By William Kallay
What does ADR have to do with your DVDs and home
theatre system? It may be the most important aspect of your 5.1 speaker
set-up. Without ADR, or Automated Dialogue Replacement, the center
channel would sound much different. That’s because the center channel in
movie theatres and in your home theatre system is used for dialogue. You
would be amazed at the amount of work that goes into replacing movie
production dialogue before it reaches your ears. Without ADR, which is
not really automated at all, unedited dialogue might sound like a
distracting and unintelligible series of clipped and inaudible words. To
gain a better appreciation of this task, you’re invited to meet Avram
Gold, M.P.S.E, ADR and Dialogue Supervisor. Because of his work in ADR,
your DVDs can whiz and bang to their heart’s content, yet be able to
speak with a clear voice.
I met up with Gold during an ADR session on the film, "Unconditional Love." Though the film wasn't released to theatres domestically,* Gold's behind-the-microphone tour of ADR will offer readers insight into the process.
Like Going To The Dentist
Like most people, directors and actors dislike going to the dentist. But it’s necessary insurance to have clean, healthy teeth. If you think they avoid a dental office visit, you might suspect they feel the same way about ADR.
“Usually, everybody dreads the ADR process,” says Gold.
Doing ADR for most directors and actors is akin to going to the dentist. Nobody likes going, but it’s necessary if there is to be a good sounding dialogue track in a feature film. Working with Gold is like finding a dentist who makes your visit as comfortable and painless as possible. Directors and actors discover while working in Gold’s “office,” an ADR recording stage, that the process of replacing a dialogue track can actually be fun, creative, rewarding and make a major difference to the film.
ADR is the process of re-recording lines of dialogue in sync to the moving picture and “guide track” before the actor’s eyes and ears, which is then digitally manipulated to match the lips on the screen so perfectly that theatre audiences believe no changes were made to the original production tracks. Often on location shooting, noises of the “real world” interfere with the dialogue being recorded on a Nagra tape recorder or digital audio tape recorder (DAT). For example, as an actor recites his lines, noise from an airplane, passing off-screen cars, or even director cues, will overlap the actor’s dialogue. During action scenes, wind machines, explosions, car crashes, camera cranes and exploding bullet squibs will render the production tracks useless. Every sound relating to every action or spoken word must be replaced. That’s where Avram Gold, and many sound editors in this field, come to the rescue.
Gold is a magician of sorts. He can reconstruct the audio ruins on even the most obliterated production dialogue, and make it sound true and natural (with the help of the re-recording mixer, who later blends and morphs Gold’s “dry” dialogue into the ambience of the original scene). On the ADR stage, Gold advises the film’s director and coaches the actors as to the best methods for replacing a given line or adding another one off-screen. The ADR mixer’s job is to record the new audio, so that it can be matched against the original production dialogue later in the re-recording process.
One of the films Gold worked on was P.J. Hogan’s "Unconditional Love." Hogan has written and directed the critical and box office hits "Muriel’s Wedding" (1995) and "My Best Friend’s Wedding" (1997) and helmed the underrated "Peter Pan" (2003). "Love" is a comedy/drama starring Rupert Everett, Kathy Bates, Julie Andrews, Dan Ackroyd, Jonathan Pryce, Barry Manilow and newcomer, Merideth Eaton.
The Attack of the Looping Monster
“Godzilla will destroy Tokyo if we don’t stop him!”
Looped dialogue brings to mind the poor dubbing jobs done on numerous foreign films released in the United States over the years. In numerous cases, American voice talent was used to replace the original foreign language tracks. More than likely, the American actor’s voice didn’t match the on-screen talent’s voice. In other cases, dialogue was recited faster than the on-screen talent’s lip movement. Thus, looping earned a reputation of causing unintentional laughter from the audience. The process of replacing initial production dialogue still occurs in all current film releases. Only now it’s commonly known in the industry as ADR.
The process of looping began with the onslaught of the “talkies” in the late 1920s. Looping was used in many different applications. Initially, it was used to replace poor production sound recordings, though rarely. On most films from 1927 through the early 1930s, the dialogue recorded during production was the same dialogue audiences heard in the theater once a film was released.
“In the early days, re-recording was a process you indulged in only if it was absolutely necessary,” said James G. Stewart, a pioneer in early motion picture sound. “The release track on most pictures was 80 to 90 percent unaltered original sound.” (1)
Microphones and recording technology at the time was in its infancy. Much of the sound captured was crude, but the technology would improve in ensuing years. Cameras were also fairly big and recording sound was difficult with them, especially if they were in the same room as the actors. Until the camera blimp was invented, cameras were placed in soundproof rooms away from the action. This is why many films during this time utilized very minimal camera movement. Editing sound was also difficult, until edge numbering on film became available in 1932. Magnetic film stock hadn’t been invented yet, so sound was optically recorded directly to film at the time. Films, such as many Laurel and Hardy shorts, had both dialogue and music recorded at the same time during production.
