Hollywood Dialogue Recording Secrets

CreativeCOW presents ADR: Hollywood Dialogue Recording Secrets -- Audio Professionals Feature

Correcting dialogue is one of the most important parts of the old saying, fix it in post. They’re part of a process called ADR — Additional Dialogue Recording, or Automated Dialogue Replacement — that has been going on since movies had audio, and is still being done today, from the smallest indie films to the biggest blockbusters. Here’s an overview of the world of ADR, some of the Cows who are working in this field, and where to go when you are ready to ADR to your own productions.

At Creative COW, many of our audience work in the field of film, from those working with small budget indie films that have been entered (and won) festivals like Sundance, all the way up to major films like Hollywood blockbusters that have graced both the library and the magazine here at Creative COW.

One of the interesting fields used in the production of films is the process of ADR: “Additional Dialogue Recording” or, depending who you ask, “Automated Dialogue Replacement.” It also goes by names including “looping,” and “post-sync. Whatever the name, it means replacing spoken lines recorded on set or on location with audio recorded in the studio.

The name “looping” refers to what often happens: actors re-record their lines while watching their original performances in looped playback.

Dubbing is a more general term for generally replacing audio in post. At the “large” end of the spectrum, entire movies can be dubbed from foreign languages into the local languages. Or accents: all of the performances from the 1979 Australian film “Mad Max” were dubbed for the US release — except for one.(Nope, Mel Gibson wasn’t the exception. His voice was one of the ones dubbed.)

Sometimes, dubbing adds an actor’s voice who didn’t do the performance at all. The most famous of these might be Darth Vader. Although David Prowse was the actor inside the original costume, the character’s voice was provided by James Earl Jones. (Cowdog is old enough to feel strongly that this is the one and only way that Darth Vader was ever properly portrayed, and will leave it at that.)

Dubbing has often been used to replace singing. Although actors frequently do their own singing back in the studio, Mari Nixon is a singer who became famous for the actors whose singing she replaced, including Deborah Kerr in “The King and I,” Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady,” and Natalie Wood in “West Side Story.” (In that movie, she even sings two of the five voices in the song “Tonight!”

Dubbing is also sometimes used to refer to sounds, rather than voices, that are added in post, more properly known as Foley.

Speaking of Foley, here’s a great piece on the overall sound design of “Wall-E.”

But no, ADR is very specific: voices, most often a line at a time. Sounds easy, right? Wrong. There’s a whole set of “gotchas” that are a library’s worth of articles by themselves, around the problem of making words spoken in the studio sound like they were actually recorded on location.

James G. Stewart, head of post-production at RKO Studios, talks about one such challenge when working with Orson Welles on “The Magnificent Ambersons.”

There were six principals involved in the dialogue, and I recorded each one separately to the picture. This was done without Orson being on the stage. I then combined these tracks and rerecorded them with the necessary motor noise of the old-type automobile. 

On running the result with Orson, he said “It’s all right technically, but it’s no good from the standpoint of realism. I don’t feel that the people are in the automobile. There’s no sense of movement in their voices; they’re not responding to the movements of the car. The voices are much too static.” 

So I went back to the recording stage and redid all of the lines. This time they were done with the actor or actress and myself seated on a twelve inch plank suspended between saw-horses. As we watched the picture I simulated the movement of the car by bouncing the performer and myself up and down on the plank. After a week of bumping, I had a track which I then rerecorded and ran for Welles. His only comment was “That’s very good”. Orson was not given to exaggerated praise of anyone’s efforts. 

(Here’s the rest of James’s story.)

George Groves worked with Marlon Brando, a notorious mumbler who was also very happy looping. “He was very affable about it, very nice. He came up in comfortable street clothes. He lay down on the dubbing console while we were getting ready for the next loop and was very relaxed and was most accommodating. He really was very nice. Some people are just terrible, they go into tantrums over it.”

It’s not just a matter of getting words in sync. Actors also have to get their performances in sync, matching the rhythms and intensities of their studio re-recordings with what happened on the set, in context with the actors and events on screen.

