An interview with Studio Ghibli’s Jeff Wexler

Studio Ghibli's Jeff Wexler talks to us about The Wind Rises' English-language dub and sub, sound design and more...

How do you communicate the raw power of a WWII fighter plane, with its engines roaring and its rivets straining as it rolls through a clear blue sky? How do you get across the terrifying energy of an earthquake as it tears a city in two? If you’re as creative as Hayao Miyazaki, you use human voices rather than traditional sound effects. This way, he makes the rattle of pistons in an engine or the rumble of an earth tremor seem human and alive.

This is but one example of Miyazaki-san’s mind at work in his latest and final animated feature, The Wind Rises. It’s also an example of the passion and attention to detail Studio Ghibli brings to every aspect of its films, from its exquisite animation down to its English-language dubbing.

The person responsible for the overseas releases of Studio Ghibli’s output is its international division chief, Jeff Wexler. Having joined the studio in 2011, Wexler has, among other duties, produced the English-language versions of From Up On Poppy Hill, The Wind Rises, and the forthcoming Tale Of Princess Kaguya and When Marnie Was There.

Wexler’s approach to translation, subtitling and dubbing is as diligent as you’d expect. Here, he talks to us about his desire to remain as true as possible to the nuance, tone and meaning in The Wind Rises’ Japanese script.  Wexler also gives us an informative, lively insight into what the atmosphere’s like inside Studio Ghibli, and the process of translating its features into English.

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Congratulations on The Wind Rises, first of all. It’s a magnificent film.

Oh thank you. Did you get a chance to see the English subbed and dubs?

I did, yes. It gets better each time I see it.

Is it a different experience seeing the subtitled version from the dubbed?

It is. Joseph Gordon-Levitt was great casting for the lead.

Oh good. See, I’m going to interview you for a minute – this is great. Tell me what you thought of them, because I produced both the dubbed and the subbed versions. Not many people tell me what they think of them.

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It’s interesting, because I generally gravitate towards subtitles. Not just because of what’s said, but the way it’s said. Sometimes, with American casting, the voices don’t always fit the faces, especially when it comes to the younger actors.


But in this, I thought the tone of it was lovely. It’s a very quiet, restrained film even by Miyazaki’s standards, and the voice casting was just right.

Oh good, I’m glad to hear that. I’m not exactly new to this – I’ve dubbed three of our films, and we’re working on When Marnie Was There now. We take great care with the casting, and I take great care in retaining the integrity and style of the original film. I really want to bring the original film to a non-Japanese-speaking audience as closely as possible. So when it’s up, it’s up, when it’s down, it’s down, and when it’s big, it’s big. That’s a very big mission of mine – very different from other producers, and maybe different than what some audiences might want, but I want fans to see the film how it was intended. Because if the dub is good, you should be able to watch the film and spend a little less time reading. 

Did it bring its own challenges, doing the English-language version of this film, given that a lot of the things discussed in it are quite technical?

Yes. It did bring lots of challenges that were actually a lot of fun – I will say that. I really mean that seriously. The film is not in Dolby 5.1. It’s a single track of sound. And that presented a small space for dialogue, sound effects and music. That caused a lot of challenges – especially for Joe Hisaishi, who was assigned to bring his trademark wonderful music to the film. He didn’t have a lot of aural space to do it in.

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As you may know, a lot of the sound effects in the film were created by humans, using their mouths.

Yeah, those are fantastic.

If you know it, it’s fun to look for. If you don’t know it, you get a very interesting emotional feel and connection to something quite foreign – so for example, to an airplane that was made dozens of years ago. How do you know what that sounds like? So there’s a real warmth to the sounds.

Those were all challenging to do. The sounds were all done by one fellow, our sound designer, Koji Kasamatsu. Miyazaki-san himself wanted to do it, but he had to finish the film.

Then when it came time to dub, we were facing a challenge that is, I think, unique, or certainly uncommon. Miyazaki-san very much wanted to have fewer sounds and voices in the film. Rather than having a mic on everybody going by, he really wanted to go back to the idea of having a mic over the person’s vision, if it were a live-action film.

