Justin Walker – ADR pro

Justin Walker

Justin Walker

We talked to ADR pro Justin Walker about how the ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) process works in film and television. Specifically, we asked if the use of ADR was dictated largely by the work itself, or by the director’s preference. “The need for ADR recording,” he says, “is split between technical and creative purposes, and there are many possible factors that would determine why ADR would be used.”

Technical

Walker says that “Since ninety nine percent of my work with dialogue and ADR editing is technical, I almost exclusively look for those types of lines to prep for ADR sessions.”

In an ADR project, Walker looks for dialogue lines that are:

  • too low-level
  • scratchy-sounding from cloth movement on lavaliere mikes hidden under wardrobe
  • off mic or off axis sounding
  • buried in noise from loud locations or production effects
  • ruined by crew noise from creaky dolly shots, footsteps from Steadicam shots,     or a crew member bumping into a C-stand

Creative

“On the creative side,” Walker says, “it is common for the picture editor to record his or her voice as temporary ADR that is intended to be recorded later in the ADR process. They do this often when there is a need to change or add a line of off screen dialogue.

“A typical example would be a scene where there is a phone conversation and we hear the person talking through the phone receiver.

“There may also be the occasion where the director isn’t satisfied with the way the actor delivered a line. I add those performance ADR cues to my list only if the director explicitly mentions that they want to re-record it.  The director plays a major role in approving ADR, both in deciding which takes to use and whether or not they prefer the original lines over the ADR.”

We observed that some made-for-cable TV movies have audio that sounds almost artificial, as though all of it was recorded on ADR. Walker says, “Those types of programs often have very tight budgets with even tighter sound budgets. It’s possible that the sound edit and mix was rushed due to lack of resources, but it’s hard to say exactly without knowing specifics.  I know of several reality shows that are formatted for an hour in length, but due to lack of budget, the re-recording mixers are only allowed one day to mix. That is not enough time to mix an hour-long show in my opinion.”

In terms of ADR usage in other countries, Walker says, “As far as I know, India is one of the few, if not the only, country that uses one hundred percent ADR regularly. It’s ingrained into their culture. If an actor in India can’t do ADR well, then they are considered a bad actor.

“I’m currently working on a bilingual Indian film that was filmed in Hindi and Tamil. On set, they would set up a shot, film the scene in the first language, and then, once they got the takes they needed, they’d film the same shot in the other language before repositioning the lights and cameras for the next shot. All of the ADR was recorded in India, Los Angeles, and New York and it’s being mixed close to where I live here in Burbank.”

The Challenges of ADR

Avoiding flat, lifeless ADR is always a challenge. “When recording ADR,” Walker says, “it can often be difficult to recreate the life of dialogue that was originally recorded on set. When an actor is on set reading their lines, they can use their body movement to add emotion and be in the moment of their scene. Put them on an ADR stage and then they have to do their best to recreate that emotion and keep all that life in the way they originally read their line.” And do all of that while staying as still as possible. “If they move too much, then the sound of their movement can be heard in the recording.”

“It’s also tricky,” he says, “because rather than reading their lines to the other actor they are reading it to the microphone, in a completely different environment, quickly moving from one scene to the next.”

Walking the Talent Through the ADR Process

“All of the talent that I’ve worked with,” Walker says, “have been very open to the ADR process. Most of the complications come from their availability, and sometimes we have to coordinate with ADR studios out of state so an actor doesn’t have to fly out to LA. I have heard some horror stories, though, about a couple big time actors who were very stubborn in studio, in which case they would refuse to do more than one or two takes even if the lip sync is off.”

Recreating the Emotion and Drama

How does an ADR pro get actors to re-create the original drama and emotion in a scene? “Some encouragement goes a long way,” Walker says. “When I’m supervising ADR sessions, I’m directly involved in interactions with both the talent and the director. I always try to be as positive as possible. There’s nothing worse than bad vibes in the studio. Sometimes you have to just be patient and allow the talent many takes before they get it just right.

“I often work with talent where it’s their first experience recording their voice for ADR. One of the main challenges, especially with newcomers, is getting their timing and lip sync right. Another challenge is having the talent read their lines with the right inflection and volume.

“Novice actors who are new to ADR can get shy behind the microphone, so it’s ideal to make actors as comfortable as possible. If not, then their takes could suffer and we’ll have to spend more time to get it right. We usually have actors record their lines with video playback as a guide, but in some cases where an actor is a little distracted by what’s happening on the screen it’s best to turn the video playback off so they can only use their ears as a guide. After listening to the original on a loop several times, they should be able to get the right timing and inflection down for a proper replacement.”

ADR in the Edit Process

Is the ADR editor typically responsible for ambient sound in edited scenes? “When I edit dialogue (commonly a separate job from ADR editing) I am always on the lookout for ambient fill or room tone from the production recordings to use to cover the hole that was created from removing a bad line of dialogue.” Walker states that the background editor of the sound editing team edits in a thick bed of ambient sounds across every scene. Likewise, recorded Foley movement edited in by the Foley editor will cover all the feet, props, and cloth movement that might have been removed. “So,” he says, “between all of those groups of tracks there should be a smooth space for the ADR to fit right in.”

After the talent re-records their dialogue, what happens next? “Notes are written at the ADR stage indicating selected and alt takes.” Walker says that all of the ADR is then handed off to the ADR editor, who goes through all the notes and builds the ADR session in Pro Tools. “It’s the ADR editor’s job to make sure the ADR is organized and in sync to picture. Following the notes that were provided, the ADR editor often uses parts of several different takes to create the best possible edit. A few alternative edits are usually provided for each line in case the director or producers want to try something different for the final mix.

“Then the ADR gets handed off to the re-recording mixer to be mixed into soundtrack using various effects like EQ and reverb. If the ADR was recorded well, then it should take the re-recording mixer little effort to match the tone of the existing dialogue.”

ADR on Low Budget Projects

What can an emerging filmmaker do on set to ensure less need for ADR? “Go through the script with the production sound mixer,” Walker recommends, “and look for dialogue that might be difficult to record cleanly during the shoot. Hopefully the sound mixer and talent can find a nice quiet location away from the noise of the crew, or plan on asking the crew to settle for a few minutes, while you record the lines you’ll need. Although there will not be video playback to record with for sync, it may save the need for having to record ADR later when the film is in post-production.

“Another plus is that you would be recording using the same mikes and recording gear that the rest of the film used, so it should make it easier to mix in post-production as well.”

Hire a Good Sound Mixer

The best thing a filmmaker can do to ensure good sound? Walker says he has worked on several projects where the production audio was so bad that the entire show had to be done in ADR. “It is not preferred,” he says, “but in these cases it was absolutely necessary. I can’t stress enough the importance of hiring a good production sound mixer to record the sound on set. Sometimes filmmakers go the cheap route and hire inexperienced sound mixers just because they cost less than the other guy. They end up hurting themselves in the long run because replacing all their dialogue costs a lot in ADR studio time.”

Training

Walker got his own start from a course in post-production audio at a school called Video Symphony in Burbank, California. “It was a great way,” he says, “to get lots of hands-on experience early on. Looking for internships is a good idea too, but despite being in a professional environment one should expect lots of coffee running and window cleaning.”

Learn more about Justin Walker’s work.