Dubbing, Subtitling, and the Future of Media Localization with VDMS’ Simon Constable

Media Localization with Visual Media Data Services' Simon Constable on SlatorPod

Simon Constable, Global Language Services SVP of Visual Data Media Services (VDMS), joins SlatorPod to talk about dubbing, subtitling, and the pandemic-induced transformation of media localization.

Simon starts with his route into the media & entertainment and languages space, where his international experience from Asia to America spans 25 years. He delves into VDMS’ localization services and the dynamics between owning a studio versus working with the best fit for a specific project.

The SVP discusses the combination of language technologies and automation workflows used for subtitling and dubbing, and the effect synthetic voice has on voice acting. He reflects back on VDMS’s learnings in the last year and how the pandemic affected demand and production for content owners.

Simon explores the different types of content, from recording voice-overs for cartoons to dealing with unscripted reality TV shows. He briefly touches on the challenges of remote dubbing and the level of demand for English as a target language. 

The Pod rounds off with VDMS’ growth plans over the next couple of years, after securing investment from Endeavour Capital in 2020, and Simon’s industry outlook.

First up, Florian and Esther discuss the language industry news of the week, with translation management system (TMS) provider XTRF receiving an investment from K1, only nine months after K1 acquired a majority stake in XTM.

Still in the investment space, Florian talks about LSP Seprotec, which sold a majority stake to Nazca Capital, a Spanish private equity firm. Meanwhile, Esther shares some highlights from ZOO Digital’s AGM and trading update, that showed how the company grew to nearly USD 40m in FY21 and raised about USD 10m in a share placement.

In media localization, Keywords Studios has appointed Bertrand Bodson as its new CEO. Bodson has a 23-year career in international business and joins the industry from healthcare company Novartis.

Florian also briefly touches on the 2021 Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing, which will be held in the Dominican Republic.

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Florian: Tell us a bit more about your background, your roots in the media entertainment, languages space. Then after the elevator summary of Visual Data Media Services.

Simon: I will start by saying that I have always wanted to be in the TV and movie business ever since I was a little kid watching television. I grew up in Hong Kong. I spent most of my life before I went to university in Hong Kong. There was very little content on the television because there were only two English language stations with very few programs on them, but whatever there was, I just was desperate for content. I absolutely loved it and I decided that it was an industry I wanted to be a part of. Now fast forward, I did a degree in theology, which I found very useful. Once I had done that, I tried to get into the industry and it was incredibly tough. I finally got my breakthrough in a small post-production house in Hong Kong and the person who I was covering for on reception went for an audition and never returned and I have always been extremely grateful for them for never coming back because that was my foot in the door. 

Since then, I have been in the industry for over 25 years, and I have worked for many different companies during that time. I spent quite a bit of time at Star TV in Asia, the international broadcaster, which was acquired by Fox while I was there. I ended up working for a company that was eventually acquired by Technicolor. I started off in Asia but then worked in Hong Kong, Singapore, London, and then eventually Los Angeles so that was a fun ride. In between, I worked for a company called Ascent Media in London and now I am at Visual Data and I have been here in LA for the last six years. During that time I have been extremely fortunate because I have got to dip my toe in the water of lots of different pieces of the business, feature post-production, television post-production, broadcasting, DVD during both its infancy, its growth and its shut down, film laboratory, which I have to say was an eye-opener, to say the least, but eventually, I realized that I felt most at home in this media services localization space. 

Having been through all of those different pieces of the content chain, the bit that I felt most familiar with was what happens when a TV show or a movie is in the can and needs to get distributed all around the world and so that is what I have been doing. Specifically, I have been involved with localization which we saw ramp hugely during the time that I have been there due to the industry trends during that time. A bit more about Visual Data, I have a global role, so we are servicing customers who are based predominantly in Europe and the US. We have three major operational centers: London, Los Angeles, and Bangalore in India. For the piece that I am responsible for, we are essentially doing localization services, but the majority of the work is subtitling, dubbing, and then we also do quite a bit of captioning and scripting work. 

Florian: Tell us a bit more about how you manage a team, do you have studios and how do you do the subtitling part of it?

Simon: On the subtitling side, we only use translators who are based in their native territory and that is because we, like everybody else, learnt the hard way that in order to be up-to-date with idioms and slang, you need people that are living the culture every day. That is one rule we have, we only recruit in the territory. What we have built over the last six years is a large network of independent translators who are based in countries around the world. We offer something in the region of 50 languages now and there is a very prescriptive process that we go through for all of those subtitles, from translation to various types of quality control. That is essentially what it is. Typically the content owners will come to us. They will say, we have a thousand episodes and we need them all in these languages, which could be one or could be many, and we need them all in a month or two months or whatever the timeline is, and that is where we come in. Our job is to make that happen. 