The other needs for early looping included the need to create foreign language prints, re-dub songs in musicals and to lay down the original dialogue tracks for sound cartoons. With films that required looping in foreign languages, actors who were fluent in French, German, Italian, Spanish, etc., were hired to re-dub lines. For the musical genre, songs that were lip-synced during production were re-recorded within the confines of a dubbing stage, later to be edited into the film. Most of the time, the original actor who sung in the film was brought back to loop their songs. In some cases where an actor couldn’t sing, such as Natalie Wood in "West Side Story" (1961), a trained singer like Marni Nixon would be hired to sing the songs. Nixon also re-dubbed songs for Deborah Kerr ("The King And I," 1956) and Audrey Hepburn ("My Fair Lady," 1964). For animated cartoons and features, voice talent like Walt Disney (Mickey Mouse, 1928-1946), Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Foghorn Leghorn, numerous Warner Bros. cartoon shorts) and Clarence “Ducky” Nash (Donald Duck) would record dialogue and voice effects before a single frame of animation was filmed. Then, dialogue was edited to match with the final animation footage. These techniques still exist today, but under the guise of ADR, a looping format that was created in the 1970s as more practical way of re-dubbing dialogue in movies.
ADR was created by the RCA Corporation, which allows an interlocked projector and production guide track to be backed up to the start of the line, and then played forward as many times as needed to get a good take. A series of beeps at the head of the line cue the actor when to begin speaking. Before “rock and roll” projection systems, film and track had to be cut into loops for continuous forward motion in order to repeat the guide track. Hence, the term, a “looped” line.
The Dialogue of Production Sound Recording
During the production phase of a motion picture, a production sound mixer records dialogue. Wearing headphones, he works on a mixing board to monitor incoming sound. In a simple mono recording, connected to his board through a cable, is a microphone placed at the end of a boom stick. A boom operator, also wearing headphones, holds the boom so that the microphone is placed in proper position above or below the actors on a set to record dialogue. Sound is recorded on analog tape machines, digital tape machines or R-DAT. In an ideal situation, the dialogue will be recorded perfectly without any outside noise to contaminate a take. But even on a soundstage, recording production dialogue can have its problems. On location, it’s worse. Be it a busy surface street or even in a house in the suburbs, the reality of the world can crash into what’s being recorded, and usually does.
One of the films Gold worked on was "Stigmata" (1999). In it, Patricia Arquette plays a woman possessed by demons. In a scene demonstrated at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Samuel Goldwyn Theatre, Gold provided clips of before and after ADR. The scene he used would later require dialogue, music and sound effects to complete the illusion in the final release print.
In the original rough cut of the scene, Arquette uses her supernatural powers against actor Gabriel Bryne. Wind, flying objects, dialogue and screams are just a few of the sounds initially recorded during production. Add to that the thunderous sound of the wind machine creating turmoil, props flying into the camera’s frame and jarring cuts of Arquette screaming, it’s any wonder that Gold doesn’t pull out his hair during the ADR process. Once Gold has cleaned up the scene’s dialogue (if there is any left) and replaced the tracks with clean words, suddenly, it’s like hearing a completely different film, especially after the sound effects are added. No more whine of a wind machine. The screams from Arquette are no longer distorted. The jarring sound cuts are now smooth and seamless. Everything from a whimper to a bed sliding across the room is well recorded and clear. Gold has performed dialogue surgery and has come out with a full scalp of hair in the process.
On location, the difficulties of recording clean production tracks come to the forefront, especially on dialogue driven films. In Gold’s own DV (digital video) production, "Thanksgiving" (2002), the script called for a location in a nice, palatial home in Pasadena, California. The story is driven by actors and dialogue, not by special effects of any kind. But just because the film takes place within the confines of a real house, as opposed to a set on a soundstage, noise still becomes a factor. During many takes, the production mixer, the boom operator and director Gold, all wearing headphones, would illicit the word, “Airplane.” As tape was rolling, an airplane flew overhead, picked up by the sensitive microphone. Once the aircraft passed over the house, shooting resumed. Situations like this happen on every type of movie or television production. Whether productions are shot on 35mm film or DV, one thing remains a constant in recording live production dialogue; the real world can and will intrude at any time.
