We recently encountered a spectacular commercial film that had been produced in Shanghai, Xinjiang and Paris and employed cutting-edge visual effects. Why, we wondered, after going to such lengths to achieve an original, creative visual result, did this ad, like so many others made in China, choose to overlay it with a traditional faux-epic voice over?
Rueben Marley, a voice artist with a cv boasting clients in China including Alibaba.com, First Auto Works (FAW), CrazyBaby.com and Jiangsu TV explains, “to the Chinese ear, voice actors should sound like they’re soaring over mountaintops and swooping down through valleys, even if they’re just talking about manufacturing doorknobs – anything less is considered lacklustre, lazy, and less than special.”
Maybe this type of voice really resonates with a typical Chinese audience? The problem is, with an audience of more than a billion, there is no such thing as ‘typical’. The pace of change has led to massive generational differences in taste and values, on top of the diversity of dialects, cultures and social standings. Uncertainty over what an audience will appreciate gives rise to the curse of over-cautiousness that pervades and dilutes so much commercial work in China.
Considering the advertising industry in China is no more than thirty years old, it could be argued that the Chinese audience is relatively unsophisticated. However, KweiChee Lam, former Head of Copy at OgilvyAdvertising Beijing and freelance creative suggests the issue lies not only with audiences, but also with risk-averse brand managers, “Most of the brand managers will ask the production house to send voice over talent who have recorded something similar because this is a safe, risk-free choice.”
Marley attributes the conservatism to a predominance of brand managers from a previous generation, “The people who call the shots are from the old generation, and they don’t get this newfangled stuff at all – but don’t you dare remind them of that. Since they’re the ones paying everyone’s salaries, the young people don’t argue or try to convince them to try something new. The real creative people are simply not given the freedom they need.”
Marley将这种保守主义归因于上一代品牌经理，他们起着主导作用，“现如今在中国广告业发号施令的还是老一代，他们不接受新奇事物 – 但是又有谁敢向他们指明这一点呢？他们是老板，付员工工资，所以年轻人不会跟他们争辩，或者试图说服他们去尝试新事物。真正有创意的人根本就没有自由，而自由正是他们所需要的。”
Rueben Marley’s VO work for MARS by CrazyBaby Rueben Marley为CrazyBaby团队出品的智能磁悬浮音箱MARS的配音工作
The result is ambitious films hemmed in at the final stages with conservative edits. Defaulting to the standard voice-over has seen the ‘premium, deep and mature’ voices of Yu Ting, Tang Yongli and Zhong Youdao come to dominate the commercial market, particularly for luxury goods.
由此就导致了这些原本心怀大志的广告最后被保守的配音剪辑所束缚。人们默认这就是旁白配音的标准，因此就有了诸如Yu Ting, Tang Yongli和钟有道这样声音‘优质、深沉、成熟’的配音员，他们主导着广告市场，尤其是奢侈品广告。
‘Premium, deep and mature’ voices have come to dominate the market “优质，深沉，成熟”的旁白配音风格一直主导市场
The ‘announcer’ tone that still dominates in China is in stark contrast to the current western VO preference. You only need to watch a handful of western commercials to clearly observe the difference. Marley elaborates, “in the west, we’re already tired of announcer voices that were all the rage 50 years ago, so now we tend to prefer the “guy-next-door” who relates to us without the hard sell. Want to have some fun? Listen to an advert for Apple, then try to sit through an advert for Maotai baijiu.”
The trend toward ‘premium’ and ‘epic’ voice over must frustrate creatives, whose boundary-pushing work rarely sees the light of day, and shields audiences from original, potentially taste-developing output. It is up for debate whether the preference is an enduring anachronism in a fast developing industry, or a fundamental difference in taste that is here to stay. That said, as the next generation of brand managers take the reigns from the current crop of conservative leaders, tastes do seem to be gradually evolving and creative ambitiousness growing. Multinational brands like Pantene, Volkswagen and Apple are opting for more low-key VO to tie in with their global brand identity, while Chinese giant Taobao recently ran a refreshingly modern campaign for AliPay.
Chinese giant Taobao recently ran a refreshingly modern campaign for AliPay
Marley notes that the flexibility of the language itself poses fundamental issues for Chinese VO. “Tone-based languages are confined to strict rules – if you change the tone, you’ve change the meaning of the word, often with unfortunate comedic results. English benefits greatly from tonal variations. I think Chinese words are similar to low-bandwidth ringtones from the ‘90s, while spoken English words are more like jazz riffs that adhere to a basic structure, but allow creative contortion without losing meaning.”
Marley指出，汉语本身的灵活性是国内配音员所面临的根本性问题。“以声调为基础的语言受到严格的规则的限制 – 如果声调变了，那么词的意思也变了，而且往往还会产生一些不好的滑稽效果。但是英语的声调变化却大有益处。我觉得汉语词汇跟90年代的手机铃声的低带宽很相似，而英语口语更像是爵士乐的即兴重复乐段，虽然要遵循基本的结构，但同时在有创意地扭曲声调时，却不失原意。”
What about the voice artists themselves? We ask Marley if it’s an attractive career for Chinese youngsters, “a lot of young people in China want to become voice artists, but it’s hard to get support. Many of the older generation don’t understand how anyone can make a living from doing this.” He laughs, “if a kid tells his parents he wants to become a voice artist it’s going to be quiet around the dinner table that night.”
那么配音员本身呢？我们也问了Marley，配音对中国的年轻人来说是不是一个很有吸引力的职业， “中国很多年轻人都想当配音员，但是却很难得到支持。很多老一辈的人无法理解怎么通过配音就能谋生。” 他笑着说道，“如果子女告诉父母自己想当配音员，那整个晚饭就会陷入沉默的氛围。”
Hal Douglas, voice over legend, sending up the typical Western movie VO style 配音大师Hal Douglas取笑典型的西方配音风格