On the dubbing side, it is a little different. Traditionally, we have our own dubbing studio. We built a network of preferred partners worldwide and that comes about through experience honestly. We like to work with dubbing studios who care about quality, who can deliver on time, because those are two very important components for our customers, and who are familiar with all the changes and have great relationships with all of the acting talent. When we get a request for dubbing, typically, we will share that with our partner dubbing studio. We will find whoever feels the best fit for that project. If it is a sports documentary, we will want to try and send it to somebody who has done sports before. If it is drama, someone that is done drama, and so on. There is an added layer to that and that is sometimes our customers have a preference in which dubbing studio they want to use, so we have to be very open-minded about that and work with partners sometimes that we have not worked with before, but it helps us build our network.

Florian: Going back to owning the studio versus working with the best fit for a specific project, is that a strategic decision not to own and just go for the best fit? What are some of the competitive dynamics? How does it help to own a studio? 

Simon: There are a couple of schools of thought there. There is one that feels the future is remote dubbing and is putting all of their eggs in that basket and there is some value to that. There are those that feel that owning at least the major languages are needed because there are some key languages that the original content nearly always gets ordered. Those are French, Italian, German, Spanish, Japanese, Latin Spanish, Brazilian, Portuguese, those very popular languages. There is an argument to be in control of that supply chain because when it comes to bidding projects around, we are competing with other people who are doing the same thing. If you own your own studios, you are more in control of the deadlines. There are different sorts of deals you can do with the content owners, so there are a lot of advantages to it. Then the third way of looking at it is we do not want to own anything. We only want to bear the cost of dealing with dubbing when we actually have to work. 

I feel that all three of those have some merit. The real way forward is a combination. Let us look at how much consolidation has happened in this space with all the acquisitions that were so well-publicized in the last couple of years. This market is changing. It is becoming very important to have the scale and to have the ability to package services, and the timelines for all of the content are shrinking and shrinking. Look at what happened last year, where theatrical titles were being released on streaming platforms. Suddenly the requirement to have all those languages were much more important, for piracy, for subscribers, for all sorts of reasons. We see a need to be in that space with brick and mortar studios. Remote dubbing to some extent will also be something that will be a useful tool. There are going to be times where there are languages where there is just not that much call for them and it makes more sense to partner with other studios in that situation.

Esther: How does the language services component interact with the other divisions, where you have content management, distribution services, media services? Does that bring any benefit to localization having those other pieces there as well?

Simon: Yes, it does and that probably was not the case 10 years ago. Let me give you an example so it is not uncommon for us to receive an order from a major content owner or streaming platform, they may have a lot of existing subtitles in their library, but they may not match the latest video or the video that is going to go on the streaming platform. They will say to us, here are all of our assets, here is our library, help yourself. From that, we need to create a video, audio, and subtitles that are compliant with the technical specs. Sometimes those audio tracks and subtitle tracks already exist, then it is our job to take them and update them so that they are acceptable on a modern streaming platform. They get back spec’d, because every streaming company has its own technical specs that you have to adhere to. Our job is to shape the video, the audio, the subtitles, the metadata, all of these things and we put a package of all of that together, and then we deliver it to the streaming platform or the broadcast or whoever asks for it. Having all of those pieces in one company is essential because there are so many moving parts and the content owners want to focus on creating TV shows and making great content and making movies. It is our job to make sure that they do not have to worry about how to pull all of these things together. We polish them up and then return them so that they can potentially get them on air.

Florian: What kind of language technologies and automation workflows are you using primarily for the subtitling but also for dubbing?

Simon: There is a combination and I would say they are all enablers. They are all useful to some extent, but none of them to me are at the point where we are not going to have human-in-the-loop for the foreseeable future. Especially subtitling, there are so many engines out there. There are so many different commercial offerings, companies getting investment and we have tested a lot of them in different languages. We continue to test them because it is something we know is coming and it is real but we have had such mixed results that we have seen huge disparities in quality by types of content. We are on the hook when it comes to quality, if we have a bad quality experience and our customers have a bad quality experience, it is an incredibly negative thing for the business. For us, quality is extremely important.

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I have seen some value, particularly with speech-to-text because typically in the subtitling process, part of what you have to do is to create an English template because historically most translation has gone from English to non-English. We create this template so that the translators can see what the English phrase is and they can translate the translation in the box that is provided that is timed to the video. We have seen some advantages with certain types of content in using that speech-to-text and it helps us save a bit of time in the process. On the translation side, we do not feel confident yet that the technology is consistently there in all of the languages that we need. Now, does that mean we will not continue to test? No. Does that mean that it will not become a viable tool in certain languages in the next year or two? I think it will be, in certain key languages, but we are always going to need the creativity of the translators and we might have to do multiple quality control steps to make sure that none of that machine translation makes it through to the final file, in terms of any mistakes and mishears or things like that. 

