Behind the Scenes of Netflix’ 1899 with Cinescript’s Liane Kirsch

Liane Kirsch, CEO of Cinescript, joins SlatorPod to talk about specializing in the audiovisual industry and working with global TV and film productions.

Liane discusses her route into the language industry, from studying philology and translating contracts to working as an on-set interpreter and dialogue coach for international productions. 

Throughout this journey she founded Cinescript and for five years she built her client base parallel to her other work.

Liane shares her experience as a polyglot fluent in six languages and how she uses the melodies of languages in her learning process. She talks about the complexities behind translating screenplays, where the process involves one translator and one proofreader each for the source and target language.

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She reveals how they supported the production of Netflix’s series 1899 by translating the synopsis, polishing 8 different screenplays, dialogue coaching for Cantonese, and working on additional dialogue recording in post-production.

The pod rounds off with Liane’s initiatives for 2023, including offering internships for international students and strengthening their main team in the office. 


Florian: Tell us a bit more about your background. How you got into this business of translating, subtitling, et cetera, and the origin story behind the company Cinescript.

Liane: In fact, it started all out when I was finishing my studies as a philologist studying Roman languages and I had a friend, he was a line producer on different projects, and he contacted me and asked me if I can do a translation of contract, which was at the time, from French into German. And yes, I was working with a lawyer to make everything right, because it was really the first steps. And then I was working as a set interpreter and dialogue coach also on several international productions at the time. They had the chance to speak all the languages. So the actors I had, Italian, French, English and German actors all in one film, so I was working with all of them and I was like, doing the dialogue coaching and everything that was involved. Caring for them also on set and then I was also doing production assistant on different companies, film companies, so projects, and then also as a production assistant at a film production in Berlin directly for several years. That was the beginning.

Florian: I want to talk to you about the set interpreting and the dialogue coach later on. So tell us more about how you turned this from kind of a serendipitous kind of occurrence? Okay, somebody asked you for something and then you kind of got into that field of work. How you made it a business with Cinescript? Did you at some point say, well, I need to start a company and maybe hire a couple of people to do this, or what’s the story behind that?

Liane: All what I said now was happening parallel, so the project Cinescript was already going, but since there was nobody knowing anything about me, it took about five years, so I had to work on the side. Then people knew a bit more of me because in the beginning there was nothing. There was just sending hundreds of real letters and nobody came back to me, so I really had to fight for it to see how things are going. And I was working on the side, but then people came to me, knew me, and then was starting… I was also traveling in the beginning, doing like, working for Arter, for different projects, also for subtitling projects. And when I was doing this, I was trying to know who, for example, was ringing me for any work, so this was happening parallel and doing other things to get myself known.

Florian: Now, in terms of kind of the clients that you have and the services you provide in terms of the split so what are some of the key clients? If you can name them, otherwise we can just describe them and what are, like, the services I mentioned like subtitling and translations? But just kind of let’s dive a bit more into that.

Liane: We get the requests from film and TV productions in general and dubbing companies as well because we’re working in those three fields pre-production, production and post-production. Well, we’re working with the Netherlands. We’re working with England, Fremantle, Red Bull, Austria. Then we have Universal NBC in England and we have WarnerMedia. They’re in Munich, but also in England and LA. Then we have MONA Film. They are in Austria as well. In Switzerland we have also several companies. One is coming back, 8horses, and then we have Urbacinema in France. Those are with X Filme. Also, most of them, the Wiedemann & Berg, Bantry Bay, X Filme, those are the ones who are more involved and then a lot of more coming now.

Florian: I’m sure it’s busy. So when you speak to all of these international clients, do you speak in their own language to them? Because we found out that you’re a polyglot. You speak, I think, 8, 9, 10 languages. I’m not sure. Tell us a bit more about that. I’m curious, A, how did you become… How much time did you invest in speaking all these languages? And then how do you balance it with kind of the day to day business? Because I would love to learn more languages, but I’m like when, how?

Liane: It started early on. I’m fluent in six languages. That’s right and studying now also Polish and Norwegian.

Florian: Norwegian a little easier than Polish, maybe?

Liane: That’s right, yes. Polish is really the most difficult language I ever learned. It’s very, very complex. But since I always have to have a notion, I have to have something which takes me to learn the languages and in fact, it has to do with the melodies of the languages to really be able to, yes, talk and be fluently written or in the spoken language. And it’s like I think you have to know in the beginning how to get a conversation started. You make yourself a list of questions to know a bit more from your vis-à-vis in the first place, for example. Of course, it makes it easier when you study languages like myself, of the same roots, like Roman languages, because then they have similar words and also they are more easily also to allocate the same meaning when you see them in the written form. When you hear them, then it becomes more difficult. Like there is a big difference between Portuguese from Portugal and Brazilian Portuguese in terms of pronunciation.

Florian: You mentioned melodic language, then Norwegian might not be the worst because it has a very kind of unique sound pattern.

Liane: Yes. It has to be more with in the German. We were learning, I thought because I’m coming now from the Roman languages to go over the Roman languages, but then I found out that no, it’s direct from my own mother tongue, the Indo German, so that was then easier. But all of the languages are very interesting because there’s a very vast background behind in terms of historic and geographic and more cultural.

