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Kiwi lip-sync dub software used in Money Heist gets Covid binge-watching boost

A Kiwi company is seeing a boost in sales of its lip-sync dubbing software as housebound audiences binge their way through online streaming service catalogues during Covid-19 lockdowns.

Steve Renata of Kiwa Digital. Source: Luke Appleby/1 News

The New York Times last year published a piece about how Netflix is looking to make its English-dubbed shows look "less dubby".

New Zealand company Kiwa Digital has taken advantage of that, with its VoiceQ software becoming a must-have for production companies.

VoiceQ allows them to record new language tracks over a piece of content, and it allows them to do that remotely — a must-have in the age of Covid-19.

With VoiceQ, the voice actor's lines scroll across the screen over top of the original content, karaoke-style, and the actor watches along and performs their part, rather than reading from a piece of paper.

Changes to the script can be made on the fly to pace it correctly, and to make the words match up better with the lip movements of the on-screen actor, making for a more natural-looking dub, the company says. 

The results are far from the old days of badly dubbed kung fu movies.

Viewers may have seen VoiceQ in action in the recent Netflix hit Money Heist, based on Spanish Series Le Casa De Papel, which was the streaming platform's most-watched non-English series in 2018, and also one of the most-watched series overall.

Álvaro Morte - also known as The Professor - in Money Heist. Source: Tamara Arranz

Co-owner of Kiwa Digital Steven Renata (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Pakahi, Ngāti Rehia) is a dual speaker of English and te reo, and a co-founder of Les Mills international — so he knows a thing or two about translation, and about business.

Renata said the content localisation industry has undergone a shift in recent years, and his company has managed to capitalise on the change.

"It's amazing how accurate your eye is at seeing bad lip-sync, and oddly enough, for whatever reason, people don't like it," Renata said.

A large part of lip-sync dubbing is adapting the script to get the "labials" right. Labial consonants are words containing letters like P, B and M, where the lips come together as they are spoken.

"If you're able to get that adaptation of the script and get the labials right — so when people look at the footage and think, 'That could have been shot in the language I'm listening to' — people love it."

Steve Renata of Kiwa Digital. Source: Luke Appleby/1 News

Renata said research done by Netflix suggested audiences will watch a well-dubbed film or TV show for longer than they'll watch a well-subtitled one.

"So that changed the dynamic for us in the industry," he said.

"Lip-sync dubbing, you could almost say, had been almost a niche thing - there was a big shift in the industry to move away from being predominantly subtitled."

VoiceQ has now been licensed by more than 140 production companies across the world, and Kiwa Digital is growing, despite Covid.

Netflix has undergone a record-breaking surge in subscriptions this year, with 25.89 million new subscribers confirmed in the first half of 2020 - the company's biggest growth spurt in history.

More people stuck at home means more demand for content, and companies like Netflix are finding they need to use their content libraries to the fullest, no matter what language they were originally filmed in.

"Perfect timing for VoiceQ," Renata said.

"We'd already been doing that, and suddenly we've become a must-have piece".

The by-product of that shift has been more jobs being created - not just at Kiwa Digital, but at production houses across the globe, who employ translators, directors, producers, technicians and, of course, voice actors.

Kiwa Digital have taken on an additional two full-time staff this year, going from nine to eleven, with a variety of contractors also working for the company.

Renata said Callaghan Innovation has played an important part in his company's success, not only in research and development funding, but in supporting them with expertise and mentorship.

Bruce Jarvis, group manager of digital at Callaghan Innovation, said Kiwa was just one example of New Zealand digital companies seeing a growth surge during Covid.

"We went into Covid with a strong, innovative digital sector competing well on the world stage, but the pandemic presented major challenges - especially in funding terms," Jarvis said.

"On the flipside, Covid supercharged global demand for digital services and many of our most innovative companies responded rapidly.

"Our Covid R&D Loan uptake underlined this, with many digital businesses needing the support to speed up their activities to meet demand and seize new opportunities.

"It's encouraging to see them raising investment, hiring and growing - we expect to see some great success stories out of this sector at a time when our economy is hurting."

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