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Looping You In: Theatre and the Magical World of ADR

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iPhoto caption: Dale Sheldrake is a multi-award winning and Emmy nominated sound editor, director, producer, writer and musician with 30 years of experience as an ADR Supervisor for film and television. Image created by Jessica Watson
/By / Mar 15, 2021
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ADR is all about the voice, not the visuals. If you’re an actor, you probably know or have heard about it, and if you’re called in for it, you’re probably nervous or excited because it means your part in the movie or TV show made the final cut! 

Which begs the question: what is ADR and why do it? 

ADR has several definitions: in the early days, it stood for Additional Dialogue Recording, more commonly referred to as “Looping.” A physical loop of film was shown on a projector and the actor would repeat the line as it was played over and over to them. As technology advanced, it became Automated Dialogue Replacement or Automatic Digital Rerecording, also known as Post Sync or Dubbing. My favourite definition comes from working with a popular actor who initially hated ADR and considered it “Another Day Ruined” (eventually he embraced the benefits of having a second chance at his performances). Many countries and engineers have their own definitions, but it all refers to the same process: ADR.

Although facial expressions reveal much about a character’s emotions, their voice can add new meaning or suggest subtext that was never there.

ADR is one of the scene-saving, “smoke and mirror” tools of the entertainment industry. It’s primarily used when dialogue captured during production has to be re-recorded by actors in a quiet, soundproof recording studio. The locations chosen for shooting can greatly affect the quality of sound recordings—they’re chosen for how they look, not how they sound. Imagine a pastoral medieval scene that takes place in a tranquil meadow, only that meadow is behind an airport or beside a 6-lane highway. Or perhaps a body microphone under the wardrobe or a physical action like running or fighting has muffled the recordings. For any number of reasons, location sound can be contaminated and only useful for hearing what the actors said and how it was delivered. We call these “guide tracks,” and when they’re unusable, every word and breath is redone in studio and the guide track is abandoned.

Many sound elements are almost impossible to remove in the mixing process, making it difficult to achieve quality, legible dialogue without using ADR. Wind and rain machines, electricity generators, air conditioners, violent natural weather, street crowds, trains, planes and automobiles all create uncontrollable, unwanted noise during filming. Water, in its various forms—rivers, waterfalls, crashing surf, rain and those manufactured on-set storms—destroys the ability to deliver the crisp, clean voices that audiences expect.

ADR allows problem dialogue to be clearly understood without background interference—but that’s not it’s only use. It makes the mumbling actor intelligible, fixes mispronounced names or words and adds background voices from Loop Groups to silent extras who only pretended to speak. ADR creates the grunts, groans, and roars of warriors and soldiers in battle, uses sound-alikes for stars who are either unable or unwilling to do ADR and sometimes revoices actors who were cast for their look but are unable to perform the appropriate accent.

ADR must be unnoticeable so as to not break the illusion and authenticity of the story. Dale’s goal is for audiences to be unable to recognise when ADR was used in a scene. Clockwise from bottom left: Jeremy Irons in ADR for The Borgias, Budapest, Hungary; Alexander Ludwig in ADR for Vikings, Los Angeles, USA; and Eva Green in ADR for Penny Dreadful, Paris, France.

There are other magical properties to ADR: it can be used to change an actor’s performance or fix story problems. If a plot point, storyline, or character arc is changed during the picture editing, ADR is often the only way to address it. Although facial expressions reveal much about a character’s emotions, their voice can add new meaning or suggest subtext that was never there. ADR does all this seamlessly, creating an organic final scene. For these reasons, ADR must be unnoticeable to maintain the suspension of disbelief that captures an audience—if you notice it, the spell is broken and you’re no longer being carried along in the adventure. Essentially, my role as a Supervising ADR Editor is to make the work and its result invisible to you.