Taking Out The Naughty Bits
In American-made films the process of ADR isn’t merely about re-dubbing lines in English. Gold re-dubs the “domestic” release of film, and also supervises foreign language versions. All English dialogue is stripped out of the track, leaving the music and effects. Each foreign country can then add their own dubbed language.
Another interesting aspect of Gold’s work is the job of replacing verbal cursing with “proper words” for television and commercial airline versions of the movie. If you’ve ever noticed, airline films are known for having been re-edited for “all audiences.”
Gold sometimes uses a phrase list distributed by the major television networks which identifies “naughty” words to be replaced by “clean” ones “suitable for all audiences.” I can’t repeat the “naughty” words that needed replacement, but you probably can get the idea. Body part references, gender references, put-downs and colorful adjectives are covered in a very thorough dissection of the English language on Gold’s list of acceptable word use.
Gold graduated with a degree in cinema from USC. For a period during the ‘70s, he earned a living editing film documentaries and commercials. By 1978, he decided he definitely needed a salary increase. That meant joining the Editors Guild as a first step.
“I got into sound because, in the late seventies, it was almost impossible to get into the union unless your father was president of the Guild. So I entered 776 as a sound editor because there was an opening in the roster. I started in low budget features and television, then after a few years, moved into bigger budget studio productions,” says Gold.
Being involved with the sound editing process gave him opportunities to wear different hats over the years. He is a dialogue editor, an effects editor, a supervising ADR editor, a supervising dialogue editor and the top managing position of supervising sound editor. His position as a supervising ADR/dialogue editor has afforded him the opportunity to work with many successful actors and actresses, including Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Julie Andrews, Kathy Bates, Jack Lemmon, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson and so on. Some of the films Gold has been involved with include "A Man Apart" (2003-Supervising Sound Editor), "Planet Of The Apes" (2001-Sound Effects Editor), "Just Visiting" (2001-Supervising Dialogue Editor), "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut" (1999-ADR Editor), "Patch Adams" (1998-Dialogue Editor, "Lethal Weapon 4" (1998-Supervising Dialogue Editor), "Anaconda" (1997-ADR Editor), "Daylight" (1996-Sound Effects Editor), "Speed" (1994-Sound Effects Editor), "Pulp Fiction" (1994-Sound Editor), "Tombstone" (1993-ADR Editor), "Big" (1988-Dialogue Editor) and "Robocop" (1987-Supervising Dialogue Editor), to name a few. Gold is also a member of the Motion Picture Academy and on the board of the Motion Picture Sound Editors (M.P.S.E).
ADR is recorded on a sound stage designed for just that purpose, which is acoustically engineered for recording dialogue in sync to picture. The stage has a movie screen, video and film projector capability, speakers, headphones, microphones on booms and a desk for Gold’s paper work while in session. Every ADR stage has a sound proof mixing room where the ADR mixer sits behind a mixing console. There are also video monitors and an array of speakers in this room.
In the case of "Unconditional Love," the sessions were held at Todd-AO West/Liberty Media, located in Santa Monica, California, originally built by George Lucus as Skywalker Sound South. On the first day of my visit, director P.J. Hogan, Gold and ADR Mixer Greg Steele ("Saving Private Ryan," "Die Hard With A Vengeance") and New Line Sound Supervisor, Sara Romilly, were on hand to record lines with actor Gregor Truter.
An interesting aspect of this session was that Gregor was half-a-world away in London, while Hogan and Gold supervised the session in Santa Monica. For Hogan, this was akin to directing his actor over a telephone, which in fact, it was. He was directing the recording session via an ISDN phone patch to London. The reason for the Trans-Atlantic hook-up was due to scheduling and travel difficulties. On many films in which the directors and actors are situated thousands of miles apart, especially halfway around the world, looping dialogue via ISDN lines is the only way to go. However, in as much as the audio/visuals in both stages are electronically interlocked, the actor in London and the director in L.A. view the same film footage at the same time. Voice communication is transferred through a second line. This process is all done in real time, as the actor performs and the director directs, in two different time zones.
Projected on the screen, a video image of the film displays the picture, timecode numbers, feet and frame numbers and the words “Property of New Line.” In the scene, Gregor asks Rupert Everett’s character the question, “Dirk, did you fix it?”
“No!” exclaims Everett, punching Gregor in the gut and walking briskly away.
“Hit it with a little more enthusiasm,” directs Hogan, pacing the floor.