So there are many moments in the film, and you may or may not notice, where there are characters whose mouths are moving, but you don’t hear anything from them. Even the lead characters, you see Jiro coming round the corner in one scene and seeing Nahoko’s house after the quake, you can see they’re talking but there’s no dialogue to be heard.

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That was challenging dubbing, because the dubbing team was very well trained to make sure they don’t miss anything. Because if there aren’t words, they have to fill them in. And in this case, there were mouths with no words, and their training and instincts and professionalism said, “I’ve got to put something in that mouth”, and I was there saying, “No. We’re going to do what Miyazaki-san said.”

The director and ADR dialogue editor, who are wonderfully talented people, would say to me, “It’s strange not to have a voice there.” And I’d say, “I know it is.”

Sometimes we would record the voice and see how it looked later, and sometimes I’d say, “Please don’t.” I won’t tell you how it ended up – you can look at it frame-by-frame if you like, but I’m very comfortable with how it compares to the original film.

I’ll give you another example. There’s a scene in a hotel restaurant, and it starts to rain outside. A young fellow runs into the background to talk to some people. He brushes off the rain and his mouth is moving, but we don’t hear anything. Because he’s not the focus of the action; the focus of it is in the foreground, and that’s where we hear the sound.

Then we have the unusual challenges of Japanese language and English language not matching up. So we have gaps, and the question of which gaps we fill in linguistically and culturally, and which we don’t. When I’m unsure, I go back to the original film and go with that. I rarely, rarely change anything. I try to avoid explanation. We just let the film be what it is in Japanese as much as possible. 

So how early do you start organising the English dub? Quite early in the production?

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Let’s see. I’ve only been at the studio for three and a half years, so I wasn’t here when From Up On Poppy Hill was being made, I joined as it was being finished. But I was here just as The Wind Rises was entering full production.

So we keep an eye on the production, we’re reading the director’s notes, read the storyboards. Then several months before the film’s completed, we begin to work on the subtitles, and create a reference translation. This is a translation of the film without concern for the length of a line, or for the way a mouth moves. It’s just meaning.

Well, I know I’m talking to Den Of Geek, so I’m giving you Den Of Geek-level stuff here! [Laughs]

So that gives us time to go back to the director and ask questions. Particularly with a film like The Wind Rises, with a lot of airplanes, a lot of people, a lot of places, we can ask, “Why is it here? What does this mean?” It gives us time, as we go through the reference translation process, to really answer a lot of questions.

So by now we’re getting close to the time where the film’s almost ready for release. From the final dialogue we create our subtitles, which are first created to sell the film. We create those subtitles to be the final subtitles – we don’t do a quick one for sales and then another one for later. We do one sweeping, final set of subtitles.

This is all happening just before the film opens in Japan. At that point, we’re already thinking about the characters and how to cast them. We have what’s called a dubbing guide, because we dub in many languages. It has the rules for the dub. For example, one of the rules would have been, “We’re not filling in mouths where we don’t have voices in Japanese. So if they don’t grunt in Japanese, they’re not going to grunt in German, or in English, or in Korean.”

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The film opened in July, which many  of our films have. By then we have a reference script, we have subtitles, a dubbing guide, and a pretty interesting familiarity with the film. Then there’s the question of  when we do the dubbing, which rides on the actors’ availability, other projects, when we need the film to be released – do we want to have the release coordinated with an awards season or certain festivals or not? – but as you can tell, it starts pretty early. We don’t wait until we’re done.

The casting is tricky. The casting actually happens, for me, terrifyingly close to recording time. Because we like to attract – and are able to attract – very talented people who are kind enough to take time to be in our film, they’re often not on set with us for two or three weeks. Sometimes we only have them in the studio for a few hours. So we try to adapt to them as much as possible. We have a window of time to do the recordings, so it can be really tight – a little stressful. Because we identify someone we really want, and it’s trying to find the five hour window where they can come in and do their lines, and it can be really tricky.

