ENTERTAINMENT

Behind-the-scenes of a Pinoy voice dubbing session

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From L-R: Voice actors JM Canlas, Steffi Bontogon, Nelieza Magauay, and JM Torres. Photo courtesy of NETFLIX

“Nagkamali tayo kay Vecna!” exclaims “Stranger Things” character Robin in an episode from Season 4 of the Netflix original series. In the scene, Robin (played by Maya Hawke) is in the Byers’ living room with the rest of the Hawkins crew, including Steve, Max, Lucas, and Dustin. But while all the elements on screen are exactly the same as the original work, the voice coming out of the speakers is undoubtedly Pinoy.

The Filipino version of Robin is dubbed by voice actress Nelieza Magauay. Today, Magauay is doing a sample recording for journalists at the HIT Productions Inc. headquarters in Makati — a new space at the top floor of a building that also houses a hardware depot. Known as the go-to for audio post-production in the Philippines, they are now one of the few local studios contracted by Netflix for dubbing purposes. Since partnering with the global media giant last year, HIT counts “Stranger Things,” “The School of Good & Evil,” and Guillermo del Toro’s “Cabinet of Curiosities” as part of their portfolio.

After watching the preview of the original English clip from “Stranger Things,” Magauay listens intently to dubbing director Cheska Aguiluz’s instructions before saying her lines. Through the monitor and headphones, Aguiluz describes what Robin is feeling as she delivers her piece.

As the on-screen Robin stutters to communicate her point about the patterns of Vecna (“slash Henry-slash One”) attacks, Magauay replicates her movements. She waves her hands with just as much gusto as Hawke does on screen, shouting: “May number siya!” Then the recording beep goes off, and they repeat the process until Aguiluz is satisfied with the outcome.

Nelieza Magauay recording the Filipino dub for "Stranger Things" character Robin, with dubbing director Cheska Aguiluz monitoring from a separate studio. Photos by GABY GLORIA

Learning about localization from the Pinoy Spongebob

Flip through any Filipino television channel in the morning or early afternoon, and you’re likely to stumble upon dubbed shows or movies. Along with subtitling and translating, dubbing is part of these media companies’ larger effort of localization, in which content is adapted to a country or region to better cater to their audience.

The dubbed versions of cartoons and movies that aired on local television were portals for many Filipinos to discover international media titles. Generations of Filipinos grew up hearing the Tagalog versions of “Dragon Ball Z” and “Spongebob” before their English counterparts. The dubs were a tool that helped spark the Hallyu wave here, with dubbed versions of “Jewel in the Palace” and “Full House” living in local pop culture history.

As streaming services like Netflix have expanded over the years and the original titles are made more widely available, it’s easy to take these dubs for granted and dismiss them as nostalgia fuel and meme sources. But the arrival of these platforms serves as a guarantee that the dubbing industry in the Philippines is growing.

"We think of the subtitles and dubs as enabling access to the story," said Netflix’s then-content localization director Danny Sheehan in a 2017 interview with WIRED. "Our goal is to use creative intent as the North Star, to really create culturally relevant and resonant translations for the continent that have a wide global appeal.”

HIT Productions, Inc. Head of Localization Rudolph Baldonado. Photo by GABY GLORIA

“It's not just ‘Ok, let's dub!,’” says Rudolph Baldonado, HIT Productions head of localization. Baldonado has worked as a voice actor on “Spongebob Squarepants” (yes, he was the voice of Filipino Spongebob), and as dubbing director of “Trese.” “We need to understand what the show is about, how we are going to localize this.”

As demonstrated during the studio visit, the process begins in pre-production, where the director and translator come up with a concept for the Filipino dub. Baldonado says that different titles call for different formulas, so the work of the pre-prod team involves deciding what could work best in conjunction with what clients like Netflix want.

After the concept is decided, the writers begin working on the script and the team begins casting, which is another process that involves tapping into their existing talent pool, asking for vocal samples, or holding auditions. The final script is presented to the actors at the actual recording session, they record, and pass the material to the sound engineers who fine tune and check if any of the lines were missed. The recording then goes into mixing, where the engineers focus on adding in the effects and making sure everything sounds like it should based on the setting in the material.

It’s a tedious process — four episodes can take a month or more to complete — but the talents and team agree that the work is worth it. “Usually [at] the end of the process, we see [our work] on the platform and we all celebrate and freak out,” says HIT Productions President and managing partner Vic Icasas.

A sound engineer at work at the studio. Photo courtesy of NETFLIX

Voice actor JM Canlas going over his lines for the Filipino dub of Lucas in "Stranger Things." Photo courtesy of NETFLIX

The challenges of voice acting

Contrary to popular belief, having a good voice isn’t the only requirement for you to become a voice actor. There is a skill that comes with the job.

“Sinasabi nila ‘maganda boses mo, mag-dubber ka!’ Hindi lang po sa ganda ng boses. We all have unique voices,” says Baldonado. “It's in the acting. 'Yun 'yung [seemingly] less important, but actually is the most important part.”

This sentiment was most appreciated with the release of “Trese” in 2021. Adapted from the original graphic novel by Kajo Baldisimo and Budjette Tan, “Trese” is the first animated series distributed worldwide that takes its source material from Filipino folklore.

As dubbing director, Baldonado helped actress Liza Soberano prepare for her role as the titular character’s Filipino voice. When asked about the controversy, Baldonado reiterates the goal of localization. “Hindi lang ganda ng boses,” he says of the considerations that a team takes when creating a dubbing track. A lot of the work gives more importance to answering these questions: Can we effectively give them that illusion that these characters are speaking Filipino? And more importantly, do the viewers understand what's going on finally?

17-year-old voice actors Ericka Peralejo and Albert Silos guide members of the press during a sample dubbing session. Photo courtesy of NETFLIX

For 17-year-old Ericka Peralejo (the Filipino voice of Suzy in “Stranger Things”), voice acting is one way to help her use her voice better because her oratory skills in real life “aren’t that great.”

Having started at the age of 10, Peralejo says that her experience has taught her that voice acting is a lesson in controlling one’s voice. “Mas mahirap yung control, lalo na control doesn't mean no energy,” she says. “Kung ano yung ginagawa sa studio, minsan it's not enough to just copy them. Kasi voice nga lang eh. Yung pag-express namin, we have to physicalize more than the onscreen people, the actor, para tumerno.”

Teenagers JM Canlas and Albert Silos started around the same time as Peralejo. The three started out doing the dubs for cartoons — at the time, they would look forward to the play time in between sessions over the actual work. Now, they appreciate all they’ve learned from the profession.

Canlas and Silos voice Lucas and Will respectively. Canlas is the youngest of the bunch, having gotten his start at only eight years old. He “finds it cool” that he gets to adjust his voice depending on the job. “What I love about my directors is they sometimes give you characters na you don't think fits your voice but then they push you and start adjusting you, and before you know it, sumaswak siya.”

In the end, as Silos says, nothing compares to the “honor of being part of the process of bringing [international content] to the Filipino audience.”

“What I find most fun about being a Filipino voice actor is the fact that people will get to watch this certain movie or cartoon and there will be a massive audience that will understand and absorb that content more because it's in Filipino,” he says.