On the dubbing side, it is a little bit different. The interesting thing for me is synthesized voices, the technology that is coming around about them. Especially when it comes to taking somebody famous and then reusing that voice. I could not honestly tell you if it is going to be successful or not. It is an interesting technology. In discussions with our partners and the dubbing studios, they are all very nervous about it. Not just because it is something that could challenge the business, but because what they are hoping does not happen is that we end up with a two-tiered pricing situation where there is an automated process which may be lower quality happening on lower-end content that erodes what they are doing with some of the higher-end content. Right now, we have to wait and see, to be honest. 

Esther: In terms of Covid and the impact on productions, especially on the theatrical side, what are you seeing now in terms of demand coming back? Were there any learnings that happened during Covid that have proved useful now that things are getting back up and running?

Simon: The first couple of weeks of Covid in the lockdown over here in Los Angeles and over in London was a pretty scary time for us. First of all, we had to focus on making sure our own people were safe. Fortunately, we made a big investment in some remote working technology about six months prior to Covid happening, so we were able to get everybody home within 48 hours. Once we did that we had about two weeks where we were very concerned because the same thing is happening to all the content owners and all the streaming platforms. They were trying to get everybody home, get them set up for remote working so there was this gap in communication about the future and most of the people we work with at the studios and the content owners did not know what was going to happen either. There was quite a bit of industry furloughing going on. 

Once we got through about two weeks and people got settled into remote working, the streaming platforms in particular or the content owners other lines of business were suddenly shut down very quickly so they pivoted extremely quickly, and as you have seen the reaction is this huge investment in streaming content. In order to deliver that streaming content internationally, they needed to get subtitles out, they needed to get dubbing out. The first place to go during that, especially with production being shut down on all the TV shows and movies, was to dig into the archives and find out what had not been released on these platforms. After a scary two weeks, suddenly all the people that we sent home without any work were called back in over the next month or two and we have been busy ever since honestly. 

There were some difficulties that came with it, as you can imagine. The biggest one for us was how to deal with a workspace with teams that are all over the world because we were so used to big team meetings where everybody knows each other and you can read the signals in the room. We had to learn how to make project teams work and how to make people feel included and we have also grown during this time so we have added people to those teams who have never been in the building. There is a flip side, we have learnt that now that we can operate like this, why would we want to change? There are still people in our facilities, especially in London and LA, who have to be there because they are dealing with extremely heavy video files and they have been there throughout Covid. For the rest of us, the administrators, the project team, I have had several people move out of my department to go to other states. That has become normal, and we are now hiring people that are in other states and in other countries because they have the best talent available. 

Florian: Is there a fundamental distinction between cartoon voiceover and movie dubbing? A lot of the cartoons that I am watching with the kids have 10, 20 language options, so is there any major difference there?

Simon: The major differences are the candidates themselves. In many of the countries where we dub there are limitations about how many hours a day children can work. There are many rules about what they can and cannot do, whether they have their parents attending with them. It is common sometimes that it is not children who are doing the voices. That is no mystery to anyone who has read anything about the Simpsons as they are all voiced by adults. There are studios that are very good at it because they are used to dealing with the dynamics of children’s content and there are studios that are not and those are one’s that get avoided. 

Florian: Did you see a rise in cartoons, as the studio found it harder to bring in actors so they pump out a lot of cartoons instead of trying to do other content?

Simon: What happened during Covid is that the resources for dubbing were hugely depleted. I would say nearly all the studios shut down for some length of time, some way more than others. We saw a lot of disruption in places like Mexico, where Covid ravaged the economy and the lockdowns were long. We are a very resourceful industry, so when we figured out that we could have fewer people in the dubbing studio and still dub live, that was something that we had to do. There were a lot of in-progress projects that were affected by actors not being available due to ill health, or not wanting to travel into the studio and sometimes we could overcome that through remote dubbing and sometimes we could not.

I did not necessarily see a big push on children’s content. What we did see is a bit of a fight to get dubbing projects placed because you have your library content and then you have what has been happening as we come out of Covid. As we emerge in certain territories, what you have seen is that the projects that will get priority typically are the higher budgeted shows, something like a high-end drama on HBO or Disney+ is always going to take precedence over catalog dubbing. It was a challenge for everybody to try to get dubbing done and there was a big gap where there was limited dubbing availability and there was a lot of library content, but now much of the focus is on original content. That is another big change that we have seen in our business. If you went back three or four years, I would have said 95% of what we used to do was catalog and now it is probably 60/40 and I see that split continuing to grow that way.

