SYNC OR SWIM! Craig Allen Remembers Dubbing the ’90s Godzilla Films in Hong Kong!

Inside the Shanghai Studio in the 1990s where the Godzilla films were dubbed by Omni Productions. Front row, from left to right: Henry Coombs, Sharon Crose Szmidt, and Ina Chow. Back row, from left to right: Craig Allen and an unidentified individual. Rik Thomas is in the background. Photo © Craig Allen.

When Craig Allen moved to Hong Kong in the mid-1990s, little did he know that he would soon become part of the Godzilla legacy. As a voice actor for Omni Productions, he would lend his vocal talents to many of the Godzilla and Mothra movies of the 1990s. In this June 2021 interview with Brett Homenick, Mr. Allen goes into great detail about his work at Omni Productions and the process of dubbing.

Brett Homenick: Let’s start at the very beginning. When were you born?

Craig Allen: I was born in 1960. I grew up in Houston and lived in Texas until I moved to China in 1993.

BH: What were your hobbies and interests as a boy?

CA: An early sign of where I was headed was when I was around nine or 10 [years old]. My dad had a reel-to-reel tape deck, and I’d record silly parody radio shows doing fake interviews, including parody radio commercials. It wasn’t an obsession, but, as I say, it did kind of point to my future life.

I am pretty introverted, so I played with Legos a lot, G.I. Joe, laid on the floor and tossed a ball in the air and caught it, that kind of thing other introverts will recognize. Watched cartoons. One summer vacation, I got hooked on a local radio call-in show, called in a couple of times.

I joined the school band in middle school, and that became my thing in school and into college. For a long time, I wanted to be a high school band director.

BH: Did you go to college?

CA: I did. The University of North Texas — at the time, it was North Texas State U[niversity] — which has a giant music school. I fancied myself a good musician, so I majored in music. About six weeks into my freshman year, I figured out I wasn’t a particularly good musician. But I was pretty good with music theory and loved music history. I managed to talk my way into the music composition department and quickly discovered I wasn’t cut out for that. But it did give me access to the electronic music studio, which was a really cool Moog synthesizer and some four-track recorders. It would be extremely primitive now, but, at the time, it was pretty advanced. I loved messing around in the studio.

Most importantly, I got involved with the campus radio station, which taught me a lot about doing voice stuff, and radio production. I wasn’t a very good student, but I eventually limped out of college with a degree in music/English.

And that was my entrée to KERA, the Dallas/Ft. Worth NPR station, doing news reading and music shows.

BH: How did you find yourself in Hong Kong?

CA: Long story. But here’s the basics: After a trip to China with my dad in 1983, I became obsessed with China. A couple of years later, I found a job as a “foreign expert” teaching English at a small university in China. Back then, having a degree and being a native English speaker pretty much got you a job paying Chinese currency, which was not convertible at the time. It was a fun adventure more than an actual career, in other words.

After a year in China, I was invited back to KERA to be [the] music director, but I never lost my China bug. In 1993, I quit the radio job and went back to China, this time to study Chinese, while my wife, who had actual teaching credentials, taught English. We both liked living in Asia, so, after a couple of years of that, my wife found a real job, teaching at a university in Hong Kong. I started picking up copywriting and acting jobs.

BH: How did you become involved in dubbing?

CA: I saw a notice on a supermarket bulletin board seeking native English speakers for dubbing work with Omni Productions.

This was when Hong Kong was still a British colony, so Brits could move there and were automatically given work visas. Spouses of work visa holders could work, too, so there were a lot of young, footloose Brits, and Australians, Americans, and Canadians looking for stuff to do.

I went for a tryout and got hired. Well, it was all basically contract work, so I was on the call list. No one on the dubbing team worked for a regular salary. There was a pretty steep learning curve to dubbing proficiency, but I got the hang of it, and I was basically always available, so I became part of the team.

BH: How long were you involved in that field?

CA: I first started dubbing in 1995 and continued with it until I left Hong Kong in 2004.

BH: What can you tell us about the company for [which] you did dubbing jobs?

