is, "the external pouch that contains the testes." So we suggested using the word "pouch," and both Disney and Studio Ghibli agreed to it.
Can you tell us who the cast is for Pom Poko?
But the big news is Don was a co-director on this one!
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Q: Can you tell us what the release schedule is for the rest of the Ghibli films on DVD (Totoro, Pom Poko, Whisper of the Heart, Only Yesterday, My Neighbors the Yamadas)?
A: I just saw this on your website: Pom Poko and Yamadas will be released on Aug 16th. Only Yesterday is currently not scheduled to be dubbed or released.
Q: Can you tell us the cast list for Yamadas?
A: Yamadas is the only film we did not work on. But I can tell you that Jim Belushi and Molly Shannon are Mr & Mrs Yamada.
Q: Is the made-for-TV Ghibli film I Can Hear the Sea (a.k.a. Ocean Waves) also licensed by Disney for North American release? It's never been clear in any of the announcements from either Japan or the US if it was included or not. If so, is there any word on when it will be released and who the cast will be?
A: They aren't part of any future releases that I know of. But Studio Ghibli is considering dubbing the short The Ghiblies 2.
Q: Is there any chance that Disney will ever license and release the Studio Ghibli Museum short films (Mei and the Kittenbus, Koro's Big Day Out, and The Whale Hunt) in North America?
A: My understanding is these films were made for the museum and there are no plans for them to leave the museum.
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Q: How much involvement did John Lasseter have in the films you worked on after Spirited Away?
John has been extremely busy since Spirited Away, due to the fact that he has his own feature coming out (Cars.) He did, however, get very involved in Howl's.
Q: How did you folks get involved with doing the scripts for the Ghibli films in the first place?
A: We were hired by Pixar to work on a project. We met John, and he recommended us for Spirited Away.
Q: Were you already aware of Miyazaki and the Studio Ghibli films when you first got the job for Spirited Away?
A: No. Isn't that weird?
Q: Japanese films tend to have longer silences and pauses than American films and some of the fans are annoyed when the English dubs add some lines in those pauses. Of course some of the lines are necessary to explain something that's obvious to the Japanese audience but not to the American audience. So how do you and the directors decide when it's necessary to add a line or when to let an actor ad-lib a line?
A: Rarely does an actor adlib. (John Ratzenberger adlibbed a line about No Face's esophagus in Spirited Away. That's the only line I can think of that was adlibbed and kept in the movie.) We add in extra lines when there is something culturally accepted or understood by Japanese audiences which we believe will not be accepted or understood by American audiences. These points are always judgment calls, and we spend countless hours discussing these decisions with Studio Ghibli.
Q: Of all the Ghibli films you've worked on, which one was the hardest to do? In other words, which was the hardest to make it make sense and work out in English?
A: Pom Poko, hands down. Those darn raccoons sing 22 songs, which we had to make rhyme in English; and they always have the TV on, so we had to come up with dialogue for the newscasters in the background as well as the raccoons speaking in the foreground. The script for Pom Poko was over 150 pages, whereas the other scripts are usually 100 pages or less.
Q: What do you like best about doing the Ghibli scripts?
A: The storytelling is so great, working on each film is like taking an advanced screenwriting class.
Q: What in particular did you like about each one of the films?
A: My favorite characters are often the ones that don't speak, like the soot balls and the Totoros. I'm constantly in awe of how much Miyazaki can communicate without words.
Q: Now that you've done most of them, do you have a favorite?
A: Cindy's favorite is Porco Rosso. Don would have to say as a writer Porco was also his favorite but it was a blast to direct Pom Poko.
Q: In the "Making of" videos they show you two in the dubbing studio. Are you there for all the dubbing sessions or just for the main characters? Also, how much say (if any) do you have in suggesting how the voice actors read the lines?
A: We're there for every recording session. The directors have been very collaborative and always allow us to give our opinion.
Q: Do the actors listen to the Japanese dialog first or do they tend to ignore it so they can have "fresh" take on the lines?
A: Some actors like to see the scene in Japanese first. It helps to get the timing and pacing. But some don't. Each actor has their own method.
Q: How much money has Disney made on the release of the Ghibli films?
Rick Dempsey: The partnership between Disney and Studio Ghibli has proven to be a very good and rewarding relationship.
Q: Except for the closing song in Mononoke and the opening and closing songs for Kiki (which you weren't involved with) all the songs in the Ghibli films have been left in the original Japanese (which most of the fans appreciate). But why don't they put a translation of the song in the subtitles?
A: We never receive a translation of the opening or closing songs. Since we haven't really been involved with the opening and closing songs we can't say why there are no subtitles.
Rick Dempsey: However, we did have an English singer cover the opening and closing vocals in My Neighbor Totoro. We used a singer named Sonya Isaacs at John Lasseter's recommendation. . . and she sounds great!
Q: In all your dealings with Studio Ghibli, have you ever gotten any indication that they would ever do a project geared towards the US audience instead of the Japanese audience?
A: That's an interesting idea, but we've never heard of any such intentions.
Q: Was there ever a scene or a line that you did and you said, "I wish I could make that better"? Was there ever a scene or a line you did that made you glow with pride?
There was one line in Spirited Away that stumped us for quite awhile. The direct translation was:
My sister and I would be better off together,
but we don't get along. She's not very refined, is she?
Sorceress twins are a recipe for trouble.
The concepts in the various lines of dialogue didn't flow together (the way Americans like 'em), and we banged our heads against the walls for a long time, trying to find a way to tie them together. Finally, we came up with, "We're identical twins, yet we're exact opposites," which (we felt) tied the concepts together.
Q: In Japan (since all the dubbing is done after the animation unlike the traditional US method of recording before doing the animation) some studios will gather some or all of the voice actors together to do the dubbing in a group (rather than the US method of bringing in one actor at a time). Do you feel that this makes a difference in the quality of the dub, and do you think this method would work in the English dubs?
A: Generally the only time we bring in a group of actors is to do what's called "loop group." About twelve actors do all the crowd noise and minor characters with only one or two lines.
All of the lead characters record separately. Once we have the first actor recorded, we have the ability to play the recorded lines for the next actors so they have a chance to "respond" to the first actor. Most actors find this extremely helpful.
Also recording engineers and dialog mixers almost always prefer that the actors be recorded separately. This allows the most control and assures the highest quality sound.
Q: Were there any moments in doing all the scripts where you were puzzled by something and when you found the answer you just wanted to slap your head because it was so obvious?
A: We're still not sure what happened to Gonta's group of rebels at the end of Pom Poko. They get in a fight with the Police Special Forces, they all die, then they turn into a bouncing head, smash a few cars, and then get hit by a truck and die again? Or we're they not really dead after the Police Special Forces altercation? Anyone?
Q: What are the easiest and hardest things about dubbing?
A: The easiest thing is working with our team at Disney: Rick Dempsey, Ned Lott, and Petra Bach are spectacular human beings and we look forward to working with them each and every day. No joke.
Q: Apart from these interviews, how much exposure have you had with Miyazaki fans?
A: At first, we had very little exposure to Miyazaki fans. But for the last few years we've been giving DVDs for every holiday and birthday (shopping has never been so easy!), and now all our friends and relatives are rabid Miyazaki fans.