Dialogue Looping and Walla 101: Seven Things to Know for Superior ADR

Indie moviemakers sometimes forget that cinema is not just what’s seen (cinematography, sets and costumes, actors’ pretty faces), but also what’s heard (annoying wind noise, uncontrollable street traffic, actors’ tongue-tied takes).

And ADR—additional dialogue replacement—is a fixture of film post precisely because you can’t control your set’s sound environment perfectly.

With that unavoidable fact in mind, we’ve turned to former actress Mimi Maynard (Private BenjaminKindergarten Cop) turned producer, and voice casting director (Fly Me to the Moon 3D and A Turtle’s Tale). We’re employing her 25 years of experience to help you figure out how to make the most of your inevitable dialogue looping sessions.

microphone_patent1.    Know Your Terminology. Does your film require “voice replacement” (replacing a voice entirely), or simply “voice matching” (actors hired by a director or wrangler to sound like the original actor for specific lines)? Different types of “walla” (the sound of crowd murmurs) are captured with distinct techniques, with shorthand names like “call outs” (i.e. “I’ll meet you at the car!”), “specifics” (asking a waiter what’s on the menu), and “pick-up” (the waiter walks by). Maybe you’ll need a “bed” of clapping or singing or screaming kids, to then be painstakingly layered all together.

2.     Extras are Still Performers. Maynard says the ADR process begins before you start shooting: “Make sure you have your ducks lined up for all the background. You need to break down, scene by scene, what needs walla.” Whether your background players are walking by the main actors, appearing in group scenes, sitting on trains or eating in diners, they should be “animated” in case any sound needs to be filled in later. If there’s nothing to work with 10 feet past George Clooney’s left shoulder, there’s not much ADR can do to help.

3.    Every Word of Dialogue Has Value. What if you’re shooting your third-act romantic reconciliation at the airport, and it’s otherwise a perfect take except for the commuter jet from Philly that drowned out the words “I love you”? Maynard is adamant that you’ll be better off artistically and financially if you get it right the first time, and don’t have to match or replace later: “You want that dialogue as clean as possible. That’s one of the pieces of looping 101 advice I give moviemakers.” Make sure your sound recordist has discerning ears, too.

4.    How Much You Got, Kid? If you’re lucky enough to afford union players, be sure you’ve also budgeted enough for union technicians. If you’re shooting guerilla-style for pennies on the Hollywood dollar and hoping your illegally downloaded copy of GarageBand 3 will be enough to see you through, it’s still important to stretch your resources. If you can’t snag top-tier talent, why not ask your friends, crewmembers, or drama students (via university bulletin boards) to stand around a microphone and improv some walla? You might be surprised how much headache you can avoid for the meager fee of a few bucks or a hot meal.

5.    Post-Production Companies Are Not “The Man.” Even if they’re used to working with more moneyed productions than yours, there are still passionate people running those mixing boards. “A lot of these companies will make deals with young moviemakers if they like you and what you’re doing,” says Maynard. Some might even offer up gratis work in exchange for being thanked or advertised in the credits, back-end points, or just to be part of a team. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and referrals.

6.    Find Your Spiritual Guide. Maynard does not recommend going DIY with your looping (“Even if you have no frickin’ money, see if the film schools will jump in with their facilities,” she advises), in which case an actual post-house is crucial for a professional quality ADR session. If you’ve found your team and finished negotiating the costs, one of their editors should then “spot” your movie with time code. “You see two people sitting here, four people talking in a corner,” Maynard offers as an example. “Then the editor will guide you through re-voicing. Make sure you have a sound house that can show you exactly what it is you need to do.”

7.    Don’t Overdo It. ADR is a moviemaking tool like anything else, and if used improperly, the results can sound canned or hokey—potentially taking focus away from the main performances. Maynard compares the track-layering process to composing music, as if orchestrated sound design: “You need to define what you’re not happy with, what needs more ambience, flavor and sound texture. Why don’t I like this scene? It seems empty. Well, maybe we should put people in there. How many? In the mixing studio later, we pick and choose what sounds right together.” MM

This article appeared in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2014.

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