Let Me Hear Your Body Talk: The Unusual Process of Dubbing ‘Physical 100’

15 March 2023

The success of the Korean reality series “Physical 100,” which sat atop the streamer’s non-English-language chart for most of February, proves there’s a hunger for reality programming from all corners of the globe.

Heavily inspired by the fictional game at the center of Netflix’s smash hit “Squid Game,” the reality series brings 100 contestants together to compete for the title of “the most perfect body.” Challenges include everything from finding out who can hang on a metal bar longest to hauling a 1.5-ton Viking ship up an incline.

Those who opted to watch the English language dub of Season 1 may not have picked up on the creative choices that voice actors must bring to bear in recreating physical exertion at such extremes. But this was not a typical ADR process. Kaiji Tang, who dubbed the game’s narrator and series’ finalist Jo Jin-hyeong, explained that the show utilized a dubbing process meant to preserve the contestants’ efforts and emotions beneath the voice actors’ interpretations in English.

“[With] traditional ADR, there’s a set of three beeps, and then the fourth phantom beep is synced up to when the characters start speaking,” Tang told IndieWire. “For ‘Physical 100,’ we use something called Voice Cue. I believe this is a program that a lot of U.K. studios use. It’s basically a Rythmo band; it’s almost like a karaoke band. Imagine a single line in the middle below the words that are coming in from the right to the left on the screen, just like a karaoke band comes in. So we still have the beeps if you want them, but basically, the words and the line should match up exactly to when the character speaks.”

“Physical 100” Pool

The style encourages timing adjustments so that a voice actor’s line can begin slightly after the character starts speaking without completely overriding the original dialogue. In the case of “Physical 100,” which has many scenes of characters shouting, straining, and cheering encouragement, that taste of the original line preserves the sense of a crowd of people and of the environment itself. But it also presents challenges.

“A lot of characters on this show are really struggling. They’re fighting for their lives out there, so to speak, right? But for ‘Physical 100,’ they really didn’t want us to hit the really hard notes of effort,” Tang said. “Everything’s just like 0.5 percent understated — even if someone is trying to carry a boat all the way across the room, you know? We don’t want the English VO to overtake what’s happening onscreen, so that’s why we underplayed a tiny bit. But we still have to vocalize and truthfully portray all this physical struggle that they’re doing. It’s a very weird fine line.”

Struggling hard — but not too hard — the actors could convey the essence of a character without completely dubbing over the original voices, letting the audience hear the starts or tail-ends of words. And while that made it difficult to bring emotionality and intention, Tang points to the sheer number of contestants as a positive. “Because there were so many characters and we were able to spend so long with them, we were able to pull some of their individual little traits out a little more,” Tang said.

“Physical 100”

ZOO YOUNG/Netflix

The large cast did present a challenge in that voice actors on the project needed to double up or even triple up on the number of “Physical 100” contestants they dubbed; this informed some of how the finished product sounds. Tang was able to keep the game master an omnipresent, incorporeal “eye” in the range of his normal voice, with the same deep, cool authority of the “Squid Game” announcer that inspired it. “[But] my big strong guy that I voice was the most ‘affected’ voice in the entire show because we had to keep him away from the narrator. He’s got that big dude sound, right? Everyone else, though, is using pretty much their normal voices, keeping it pretty grounded and realistic,” Tang said.

The voice actors all contribute to the sense of wonder and visceral exertion of watching the “Physical 100” athletes push themselves beyond the limit. “When [Jin-hyeong] just lifted that like 200-pound boulder for, what, three hours? I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve been guilted back to the gym immediately. I need to go now,’” Tang said.

In addition to gym guilt, fans can look forward to more shows like “Physical 100” reaching American streamers. “The word’s not ‘flooded,’ but we are receiving a lot of live-action dubs these past few years. And you know, with the success of ‘Squid Game,’ it’s really made people really want to try to platform more and more of these Asian dubs,” Tang said. “There’s tons of live-action stuff to work on.”

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