As well as being a regular COW poster and the Principal Product Designer at Avid, Michael Phillips runs Miledia Films. His most recent movie needed about 15 lines of ADR.

“About 97% of the recordings were fine, but some key lines were over-modulated or off-mike. We tried fixing these in Pro Tools, but felt that re-recording the lines would be the best way to go.


Because the set was integral to the look and sound of the recordings, we knew we had to go back to the same location with the same microphones. On-set we had a software Media Composer with the sections for each of the 4 actors broken out for a loop play to match the final edit. We had small speakers for them to hear to get their pacing and emotional level.

We then recorded to a digital audio recorder (Sound Devices). These recordings were then reviewed by the director and selected takes were sent to the dialog editor to cut into the track. In comes cases, only certain words were used, in others, the entire line. And in one line, we went with the original recording due to performance preference, which was key to the scene.”

Speaking of performances, COW member John Fishback explains that “one of the more common uses of ADR is to record ‘efforts,’ not lines.” Efforts might be gasps, yells, breathing, etc. A Criminal Minds episode we did had the character being chased through a forest. All that was on the production sound track was Foley-ed running sounds. The actress supplied the ‘effort’ sounds while she ran.

“Ironically, in the same episode, the actress replaced a line because the actor standing next to her breathed too loudly, and it got into her track.”

John’s company, P&P Studio, is in a part of the state of Connecticut where many people in the entertainment business live, so they wind up with a lot of ADR work for actors who don’t want to head into New York for re-recording. “We did two seasons of Nick’s animated kid show Avatar. The young actor playing the Avatar lives in Stamford and we did the original records and subsequent ADR. He was also the lead kid in the movie Ant Bully and we did ADR for that.

“In the last month we did work for Warner Bros.’ Cats and Dogs 2. Joey Pantoliano voiced the character Peek against the action of a puppet already filmed. We’ve just started working with the TV show Damages and have done ADR for 2 episodes. Other actors who have worked here include Gene Wilder, Christopher Walken, Robert Vaughn, James Earl Jones, Christopher Plummer and more.”

COW members at Atlanta’s Doppler Studios have done ADR for movies including “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and Tyler Perry’s “Madea Goes to Jail.” For the 2009 film “Obsessed,” Doppler engineers John St. Denis and Jonathan Jory hooked up with Sony mixing engineer Brian Smith in Los Angeles via an EDnet bridge. Doppler used an APT ISDN codec for the connection and ran the session in Pro Tools 7.4.

The folks at Doppler have also worked on Pixar’s “Toy Story 3.” Actress Jodi Benson (also the voice of “The Little Mermaid”) performed her ADR in Atlanta, while producers in Hollywood who were teleconferenced in received both the audio feed and timecode from Atlanta via ISDN.

This is more common than you might think. The looping in John’s facility is of course very often for studios in Hollywood, 3000 miles away. “We have configured our setup to have what Hollywood wants,” says P&P’s John Fishback. “We use Pro Tools HD with ISDN so the folks in Hollywood can simultaneously watch picture in sync with the talent’s voice. Toys like Millennia mic preamps. Neumann U87s, Schoeps MK41s, Genelec monitors. We don’t do this every day, but when we do it’s fun.”

Want to learn more?

“Designing a Movie for Sound.” Here’s an article by Randy Thom discussing the art and science of sound design, with a great section on ADR. He also discusses how everything from lens selection to visual editing style can help “sell” a sound design.

The James G. Stewart/Orson Welles story is part of a much longer, and very entertaining article on the art of postproduction sound called “Sync Tanks” by Elisabeth Weis.

You can also check out, “Dialogue Editing for Motion Pictures” in the COW’s Amazon Store.

And if you have questions about ADR for your own movies, and for anything audio, be sure to check out the Cow’s Audio Professionals forum. It’s not just a community for people who are audio pros. It’s the perfect place for anyone to get advice from them, too.

From: magazine.creativecow.net