Originally published in The Voice in Violence and other contemporary issues in professional voice and speech training, Applause Books, 2001.
The room is dark, with a screen the size of the one at the local art cinema, only lower, just a couple of feet off the floor. There are no theatre seats in the room. The floor is covered with a green carpet that curves partway up the wall, and I always felt like I was on a pool table in the land of the giants waiting for someone to switch on the lights and start knocking me around with a big cue stick.
This was the Looping (or A. D. R.1) Stage on the backlot at Twentieth Century Fox, a dark place similar to many where I would spend hours staring into the light of that screen, and though giants ran the place, they were the giants of an international industry, and it wasn’t a game room. It was all business. This was one of the stages where the post-production sound wizards would try to live up to the mantra of the filming units: “We’ll fix it in post.” Whenever something goes haywire on a shoot, and it’s too complicated or expensive to rework it, you can hear someone mutter those magic words. Of course, that person doesn’t really mean “we will fix it.” He really means “they will” – the picture and sound editors and their teams. They will smooth over all the rough spots, add richness and color, create the subliminal emotional impact of a scene, and bring the whole project to a polished finish.
Many people think of filmmaking in terms of the camera. Interestingly, shooting the film is usually the shortest period of production and, barring the star’s salaries, the least expensive. A film that shoots for ten weeks, may have had a year or two of pre-production (working out the scripts, locations, props, sets, costumes, logistics) and several months to a year of intense post-production (where the raw footage is shaped and crafted into a film).
Post-production editing requires a special kind of person. The work is often solitary, intensely focused, and full of technical issues and tiny details. It requires a group of almost fanatical artists and master craftspeople to take command of all the minute elements. This team must make the mosaic of disparate components look and sound so seamless that the audience forgets that they are seeing a movie and enters into a completely compelling cinematic experience.
Post-production is divided into two areas: picture and sound. The Picture editors handle everything from special-effects, to balancing color and contrast, as well as the selection of shots. They tell the story by controlling where the audience looks, what they will and will not see, and how long they will look at it.
Sound editors handle the musical underscoring, sound effects and dialogue. They will manipulate nearly every moment of the film before it is finished. That green carpet on the looping stage can be rolled up revealing a series of foley pits2. These are hollows with various surfaces like gravel, sand, concrete, linoleum, macadam, squeaky boards, metal stairs, water, etc. Foley artists (sometimes called foley-walkers) will work on these surfaces and with an array of props to replace or enhance footsteps, and other auditory elements of the physical action, like the creak of a leather jacket, or the sound of a martini being shaken and poured.
My small part in this large process, was to come in with a group of people and loop3 the film. We would replace or augment the voices of the actors on screen.
Looping4 work is done in the one of the last stages in post-production. Usually, I would receive a call from a coordinator for one of the groups I worked with regularly5. The owner of that company and I would go out to preview the black and white work print and discuss with the sound editor the details of their looping needs. We would settle on the number of actors, ratio of men and women, any special vocal qualities or skills such as languages, dialects, ages, vocal timbre, etc. (we would almost never be given a script). Then we would cast the actors6 and arrange the details of the recording session. In special cases the director had a close hand in casting, but usually we had wide discretion. I was also responsible for researching any special terms, dialects/accents or languages, having that material ready for the actors when they arrived, and though there were no rehearsals, having the actors prepared to respond to the specific needs of the film.
Nearly every film and television show (except daytime dramas and sit-coms) requires some looping. The projects we would work on could vary widely. Most hour-long television shows could be completed in half a day using about six to eight actors. A film with a lot of action sequences could take a dozen actors a couple of long days, and a mini-series, three days to a week. Occasionally we would re-voice every word of a foreign film or of a really badly shot English language one. (An axiom in the industry is: the lower the budget the more looping a film will require.) Those projects could take considerably longer. During my time in Los Angeles I looped over five hundred films and television shows and provided the voices for a number of animated shows as well.
Throughout those years I worked with some astonishingly talented actors. And I watched a lot of them abuse their voices. This is a cautionary tale for actors working on this side of the industry.
Looping usually involves general group walla7 and lip-synch8. Both can present vocal challenges.
