MAN OF A THOUSAND VOICES! Hong Kong Voice Actor Ted Thomas on His Prolific Dubbing Career!
MAY 17, 2017 / BRETT HOMENICK
Ted Thomas is a name many Godzilla fans may not know, but his voice is unmistakable. As the narrator for Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), as well as the voice of Antonio (played by Robert Dunham) in the same film (among countless other credits), Mr. Thomas is perhaps the voice most closely associated with the Godzilla series in the English-speaking world.
Born on July 11, 1929, Mr. Thomas founded the dubbing company Axis International in Hong Kong the early or mid-1960s, which eventually led to his dubbing numerous Japanese SFX films, such as The Secret of the Telegian (1960), Matango (1963), Dogora the Space Monster (1964), Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971), Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972), and Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973).
Voice-acting has been only one aspect of Ted Thomas’ life, and he continues to be active in Hong Kong to this day. At the time of this interview in June 2011, he was working on a sequel to the William Holden film The World of Suzie Wong and had just published a book about the life of Confucius.
For many years, these dubs were known among fans simply as “the Hong Kong dubs,” as information about who actually dubbed these films was unavailable. Ted Thomas, Hong Kong’s Man of a Thousand Voices, spoke to Brett Homenick about his life and dubbing career, answering the questions that so many of us have been asking for decades.
Brett Homenick: Could you please tell me about your background, just any relevant information, where you grew up, and where you went to school…
Ted Thomas: I was born in England, little village in the north of England in the county of Cheshire, which was very agricultural when I was a kid. So a lot of farmland, stuff like that. But, nowadays, it is a place where famous, multimillionaire footballers all buy their mansions and set up homes. So now it is very trendy. When I was there, it was very agricultural. I was brought up during the (Second World) War as a little boy, so I did not have much to eat, except what we obtained from the farms around us. Everything was rationed, including meat, all meats. All sorts of things like sugar, tea, were on ration points, and so food was very limited. We were also inundated by evacuated kids, or “evacuees,” as we used to call them, from the big cities of Manchester, London and Birmingham, which were being bombed out of existence by Germany’s Luftwaffe. So we had a lot of extra people. We could only go to school for half days. We went to school in the mornings, from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m. And in the afternoon the evacuated kids came in, and we were sent off to work on the farms as cheap labor.
So I went to the local school and left as soon as I could, which I did at about 14, because I wanted to get out. I was getting bored with life and started a job with the local administration, the Electricity Department, as an electrical apprentice. I didn’t like that very much, and after less than a year, I gave it up and went back to school. That was a boarding school in the north of England, in the county of Cumberland. This school, Ravenscragg, was run to train people for a life in the Royal Navy. I went there first of all, and was transferred from there ultimately to a little island off the northwest coast of England, the Isle of Man, and continued my education there for another year.
Later I went to the Naval training school called HMS Ganges in Shotley. HMS Ganges was distinguished by a 180-foot mast on the parade ground. This mast was a complete replica of the masts from the three-masted ships such as Nelson’s HMS Victory in the Battle of Trafalgar, and I learned to work a mast and set square sails and that sort of thing.
Then ultimately I went to sea.
By this time, I was about 17, and immediately shipped out to the Middle East and spent all my teenage years in the Mediterranean, in North Africa, places like Egypt, Libya, Tripoli, Tunisia, Morocco, then to Malta, Sicily, Italy, South of France, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, and all around the Mediterranean. I spent almost three years around there. I ended up ultimately in Palestine, which when I first went there was of course under the British — what was called mandate. Palestine, later to become Israel, was never a colony; they were under a mandate issued by the League of Nations before World War II. Britain had made such a cock-up about it that the League of Nations said, “Well, you caused the trouble, you go in there and sort it out.”
So the British were stuck with it. Of course, British soldiers were getting shot regularly by Israeli terrorists, and I was put in because I could speak some German at that time.
