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Dothraki Diaries: A week in the life of TV language creator David J. Peterson

I started working on “Game of Thrones” as a language creator (or conlanger) and translator almost seven years ago to the day. Since then I’ve gone on to work as a conlanger on eight other television shows and four films so far, often working on three to four projects at a time. To date, I’m the only conlanger ever to make a living from the creation of fictional languages.

As happens when working in TV, there are some dead times — a stretch of a few weeks to a couple of months, where I have absolutely nothing to do. When it’s on, though, it’s on, and I’m definitely in the thick of things at present. To give you an idea of what life is like as a language creator, I thought I’d detail what I’ve been up to the past couple days. Though a lot of these events are unique, their frequency and variety are typical of an ordinary day.

— David J. Peterson

Monday, October 3

11:00 a.m. PST: I arrive on the set of a film I’ll call Project A, for the sake of my NDA. I’m on the set of the shows and films I work on rarely, to be honest, so I take advantage of every opportunity I get. I’m an hour early, so I stop into the art department, where I got a request for a translation to be used on signage. I’ve created two writing systems for the film, and usually I handle these requests via e-mail, but since I happened to be in the neighborhood, I thought I’d drop by and take care of it in person.

12:00 p.m. PST: I arrive at a dialect coaching session with the first actor I’m to work with. They’re late, as inevitably happens on set (actors’ schedules are unenviable), so I use some scratch paper to work on a post-production translation request from “Emerald City” I was surprised by this morning. It’s really all I can do, since I foolishly forgot to bring a laptop.

Nathalie Emmanuel and David J. Peterson

My most pressing request is the presentation I’m to give in two days at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany. I’ve… kind of started it at this point. And given the fact that the first meeting is starting late enough that it’s going to push the start of successive meetings, I know I’m in for a long day.

1:30 p.m. PST: Having finished the first coaching session (which went very well!), I’m taken to the set for the next session. There I wait for a bit until the next actor is ready. We go to a separate room to start discussing lines, but after only about 5 minutes in, we break for lunch. We had back to the set and take in some craft services. I’ll note that it would be easy to put on a lot of weight if one were on set every day. I was particularly taken with these snack-like items that are made of sliced Granny Smith apples, peanut butter, oatmeal, and raisins. Definitely one to remember.

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3:00 p.m. PST: Finished another good coaching session, and am waiting for the last two. The wait takes quite a bit, though, as the second actor I’m to meet with has an entire battery of photo shoots and screen tests to go through. I use the time to finish the translation request from “Emerald City.”

NBC promotional materials for Emerald City, premiere January 2017

4:30 p.m. PST: I finally get a chance to meet with my next actor, only to discover they have not yet received any of their translated lines or the MP3s I recorded of each line, making this coaching session useless. Having worked in TV and film for as long as I have, I know this is not uncommon, and usually no one’s fault. I send my material to several point people in production, but none of them is necessarily in charge of distribution. I was entirely unsurprised to find that of my first three sessions: One actor had all their lines, one actor had a version from the older draft of the script which didn’t contain all the new lines, and the other had never received any lines at all. This is par for the course.

5:00 p.m. PST: The last actor I had to meet with had been ducking me all day, so I was not surprised to learn they wouldn’t be meeting with me. This meant it was time to head home for the day. Had it all happened on schedule, I likely would have been done by 3:00 p.m. at the latest, but leaving LA at 5:00 p.m. means getting back home to Orange County at 7:00 p.m. — especially if you can’t avoid the 405.

9:30 p.m. PST: After getting home, eating dinner, changing a few diapers, and watching some “Bojack Horseman,” I sit down to work on my presentation… Only to discover I have a post-production request from “The 100.” It’s a long one. Post-production is notoriously unpredictable — sometimes they need something for the next day, sometimes a couple days hence. I write back crossing my fingers that it’s the latter type of request, not the former. It is. I put it aside and jump back into my presentation.

11:00 p.m. PST: With my wife and baby asleep, I take a moment to record the new “Emerald City” lines. Just four lines, but my little daughter simply adores making noise: I can’t really record until she’s asleep. I record the lines, type the translations into an e-mail, and send them off.

Marie Avgeropoulos in The 100 on the CW

Tuesday, October 4

3:30 a.m. PST: Time for bed. I at least had the outline of the presentation done by 2:00 a.m., my target bedtime, but then I remembered I hadn’t sent in my invoice for the day, I hadn’t packed, didn’t necessarily know where my passport was, couldn’t remember if I had any Euros in the house… Questions like these can make you lose an hour or so. By 3:30, though, I’m in bed, and by at least 4:30, I’m asleep.

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10:30 a.m. PST: I wake up to a text message, three missed calls, and a voice-mail from a number I don’t recognize, which usually means some production or the other. I check it and see that it came in around 8:30 p.m. and the request was for a line they needed on the set of “The 100,” for a scene shooting that day. That’s enough to wake me up. I check the request (a simple one), text back, and apologize that I didn’t get it to sooner, despite the fact that in no possible world would I be awake at 8:30 in the morning. I get a text back: No problem, they haven’t shot yet, so it arrived just in time. (They also say I can ignore the three e-mails they sent me.)

11:30 a.m. PST: I get another request from the art department of Project A — one I can turn around fairly quickly — so I take care of it while packing. I also get a new version of the script for the episode of “The 100” that’s shooting right now. I cross my fingers for no new translations; there are none. I go back to making sure that my presentation file is showing up correctly on the laptop I’m taking, then finish packing and take a shower. I need to leave at 2:00, to get to the airport by 3:00, for my flight that leaves at 5:00. Lot of wasted time, but nothing to be done.

Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones

5:00 p.m. PST: My flight takes off from LAX for London-Heathrow. There is no wifi, which means I can finish my presentation, but can’t search for stuff on the internet if I need it. I finish what I can, and hope I get some decent wifi in Germany, or some time in Heathrow. I immediately regret not taking a screenshot of the e-mail with the post request from “The 100,” as I can’t pull it up on the plane. Ideally on a 9.5-hour flight, where I’ll be arriving the next day, I should be trying to get as much sleep as possible. Doesn’t work out. The flight is incredibly bumpy, and I only manage an hour. I do get a chance to watch “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” (pretty good), “What We Do in the Shadows” (stellar!), and “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” (not nearly as sub-par as I’ve heard).

Wednesday, October 5

11:30 a.m. Western European Time (WET): I touch down in London-Heathrow and have a three-hour layover, so I figure I’ll get some work done. No such luck. It takes me about an hour and a half to get from my section of the airport to where I need to be — and even then, I can’t head to my gate, since Heathrow has this charming habit of not releasing gate information until an hour before the flight.

When I get there, it says it won’t be releasing it until 50 minutes before. I wait for 2:00 p.m., only to see the number change before my eyes: 2:14. At 2:14 it says I have to wait until 2:19. At 2:20, it still says I have to wait until 2:19 — for a flight that takes off in half an hour, and with gates as much as 20 minutes away. Finally the gate information is released at 2:25, and I have to rush off. I make it before last call, and sleep all the way from London to Mulhause.


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