Two Sides of the Acting Coin

ADR work led to my becoming a theatre director. My first stage production as a director was with Theatre InspiraTO in Toronto in 2011. The play, Mice And Men, was written by the festival’s Artistic Director Dominik Loncar; it was a challenging play for a first-time director, so I felt a lot of pressure. I used mime, silhouette, dance, masks, and slapstick in the play; not from naivete or an overzealous urge to experiment, but because it fit my vision of how best to tell the story. Shockingly, we won the People’s Choice Award for best play and I was hooked. This first experience taught me that theatre and ADR shared some vital purposes: storytelling, character expression and crucial believability in conveying dialogue. 

In turn, working in theatre enhanced my ADR skillset. I find the two disciplines to be very compatible and the lessons learned from one complements the other. In both theatre and ADR, actors respond differently to emotional versus technical direction. They aspire to create a flowing, natural performance and a dramatic arc that draws the audience into the story. Actors in either medium appreciate direction that’s thoughtful and informs them deeply about the character they’re playing and their importance to the story and relationships; this imbues their performance with consistency and truth. 

Let me say the following observance is not true of every actor, as there are always exceptions, but professionally, I find theatre training to be a strong advantage to actors in ADR. I didn’t fully understand why until I began directing plays.

The ADR studio is where, for the first time, the cast sees what their performance has become in picture editing, shaped from different camera angles and takes. No matter their training, the actor needs to make their best emotional reconnection to their previous work in the ADR studio to make the scene believable again. Similarly, the best theatre occurs when the audience feels like a fly on the wall, not seeing performers on a stage but spying on an emotionally immediate moment in someone’s life. Good ADR demands that same realism. It’s easy and lazy to let it become false. 

I’ve worked with actors with various types of training: from Shakespearean to self-taught, movie stars to first-timers, former models, sports figures, acting school graduates, even crewmembers who were enlisted on set as cast members. One thing that stands out is that most actors with theatrical training adapt readily to the ADR setting; key assets are their initial preparation, consistency of purpose and internal character work. These elements give their characterization an anchoring stability that’s easier to revive. 

Dale Sheldrake in rehearsal with actors Scott Maudsley and Bridget Bezanson for Pausing At The Fringe, written by David Healey. Newmarket National Play Festival 2018. Photo by Jason Wighton.

During a theatrical run, a stage character’s arc remains consistent through every performance. It’s necessary to ensure that every audience member experiences the same story each night. Actors who prepare, rehearse, and perform with that solidity have the assurance of how their character is being perceived and thereby also how a film character’s arc will likely evolve in editing. This is because no matter what shot or take is chosen, there is a dependable performance that remains true to their story arc. In contrast, a method style actor on a film set who lives in the skin of the character may take an unexpected approach, change their delivery or even the lines themselves from shot to shot or take to take—some directors actually prefer this or ad-libbing from performers in certain genres of shows. Comedies often benefit from allowing the cast the freedom to ad-lib and find funnier moments. However, I have seen pure method actors struggle in ADR. Seeing an edited scene for the first time in the studio is seeing the choices made by a director, producer and editor to create that final performance. The actors can’t be sure what to expect. Theatre style preparation assists actors in ADR because of the memorable foundation laid by the preparation of emotive intentions and consistent, faithful delivery of the lines. Many months later, after shooting wraps and the editing is complete, if the actor must ADR their performance for a technical problem, they can access that original preparation to recreate its result. 

In ADR, we are dealing with an established character who was developed using read-throughs, discussions with the movie or TV director, and the directions given while shooting. In theatre, we’re creating the internal engine that drives the character through the story, using discussions and directions, but also a lengthier rehearsal process where personality and physical and mental interactions are defined and honed. I’ve taken character work from theatre as a tool to use in ADR. It’s useful for both the actor and myself to reacquaint ourselves with what is known and settled and be able to get back to the core instincts that drove their intentions in the scene.

Tales from the Trenches

Some producers I work with regularly call me the “ADR Whisperer” because of my knack for getting great work from difficult actors. I credit this to the integration of theatre directing experience, speaking the language of actors, and nurturing the hungry creative needs of actors in ADR. 