At school in the U.K., we had a refugee kid from Germany, from Berlin, and I learned some German from him. As a result, I was taken in to communicate with the Jewish illegal immigrants from the middle of Europe, coming out of the concentration camps, but they spoke Yiddish. I discovered that Yiddish was almost the same as German; if you could understand German, you could speak Yiddish. And if you spoke Yiddish, you understood German. That was choice was not very clever of my superiors because they ignored the fact that in Palestine all the Jews in Palestine spoke Hebrew! A different language entirely, of which I didn’t speak a word.
So, acting as an interrogator, I wasn’t much use! But I did get a few people who understood enough Yiddish for me to get some questions across and some answers.
Then I went back to the U.K. at the age of about 20. During the time in the Mediterranean, I had worked briefly as a sports commentator, part-time, as a freelance on the British Forces Broadcasting Station (B.F.B.S.) based in Trieste in the northern Adriatic. Trieste then belonged to neither Italy nor to Yugoslavia but was a completely independent state. For some reason, the British wanted to have their forces’ radio station there. I became reasonably well known as a sports commentator, especially aboard my ship, the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle. When I arrived back in the U.K., I was trained as an instructor in electronics and radar which had been the big decider in the Battle of Britain in World War II because radar enabled us to see German planes coming over at night. However black and bad the weather was, we could see them on radar.
I was shifted back to the radar school at HMS Dryad, teaching that skill myself, and then ultimately sent to Hong Kong to set up an intelligence operation, using radar to plot Chinese ships, ships steaming past Hong Kong towards mainland China, breaking the embargo on imports of strategic value (like weapons and ammunition) because the United Nations had issued this embargo against all goods of strategic value being sent to China.
I was in charge of five observation stations in and around Hong Kong — not all were islands; some were peninsulas, on which we had installed radar.
We identified and plotted all the ships going up the Pearl River and then we were able to check back to their port of origination and check on what they were carrying. When we thought they were carrying guns, ammunition, even fuel, we could radio our gunboats to move in and stop them, either turn them around or arrest them.
So my first two years in Hong Kong was working for Naval intelligence, and then in the meantime I started doing what I had done in the Mediterranean, doing part-time broadcasting as a sports commentator. This was with the HK government radio station Radio Hong Kong, now RTHK.
By the second year I was doing interviews, and by the end of the second year I decided I‘d rather be a broadcaster than an imitation James Bond, so secured my release. I was never a very serious Naval person, by the way. Towards the last years I didn‘t even have a uniform!
I was released by paying the Admiralty a sum of money — “release by purchase.” At the time, the Navy was cutting down, anyway, so it was probably glad to get rid of me.
I immediately joined the Hong Kong government’s own radio station, which was then Radio Hong Kong.
I joined, full-time, in 1957. They, in turn, sent me to BBC in London for a long period, to gain more top-level experience as an interviewer and producer, and all the tricks of broadcasting. That was in radio.
Then, in later years, I went to London again in 1962 and 1963 to learn television production and television direction. As well as London, I went to New York where I worked with Walter Cronkite. That was at CBS at the time. I worked with him for a couple of months, a very enjoyable time.
Then I went to Los Angeles, worked in Los Angeles for a while with a guy whose name was the same as the singer, Michael Jackson — but not that Michael Jackson — in his studio.
I was having a great time at this time, going around the world at the Hong Kong government’s expense. I visited and worked in Australia, New Zealand, and did a bit of time in Canada at CBC. Then finally I came back to Hong Kong and did some more serious work.
Within a short time, I was running two television programs, one was At Ease, as in “Standing at Ease,” and the other was On Camera.
I worked at various times for two separate television stations, and I had racked up scores of interviews there with people like John Wayne, the cowboy actor, and Ingrid Bergman, who had been in Casablanca, and lots of well-known movie stars and writers.
I did quite a long interview with novelist Philip Roth. By the way, I just noticed this week, in one of the international magazines, that Philip Roth had just received the Man Booker Prize. This is some 50 years after I first interviewed him. He’s still writing very, very well, indeed! And then various other people, because at that time everybody was coming through Hong Kong to make movies — William Holden, the movie star who came to star in The World of Suzie Wong and Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. Many years later, I published William Holden’s life story as told by a former lover.