CA: The company was called Omni Productions. It was really two people: Ina Chow and her Brit husband Rik Thomas. In addition to contracting to dub movies, they also contracted voice work for commercials and industrial films, etc.

Ina was in charge of getting the contracts — mostly from a bunch of regular customers. She’d also directed the recording sessions. Rik handled payroll and contacted everyone with the details on upcoming gigs. He also was a voice talent for dubbing and other voice gigs. I believe, to this day, Rik’s voice tells you to be careful on the escalators at the Ocean Park amusement park. He also voiced a government warning not to smoke in cinemas that played before every movie. It was always a bit disconcerting hearing Rik’s voice popping up at times to admonish you to obey [the] rules.

The quality of the dubbing was directly related to how much Omni was getting paid. I was never privy to contract details, but we’d generally know if we were focusing on being super fast or if we were going to take some time to get the acting right and especially the lip sync right.

We usually worked on videotape and usually just did it linearly from beginning to end, with all the voices on one track, or at most two, when a scene was particularly complicated or if mixing a couple of voices more upfront was going to be tricky. Generally, the whole team would be there from beginning to end.

But, on the bigger jobs, Ina would schedule the principal players to come in first and do most of their lines first, and then multitrack in the other parts later, and then do all the crowd ADR last.

We did a big contract of Hong Kong movies for an Indonesian broadcaster in the early ‘90s, before the giant Asian financial collapse in 1997, like hundreds of cheap Hong Kong movies. But the only reason we were dubbing the dialogue was that importing anything in Chinese language to Indonesia was illegal at the time. The films would be subtitled in Bahasa, and the Chinese dialogue track just needed to be covered. The client didn’t want to pay a lot and apparently didn’t care how good it was. So the job was quick and dirty.

We could pound out two 90-minute films in a day. We’d barely even get a look at the scene before we started recording. We’d go as long as we could until someone screwed up and then [would] just rewind the tape a few seconds and start hacking away again. Also, these were not generally great works of motion picture art, so the voice acting never had to be better than the awful acting in the film.

In other cases, we did work for good acting and excellent lip sync. In this case, we’d get a look at the scene first so we’d know what was coming. And Ina would stop us if the lip sync or acting needed improvement. These jobs would take at least a day to complete, and often two.

Our scripts followed a punctuation-oriented convention to signal pauses in the speech, not proper grammatical punctuation. A comma was a short pause, two commas was a bit longer. A period would be a long pause, if I remember correctly. Other voice/mouth actions were indicated, as in “[kiss],” “[blow],” “[fight]” and sometimes “[shotgun],” which meant improvising based on what’s happening onscreen. The indication of “[fight]” could represent a few seconds of the movie or several minutes. It was always lots of fun doing the fight scenes.

Also, the scripts seldom indicated the character’s name. So, for instance, in the script for a play, “Macbeth” has lines, then “Banquo” has lines, and so on. For the most part, characters, especially minor characters, were named in the script for visual characteristics so that the dubber could quickly find his guy on the screen. So maybe “Bald” would have some lines, “Glasses” would have some lines. Once a character was named that way, it had to stay consistent for the rest of the script. Even if “Glasses” took off his glasses, he would always be “Glasses” in the script. Or, if we all recognized the actor, the script might use his name: “Jackie” for Jackie Chan, for instance.

This convention even crossed over between films. We did a lot of Hong Kong films with comic actor Ng Man-tat, who had a trademark pencil mustache. He was always called “Mustache” or just “Mus” in our scripts. It was the law.

I wrote a couple of scripts, and the job was a bitch. Very tedious. I was given a subtitled tape of the movie and a printout of all the English and Chinese subtitles. It was my job to rewrite the words in English but fitting the mouth shape and “lip flaps” and rhythm, all while trying to make the English as normal as possible. Chinese to English is really hard because just three or four syllables in Chinese might require a whole sentence to express in English. I think Japanese is similar. That’s why in a dubbed movie, the lip sync can be really good, but the English is really awkward. I never got good at scripting — or, really, I mean fast at it — so I didn’t do it after a couple tries.