But once we get the actors into the studio, they really enjoy this process. It’s a pleasure for me to watch how much fun they all have. Because of course, they’re not on a set – there’s no lights, no makeup, no cameras, no film. Some of them come in dressed quite glamorously, others come in wearing t-shirt and jeans. All of them just have a ball. They know our films, they’re quite happy, usually. If they don’t know our films, within a few minutes of watching, they all stop, mid-sentence, and say, “Wow, that is beautiful.”

Like clockwork. I usually turn to the director and say, “Wait. Here it comes… there it is.” [Laughs]

Because they’re professionals, they’re really concentrating hard on what the character’s doing, and where the character’s going and what they want to do, but they also lose track of the visuals, and then they make that comment. 

I’m not surprised. One of the things I love about Studio Ghibli’s films – and it’s something that’s becoming increasingly rare – is that they’re not corporate-approved. They’re not made for a global audience, they just happen to play well outside Japan. Do you think that’s something that’s in danger of disappearing without Studio Ghibli?

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I agree with you that it’s a hallmark of Studio Ghibli films, that they’re the films the directors want to make. I don’t know that it’s necessarily in danger of disappearing, because there are filmmakers all over the world who are making films on their own, and doing what Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki were doing 30 years ago and creating their own studio, and saying, “I want to do it my way.”

So the ability to make a film – maybe not a hand-drawn animated film, but a film – is in the hands of many more people than it used to be with the advent of digital technology. So it’s really down to the motivation of the filmmakers: do they want to make a film in a different way, or do they want to go for commercial success? Do they want to make something that challenges the audience or make good, hearty entertainment? There should be room for all those things.

I don’t think that’s in danger of disappearing. I think what is in danger of disappearing is hand-drawn, hand-painted animation. Because it is a painstakingly difficult and expensive process, and with the accessibility of all that technology, it’s a lot easier for a 20-year-old animator to do something on their tablet or their Mac than it is to pull together a team of water colourists and oil painters to create a film.

But as far as the stories you want to make, there are a lot of interesting, original films out there that are really true to what they wanted to do when they started. So I don’t think we’ve seen the end of films that are made with integrity.

Could you talk a little bit about how you came to work for Studio Ghibli?

Yeah. I am an American but I’ve lived in Japan for years. I’d been working at Disney here for their internet business, and then I went to work in the internet business for Disney in London for three-and-a-half years. While I was in London I was in touch with the leadership at Ghibli – I had a friend who was in the company, and we were talking about what I might do next, because I was looking to move into the creative side of the business. I’m a lawyer by training. And he had suggestions of companies I might talk to, and I was digging around.

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Then, apparently, the creative supervisor was starting to retire and started looking for a successor, and my name ended up on a list. When they ran out of people, and they couldn’t find anyone else crazy enough to take the job, they called me! I don’t know if that last part’s true, but having been there for a few years, it might be true. [Laughs]

It takes a certain desire to want to bring a film to global audiences, and a certain patience to work in a non-Japanese-style Japanese company, whatever that means. It’s certainly not like anywhere I’ve ever worked. To me, it’s more like a renaissance salon, merged with a bit of a club – a very dedicated club of people who really want to do something together. Like a college or university club. They’re incredibly passionate about one thing. The other clubs are passionate about different things. Each club does their own thing with great passion and great enthusiasm, and the motivations are far more complex than just business.

But it’s also very much an artistic salon. I might be wrong, but it’s my idea of what it would have been like to have been in a salon of artists in the renaissance, a place where there was support for people to try different things and to experiment and be true to their passion – that’s very much Ghibli. I think it’s quite hard to find someone who’s willing to jump into that.

I guess the serious answer is that it’s a combination of skill, patience, luck, courage – those are the key things. I didn’t answer an ad in the paper! It wasn’t that! [Laughs] 

What was the culture of the studio like while The Wind Rises was being made? What was the atmosphere like?

Well, let’s see. We had a summer without a film released in Japan between From Up On Poppy Hill and The Wind Rises – which is typical for us. Sometimes in our history we don’t have a film. It was interesting because for the first time in 25 years, we had two films being made at once. In addition, there were some documentaries being made about us. We’d been working on Blu-ray releases in Japan, we’d been working on creating digital prints of our old films.