Then I got kind of bored with radio and television and went into publishing. Concurrent with the broadcasting, I started Hong Kong’s first English-language movie dubbing company, and that was called Axis International.
We were the first people to do English-language lip-sync dubbing in Asia.
First of all, we worked only on Chinese movies, then with Japanese movies, and then with all sorts of movies, from Italy and from France and from Germany — and, for some reason, occasionally a movie from the United States!
I don’t know if that is because certain audiences couldn’t understand American English or what, but I remember we did two or three. We also started to do a lot of cartoons from South America, and that was when we started to do monster movies from Japan. The name of the company we were dubbing for was Toho (Studios). We did Godzilla and several others. I was always quite keen on doing funny, quirky voices for all the characters, so I was quite a good gorilla voice.
I actually dubbed all the Bruce Lee movies, as Bruce’s voice.
Bruce only ever did three movies, and I did his voice in all three of those movies.
They have since been re-dubbed, I’m told, but I haven’t seen them for a long time, so I don’t know. But we did all that, and under very primitive conditions. I have done a bit of dubbing since. It is now so simple you hardly need (to) lip-sync carefully because they can shift the soundtrack back and forth so much that they can make the voice match the mouth mechanically by moving it backwards or forwards on a computer.
But, at that time, we used to cut the movie into about 30- or 40-second scenes or even one-minute pieces, loops as we call them, and we would sit in a crowded studio, maybe 200 feet square, thick with cigarette smoke, you could hardly see the screen, and matching your voice to a mouth that was about 10 feet across on the screen.
You got so good at it, if the script’s were written carefully, that they would lip-sync perfectly, just as good as today they do with the more modern equipment.
At that time, a good actor could do three or four different voices in a movie, (and) end up sometimes speaking to himself in two different voices. So the actors were really quite talented in those days.
BH: All right, well, talking about how you got started in dubbing a little bit in more detail…
TT: Okay, well, I knew Run Run Shaw fairly well. He’d just come here from Malaysia where he had been doing a very, should I say, unimpressive job. He was bicycling around Malaysia with a movie projector and a couple of one-reelers. He would stop in a village and set up his projector, and the villagers all pay a small fee each and sit down and watch the movie. Then Run Run would rewind the movie, put it back in the can, and cycle to the next village. But, by the time he came here, he’d become quite well known in Malaysia and Singapore as a producer in his own right.
Run Run did a great deal for the movie industry in Hong Kong. Before Run Run came, all the movies were Cantonese movies in Cantonese. So movies made in Hong Kong were just made for the Hong Kong market because we couldn’t get any movies in China at that time.
Run Run understood, instantly, that there were far more people speaking Mandarin throughout the world, so if he made his movies in the Mandarin dialect, they would be better quality movies to start with, because the earnings would be scores of times more than a Cantonese movie, which would be limited to Hong Kong and ultimately the Guangdong province, which is the closest Chinese province to Hong Kong. Whereas, in the Mandarin dialect, they would cover all of China because this was the official language of China.
Also, overseas, places like Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore had a large Mandarin-speaking population, and Chinese people in places like San Francisco and New York would usually speak in Mandarin. So his movies were better quality. He did pay more for his actors; he built an enormous studio out at Clearwater Bay. When I first met him, he had a tiny office on Nathan Road.
I worked with one of his producers, and he said to me one day, “Have you ever tried film dubbing?” I said no. He said, “Well, why don’t you have a go at it?” I didn’t even know at the time that you could cut the movie up into very short pieces, like 30 seconds or a minute, and run it through a dozen times so the actors could get used to matching their lines to the lips on the screen before we actually recorded it. And so I learned that the first day, of course. Then I thought, “We spend a lot of time in the studio matching voices to lips; why don’t we get the script more close to the lip movement before we even go to the studio.”
I employed a guy called Ron Oliphant who was also working in government with me, and he would tape-record the soundtrack on a quarter-inch tape, and then, with the script, the translation of the script or what the producers thought was the proper script, preferably translated into English, of course, he would go over it inch by inch and count the syllables. So if the Chinese voice said, “Lei Ho Ma,” he would count, “How – are – you,” and then by doing that would match the English with the Chinese words.
