In a studio in Mong Kok, dubbing artist Andrea Kwan is in full flow. As the anime action plays out on a small TV screen, she contorts her face into all manner of expressions while switching voices from the boy lead to his girl pal and then an old lady. 'I like to sit behind the mic and go crazy,' says the 30-something performer as she takes directions from Dave Bridges, a fellow artist who sits in the glass-fronted control room. The team are working on an English-language soundtrack for the popular Japanese animated series Guru Guru for overseas distribution. Kwan and Bridges are among 17 artists who work for Hong Kong company Omni Productions, one of a number of firms that are quietly turning the city into a regional hub for voice dubbing and subtitling for films and TV programmes. Industry players say Hong Kong's status in the field, helped by its bilingual and multicultural nature and efficient business environment, will be further enhanced as the mainland aspires to be an animation power. Distributors and TV channels, from TVB in Hong Kong to NHK in Japan, along with international outlets like National Geographic and Discovery, are increasingly knocking on the door to get their shows out to a wider audience. Local players can provide not only Chinese and English but everything from Arabic to Finnish, Urdu, Tagalog and Hebrew. A number of major players, such as Medi-Lan Limited and SDI Media, and many smaller companies, have chosen Hong Kong as their headquarters in Asia. Global company SDI Media's managing director Michael Tang says the English dubbing on most shows aired on Japanese animation channel Animax is done in Hong Kong. 'It's key for us to keep Hong Kong as a hub, because our industry really depends on the availability of talent,' Tang says from his office in Singapore. Hong Kong hopes to enhance its hub status as the mainland aspires to become the next powerhouse in the global animation industry, and production houses seek to sell their wares overseas. In order to reach a wide international audience, these shows have to be dubbed into English, mostly with a North American accent. This is where Omni Productions comes in. Its artists are mostly Americans and Canadians, plus a few Australians who can put on American accents. For Kwan, a Toronto native, it all started 13 years ago when she was in Hong Kong on holiday and spotted an advert in the South China Morning Post looking for a dubber with a North American accent. Kwan was invited for a chat and thought she had done pretty well. She was not hired. 'They were worried I might have a Chinese accent because of my last name.' But she persevered and found a way in. Over the years she has done a number of films, including a series of Jackie Chan movies, kung fu flicks, animation and TVB dramas. Her favourite character is Keroro, the odd-looking green frog in the hit anime series Keroro Gunso. 'I like his personality and his funny character. It was lots of fun playing him.' Bridges, from the US state of Georgia, also answered an advert five years ago. He went for an audition, thought he'd done a terrible job and was somewhat taken aback when he was told to report to the studio and start working. His favourite character? Master Roshi, a dirty old man but a skilful martial arts master in Dragon Ball, a classic anime action series. Victor Lee, managing director of Omni Productions, says roughly five per cent of productions they handle are from the mainland - a significant increase from a few years ago. The company has worked on mainland productions including hit series Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf for international release. 'It is increasing now as more production companies need English dubbing in order to better sell their animation around the world,' he says. One mainland show that was dubbed into English in Hong Kong was Zheng He's Voyages to the West Seas, which won an excellence prize at the international Accolade Television awards for mainland animation house Zhejiang Zhongnan Group Animation Video. 'There's a very active animation industry that is striving to expand their market outside China,' says Torun Chakrabarty, chief executive of Medi-Lan, one of Asia's largest dubbing and subtitling companies. 'Lately we have been working almost exclusively on animation, which is easier to cross the cultural barriers and well-accepted in other cultures. 'This is just the beginning. In the future, there will be a lot more.' Chakrabarty says that with the increase in pay-TV channels in the region, demand for voice dubbing and subtitling will rise further. Lee is similarly optimistic. 'I believe it will increase exponentially, as English is a national language for many countries and is a learning tool for many others,' he says. 'Chinese production companies recognise this and in turn will require English dubbing for most of their upcoming projects.' Since 2004 it has been a national policy for the central government to strengthen animation production. 'I believe that Chinese animation will catch up or even surpass the standard of those produced by countries leading the field,' said Jin Delong, director general of the publicity and administration department at the country's media watchdog, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT). Addressing a national conference for film, television and animation at the end of 2008, Jin said the mainland had created 122,510 minutes of animation in that year. It was produced by CCTV and production houses in 20 provinces, four more than the previous year. Jin said there was a wide recognition among officials that animation was a vitally important cultural product with great economic value to the nation. He said the central government had put emphasis on animation production and had been providing support for the establishment of animation industry clusters in various parts of the country. The central government had also set strict rules controlling the quality of these clusters. If they cannot produce more than 3,000 minutes of animation for three consecutive years, or the quality is not up to standard, warnings would be issued and they might lose their official status. Jin stressed that establishing a distribution network both nationally and internationally would be crucial for the industry. In June this year at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival in France, Liu Yuzhu, director of the Cultural Industry Department under the Ministry of Culture, said Chinese animation would play an important role in the international market, and was among the cultural industries that Beijing hoped to promote overseas. During the festival, many mainland animation production houses were cutting deals with companies from around the world. All this translates into big potential growth in a business that can be costly. The price for dubbing a 30-minute show into English is anything from HK$6,000 to HK$10,000, depending on the number of voices required. But if a client wants more unusual languages, the price climbs. Tang says the number of mainland productions his company has worked on has soared by 50 per cent in four years. He expects a further 30 per cent rise in the next year or two. He says English dubbing on the mainland is not likely to take off any time soon as buyers 'want authentic American accents, and they want it to be done professionally'. Although degree courses in translation are widely available at tertiary institutes in Hong Kong, such as Chinese University, Baptist University and City University, dubbing or subtitling involves more than just translating the language, and having a degree is not enough. 'It's translation of culture, and if you don't do it well, you are easily lost in translation,' Chakrabarty says. Industry players say Hong Kong, with its large pool of talent, still has the edge. But they see a problem looming - the low priority given to language and humanities education in the city. Chakrabarty says the city's success 'is closely tied to our educational system'. 'In contrast to other countries, the teaching of languages and humanities is way down on the scale of importance.' He says that in his home country, Sweden, students are expected to be fluent in two foreign languages after graduating from secondary school. Chakrabarty fears that if the supply of local talent declines, it will be reflected in the cost of such services. 'When the cost in Hong Kong is comparable to outside, they may choose to do it elsewhere.' Kwan and Bridges do not reveal how much they make. 'But I can do this for a living,' Kwan says. Shifts are flexible but they normally put in four to five hours a day, completing about three episodes of anime. There's no time for rehearsals. Bridges says dubbers have to be able to 'predict the unpredictable'. That includes the attention of die-hard anime fans. Kwan says she tries to keep her life private, but 'I'm amazed how much they know'. Bridges, on the other hand, enjoys the fan mail. 'The first one was three or four years ago. It was someone who remembered me dubbing characters that I don't even remember. It's really nice.'