Sometimes you have to remind yourself to be human at the job. Scenes that are heavily emotional, intense, and psychically exhausting must be redone properly and with the same strong intentions as the original recording. Bringing theatrical language, concepts, and exercises into ADR studios to improve the experience for actors has been a great success for them and me. For example, violent scenes are emotionally demanding and troublesome to redo in ADR because the actors don’t have each other for realistic physical motivation. To help actors navigate these scenes, I borrow from theatre by using set pieces, which was particularly useful when recording ADR for a scene involving a man attacking a woman in bed. Because of the intensity of the scene, I wanted to support the actors into honest performances again and encourage them to access their muscle memory, even though they were not working together in the room. Using materials I’d seen around the building, the recording engineer helped me spontaneously fashion a bed. This let the actors resume the awkward, strained positions they were in while filming the scene. It was appreciated by both of them, especially the actress who was at her first ever ADR session. The brainstorm was totally inspired from directing stage plays using minimal set pieces and perfectly accomplished our goals for the scene.

Actor Alex Høgh Andersen, who plays Ivar the Boneless in Seasons 4-6 of the historical television drama Vikings, in an ADR recording session with Dale Sheldrake. Dale finds that providing actors with props during recording sessions stimulates their muscle memory and helps them to reproduce the effort, breathing and tension of the original scene. Los Angeles, USA.

You have to be flexible to the needs of your actors: I’ve described my role as part therapist, bartender, cheerleader, coach, and mirror. One time, a talented veteran stage actor had to redo a scene in ADR because it had rained heavily during his shoot. His character was being executed and he gave a stunning and gripping speech. As we worked, it became increasingly harder for him to deliver the lines, and he eventually stated that he couldn’t do it. I explained that it wasn’t possible to avoid it since the production sound was terrible. We had to redo it. Then he had a breakdown. I asked the engineers to leave and we sat on the sofa and talked. 

It turned out he was carrying an enormous emotional weight that he’d never discussed. The scene was staged at a historic jail that was significant to his culture. The unexpected stormy weather had made the platform on the high ramparts dangerous and slippery. As he stood at the edge of the gallows, 40 feet above the ground with a noose around his neck, his daughter, who was visiting set, watched from below. The realness of his character’s performance stemmed from his unbearable fear that he would accidentally slip and be hanged while she watched. As they drove home afterward, she broke down crying and confessed that she’d actually understood his predicament and it had terrified and sickened her. She let it all out in the car but he had never released it—neither the fright from the shooting day or his torment about causing his daughter’s distress. It finally came out during our ADR session as he relived those moments with the noose, recalling his daughter’s suffering at seeing the genuine fear on his face. Now, having voiced his anguish and freed himself from it, he was able to refocus on living in that moment again.  He did a magnificent job. My experience directing actors in emotionally complicated stage roles made it possible to empathize and then guide him back into it with care and constructive compassion.

How to be an ADR Star

Actors often believe that—other than taking classes—the best way to refine their craft is to work. Nothing beats involvement in a project, whether film or theatre, creating an engaging story that captures imaginations and resonates with people’s souls.

From left to right: (back row) actors Jukka Hiltunen, Steve Hogan, Dean Williamson, Simon Lawson, Dale Sheldrake, Jay Benedict, Charlie Anson, Mathias Asplund, (front) recording engineer Mark Appleby, and recording operator Lotte Wade. Actors in a Loop Group session, where they will perform and record background voices, accents, battles, fighting grunts and vocal sounds for the television series Vikings. London, UK. Photo by Sync or Swim.

Many actors who do theatre, film and TV, are never needed for ADR. But if and when that day arrives, here are some general tips to help you prepare to revive your on-set magic for your ADR performance: 

  • Before you start working, turn off your phone and remove any bracelets, neck chains, coins in pockets, or other potential noisemakers. 
  • Two microphones are usually used—one in front of you and a second small one placed on your chest—so avoid wearing material that could bristle against that small lav microphone when you move. 
  • The lines will be ready for you; if your character spoke with an accent or a different voice, refamiliarize yourself with it in advance.