Florian: I’m so tempted now to geek out on the language learning part, but let’s move on to bring this back to the translation side of things. So tell me more about the translation of screenplays, like the process, the complexities. This is the first time, frankly, that I’ve heard about translation of screenplay, so tell me about who needs this, what’s different, what’s complex about it?

Liane: The screenplay belongs to the development of a film, so before there are smaller steps until the screenplay is written. But for translator, for example, we always work with translator and proofreader, so there are five phases, like kind of process. It’s that you have to read it first completely. Then you make a first complete draft, translating it. Then you go deeper, starting research and formulating more precisely. Then you are working on the dialogues. Then you’re having thorough read through and reading the dialogues out loud, that will be in the end. Then the next step is a proofreader who’s getting into it. Normally we work printing the text. We don’t work and I don’t like to work on the screen because I see everything better black on white. So first we have a proofreader who is from the source language and if it’s very complex and an important screenplay, then we work with the second proofreader as of the target language. And we have to control, research, rereading every sentence, comparing with the source language, if everything is there, if the original ideas or idioms are understood or not, or giving also alternatives, synonyms or correcting mistakes. Then the next step will be like the discussion between translator and proofreader by phone it was in the good old days. Nowadays it’s digitally and then in the end, there is a quality assurance, which I’m doing myself, which is a final double check to see if there are any typos, misinterpretations or still open queries or decisions to be made.

Florian: Maybe I’m a little slow before, but of course, the main purpose here would be for dubbing, right? That this would go into the dubbing process or no?

Liane: That’s interesting, because people ask me a lot. Also, my interns in the beginning. The screenplay is only in the pre-production, so there is no film yet. We don’t have a video. It’s for coproduction. It’s for finding actors. It’s getting involved in the whole process of the development stage. Yes, so the dubbing is later on. It’s much later on because the film has to be shot. Then we go to the, well, after the pre-production, we have the production where I said set interpretation and dialogue coaching, and then in the end, we have the post-production with everything involved after, with video, subtitling, dubbing, transcriptions, for example.

Florian: Then it has to be kind of an international collaboration, like a movie that crosses languages and cultures for there to be the need for the translation of a screenplay, right? So is that mostly like in a European context or if an American studio produces a movie, like you wouldn’t need a translation of a screenplay, right?

Liane: That depends, of course. Yeah. For instance, the German film companies, film production companies, they only need translations if they go worldwide, for example. If they want to, as I said, to win coproducers, to have an international cast for the actors, also, this is all involved. Or if they have locations, for instance, in Italy, so sometimes they need script excerpts only for the authorities. You are right, it only has to do if it’s internationally used.

Florian: Thanks, audience, and you for coming along my journey of ignorance here, but I think we clarified that. Another question I had, you said that there’s on-set interpreting and dialogue coach. Tell me more about that. That sounds interesting.

Liane: In fact, an on-set interpreter has to be familiar with screenplays and the film language. Like he or she is doing, interpreting for all crew members, especially for the director. Then between actors and director. We have in the script, we have stage directions, but the director sometimes has a certain idea of how the actor should behave in a certain scene, so the interpreter has to translate everything, what the director wants of the actor. Or for example, the set interpreter also works for the cameraman if, for example, he wants to explain the angle to the director or to others, or to the actors, or the lighting technician, the costume designer or the makeup. For instance, I did an interpreting on set that we had to go to the hairdresser, so to dye the hair of the actress in red. Yeah, so everything had to be explained. That was in France and the actress didn’t speak any French and the hairdresser didn’t speak any German, so this is all involved also by set interpreter.

Florian: And dialogue coach? You said that you personally did this in the past as well.

Liane: That’s really something I really love to do. Like dialog coach also has, of course, to be familiar with the script. As I said, when I was shooting with different actors from different cultures or countries, there were various language versions on one scene, so I had to prepare one to be shot on the same day. Then I had to coach the actors, rehearse with the actors, like taking the part, for instance, of the other actor who isn’t there. But also which is also involved, which I think was a very important part as well, is that there was also a caring for the actors. It’s like when there was a pause in between the shooting, the scenes, I was conversing, checking on scenes to be shot coming up, for instance. Or what also is very important by a dialogue coach while shooting to control what is said and, if necessary, what I also had to do once to stop the whole shooting if anything is wrong or doesn’t work.

Florian: Sounds interesting, but also stressful, I guess, if you’re on the set there.

Liane: That’s right. Also because there are night shootings and we always have to prepare to see, okay, do we shoot today in the daytime or in the night, et cetera, so, yeah, it depends. It’s sometimes stressful, but it’s really challenging and I loved it because it’s very lifeful and yes, I like it.

Florian: You’ve seen the world before streaming and now kind of in the middle of the streaming hype and now almost like when streaming has become almost the default for many. How have you felt the impact of this, I don’t know, evolution, revolution over the past ten years in the business and in the way you approach work, if at all?

