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The Basics of ADR:
Secrets of Dialogue Replacement for Video People

by Jeremy Hanke

When we first started the magazine, in one of our first articles, we talked about the A-word. For visual people, this is: Audio. (You can read that article here.)

Most filmmakers are visual people, meaning they think of the story in terms of what you “see.” Of course, there are definitely some exceptions, like Cameron Crowe, who creates films from an audio and musical perspective.

Of the worst A-words for many filmmakers of both types, however, is an even more specific area of audio: ADR.

ADR stands for "Automated Dialogue Replacement" and it’s used to replace problematic dialogue from your film, due to everything from background noise, overly soft delivery, or faulty audio equipment. Most films need some ADR to clarify certain scenes, which requires you to learn the basics of ADR. The good news is that, while this is definitely time consuming, it can completely salvage a scene or even improve the acting of a scene, if done properly.

Of course, one of the more confusing elements when you're making films with no budget is: how do you record your ADR in the first place? This question is all the more rampant because of how absolutely difficult it is to find any sort of detailed information on ADR on the internet. Due to how closely guarded a secret ADR seems to be, we intended to create this basic primer when we first started this magazine. Fifteen months later, we finally got around to it.

Before we get into ADR itself, I’ll tell you a bit about why I, a very visual filmmaker, know about this secretive topic.

When I directed my first film, I bartered with a local college for their video and audio equipment to shoot my film in exchange for me letting some of their students intern on my film. I didn’t realize that this particular college had a pretty limited coverage of audio techniques and that none of the kids I interned knew a thing about running the audio equipment effectively. As such, we would do things like having our boom pole holder holding the mic too far from the talents lips, and were completely unaware of this fact because we had her wearing cheapo $9 headphones. Of course, we would check each day’s footage with those same cheapo headphones straight from the camera and thought it sounded ‘alright.’ Of course, when we got the footage into the editing suite, I nearly had a heart attack, as I realized that we had everything from overpowering room tone, to metallically tinny voices, to even a few shots where the shotgun mic had been jacked into the line-in jack, which caused massive distortion.

After I got done crying, I edited the film and then searched for an audio studio that might be willing to help. God was gracious in letting me find my current audio technician, John Howard, who was willing to do my entire film’s ADR in exchange for the learning experience and me agreeing to redesign his studio’s website. After I showed John the film, watching his eyes bug out as the audio went from bad to awful, he explained that the entire film would need to be redubbed. While I was terrified of such a time-intensive prospect, I knew it was necessary as soon as he said it. As we researched it, we discovered just how many films in Hollywood have made use of extensive redubbing. (Which of course made it all the more frustrating that there were so few sites devoted to ADR.) We had to piece together the basics of ADR from so many disparate sources that I swore that, one day, I would find a way to pass the knowledge on to other filmmakers in one place.

Now, before you can begin, you must understand that one of the main properties of ADR involves what’s called “looping”, which is the playing back of a repeating loop of your film and recording new loops of dialogue to match from an actor. With that said, you must decide what type of looping you wish to do, as that will determine how you set up your studio. (We will use the universal term “studio” throughout this article, regardless of whether your ADR location is home-built or professional.)

The two most common ways of performing ADR are via visual looping and audio looping. The more expensive technique of visual looping requires the actor be able to watch his/her performance in a monitor or television screen, which means that you will need a machine that has a dual head video card or some other way to kick out a separate video feed from the main one that you are looking at. In visual looping, the actor listens to his delivery a few times, but hears only silence when he records his version of the line. The idea is that this allows the actor to perform a more authentic delivery because he isn’t hearing the words in his ears at the time he delivers the new track.

The more economical way is through audio looping, which is performed the same way, but without the monitor or the muting of the dialogue during recording. This allows actors to concentrate on the script or the internal emotion of trying to get into the scene. This option tends to lead to better sync, but it may take your actors a little longer to get the new lines to not sounded canned, due to the constant presence of audio in their ears.

The way we did it combined the two approaches, but I personally felt that we leaned a lot more toward the latter approach. (We basically used a smaller monitor that allowed us to keep visual track of body language, but still had the lines playing in the actors ears while they recorded.) Obviously, you are encouraged to play with these to see which works the best for you.

With that said, let’s look at the basics of ADR, so that you will find it much easier to do this task than I did on my first film.

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