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It was actually a very, very busy time for the studio, but there was tremendous enthusiasm for [The Wind Rises]. There was also hope that Miyazaki-san would finish drawing the storyboards so we could see how it ended, because we wanted to know what was going to happen. He’s famous for not writing the end until, well, the end! [Laughs]

I didn’t know that!

Yeah. That’s a little different than some companies. It’s a public, known secret, so to speak, but it was exciting when he finished the film, and we knew what it was going to be. There’s excitement for every film, but there was a lot of excitement for this one. We knew it was going to be different than past films. All the characters are human, for example. And we knew it was going to be incredibly beautiful.

So there was a lot of enthusiasm, but there was also a lot going on. I’m not over in the creative team with pencil to paper, but we’re doing lots of things. My team handles sales, we handle the dub and subtitle production, the distribution of books, music, now we’re doing a little bit of merchandising. We have exhibitions that are overseas, we have an events team. So there’s a lot going on. There was a tremendous amount of anticipation for The Wind Rises. 

So while you were making it, was there an awareness that Miyazaki-san was going to retire?

I get asked this question a lot. I don’t think it was any more or less than it probably had been for a while. Because he always seemed to have so many projects going on that he was talking about. He was passionately curating exhibitions at the Ghibli Museum, in addition to the current exhibition. We have an annual exhibition here in Tokyo, and he was getting involved in that. So in the throes of finishing the film and the heat of a Japanese summer, I think everyone was thinking about retiring. But there certainly wasn’t anything in the air that said, “This was it.” There wasn’t a big sign on the wall. There was a passion to finish the film and see where we are.

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So how did working on The Wind Rises compare with Princess Kaguya?

We finished the dub for Princess Kaguya, and the English dub will be opening up in Australia and the US soon. The UK date I don’t have to hand, but Studio Canal will be handling that in the UK.

As far as the process of dubbing it, it wasn’t the first time I’d done it, so I didn’t make the same mistakes – I just made new ones, and I learned lessons from past dubs. Some things were easier, in that we didn’t have the issue with no voices in the mouths. It didn’t have as many esoteric Japanese language customs issues, because it was more of a fairytale. In some ways, they talk very formally, but they don’t talk as they talked in the 20s and 30s in Japan. So that was somewhat easier.

It was harder at some points, because there are some songs in the film and we were trying to do those in English, and match those with the visuals. It was very, very tricky. So it had its own challenges, but it was a wonderful story, really interesting characters. I think we put a little bit more lightness in some of the scenes. We were able to cast the actors in such a way that made it quite fun in some scenes in particular.

But both films are tremendously beautiful. And they’re drawn and animated so differently, and it boggles all of us that you can have such amazing beauty in different ways, in different styles. But I think both titles are well dubbed, though I do say so myself, and I think fans will enjoy both, and hopefully The Tale Of Princess Kaguya will lead more people to discover Isao Takahata. 

I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m very much looking forward to it.

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Please do. I hope we have this call about that one next!

There’s When Marnie Was There as well, isn’t there?

Yes, When Marnie Was There is complete, and it’s in cinemas here. It’ll begin to play in other countries in the coming months, and of course, we’ve gone through the same process we talked about earlier – the storyboards, the scripts. This one was interesting, because it required the rights to a British book, as you may know. So I was familiar with the story very early on when we acquired those rights. It’s also a beautiful film, made by a young director [Hiromasa Yonebayashi] and a young producer [Yoshiaki Nishimura].

There have been rumours about the future of Studio Ghibli. But what do things look like from your perspective?

That’s something I can’t discuss too much. But we do have a lot going on – we have a young director and a young producer, and When Marnie Was there is his second film. So there’s talent there. But it’s not unusual for Studio Ghibli to have a summer off, and to take a bit of a breather. It’s been a tremendously busy couple of years, so we’re happy to have just a normally crazy busy autumn!

Jeff Wexler, thank you very much.

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The Wind Rises is out on DVD and Blu-ray on the 29th September in the UK.

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