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Staying in the loop for ADR

Love it or hate it, ADR is firmly part of audio post-production for feature films and TV programmes. Kevin Hilton looks at the different ways to make this process more efficient and how trial and error, mixed with a bit of method acting, is still at the heart of it.

In an ideal world everything would work properly and run smoothly first time. But this is real life and, besides, something can improve the more it is at worked at. That’s often the case with sound in TV and film. Directors and actors would prefer to get it all right on location or the studio set but sometimes weather conditions or unexpected interruptions dictate otherwise. And then the performance may not be absolutely perfect so a second attempt suits everyone.

Which is where ADR comes in. Standing for automated dialogue replacement, and also known as looping and post-synching, it has rescued many a production and saved the blushes of quite a few actors over the years. Despite the “automated” part of the name, ADR is a time and labour intensive procedure that calls for a lot of patience and expertise from both the actor re-recording the lines and the audio editor running the session.

ADR is used for both replacing lines if the performance wasn’t quite right, the original recording was faulty or there was too much background noise; and for dubbing productions into another language. Over the years three basic ways of looping dialogue were established: in the first a loop of the scene is projected several times while the actor/actors rehearse matching their lines to the lip movements on screen, leading to a proper recording; in the second each new recording would erase the previous one until everyone was happy with the take; and the third involved using the original track so the performer could match the re-take against it.

Over the years new techniques have been developed to support the timing and skill of the actors and engineers. During the days of film the rythmo band, or lip-sync band, system emerged. This has been used primarily in Canada and France and is based on the lines being written on clear 35mm leader that runs in sync with the projected scene.

New Zealand company KIWA International has taken a new approach to this method of ADR with its VoiceQ software program. This scrolls a script over the film/video image being projected on the screen. It is synchronised with the original dialogue to provide precise cueing and, the manufacturer claims, makes looping sessions more efficient.

UK post house Hackenbacker works on many ADR projects and recently installed the software at its Soho facility. “Dialogue recording and replacement is a vital and integral part of making films and television programmes,” explains company founder and dubbing mixer Nigel Heath. “It is common practice to re-record and synchronize a large proportion of dialogue during the completion of projects. Successful ADR requires a great deal of skill because you need to get the best performance from the actors, while also concentrating on capturing a high quality recording.”

Digital audio technology has made itself felt in ADR to varying degrees. DAWs like Pro Tools, working with digital projectors, have improved efficiency by taking film and tape out of the equation. A more extreme implementation has been VocAlign, developed by Jeff Bloom of Synchro Arts. This uses algorithms to change and re-align both the pitch and timing of a line of dialogue to make it fit the lip movements. Bloom says a next generation version of this concept is currently being beta tested and will be introduced for the ADR market within the next three to four weeks.

Peter Gleaves, ADR mixer at Goldcrest Post Production in London, acknowledges there have been many attempts to automate dialogue replacement over the years but that a degree of manual guidance is still preferable. “I find that if I have the control then I can adjust something very precisely,” he says. “If it’s automated then you will always be doing the same processes.”

Regardless of automation and screen displays, there is the question of how the actor approaches this. Gleaves says having someone move around, matching the action in the film, can change the sound of the voice and make it fit better.

A recent example of this was the BBC adaptation of Birdsong, much of which takes place in tunnels during World War I. ADR was recorded at LipSync and while lead actor Eddie Redmayne re-voiced his lines at a lectern in the traditional way, co-star Joseph Mawle crawled around on the studio floor as an engineer followed him with a mic.

Well, they say there’s a method to everything.