In this situation the scene on film has two levels of action. Usually there are the principal players and their story, and then there is a crowd of people framing the action in some way. This can range from a quiet restaurant scene to a huge pitched battle. In both cases the production sound track often isn’t useable because there is either no way to control the sound input with that large a group of people, or the crowd is miming speaking, so that there is no interference with the principal actors’ lines being clearly recorded.
In post-production, the A. D. R. Editor will need to fill out the scene with all the sounds he wants to paint in. This could range from a murmur of conversation to massed battle cries and the shrieks of the wounded and dying. In the studio, the actors will watch a preview of the scene, pick out the people on camera to re-voice and then do a take. I might find myself saying to one actor, “Okay Jack, do the guy in blue getting the arrow in the throat then we cut to that group as the burning oil is poured on them – catch the guy on the ladder, then at frame 1190 it cuts back to arrow-neck falling off the parapet and crushing that guy with the spear. You do them both on subsequent passes and fill in with some general fight sounds as you see it.” This discussion would continue with all of the actors pitching in, then, “ Remember this is England in 1066, and its for television, so no surfer-talk, and no swearing. Okay, let’s make it real, everybody.” And they do.
A large battle scene might take several passes through each section to fill it out, with the actors skipping around and using multiple voices on each take. They make a point to reflect what is shown the way the camera sees it, cutting in and out as the camera cuts. On tracking shots the actors will walk the donut9, or walk past the microphone at the same speed as the camera appears to move so they will realistically pass into and out of range while improvising dialogue. Occasionally one actor will do a separate take to pick up some highly detailed feature.
Depending on the project, this sort of activity can go on for hours or days, and much of that time can be spent performing extreme vocal activities like screaming and shouting.
In this situation, a looper is replacing either an entire performance (because the director didn’t like the original, and so is looking for an improvement) or is matching the original actor’s voice on sections of dialogue (because the actor isn’t available, or using loopers is cheaper and more efficient). Usually this is needed when the production sound has a problem (there’s an airplane in the background, the actor became unexpectedly loud and distorted the sound – a frequent occurrence on highly emotional scenes – or because of other sound problems). In order to do this work, a looper needs to have a keen sense of visual and auditory timing. The lines need to match the precise lip movement of the original speaker. The vocal quality needs to reflect that person’s type, and current emotional and physical state.
There are a number of issues that also factor in to make this even more challenging. The original role may have been done by an actor and a stuntperson or other body double and maybe even a dummy – or a combination of all of them. Then, this performance was edited by the film editor. This can result in a performance rhythm that evolved for practical and aesthetic reasons having nothing to do with acting beats. The editors tend to choose the cuts and their timing from an artistic perspective that emphasizes the pace of images and is designed to control the emotional development of the scene. They don’t always attend to the realistic physiological or emotional needs of the character. So, for example, in a scene which has been assembled from pieces of several different takes, the character’s breathing may be irregular, unpredictable, or non-existent. The transitions and flow of thought and feeling are often different from those the actor might have originally chosen.
In addition to the challenges of timing the line to match an unusual rhythmic pattern and an anti-intuitive emotional build, the recording session will follow the standard dictates of filmmaking: the usual thinking is that once the technical crew is set up, the actor should be ready to go. So, rehearsals are rare and the looper usually gets one preview of the scene before recording starts.
In order to lip-synch, the actor stands before the microphone with a headset over one ear and watches the screen. Below the screen are cue lights: green for playback, yellow for standby, and red for record. There is also a footage counter showing the reel number, feet and frames10. The actor can use these numbers to reference key action points in a scene. When the recording begins, the cue lights change to yellow, the film rolls and the actor hears three rhythmic beeps in the headphone. On the imaginary fourth beep, the system goes into record, the cue lights change to red11, and the actor speaks. While speaking, the actor hears the original sound track in the headphone. This provides an audio guide that the actor is expected to match – while at the same time making an improvement in the overall performance.
Actors who survive and thrive as loopers
Looping is an unusual and not often discussed niche in the acting profession. The work is only available in those world centers of film: mostly, Los Angeles, New York, London, Rome, Sydney and Paris. A number of actors specialize in this field and make excellent careers out of it, while a great many of their colleagues don't even realize there is work in that area.
