From Iceland — Voices In Sync

Voices In Sync

Published May 27, 2023

Voices In Sync

A glimpse into the world of dubbing at Myndform

In a quest to better understand how movies are dubbed in Iceland, we find ourselves in front of an unremarkable building in the industrial block of Hafnarfjörður. Contrary to its unassuming exterior, Myndform holds a delightful surprise within its rugged exterior: an in-house cinema and walls adorned with beloved cartoon characters. Eager to show us around is studio manager Bjarki Gunnarsson. As the first door opens, I catch a glimpse of a new episode of Moominvalley on the screen — this is a movie geek’s version of Disneyland.

Myndform is one of two companies in Iceland that provide dubbing services for movies. Dubbing? In Iceland? You’re right to be slightly surprised it’s a practice here — films are typically screened with their original audio accompanied by Icelandic subtitles. However, there is an exception when it comes to children’s movies and cartoons. Since its founding in 1984, Myndform has expanded from four to about 30 employees, establishing a fancy recording studio and amassing a portfolio of big-name projects along the way.

If we are allowed to do the names, we do the names. If we’re allowed to do the songs, we do the songs. We try to make it as Icelandic as possible.

Bjarki has been with the company for almost 25 years. He admits it was only meant to be an in-between job, but once he got to know the company, he was hooked. “I started as a driver, then I was working on replication of VHS cassettes. Since then I have been just going from this to that. Now I manage the production department, which includes dubbing, subtitling, graphic design and much more,” he says.

The dubbing market in Iceland is really small, hence, the price for recording, syncing and dubbing can amount to about 6-7 million ISK per project. This excludes the price for mixing, which is usually handled by film production companies abroad.

Costs aside, how do the movies in Icelandic come to life? What does it feel like to see a highly anticipated movie before anyone else? And do you need to be a native Icelandic speaker to do the job? Bjarki has all the answers.

Behind the mic

“The process starts quite early. It can start one year before the release,” he shares. “Usually, we get key names and phrases we have to translate.” Film productions often release toys to promote the movie, Bjarki explains, “That’s the time when they start planning everything.” Then, the company runs some voice tests and does voice recordings. For each actor, Myndform has to suggest three voices before sending it to the film production for a review.

“The final decision is not with us,” Bjarki admits, but adds that usually, film productions are very responsive to comments from the Icelandic side.

Even for small characters in dubbed movies, precision in voice matching is crucial. “Even if the character is small, it could be big in the next movie,” Bjarki explains, highlighting the importance of thinking ahead for this industry.

The next stage of the process is dubbing the trailers, followed by the movie translation and recordings. “When we start recordings, we have to send selected scenes to them [Universal Pictures or other film production company]. They listen to the scenes, check the quality, and if the actor is matching what they want, they send us a review,” Bjarki shares. “There’s a lot of pressure to keep the quality high.”

It can take multiple takes for a voice actor to achieve a perfect lip sync. “They have to listen, watch, read, and act at the same time,” Bjarki laughs. “That’s why I’m not doing it.”

Giving voice to iconic characters

The Super Mario Bros. Movie is the latest and – judging by local box office numbers – one of the most successful projects Myndform has ever worked on. A big Mario fan myself, I’m curious how the project panned out?

“The challenge was that Nintendo was very picky. There was lots of uncertainty in the beginning,” Bjarki admits. “I grew up with Mario, so that was special for me. For most of the cast it was nostalgia. Otherwise, I think it was quite basic, just like any other movie. Except that everyone said ‘all eyes are on this one,’” he says.

“My kids waited way too long for the Mario movie,” says Bjarki, prompting me – momentarily pretending NDAs don’t exist – to ask if he couldn’t have just screened it for them. “No, I would like them to see it in the movie theatre in the best quality and completely ready,” Bjarki says. “Sometimes we get the film when it’s not ready,” he turns on his computer and shows us a short clip with the type of half-made animations that Myndform usually receives to start working on the lip sync. “It’s not so much fun to watch.”

From Leðurblökumaður to Batman

In an effort to preserve and popularise the Icelandic language, Iceland has a long history of linguistic and cultural adaptation in translation. It wasn’t that long ago that popular superheroes like Batman or Spiderman were known as Leðurblökumaðurinn and Köngulóarmaðurinn, respectively. These days, things have changed — Batman is just Batman, and, much to my disappointment, Super Mario is just Super Mario. Bjarki explains that due to toy sales and other marketing tools, it is more common that film productions veto the translation of proper names.

“Myndform started with dubbing in 2011, and since we got started, it has been like this. I think they sell more toys than they sell movie tickets,” he smiles, adding: “In Iceland, at least.”

“We try to dub everything that we can,” says Bjarki. “If we are allowed to do the names, we do the names. If we’re allowed to do the songs, we do the songs. We try to make it as Icelandic as possible.”

One actor, many voices

Bjarki boasts that the quality of dubbing in Iceland is very high. “The film productions often give us comments that Iceland has one of the best dubs in the world,” he says proudly.

The community of dubbing actors in Iceland may be small, but it is very professional. “We are lucky that we can use the best actors in Iceland,” says Bjarki as he highlights the involvement of actor and writer Gói (Guðjón Davíð Karlsson) as the voice of Mario. “ There are also many very good musicians that tend to be very good dubbing actors,” Bjarki says, mentioning popular singer Eyþór Ingi Gunnlaugsson’s foray into the world of dubbing. “He was doing Gru for Despicable Me. There were brothers, Gru and Dru, and he did both brothers. It was quite good!”

There’s always something new and new movies all the time. That’s why I’ve been here so long.

According to Bjarki, fluency in Icelandic is a must for quality dubbing. He shares a case where the original voice actor was Asian and the film production insisted on having an Asian voice actor for the Icelandic dub. “We were like ‘Hey, we don’t know anyone who’s Asian and who can do dubbing in Icelandic,’” Bjarki shrugs, adding that he doesn’t recall any foreigner throughout his career who would be able to work with dubbing in Icelandic.

Many more dubs to come

Bjarki doesn’t hesitate for a second when asked about his biggest dubbing projects. “Minions,” he responds immediately. “And Super Mario,” he adds. “Trolls was also complicated because there was singing. The singing projects are usually the hardest.”

In addition to dubbing in Icelandic, Myndform has also dubbed over the Icelandic for two Netflix series — Katla and Ófærð (Trapped). On request of director Baltasar Kormákur, they were dubbed in English by the original Icelandic cast.

After wrapping up The Super Mario Bros. Movie, the company has already started working on its next big projects — Trolls 3, Migration and Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken.

“This is an interesting job. You meet lots of creative people. This industry is very fun to work with. It keeps changing a lot,” Bjarki smiles. “There’s always something new and new movies all the time. That’s why I’ve been here so long.”


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