Florian: What are your thoughts on cloud dubbing? Is it the future, a nice add on, or something in between? 

Simon: It is certainly a useful tool when somebody cannot get to the studio. I do not want to dismiss it as a technology, some people are making very good progress with some of those tools and the dubbing studios view it as a useful tool when they need it, but they appreciate it when they are in the studio together with the talent, the dubbing director and the recordist. There is just something that makes it go very smoothly. They bounce creative ideas off each other and of course, you can do that remotely, but it is not the same as being in the same room. It is like having a Zoom call with your family, it works, you can talk to everybody, you can exchange ideas, but you do not get that same feeling that you do when you are in a room with other humans. I think that is the challenge with remote dubbing, it is replacing that creativity. It also speeds things up a bit being in the same room. It is not as easy when people are talking over each other on Zoom or interrupting each other. Again, not a technology to dismiss, but it will be interesting to see how much adoption it actually gets.

Esther: When you are dealing with unscripted content like talk shows or reality TV, are there extra considerations? Is it somehow harder than dealing with scripted content or just different?

Simon: All types of content have their unique challenges and characteristics. Typically, and this is a huge generalization, you will find there is about twice as much dialogue in a 45-minute reality TV show as you will in a drama. It has implications for the people doing the translation as they now have twice as much content that they have to translate. There is also slang and idioms. We work on quite a bit of reality TV shows and every show has its own set of crazy terminology. There is a lot of local slang, look at shows about cruises, there are all of the nautical terms that you need to know. When we prepare for those shows there is a lot of work we have to do in advance. There are these documents that get created with key names and phrases because we want to make sure when somebody translates something and it is a common word like a place name or somebody’s name, we need to make sure that if there are a hundred episodes of it, we get that name consistent throughout. Especially, when you have multiple translators working on the same show because there is so much of it to do, and there is a shortened window. We have to incentivize our QC teams to look out for stuff like that and refer to those documents. Honestly, reality shows are challenging, but so is drama. We work on famous medical dramas, and they are difficult as well because every week it is a different medical condition, it is a different set of prescriptions for Biotics.

Esther: What is your experience of the level of demand as it stands now for English as a target language for dubbing? Are there trends that you have observed?

Simon: It is really changing. For example, a few years ago on Netflix, it was all Hollywood type content and now that is changing. That is common on all the streaming platforms and content owners, for a mixture of reasons. In some countries, there are mandates about how much money needs to be spent by these platforms to reinvest back into the economies of those countries. Dubbing, subtitling and content creation is the main way to overcome that. Also, when you look at the streaming statistics of the amount of subscribers, the US has plateaued and all of the growth in the last couple of years has been international so it makes sense that the streaming platforms and content owners are investing more in international content. How did that affect us downstream? We have seen that change over the last couple of years and we have been working on more new original content going from non-English to English which has been an interesting thing for us because a lot of our tools were built to do the other way. There have been some learnings for us during that process and it is a trend we are definitely going to see continue to grow.

Florian: About a year ago, Visual Data Media Services secured some investment from a fund called Endeavour Capital and so what are your growth plans over the next two to three years? Then generally the industry outlook that you are basing those investments on?

Simon: You might ask why we looked for an investor in the first place. The main reason was that our current CEO was our majority owner for the last 25 years and he recognized that there were a lot of opportunities that we are unable to invest in because we did not have the scale and we were essentially having to reinvest our own profits back into the business. We knew we could do a lot more with more investments so we started looking. The reason we chose the team at Endeavour was that they are great people and we wanted people who were culturally a fit for us because we wanted to make sure that it was successful going forward. They were very excited about the business and could see the continued growth of all the content creation that is going on. They could see the continued investment that is happening in this part of the industry and they think we have room to grow. They liked some of the growth plans that we presented to them, so since that is closed, we have been doing a lot of work on that. 

We are interested in growing the scale of what we do, the geographies in which we do it and I would definitely say that localization is one of the key areas we feel that there is room for us to grow. We also would like to have a bit more ownership of some of the supply chains we are involved in. Handling these big projects at scale for our customers is not going to change, it is about being able to react quickly and having more control of the supply chain. As for the industry, big companies like to deal with big companies, especially if the content owners themselves keep merging and growing and acquiring. Those content owners need partners that can scale quickly and can get them into new territories quickly and know how they work. There are customers that we have that have 20 plus tools that we have to engage with and enter data into. It is tough to come in and learn all of those ropes from scratch, especially when everything is moving so quickly. We continue to see growth in subtitling, dubbing and media preparation. There are fewer and fewer competitors at the moment in our space, with all the consolidation happening, and some customers do not like to put all their eggs in one basket so that does open opportunities out for others.