The work does demand a set of highly developed skills. The actors in this occupation need to have an unusually strong and durable vocal mechanism, either from a natural talent or by acquiring exceptional vocal technique. They may be screaming for hours on end and for several days in a row. Many are trained singers as well as voice actors. Loopers who sing tend to be the most vocally healthy, having developed an ability to sing the scream and skillfully modulate their level of vocal stress.
The actors need to have speech that is free of idiosyncrasies like regionalisms or articulation lapses, yet they can't be overly articulate. They need to have a ready command of a wide range of dialects and accents, must read phonetics, and many can speak one or two foreign languages. They must have a ready library of believable character voices and the ability to match another actor's voice12.
These actors need to have an excellent sense of rhythm - good eye-mouth coordination - to lip-synch accurately.
Most will have years of experience doing improvisational theatre, and have the ability to be creative and facile in inventing dialogue that is fresh, but ordinary enough to be real, non-intrusive, and not overly clever - a surprisingly difficult combination.
Filmmaking is expensive. A looping session with a full union crew and actors can cost thousands of dollars an hour. There is a great deal of pressure to get it right on the first take. That is only occasionally possible, and that kind of obligation is antithetical to the relaxed creative state so necessary to good acting. Actors who thrive in this kind of work are those who have developed the ability to work in a relaxed manner under pressure.
Looping is instant acting. It requires the ability to go from zero to full-speed in a second. There is no emotional lead in for the acting moment, no continuity or emotional through-line. The emotions need to be believable and tuned to fit another actor's physical performance.
Looping is an unusual and interesting corner of the acting profession. It can also be among the most vocally demanding activities for an actor.
When hiring actors we looked for a number of qualities, but very high on the list was the ability to still be speaking by the end of the job. Those who couldn't last weren't hired again. That decision wasn't made out of concern for the actor's voice. It was driven by the practical reality that the final take of the day is as important as the first.
1 A. D. R.: Automated Dialogue Replacement. The modern version of looping. A process where the sound track and the picture are synchronized in a recording studio so that adjustments can be made to dialogue, and foley or other effects can be added.
2 Foley, Foley Stage: foley is the process in which sound effects are created specifically to match action on the screen; the stage is an A.D.R. studio made with traps in the floor covering a variety of surfaces: gravel pits, concrete, creaky boards, water tanks, etc. Specially trained foley artists, or foley walkers are hired for this work.
3 Loop Group: group of actors hired to do A.D.R. for a film or TV show, improvising and filling in the sound for crowd scenes, stunts, and replacing specific lines.
4 Looping: now A.D.R., but still in use, is an old film term from pre A.D.R. days when in order to replace a line of dialogue and synchronize it properly, a section of film would be cut containing the line to be replaced, and spliced into a continuous loop. It would be projected over and over until the actor got the timing and reading right.
5 These loop groups have names like Superloopers, Loop ”D” Loop, LA Maddogs, Loop Therapy, Loopers Unlimited, etc. and though actors are members of Screen Actors Guild and work under standard day-player contracts, they do their work so late in the post-production process that they are rarely listed in the credits.
6 Looping is one of the least commonly known and most insular areas of voice acting. In the classic "it's who you know" sense, groups hire actors from those known to them. There are almost never open auditions, or calls to agents. New actors are usually found through referral by trusted members of the group. Even when special skills or unusual languages are required, the casting is usually through referral.
8 Lip-Synch: A.D.R. where an actor exactly (or nearly) matches the lip movements of the character on screen.
9 Walk the Donut: technique used by looping groups, actors walk in a circle past a mike while improvising dialogue, to reproduce the effect of a camera tracking past a changing crowd of people.
10 In digital or video looping these numbers are replaced by time code reflecting hours, minutes, seconds, and fields.
11 Most of us are conditioned to think of a red light as a stop command. In recording it means go. This probably was originally designed as a warning light to signal all those on set (except the actors) to be quiet.
12 Matching another voice is different from impersonating. An impersonation is like a cartoon: some distinctive elements are magnified and presented in a broad, noticeable way - usually for comic effect. When matching, the actor tries to make a seamless and subtle reproduction of another's voice - usually while listening to a guide track in one ear.