But, of course, there are several problems with the English language. One is, in English lips come together on certain vowels — B, M, P. You can’t say a word starting with those letters with an open mouth, so you would have to rewrite it to so that when the lips of the Chinese actor were open, the English actor would not be required to say B, P, M, or any of the sounds which would be a close-mouthed sound in English. So that was a problem that we had to get over very quickly.
Due to Ron’s magic on the scripts, instead of spending — I don’t know — 20, 30 hours in a studio to do a one-and-a-half-hour movie, we could knock it off in about five or six hours. So it saved us a lot of money on our biggest cost, which was actors’ fees and the studio space, of course. We were the only film-dubbing company in Hong Kong for many years because nobody could get close to us, they didn’t have the scriptwriters or the talent we had, and of course we always had first choice of the actors because we used more actors than any other film-dubbing company.
BH: Now what was the name of the dubbing company?
TT: It was called Axis International, but it was never done under a name because we didn’t want to claim credit for the dubbing because we were all employed at the time by the Hong Kong government, who tended to frown on people doing outside work. So we didn’t publicize it a great deal. The film producers knew where to ring us and say, “Can you do X-Y-Z movie?” I’d say, “Yeah, when can I see it?” They’d say, “This evening.” So I would go to the studio , run it through, count how many actors I was going to need, estimate how long it would take to write the script, estimate how long it’d take to dub, and give him a price on it. It was all done very much on the old-boy basis, and it wasn‘t until I left government that we started invoicing properly and treating it as a full-time occupation.
BH: On the subject of working with Toho from Japan, did you find them difficult to work with? A lot of companies have.
TT: I didn’t. Normally I’d work through a Chinese intermediary, but a couple of their guys did come to the studio one day to watch the film dubbing. They were very silent and very pleasant and everything. In fact, they took us out for dinner later.
At this time, it wasn’t just monster movies from Japan. We had … what was his name? The blind swordsman.
TT: Zatoichi, yeah, we did all his movies. I said: What we would like is the translation of the script to be a more accurate translation, for start, and also the scenario be ideally the same length. So, if somebody said a sixteen-syllable sentence in Japanese or Chinese, it would be better not to have two syllables, like “Okay,” when the guy has obviously said something which is 15 to 20 words long! And I must say that I hadn’t realized it at the time that one doesn’t criticize Japanese, or, if you do, you have to do it very carefully.
I was my usual brash, young self. I said, “Look, you guys can do this; you can make life easier for us, and then we could drop our prices for you.” And they went strangely silent! (laughs) We went on getting the work; it didn’t make any difference. After a long time, I learned that when you deal with Japanese, you have to deal with sensitivity. And they would never make it clear that you have offended them because that would be losing face terribly, but they would remember for a long time.
BH: Wow, that’s actually very interesting! Well, with Axis, what were some of the names of the other voice actors you worked with? Certainly this hasn’t been described in a lot of articles before.
TT: Okay, there was one guy called Warren Rooke, and there was one called Chris Hilton. There was Ron Oliphant, the guy who did the scripts, who was also a very good actor. There was Ian Wilson.
And a very funny thing happened one day. I was fast asleep, about 4:00 a.m. one morning, my phone rang, and a guy said, “Hi, Ted, Ian Wilson here. I am in New York. You wouldn‘t believe this sh*t, but I switched on the television.” He said, “There’s a Bruce Lee movie on, and your f***in’ voice is coming out of his mouth!” (laughs) This was in New York! And he had just married one of the actresses, who was also a very good voice actress.
Because of this, we were also getting work in doing voice-overs for commercials, for television, and for movies, of course, and also recording commentaries for documentaries and things like that. So we did a lot of other work, as well as the actual lip-sync dubbing.
BH: With the female actress you mentioned (Lynn Wilson), was she the one who did basically all the female voices from about the ‘70s on?