A couple of the other dubbers got pretty good at writing scripts, but the star scriptwriter was a British/French fellow named Martin Pachy. He was absolutely brilliant. He could write scripts that exactly matched the lips and sounded like real English. They were so easy to dub. He did all our Toho scripts and the other big contract jobs. He was quite a good dubber, too, but he spent most of his time just writing scripts, which would be one of the inner rings of hell for me.

For some reason, we always looped the Toho movies, as opposed to doing them on video. Looping requires someone — Ina Chow, in this case — to spend a day with a tech person cutting the film into literal loops of a few seconds up to, say, a minute and a half, maybe two minutes. For Toho films, we’d work in a studio in Kowloon on Prince Edward Road called Shanghai Studio, if I remember correctly. It had a big screening room and a projection/control room.

Whoever was in a particular loop would get a chance to see the loop and practice a couple of times before attempting it for real. The hard part was that, if anyone botched a line or got the lip sync wrong, everyone had to wait for the loop to complete. So, if you messed up a take, everyone sat there waiting for the 90-second loop to loop back to the beginning before you could try again.

That felt like a very long time if you were the one who messed up. With video, you just stop, back up a few seconds, and resume dubbing. It could be very nerve-racking, and there was a lot of pressure to be focused and accurate. If it was just one or two characters in the loop, it wasn’t so hard, but, in scenes with five or six characters, it could be challenging. We could two-track the loops when necessary, but Ina didn’t really want to do that unless the scene was a real beast.

Each Toho film would take three or sometimes four days to complete. Once we got the word to be super serious because a couple of Toho reps were in the control room. Sure enough, there were a couple of stiff Japanese guys in suits standing at the back of the control, observing. They left after an hour or so, and we could relax.

I read discussion elsewhere that Rik and Ina always wanted American accents — or close approximations. This is true. Rik said it was because that’s usually what the client wanted. This was presumably because Hollywood movies usually featured American accents, and they wanted their dubbed movies to have the same cachet.

I don’t know if Toho specifically wanted American accents, but that was how we did it. And, yes, the Brits’ American accents weren’t totally on target, but they at least were able to flatten out their English and Scottish accents. Their accents in the dubbing is way different than how they spoke naturally. I believe Toho wanted American accents, though I’m not convinced the Toho big shots could tell the difference.

BH: What was it like working with Rik Thomas?

CA: I loved Rik; he was very generous to me and others on his team. He was a real character and could be difficult to work with at times when he was cranky or stressed out. He’d get really mad if he thought you weren’t paying attention or if you were even a minute late to the gig. He kind of intimidated me a bit early on, but I got over that pretty quick. For the most part, if he barked at someone, that person probably deserved it. But, boy, he could bark.

He was very kind and patient when new, prospective dubbers came in for an audition, and he’d be totally upfront about if you were getting it or not.

He was a lot of fun to work with, too. We’d tease him about stuff, which amused him. He’d give some teasing back with his dry, Brit sense of humor. He tolerated a lot of joking around, as long as we were staying focused when the time came to record.

He was very charismatic. He’d dominate the room wherever he was, for better or worse. A bit of an ego, too; he usually wanted to be the center of attention, though he would certainly deny that. I mentioned Ina before Rik [in this interview] because I know he’d be a bit miffed about that. It was my way of teasing Rik from across time and space.

Whenever members of the team got together in our free time, he was always a topic of discussion — like who he had shouted at most recently, or how Ina had put him in his place when Rik was being a jerk, or whatever.

Rik was complicated.

A word about Ina Chow: Ina spent practically all her time in the control room or sitting next to whoever was dubbing. She seldom took part in the silly banter — she was too busy, and she was a quiet person to begin with. She was always patient and low-key. Everyone adored Ina, and, really, she was the backbone of Omni Productions.

The quality and speed of the dubbing was directly related to how much Omni was getting paid. We were often told upfront whether the gig was to go as fast as possible or if we were going to spend time to get the acting and lip sync just right. In cases of fast and dirty dubbing, we wouldn’t even look at the script before taking a bash at it.