The actor repeats the line a few more times as the ADR mixer records the dialogue in London, while those same lines are simultaneously recorded by Steele on the Santa Monica stage. Steele’s recorder is “slaved” to London, meaning the stage in England is controlling the mechanical process of the projection and recording. Steel’s DAT machine is simply “chasing” the timecode impulses generated in London, thousands of miles away.
The actor repeats the line. It’s take twelve.
“He’s getting a crack in his voice,” says Gold.
The video footage of the scene is backed up and played forward again. The line is recorded once more. The actor hits the line on the mark and both Hogan and Gold are happy with it.
One of the interesting aspects of sitting in the control room of an ADR stage is that it’s almost like being in the middle of a surround sound theater environment. Granted, this set-up is missing a few speakers. In front of me is a speaker on which I could hear the actor and engineers talking in London. The sound is so good, it almost seems as though the actor is in the same room as me. Directly behind my head is a speaker on which I could hear Gold and Hogan talking in the ADR stage on the other side of the window.
“And recording 13-25, take 23,” utters an engineer in London.
“Play back the ones I haven’t heard yet,” requests Hogan. The London mixer sends out the line.
“It’s a miracle! I turned on the hot water tap and hot water came out! Dirk, did you fix it?”
“Good. That matched production,” says Gold.
Of utmost importance in ADR is making the re-recorded dialogue sound as realistic and natural as possible, but also match the feeling of the production tracks. Gold’s job is to make sure that no one watching a film he’s worked on realizes that many, if not all, of the lines are looped.
During the course of the session, Gold will suggest to the director combining alternate takes of looped dialogue and to create a new version of line. This process is called a combine. Since ADR is a form of editing, it’s like taking alternate takes of film and splicing them together to make a coherent scene.
Like most film editing today, ADR is done digitally on computers. Gold works on an Apple Mac workstation with Pro Tools, an editing software program used extensively in the industry. All of the hundreds of lines, sighs, laughs, coughs, etc., that he has recorded is now stored on numerous hard drives. Using organized lists of character names, Gold accesses their lines instantly via Pro Tools’ file management software. He then can stretch, expand, pitch up or down, splice, fade in or out any word, or pieces of words. Back on the ADR stage, he also directs the recording of group walla, which adds vocal beds to scenes requiring multiple voices to fill in general backgrounds (called walla), or specific reactions to the action taking place in the scene. Anywhere from six to twenty actors may be needed to voice the background ambience of a movie. These group voices are then blended with the effects backgrounds in the final sound mix of the film.
As the session goes on, Hogan makes suggestions on new lines for Gregor to say -- dialogue which was not originally scripted. This process of adding lines off-screen or on the back of an actor’s head is called cheating a line. In the film, "Unconditional Love," Kathy Bates is mowing the lawn in the foreground, while Rupert Everett is dragged into his house by his two friends, one of which is played by Gregor Truter. Since the audience’s eyes focus on Bates, and Truter’s image is so small in the frame, any words can be “cheated” into his mouth.
“Leave her alone. You can’t hit Americans. They sue!” Suggests Hogan.
Gregory yells out the line into a London microphone. Hogan and Gold are happy with the end result.
On many films, the director might not attend the ADR sessions. Reasons might include that the director doesn’t like being involved with the process; he is busy working on another part of the film; he is busy working on his next film, or, on occasion, the director is simply leaving the work in the hands of sound professionals. If the director is not present, Gold is left in charge of the ADR sessions. Having directed commercials and films in the past, he feels quite comfortable coaching actors who might be reluctant to do ADR.
“If I’m set up in such a way that they (the actors) know that the director trusts me, then they’ll respond to me as they would the director,” says Gold. “If there is no previous introduction and I meet the actors on the stage for the first time, it can be more difficult gaining their trust. But I usually do by the middle of the session.”
Witnessing An Actor Doing ADR In Person
On another session of ADR, actress Merideth Eaton is called in to loop her lines. Greg Steele sits calmly in the control room behind his console ready to record. Gold is seated at the desk on the stage with his ADR log, notes and script at his fingertips. Eaton sits on a stool with the ADR script in front of her, lit by a tiny halogen lamp. Above her head is a highly sensitive microphone. Holding a headphone to her ear, three short beeps emit from the recording stage speakers, signaling Eaton to start her ADR line on the forth silent beat. The scene plays out on the screen in front her eyes as she hears the original production dialogue in her headset, repeating the line in sync with the guide track. Hogan stands next to the actress, directing. Co-writer/Producer Jocelyn Moorhouse ("How To Make An American Quilt," 1995, and "Muriel’s Wedding") and Sara Romilly sit on couches at the rear of the ADR stage.
