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Can A.I. help Hollywood dub The Rock into another language? This startup thinks so

May 26, 2021, 11:00 PM UTC

There is plenty of history behind Italy’s film dubbers, considered to be industry’s gold standard. With roots in the Mussolini-inspired nationalism of the 1920s and 1930s, it blossomed into a legitimate art form after World War II, a time when few Italians were literate enough to read film subtitles.

Over the decades, dubbers from other countries made pilgrimages to Rome to learn from Italy’s masters, and would-be Italian voice actors studied in special dubbing schools. Italy still hosts an Oscars-style awards ceremony every November, recognizing the nation’s best dubbers. Many English-language actors have paid homage to the unseen Italians who were their voices in the country.

“We had a tremendous attention to detail,” veteran dubber Massimo Rossi told Fortune. Over a long career, Rossi has dubbed hundreds of films and television programs into Italian, including Sean Penn, Tom Hanks, Jackie Chan, and The Rock. 

“Before starting, we’d meticulously go over the dialogue, working on word combinations that’d be faithful to the screenplay and also match the mouth movements of the actor,” Rossi said.

A flawed Heist as inspiration

Ask film director Scott Mann and he’ll tell you most dubbing jobs lack that attention to detail. In fact, Mann said a sloppy dub job on his 2015 crime drama Heist, which starred Robert De Niro—Mann won’t say which language was the problem, though he admitted it was not Italian—gave him the inspiration that led him to co-found Flawless AI.

The startup uses what its founders call digital “neural networks” to match an actor’s mouth movements and facial expressions to dialogue in any language, via millions of data points. It even adjusts lighting and backgrounds.

Flawless is not the first company to try to harness the power of modern technology in similar ways. In the 1990s, for example, the producers of Forrest Gump used relatively crude technologies to allow historical figures including John F. Kennedy or John Lennon to play cameo roles. 

More recently, starting in 2019, deepfake videos started popping up on social media, with one person’s face is replaced by another, with the rest of the scene unchanged. And last year, Amazon developed a system to automatically dub films quickly and inexpensively, though it earned poor reviews for the computer-generated voices it produced. 

Mann said Flawless combines elements of preceding technologies with new advances first developed at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Informatics to produce what would have previously been an unimaginable level of synchronicity

“I predict that within 12 months there are people who will watch an entire film from start to finish in the cinema without any idea the film was originally made in a different language,” he told Fortune

So far, the technology is on display in only a few short clips on the company website. In addition to Heist, the company “remastered” (the company’s preferred term) a scene from the aforementioned Forrest Gump and produced a showreel that includes a scene from A Few Good Men. Mann said that with those clips and the potential of a worldwide audience for any film to pique interest, Flawless is in negotiations with several major studios, though details are still under wraps.

The technology is not limited to new films. Flawless co-founder Nick Lynes, a software developer by trade, told Fortune it does not require any compromises on the part of filmmakers. That means it’s no harder or easier to remaster a new film than to do one made last year, or even one made 10, 30, or 50 years ago. 

“There’s no reason the whole back catalog of the major studios couldn’t be done within a few years,” Lynes said. “It’s a win-win-win situation—more content coming from more cultures and reaching more people.”

“I knew this day would come”

At least at first, Rossi, the veteran dubber in Rome, was dismissive of digital technologies. He acknowledged Italian studios put less time and effort into dubbing projects than they once did. He said each project today is given only a third or a fourth of the manhours once required. “There’s an ongoing battle between art and economics and over time economics always wins,” he said.

Rossi had seen some of the earlier efforts at digital dubbing and said he was confident that a skilled team of dubbers working on a quality film could do a better job than any software. “A digital product is always going to have less soul than the original,” he said. “Digital is like seeing a photo of the Colosseum compared to seeing the real thing.”

If successful, Flawless’s technology will not necessarily come at the expense of the livelihoods of Rossi and his colleagues. Mann said the audio used in the remastered films can be computer-generated or come from multilingual actors speaking their lines in other languages. But most of it will likely come in some form from mother-tongue voice actors. 

Still, watching the Forrest Gump clips a couple of times over gave Rossi pause. “I knew this day would come,” he said, breathing out a long sigh. “It was inevitable.”

From black-and-white to color

Inevitable or not, it has taken a lot of effort to get to this point. Mann and Lynes launched Flawless in Los Angeles and London three years ago, but it only started attracting media attention over the last few weeks, after the first few clips were posted online. 

As things stand today, remastering a film with Flawless’ technology costs more than dubbing one the old-fashioned way, though Lynes said it’s still a bargain given the number of new markets it can give any film access to. Over time, the company believes its technology will become better, faster, and less expensive.  

Mann likens the shift he believes is underway to the early 1990s when films like Jurassic Park and the second Terminator film came out and changed the industry with their use of Computer-Generated Imagery, or CGI. Lynes took an even bigger swing, likening it to the evolution from black-and-white to color. “I’m sure that at the time there were a few people who insisted the black-and-white films were better,” he said.

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