TT: Oh, no, there was a young American girl called Linda Masson who was studying Chinese at the University of Hong Kong. There was a girl called Mandy Cooke (and) a girl called Angel Chapman. If I sat down and thought about it, I could probably jot down a lot more names, but I cannot quite think (of them) at the moment. Some of the guys are still doing dubbing — a guy called Rick Thomas, and he’s still doing dubbing, as a director now. He runs his own company. There’s another American guy, Jack Murphy, also doing it. He is the tops in the business in Hong Kong. He has a very good dubbing company. So some of the guys who were then working as actors obviously went into the business of doing it themselves. They all did very well.
BH: On the subject of the Toho and Godzilla movies, do you have any specific memories of dubbing any of those films?
TT: Yes. We all liked doing the swordsman, the Zatoichi films. I thought they were very original. They were very imaginative movies. And I think the character, although in a way preposterous, in another way was quite plausible.
And the monster movies, the problem was consistency because if you got the voice of a gorilla right at first, which was kind of difficult, and of course you had to distort it and you had to amplify it. Quite often, if you have done a few scenes without the gorilla’s voice in it, you had to go back and listen to it again to make sure you got it exactly the way you had in the earlier reels, the earlier loops. So consistency was a big problem, especially if a movie ran over two sessions. Normally a dubbing session would be six or eight hours, and if you were lucky, if it was fairly simple, and with not too much dialogue, you could get a movie done in that time. But, if so, you had to listen if you had to go back a second time. But the guys and gals were so versatile, I mean, some would do as many as eight completely different voices.
We used to use women to do kids’ voices, by the way, for obvious reasons, higher voices, but we frequently had to remind them that, if as an old man one day earlier in the movie they said, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do about this,” and in the next reel he says (in a completely different accent, and with a different pitch), “I don’t know what I’m gonna do about this,” it could sound totally different! You have got to go back and check on the master to see where you were. We had to match the synchronized tape recordings of what had been approved earlier on as they put it on the soundtrack. And if they record for only five seconds, or up to a minute long, it all had to end up as a movie, a full-length movie — it could be one and a quarter, one and a half hours long — where every lip flap had to match. So it was a big job for the editors which, luckily, I didn’t have to be involved in.
But consistency in time, pitch, and accent was vital. It still is.
BH: Do you have any other interesting stories that may not necessarily relate to Godzilla or Toho movies, but just funny stories — you’ve already told us a few — about just dubbing in general?
TT: Run Run Shaw built his movie studio just like a Hollywood studio, an enormous plot of land out in Clearwater Bay. All the young stars were under contract to him, so he didn’t pay them by the movie; he paid them a monthly salary. And he would also use them for opening supermarkets and attending ballroom things. He charged for his actors’ services all the time. So he literally owned them in the same way as the old Hollywood movie moguls did back in MGM’s early days.
He made a lot of money out of that. And there was one very funny incident. He invited a member of the British Royal Family, Lord Louis Mountbatten, who had been an admiral in the Royal Navy. Run Run Shaw had invited him for some reason to come out to Hong Kong. He fixed up this big launch trip, to which I was invited, and to engage the attention of Lord Louis Mountbatten, he brought along about 20 or 30 of his young, glamorous-looking starlets, hoping to excite his royal guest.
Of course, what he did not know was that Mountbatten was gay! (laughs) Not the least bit of interest at all in the Shaw Brothers’ glamorous young movie actresses! He really cocked it up there!
I must add one other thing about Run Run. One day I was at his studios. I had just seen a couple of movies we were going to dub. And Run Run was sitting in the darkened studio by himself in his long Chinese cheongsam gown.
Afterwards we both went out and walked over for a cup of tea or something. Out in front of the main office building, I saw a black pedestal and asked what it was for. He said, “This is for my bust after I die. My head is being sculpted in marble, and after I die it is going to be placed there.” And I said, “Well, you have got a long time to go.” And he said, “No, I haven’t. I’ve been diagnosed with stomach cancer, and I‘m going back to the States to see if there‘s anything they can do.” This was over 40 years ago, remember, and he’s still alive today! (laughs) Run Run is a member of the same club as I am, the Hong Kong Club, and he’s now over 100 years old, probably the oldest member.
BH: When you were done, typically, with any movies, dubbing them, were you satisfied in general with the finished product?