“I got it! I got it!” exclaims Eaton.
The scene is a comical and confusing combination of screaming, running and sheer chaos. Eaton, playing the role of Maudey, picks up a pistol in the midst of the action and accidentally pulls the trigger. She screams. The bullet hits no one, but the gunshot sends everyone on-screen running.
Since the footage was filmed months ago, Eaton must conjure up nearly identical emotions, diction and screaming that occurred on the set. It’s not an easy task. She’s having difficulty finding the “correct” scream which will work for the scene. Emotional matching is a common hurdle confronting actors when recording ADR. There is no other actor making eye contact, helping to build real excitement. Eaton’s fellow “actor” is a flat movie screen and a rough sound track coming through a headset. However, Eaton is an interesting case-in-point. Although this is her first movie, a film she stars in, she takes to looping like a duck takes to water. She’s a natural. And the performances she gives is extraordinary.
“What was it like re-doing your lines from months ago?” I ask.
“It was actually very surreal. It brought back a lot of memories, because I see myself on the screen and I remember that exact day when I said [those lines]. It’s hard to recapture. But it was fun. I love it.”
Hogan decides to use a “hands-on” approach for the next take. The recording has started and Eaton watches herself on-screen. When the need to scream in the scene comes up, Hogan takes Eaton’s wrist and pulls gently. Her scream is better, but it’s not what he’s looking for. For the next take, Hogan picks up a plastic cup and pours water into it. The recording begins and the director grabs Eaton’s wrist, this time, pouring droplets of water on it. Still in character, she screams again, this time for real. Everyone bursts into laughter, especially Merideth. Gold suggests another take for good measure. Eaton shoots Hogan a look.
“You can trust me this time,” Hogan ensures.
“Where’s the water?” asks Eaton, looking around for the cup.
Beep, beep, beep, record. Eaton screams her best, with the plastic cup now held perilously above her head. Of course Hogan doesn’t pour any water. The teasing is all in fun. Still, that last scream still doesn’t quite hit the mark. Gold suggests to Hogan that he can digitally expand it. The director accepts that alternative, but asks for one more take. Bingo! The perfect scream.
The Final Stage Of ADR
Once all of the dialogue and ADR has been mixed down from perhaps sixty tracks to a manageable twenty-five, it is now time move onto the final dub. At this stage of post production, dialogue, music and effects are mixed together. David Sluhr and Adam Jenkins are the mixers for this film. Gold is present at every moment of re-recording, fine tuning the dialogue editing and delivering to the director alternative takes on his mobile Pro Tools workstation. He’s sitting on the dubbing stage to the right of the huge mixing console. Even after months of work, sifting through hundreds of ADR lines, choosing just the right performances, yes, even more alternative takes are requested as the movie finally nears completion. We need a breath here, a subtle vocal there, a little tick removed from dialogue track “D.” Gold, and other sound editors like him, provide this service with speed, proficiency and enthusiastic creativity. It’s all part of the job. Audiences are rarely aware of hundreds of hours and thousands of cuts that go into ADR and dialogue editing. That’s a good thing. They’re not supposed to.
“I think American audiences are becoming so sophisticated, they notice poorly looped lines. So it’s my job to make sure no one knows anything was ever done to that dialogue track. Because once an audience is distracted enough to be pulled out of scene, even for a moment, we’ve lost the suspension of believe. That’s why it is so important to make my work invisible. I owe it to the director to help him capture every person in his audience and keep them involved in the story to the very end.” says Gold.
And he says it perfectly.
*Released theatrically in international markets (AKA "Who Shot Victor Fox?"). Released on DVD in the United States.
Special thanks to Avram Gold, P.J. Hogan, Sara Romilly, Merideth Eaton, Greg Steele, Jocelyn Moorhouse, David Sluhr, Adam Jenkins, New Line Cinema, Todd-AO West/Liberty Media and The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Altman, Rick. "Sound Theory, Sound Practice," AFI Film Readers, New York, 1992
Harkness, John. "The Academy Award Handbook," Pinnacle Books, New York, 2001
Neary, Kevin F. and Smith, Dave. "The Ultimate Disney Trivia Book," Hyperion, New York, 1992
Weaver Michael John. "Sound For Picture-An Inside Look At Audio Production For Film and Television," Mix Books, Emeryville California, 1993(1)
Weis, Elisabeth and Belton, John. "Film Sound, Theory and Practice," Columbia University Press, New York, 1985
Photos: © 2004 Bill Kallay. All rights reserved.
Originally posted here on September 24, 2004