In the studio, you’ll wear headphones to hear the guide track. Many studios have a prompt system of beeps in the headphones or onscreen swipes across the picture that cue you to start speaking your line. You’ll give a voice level and watch the scene for rehearsal before you record. 

For the purposes of this article, I’ve invented an A.D.R. acronym with specific elements to focus on. There are many other tips to share, but I hope these three will stick with you. 

A = AIR

Breathe. Breathing is important all the time, whether onstage or onscreen and including it in ADR helps the performance feel natural. Sometimes the sound level of production dialogue is fine but the breath is absent due to its lower projection level, so we rerecord the breathing to give the dialogue a more natural presence. Good ADR often includes recreating vocal sounds like sighing, moaning, grunting, etc., because it’s difficult to get clean, quality recordings of them while filming. 

Note of caution: if you do an extremely long take of heavy breathing you can get very lightheaded—what I call the free ADR buzz—so before another take, rest for a minute so you don’t pass out! This is because your muscles, swaying before a studio mic instead of racing down an embankment in the shot, aren’t using all the oxygen you’re taking in to make the realistic sounds. It’s OK to ask for a moment to prepare or to relieve dizziness. 

D = DIALOGUE

Most of the time, you’ll ADR your performance and lines without any changes. It’s being done for technical reasons and the takes were chosen because that’s what the director likes. If you spoke, yelled or whispered them, redo them with the same level of intensity. You might be asked to do them slightly louder if sound effects or dynamic music will be added to the scene. The dialogue will be mixed at a level that makes the lines sound natural in relation to other elements in the soundtrack. It’s tough to hear a whisper during an explosion or a car crash. So a stage whisper might be necessary. The ultimate goal is to retain the honesty of that original delivery. 

I’ll gift you a great technique called ‘listen and repeat’, otherwise known as echoing or parroting. Instead of delivering a line in sync with the picture, you listen to the line and then repeat it a few times while it’s being recorded. You register your pace and any emphasized inflections, then mimic it. It’s an extremely actor-friendly tactic, and excellent for replacing dialogue that needs no change in performance. As this technique is more performance-focused than other methods, it allows actors to reconnect with the emotion in the lines. It minimizes the distraction of trying to be in sync with the guide track by removing the need to follow prompts or hit marks. It’s freer.

R = REDO THE ACTIONS!

Onscreen or onstage, if a character is walking, swimming, running, or fighting, physicality is heard in their voice. It’s necessary to retain movements in the body in ADR so the lines aren’t stagnant and have physical characteristics that are like the original recording; but in a recording studio, it’s necessary to stay in front of the mic. Microphones don’t discriminate: they hear everything. When adding physicality, you have to keep your feet still or they make noise. Bending and bouncing your knees, swaying the shoulders or hips, punching the air; all these movements put physical exertion back into the voice and help the ADR feel authentic and like it belongs to the person moving onscreen. 

VIDEO (click to play): Organised chaos as actors in a Loop Group session record ADR for a battle scene in the television series Vikings in 2018. London, UK.

There’s an excellent online video of Hugh Jackman doing ADR for a fight scene: he widens his stance, bends his knees, twists at the hips and punches the air. The actions are similar to what he does onscreen, with the same force, but he does not move his feet. It’s a prime example of how to put authentic physical exertions into the voice while keeping your feet in place. Try saying a line standing still, then say it again while punching the air. Do you feel and hear the difference? 

Finally, enjoy it! ADR is an experience that doesn’t happen on every project. It grants you a review of your work in a thoughtful environment. Be open to its possibilities and know that every session gives you greater knowledge to use in your next role.

Dale Sheldrake
WRITTEN BY

Dale Sheldrake

Dale Sheldrake is a multi-award winning and Emmy nominated sound editor, director, producer, writer and musician. He has 30 years of experience as an ADR Supervisor for film and television on over 700 hours of programs, seen and heard in 150 countries. Dale is writing plays and film scripts, and supervising ADR on the upcoming series HALO for Paramount+, and Netflix's new VIKINGS: VALHALLA.

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