Geoffrey Wexler: Bringing Anime to the West with Mary and the Witch’s Flower

January 23, 2018
The English version producer of Studio Ghibli, and now Studio Ponoc, takes us through the process of cross-cultural translations.

It’s the ultimate question for any Japanese animation fan: subs or dubs? That is to say, do you watch the original Japanese version with English subtitles, or the English dubbed version?

Geoffrey Wexler is here to convince you of the latter. After working for six years with Studio Ghibli on the English dubbed versions of such successful films as Only Yesterday and When Marnie Was There, Wexler has moved over to the newly founded Studio Ponoc, which has just released its first film, Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?

My title is Chief of International at Studio Ponoc. I joined the studio last year, I had been at Studio Ghibli for just over six years, so I’m continuing a similar role. I’m in charge of pretty much everything we do internationally, as well as, for this film we acquired the story rights from the original book, and I took care of that as well, so I’m involved in lots of different things. I don’t draw though, I’m not an artist, I’m not an animator. They keep me away from that, very wisely. But I am involved in various stages of the production; I’m involved in story acquisition rights, and I also do all the sales of the film overseas, I support the marketing efforts, and I produce the English language versions of the films, so the subtitles and the dubbed version. I do about 60-70% of my work there.

What drew you to working with Studio Ghibli and Ponoc?

I was attracted to Studio Ghibli knowing it for its films, and for the storytelling, and for the stories of the films. As you would know, the films are beautiful to look at, and the stories are very inspiring and engaging. I really thought that they were terrific, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to be involved with Studio Ponoc when Yoshiaki Nishimura founded the studio here, to continue the Ghibli tradition of hand-painted, hand-drawn animation, and great storytelling. I wanted to be involved, and he very kindly invited me to join him.

Can you talk a little bit about what it was about Mary and the Witch’s Flower, and Hiromasa Yonebayashi, that drew you to working with him on this film?

The original story is from a 1971 novel called The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart. It was discovered by the founder of Studio Ponoc, who’s also the producer of the film, Yoshiaki Nishimura, and he and Mr Yonebayashi were looking for a story with a lot of action, a lot of activity and motion, which certainly the book had. The last couple of films that Mr Yonebayashi had done; well the last one he did, When Marnie Was There, was very thoughtful, and very emotional, but it wasn’t very action-packed. He was really eager to stretch his animation muscles, and draw some action, which he’s quite good at.

And both of those gentlemen were interested in stories that would appeal to families, and that adults and parents could watch with their kids. And what was very interesting about this story was, unlike a lot of magic stories, where magic solves the problem at the end of the day, in this story our star of the movie, Mary, does not want to use magic, and in fact rejects magic, and has to draw her own inner strength, and her own resolve, and has to do a little bit of growing up at a key moment, to solve the problem, and I think that was what was very attractive to all of us. Also, the book depicts nature, plants and animals, flowers, trees, and it’s just beautiful, you feel like you’re walking through beautiful meadows, and forests when you’re reading the book, and that lent itself well to the type of animation that we like to do.

You could really feel that when you were watching the film, especially in the nature scenes, you felt like you were walking through the scenes, just like you say with the book.

Oh good, I’m glad to hear that! That certainly was a key part of the attraction to the original story, and what’s important to the way that we do storytelling here. And the team went over to Britain, to do what we call location hunting, to get a look with their own eyes at the buildings, and the plants, and the trees and the flowers, the sky, the clouds. It’s a Ghibli tradition that I’m continuing here to really go see things, and then to draw from what you’ve seen. The background artists like to particularly draw from what they’ve seen from when they were there, relying less on photographs, so you get that really nice blend of what’s real and what you saw in the landscape, which I think really adds a lot to the story and to the visuals of the film.

What goes into creating the perfect English dubbed voice cast?

I’ll let you know when I figure it out! I think that some of the key factors in selecting a cast, is to really listen to how the actors speak when they’re speaking off camera, when they’re speaking in interviews. We are lucky to attract actors who can really act, and we also want actors who have a lot of heart, and a lot of warmth. And then we look at each character and decide which are the distinguishing features of that character – for example, when we were casting Only Yesterday, the role of Toshio, the original Japanese actor could really laugh into a line, so you could hear him chuckling as he went into a line. So, we brought him along when we were looking for an actor in that role, and we found it in Dev Patel, who can do that beautifully.

For Mary, something that I’ve always tried to do and been able to do is attract an actor, or an actress, that’s the same age as the character, so you really have a lot of authenticity in the performance. And we had Ruby Barnhill, who worked for us for fourteen days, worked very hard, always coming in with a big smile on, and a lot of energy and a lot of passion. And I guess the last thing that we’re very fortunate for is that people would like to be in our films, some actors have even kindly asked us if they can be in our films, so you have that kind of genuine energy and enthusiasm. But in the end, it’s pure talent, that they are incredibly good actors who really seem to enjoy that moment of acting. Actors often tell us that the one thing they like about this work is that there’s no hair, or makeup, or cameras, sets or lighting, or anything, except pure acting for them. And if they have the patience, and we’re lucky that they do try to help us match their mouth to something that’s already drawn, their mouth is already moving, then we can come up with something pretty special.