Liane: I must admit that I’m not a very much a fan of machine translation. Everything what we do is handmade and with the team and like teamwork. I think it’s more for people who don’t have time to see subtitles quickly, but for me, it’s not fun. I have to enjoy, when I see a film, I have to enjoy the whole film and the subtitling has to be something which goes with it and which is conveying what is said and what is the cultural thing about it, which I don’t see in those machine translations.

Florian: I was referring to the streaming like basically linear TV in the past and now, of course, everybody’s on Netflix and on Disney Plus. So do you feel that automation was something, like machine translation was something that the streaming broom brought? So in the linear days, it was a lot more hand and now we’re getting a lot more automated workflows.

Liane: No, I think this is fine. I think that’s something which was kind of showing the future already, and we’re living in the future now, and it’s something which I think it’s going well. Like with a series, people have a lot to say and sometimes you can’t put it just in one cinema, in one film for a cinema, so it’s okay if we have several series. And the streaming platform, I think is fine when it’s well done, when we also have the subtitling, which is conveying culturally. It’s not okay for me and I don’t enjoy it, as I said, if there is nothing passionate about it.

Florian: One project that I’m sure was very passionate is you were involved in 1899. Like probably one of the most exciting series to be involved in. It was a Netflix show. Just quick reminder for the audience, Netflix’ 1899. It was about the ship, and a lot of actors were on the ship. A lot of actors? A lot of people were on the ship and they all spoke different languages, right, because it was a transatlantic or whatever sea it was. I’m not going to spoil it here, but the point is, it was a series, lots of people spoke very different languages and it had to be adapted. And so your company was involved in that, so tell me a bit more about how that worked, as far as you can disclose?

Liane: We worked on it the whole time, so from 2020 until last year, so we did everything. Not say everything, but the whole process of introduction, like translation of the synopsis, the outlines, then the pilot, then the screenplays. We did the polishing of the screenplays and there were casting texts in very different languages. It was amazing for us. So many languages I never worked with. It was really Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Polish, Cantonese, Japanese. And we did like casting text and we did dialogue coaching and online coaching in Cantonese because we had a Cantonese dialogue coach involved for a young actress. And this was going back and forth because there were eight different scripts also to work on, so she did also like evaluating then feedback from the production. Then there was another round, so going on we had Japanese-Cantonese audio to do for the Cantonese actress to study Japanese phrases in the film. So all this preparation work we had to do and then was something which I found very interesting. We had to work with the phonetic alphabet. We had to prepare all the different languages into a phonetic alphabet which sounds German for the German director, so he wanted to know everything that was going on in all the languages. So we had people involved who did the phonetic language to be understood for a German director. That was really very challenging, yes.

Florian: I can just imagine, you say Polish was difficult, I think Cantonese might top Polish. It’s probably one of the most difficult languages out there. I lived in Hong Kong for a while, so I never picked up much. All right, well, what you just described in the phonetics, that’s very unique. I don’t think anybody else did that ever.

Liane: It was really very challenging and, of course, as we always work in a team, so there’s always also controlling it again in the end and then we discuss everything before sending it off. But of course we had to be very quick because it’s like shooting. Then we had schedule and then we had only maybe two days for one language and already came the other language for the preparation of the next shooting, but it was really very well organized. Very well. I must admit that was really a production which I very liked to work with because the organization was top, really, and in the end yes… I just want to add one thing. In the end we worked also on the post-production, the ADR, the additional dialogue recording. This is the process of re-recording the audio in a more controlled environment in the studio. They did it to improve the audio quality and to reflect also changes in the story in the end.

Florian: Complex on all levels. So once you’re finished, once you’re not in post-production, once you’re in the marketing phase, you’re going to submit it to maybe a film festival. So I read that you’re also doing applications and dossiers, et cetera, for film festivals, services around that. Can you tell us a bit more about that? Is that mostly for Cannes or global? There’s probably 100 film festivals around the world.

Liane: Let’s say it’s not only for film festivals, but in general, I would say. It’s for submissions, presentations and funding as well. Like you make your little package for them, the dossier, like with the director’s note, producer’s note. Then sometimes they have a marketing concept. There they declare also with whom they are coproducing, how does the film development look like, where will we produce the locations, for example, what’s the specialty of the film? About post-production then the special effects, the special heads of department or if there are children involved, there also the casting, the casting of the child actors. The distribution, for example, in German language territories or international distribution goes more in this direction, yes.

Florian: Very interesting. So now that we’re heading into 2023, 2024, what are some of the plans, projects that you’re prioritizing, that you’re working on for the rest of the year and beyond?

Liane: I think what I would really like to continue is the offer for internships for students. We do a formation, I will always say a formation of three months, which is really very lovely. It’s something which I couldn’t do during my studies. That wasn’t in the plan of the European Union yet and that’s why I really like to offer this to students nowadays, and they are coming from the whole world to us. That’s very interesting and that’s also how I maintain my languages, of course, to get them updated and to speak all of my languages almost every day. So this is one point which is really getting to my heart, and I really prefer to continue with this and then another point is that I would like to reinforce our main team in the office. That’s something which I’m looking now for and as always, with the people involved who are doing translations for us, are always being very careful of who’s coming with us, who’s doing the jobs, so I will take my time to see to the right person.