TT: Never. Never once. I think one of the problems is, as a broadcaster, I started my career in radio, as I have said. I was much more conscious of sound quality, even more than acting, at times. And the sound quality of the movie soundtracks, because of the size of the studio we were working in, was never as sharp and clear as you would insist on in radio. So the sound quality was not good. Sometimes, obviously before we left a loop, that is, a few seconds or a minute’s worth of dialogue, you got it so that it would be perfect, but when they edited it and transferred the magnetic soundtrack to optical soundtrack, there was sometimes slippage, and it did not fit perfectly.
I would feel like burying my head and leaving the theater so nobody would see me. I don’t think I ever walked out of a cinema having seen a completed movie and been completely satisfied. There were a lot of them I didn’t see; they went straight overseas. A lot of the cartoons and stuff that went to South America I never saw. But I don’t think I would ever say when I came out of a movie that I thought, “Wow, that was great!” It was okay. It obviously worked because we did them over some 20 years. But I would not say that I ever came out of a movie and said, “That was a fantastic job.” No, never.
BH: About the Godzilla movies and the monster movies specifically, did anything stand out in your mind over the years, like, did you see anything that was so outlandish that you were like, “Wow, I can’t believe we’re actually working on this movie! It‘s just so bizarre”?
TT: Not particularly. In fact, what I kept making the comparison with was the original King Kong, made pre-World War II in Hollywood.
They did a movie like King Kong in Hong Kong (The Mighty Peking Man, 1977), and I was acting in it, as a matter of fact. But I thought the Japanese effects made this monster look as credible as they could. I mean, you can’t create a 200-foot monster and make it look credible, but they made it believable. I think that they did a better job than the Americans had done with King Kong, personally. Of course, techniques and technicalities have improved so much over the years.
BH: One of the last questions I wanted to ask you was: certainly in the West, one of the things that really stand out about the dubbing that your company did — and it’s maybe, perhaps, a running joke — is the use of “but still.”
TT: Oh, “but still”! Yes! In fact, you’re quite right because there is a Chinese saying, which they use a lot. And we could never think what to say. This was when Ron Oliphant was scriptwriting. “But still” came in it a lot. And the other one is, “so then.” Because Oriental languages — Japanese, Chinese, and probably many others that I don’t know about — would have this funny, two-syllable thing which is — normally the only way you could say (it in English) is “so then” or “but still.” All you are doing is filling a conversational gap or inviting further comment. And you are quite right, “but still” and “so then” were standbys. Because what else do you say if you have got two syllables, and you don’t want to say anything particularly?!
BH: (laughs) That’s right! Very good! Well, that actually explains that. That’s something that a lot of people have been wondering about for a long time, so that‘s very good information. Well, just in general, to wrap it up, do you have any final comments or just anything that you’d like to mention before we wrap it all up?
TT: Yeah. I would like to think that, when people judge what we were doing, like 30 or 40 years ago, or more, they shouldn’t judge it by today’s standards. As I say, I still occasionally do bit parts in movies. Friends ring me up and say, “Can you do an elderly gentleman or a general or something?” And I so often do it mainly for the fun of it. But the system now is technologically superb. If it doesn’t fit perfectly, you can make it fit. In fact, I said to one of my friends the other day, “I don’t know why you guys bother running the film. Why don’t you just record it?” He said, “Well, we probably could!” (laughs) They do run the films so you get the atmosphere for the acting part. And I do believe, very much, in voice acting because, of course, I was trained in radio drama, my first real skill, I suppose, and that you have to have voice actors.
I also think that voice acting or radio drama is a marvelous way of teaching English. And I am surprised that nobody has thought of doing it because you won’t waste all your time as you would in an ordinary play, a stage play, in memorizing lines and memorizing where you have got to stand on the stage or where you have got to move to. You could read it, and you could put all your acting skill into your voice.
I am astounded that nobody has taken up this as a method of teaching English because I’ve used it several times, more as a favor to somebody, but I do think radio acting, voice acting, is an amazing way of learning English and learning the inflections of English and how to use English, if English is your second language, of course.