Most of the time, though, Ina would give us a look at the scene before we recorded. The Toho jobs were always meant to be top-quality. Time was still money, so we couldn’t mess around, so we kept a steady pace, but there was plenty of time to get things right.

There was never anything like rehearsing a day before or even seeing the script ahead of time. You saw the script for the first time when you sat down in front of the mic. We never needed more than a quick look or two at a scene before we dubbed it. We could only match what the actor onscreen did. There was no point in analyzing motivations or meaning the way you would do if you were acting in a play.

BH: Which Godzilla and other monster films did you work on?

CA: I did every Toho Godzilla movie of the 1990s and a couple of Mothras, including Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993) [and] Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995).

When I started working for Omni, I did not know there might be some Godzilla movies in the mix, and I was thrilled when Ina said we were going to be doing a G-film. I had been a Godzilla fan since I was a kid, and this was awesome news. Dubbing was generally a lot of fun, but doing the G-movies was a total blast.

Most of the time, Omni did fairly cheap, obscure jobs, often for Asian markets, but Godzilla was a big production — three or four days to record, and we had time to do a really careful job. Our lip sync, English scripts, and acting was first-rate. It really pisses me off, though, that I occasionally see these films on cable TV, and for some reason the dubbed dialogue track is, like, a half second off consistently throughout the movie. I don’t know how that happens — maybe it has something to do with transferring the movie from film to video, or something. But it makes the dubbing look really bad. I have some DVDs of these movies, and the audio sync is fine.

BH: Do you remember any of the characters you played?

CA: I had an “older” voice, so I mostly voiced various and sundry incredulous army generals, concerned scientists, news reporters, and of course I’m in all the panicked crowd scenes. Most of the characters are young, so the younger dubbers got those parts.

BH: How much information were you typically given ahead of time about a project or a client?

CA: Rik and Ina were usually a little cagey about who exactly the client was, for business purposes. In some cases, it was obvious, as in Toho, and there was no secret about it.

BH: Please describe the dubbing process. How did it work?

CA: I’d show up — on time! — to whichever studio we were working that day. Most of our jobs were in tiny studios that were literally converted residences in apartment blocks. Sometimes, for the bigger jobs, it would be in a fancier, larger studio, such as the Shanghai Studio, where we did Toho jobs.

I and the others would usually hang out in a waiting area, often literally the living room of the converted residence. Ina would call whoever was needed for the present scene. We’d usually get at least a moment just to read the script, and most often we’d also get a look or two at the scene. Then we’d record it.

We all used earpieces to listen to the original dialogue track as a guide.

You had to be able to read the script with one eye, watch the screen with your other eye, speak the English words while listening to the Japanese or Chinese dialogue with one ear.

Most often, [we] were working on video. When someone messed up — was late, too long or too short with the lip sync, flubbed a line, whatever — Ina in the control room would stop the video, tell us what went wrong if it wasn’t obvious, and then give us the cue of where to restart.

Sometimes, depending on the budget, we’d multitrack some sections — one track for the principal characters and a second track for any characters that needed to be mixed lower, or we would do two tracks if the scene was just particularly complicated, with lots of crosstalk, or what have you. And there would usually be a second or third track as needed for background ADR for restaurant chatter or panicked crowds.

In the super cheap jobs we did, Ina avoided multitracking as much as possible, as it took more time to do. Everyone in the scene would crowd around the mic, leaning in and out as needed — mixing in real time, so to speak — and if there was a murmuring crowd in the background, those dubbers would stand way back from the mic.

As I’ve said, the Toho jobs were big-budget, so we did a lot more multitracking for mixing purposes and better performances.

BH: How long would it usually take to dub a single movie?

CA: Toho and other big-budget jobs would take two or three days — sometimes long days. But for most of our work we could do a 90-minute film in one not-so-long day.

BH: How many takes would there typically be?