Ruby Barnhill (The B.F.G.)

What is the process of creating the English dub for the film, from the translations to the recording –  what’s the basic process?

It starts always with the original work. If it’s an original book, we’ll start there, if it’s an original script or an original story, written by the director, or a screenwriter for the film, we’ll start there. And then as the film is being made, I’ll be reading the storyboards, which shows some of the visuals sketched out, and the basic action and lines, and when the script is finalised I’ll be reading that script in Japanese, really just getting ready to make what we call a reference translation. The reference translation is a direct translation, as much as it can be, of Japanese into English. And it’s definitely something you wouldn’t perform, the lines are too long, it’s not always the prettiest language in English, even though it’s wonderful in Japanese. But that really gives us a base to start at, of what the dialogue is and what the action is in the movie.

And then I work with a team of writers, in this case it was David Freedman and Lynda Freedman, who are our colleagues in London, and they write what we call the dubbing script, the recording script. They’re experts in matching mouth movements to sounds, so they know that a mouth shaped a certain way would likely be able to use these specific sounds, but they’re also really good writers, and Dave in particular is very comic, so that really helps, and he’s very flexible in thinking of what we can do for the lines. David and I work together to write the script, then he’ll rewrite the script, based on the original script and the original book, he’ll always have the original book to hand, and he doesn’t look at the subtitles, because the subtitles are always hyper-digested, they really are the minimum to get the point across. This is why we make a dub, because there’s more we can do in a dub, with the lines, and with the acting, with the timing and emotion.

And then he and I have very, very long Skype calls, where we go through the film frame by frame, line by line, and talk about where we’re really being authentic to the original, where we might have drifted a bit too far away from the original, where the humour may not work, or works really well. I’m very careful about not including contemporary slang, or the hot phrases of the year. I try to leave those out as much as possible because we want the film to be timeless.

And we do all that, and then the writing team creates what they call a scratch track, an audio track of them performing the lines – they don’t ham it up too much, but they do have a lot of fun with it, sometimes it’s very deadpan, sometimes it’s very funny – but it’s really one version that we know matches the sync of the drawn mouths very well. And then we get into the studio and sometimes it all falls apart, and we have to rewrite the lines on the spot, often it rings perfectly, the actors come up with ideas – they know that we already have a script and a story, but sometimes they’ll have a brilliant idea and we love that, but we just spend time in the studio. Sometimes the way it’s written is perfect, sometimes it’s a tweak, and sometimes it’s a rewrite. So, it’s really just a lot of love, and passion, and attention. My philosophy is very much one of authenticity. I want to be authentic to the original book and the original movie, created by the team here in Japan, while making something that is going to be a real pleasure for the audience overseas.

A lot of the Studio Ghibli films, in particular the ones that you’ve worked on with the translation, like When Marnie Was There, or Only Yesterday, they play on a lot of different levels in terms of a deeper emotional core, whether it’s about youth, or loss, or spirituality. What do you believe is the emotional core of Mary and the Witch’s Flower is, that you tried to capture with the English version?

I have two daughters, they’re a little bit older than Mary, and I see Mary’s journey kind of reflected there. Mary to me is a real, genuine kid – she would like to be useful, and she would like to be part of the community that she’s in, she’s also very much quick to act, maybe not thinking so much, but acting quickly, but she likes to get carried away, and the spirit of her youth is very strong in this film, which everyone can relate to. We all had times in our lives where the moment took us away, even as adults we hope to have them. So, I think the emotional core of this film is growing, and allowing yourself to grow, and, although it sounds a bit corny, courage. Mary really has the courage to solve her own problems. Mary creates most of the problems she encounters, so she gets to solve them. That’s always been a philosophy of mine; he who creates the problem has to solve it, and she really does create her problems, and she gets to solve them, and she doesn’t shy away from them.

With anime, and animated film, having such a following all over the world, what do you think it is about Japanese animation that is different, perhaps better, than Western animation?

Well, I am a fan of a variety of animation, but I think current Japanese animation, at least the animation coming out of Studio Ghibli and Studio Ponoc, is attractive to people because of the beauty of the films, and the hand-painted backgrounds, and the water colours, oils, charcoal, calligraphy. I think people really connect to that, like the difference between reading something on a book and reading something on a screen, it just feels different to read on paper than on a screen. I think similarly, something that’s been beautifully created by computers, just feels different to something that’s beautifully created by hand, people feel the warmth and the humanity in what they’re seeing.

Also, the good guys have their problems, and the bad guys – in this case, people might think that Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee are baddies, but they’ve got their own goals, they’re good at heart, they’d like to do something terrific, they’re just misguided. I think that kind of playing in the vague area of character, people connect to that without realising it. I think the music in our films is absolutely terrific. Music is such an important part of films, not to say that Western films don’t have it, but I think these films are willing to go places maybe a little differently, or maybe a little less proven, than some Western films. So, I think for some Western audiences, particularly maybe Australia, New Zealand, maybe in the States, stories that are vague are maybe not as familiar, because they aren’t quite as wrapped up cleanly as they might be in a Hollywood picture, and I think people like that, and they like being challenged and allowed to think a lot for themselves.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is out now in Australian cinemas.

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