CA: We’d do as few takes as possible, of course. And it depends on how complicated the scene was, how many characters were talking, etc. Also, with video, we didn’t think so much in terms of takes; it was very linear. We’d just keep going until someone messed up. That could be just a few seconds if the scene was complicated or fast. And you might expect to mess up a tricky section two or three times before moving on. If we could keep it going, say, 30 seconds without stopping, that was pretty good. Sometimes, though, if the scene had only one or two characters talking, and it was fairly slow — and the script was well-written — a good dubber might keep rolling for a minute or longer.

The hardest part for me was the many instances of “huh,” “hmpf,” [and] “mmm,” that are a big part of Japanese and Chinese. They add these little breathy bits all the time. I just could never get them right for Ina. She’d demonstrate what I should do, and I swear to God I did it exactly as she demonstrated, but she wouldn’t like it. I could burn several takes just trying to get the little grunts to Ina’s liking.

Looping was a little different. For one thing, if we were looping, the standard was pretty high, so even a small lip sync hesitation or substandard acting would ruin the take. The pressure was definitely on. But, normally, if we couldn’t get a particular loop right in, say, three takes, we weren’t doing so well.

I never did learn why anyone wanted the movies looped in the first place. As far as I could tell, dubbing on video was just as good in quality as looping, was a whole lot faster, and the audio could just as easily be transferred to film for theatrical release. We did, in fact, do some excellent work fairly quickly, on big-budget jobs on video, and it sounded great, audio-wise. But I’m kind of talking out of school here. Maybe there was a good reason why looping would be preferred.

BH: Were you given much direction, or were you generally left to make your own acting choices?

CA: There weren’t that many acting choices to make. Our job was to mimic what the actor onscreen was doing. We also listened to the original dialogue track. That still leaves room for direction, though. Sometimes we’d miss that a particular line was delivered more forcefully or more softly than we expected, and Ina would stop us to redo it.

And I don’t mean to offend any Godzilla lovers. I love the films. But, let’s face it, the acting in these movies isn’t exactly Shakespearean. The movies don’t call for subtle acting. The concerned scientist is nerdy and soft. The generals are gruff. The soldiers are clipped and efficient — until they get blasted with [a] death ray, at which time they scream. The female reporter is smart and feminine. This is all to set up the best part: the monsters.

BH: Other people who worked at Omni Productions include Chris Hilton, Warren Rooke, Pierre Tremblay, and John Culkin, among many others. What can you tell us about some of your fellow voice actors?

CA: I know of all those people, but I never dubbed with them, They had moved on to other things and were part of the lore from Hong Kong’s glory days of dubbing, which was waning by the time I got to the business.

I did dub one time with Warren Rooke when he was in town and stopped by to dub a day for old times’ sake. He was witty and fun to be around. He was very short of stature. Once, as he was recording, he finished his line before the actor onscreen did. “Short!” Ina called out. Replied something like, “I know I’m short; you don’t have to rub it in,” which got a big laugh.

Warren lived in Macau at the time and was not part of the dubbing team, but for some reason he was in Hong Kong for a few days, and he took part in dubbing a film. I don’t know if Omni just needed more voices for the job and asked him to help, or if he and Rik were just hooking up for old times’ sake.

Chris Hilton was an announcer at the English-language TVB Pearl TV station, so I saw him on TV a lot, and I recognize his voice in some of the Godzilla movies from before my time.

Same for John Culkin. Rik told me that, since Culkin was a television newsreader, Rik would ask him about the day’s news. I’m told Culkin’s reply was to the effect that he just read the words; he had no idea what he was actually saying. That probably made him a good dubber.

I heard stories about Pierre Tremblay, but I don’t know much about him personally.

In may day, the stars of the team were Henry Coombs and Gemma McClean. They were very good at it. Henry and Gemma usually got the lead male and female parts. Sharon [Crose] Szmidt was a solid choice for just about any female character. Andrea Kwon was an absolute master at doing little boy voices, which was in demand for all the cartoons we did.

BH: Would you happen to know anything about the two Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II dubs? There was a second dub recorded of this film when it was released on home video in the U.S.

CA: That’s a good question. I recently watched the English dub of Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II. I most definitely remember dubbing it in Hong Kong. In the English dub I saw on TV, I clearly recognized half the voices from Omni. I think my voice was in there, too, if I remember correctly. But many of the voices I am sure I had never heard before and were not Omni dubbers. Did someone redub it, replacing some voices, but leaving some of the original voices intact? I can only guess why. Maybe it was a problem with [the] American accents. I’d have to watch it again to test that theory. I’m as curious as you are.

BH: What other projects did you dub?

CA: We did a whole raft of Japanese television shows, including cartoons about a boy named Bakabon. I voiced Bakabon’s father, which was a blast. I would be more specific about the title of the show, and the other cartoons apparently from the same studio, but I get lost in all the different series and studios and broadcasters involved. These cartoons appeared to be from the 1970s, and they were really entertaining to watch and dub. There were some spin-offs with some of the characters in the Bakabon series, and they were insane and hysterically funny. Sometimes we could barely get through the dubbing because we were laughing so much.

The sad thing is that those cartoon dubs may have never been broadcast. They were for a planned Asian satellite channel of content owned by TV Tokyo, I think. But this was right before the giant Asian financial collapse in 1997, and I think maybe the channel was scrapped.

We dubbed The Bride with White Hair (1993) starring Brigitte Lin, but I’ve never seen the English dub version available. There was a terrific Chinese movie Genghis Khan (1998) that we did in around 1999.

I think maybe the main idea is that, by the 1990s, English dubbing was waning in Hong Kong. Some of the studios we worked at said they had lost some business to Vancouver. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s plausible. With video, digital media, and the ability to send files via [the] Internet, the cost of dubbing was dropping, and Vancouver had a lot more native English speakers than Hong Kong. I think that trend has continued, and, as far as I know, which ain’t that much, English dubbing is now dead in Hong Kong.

Cantonese dubbing of American and British TV and film is still going strong.

So the great  majority of what we dubbed in the 1990s was for the Asian market. TV channels from Malaysia, Indonesia, [and] Thailand would come to Hong Kong to buy the rights for old Hong Kong films to broadcast in their home markets. These were often re-dubbed for some reason. I mentioned that Indonesia forbid the importation of anything in Chinese, which explains the dubs we did for those clients. But I don’t know exactly why clients from other countries had us re-dub old films. Was there some sort of rights issues with the dialogue tracks? I do not know.

These old HK flicks included some really great stuff — and a whole lot of truly terrible movies. Either way, though, this was like a decade-long survey course on the history of HK cinema for me. That’s why, other than Godzilla, I can name only a few films that had international release.

BH: Did you have a favorite role you played in the Godzilla films?

CA: In Godzilla vs Space Godzilla (1994), I had a fairly big part: the grizzled old pilot who’s convinced to pilot [MOGERA] because he’s the only one who can handle the machine. I don’t remember the character’s name, but Google tells me he was played by Akira Emoto.

Did that character have a younger co-pilot? I remember doing one where I voiced a pilot of some sort who had a co-pilot next to him. They all run together in my memory.

BH: When did you stop dubbing? Why did you quit?

CA: For the latter part of my nine years in Hong Kong, I was a copywriter and copy editor at CNN International. For several years, I’d work at CNN in the early morning hours and then head to the dubbing studio at 10:00. But, in 2004, CNN decided to eliminate the editorial staff in Hong Kong. I was offered a position in Atlanta, which for a lot of complicated reasons I needed to take. I was sick that I was leaving Hong Kong. Dubbing was the most fun I ever had earning money. And I loved living in Hong Kong.

BH: I understand that you interviewed The Mighty Peking Man (1977) director Ho Meng-hua in the late 1990s. What could you tell us about that experience?

CA: Ho was a lovely fellow and very flattered to be of interest, and he was very patient with my not-quite-fluent Mandarin. I kept my questions and follow-ups simple, and he very kindly gave excellent, detailed answers, which took some of the pressure off my Mandarin.

BH: In closing, do you have any other comments you’d like to make?

CA: I’m pleased you’re interested in this obscure bit of Hong Kong and Godzilla history. Dubbing was such fun. I miss it and the people I dubbed with very much. Thanks for getting me to dredge up the memories.

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