I’m not a Talking Bomb, but I Played One on TV

One of the most interesting aspects of working in post-production in Hollywood was the time I spent on the ADR stage. ADR (Automatic Dialogue Replacement) is the process by which actors are brought onto a sound stage to recreate their original performance that was marred by noisy ambience or other technical issues. I had the opportunity to work with many talented actors, most of whom were cooperative and agreeable under stressful circumstances.

The task is a unique blend of technical ability and art. Ideally, in the original performance, the actor inhabits the character while submerged in the ambiance of the location and interacting with the other characters.

On the ADR stage, the actor must re-create that original sense and emotion of the scene, while standing alone on a dark stage which lacks any of the physical cues that supported the original performance. And he must also watch him or herself on the screen and perfectly lip-sync his new performance to the original. It is that combination of re-creating an emotional performance, while also objectively observing it, which throws some actors.

Imagine yourself playing a character helping a wounded friend while dodging bullets from a sniper. All your exertions and dialogue provide the viewer with a sense of the immediacy and danger of your plight.

Now, imagine trying to re-create that same tension, without the noise, the dust, the struggle, or your co-player, all while standing on a cool, dark stage, watching yourself perform on a giant screen.

Some actors just cannot do it. Their process of acting is so integrated into the moment that doing justice to their performance, after the fact, in such artificial circumstances defeats them. And many are wonderful actors. Ultimately, if the performance is good, a little judicious editorial surgery will improve on the sync.

One such case was with the actor Robert DeNiro. Considered one of the greatest actors of his generation, the process of ADR is completely counter-intuitive for him and his style of acting. We scheduled multiple sessions, only for him to balk or cancel each in turn. He was agreeable, but intimidated by the technical process. I finally got him to do his lines ‘wild,’ with four or five interpretations of each line. With minimal editing, I was able to make one of these performances fit.

I worked with the actor Jackie Chan on one of his films. He is the most focused and exacting actor I ever worked with. Except for lunch, he never took a break. A week was scheduled for the recording and he finished re-voicing the complete film in three days.

Jackie’s film was shot in Chinese. Our task was to replace Jackie’s whole Chinese language performance with English lines. We needed to write Jackie’s lines so they would make sense to the story and also closely match the onscreen lip movements.

This task was daunting enough. But as we were starting, Jackie asked how he could get rid of his Chinese accent. Since we were preparing his film for an American release, he didn’t want his Chinese accent to distract or make the audience struggle to understand.

Having never been asked this, or thought about it, I needed to think fast. How could I solve this? Hardly missing a beat, a solution popped into my head. The ADR gods were smiling down on me.

One factor for any non-native speaker of English (or, I suspect, any second language) is the natural tendency to pronounce each word discreetly. This exaggerates the accent and creates a stilted hesitation, rather than a natural flow of expression. The speaker sounds like they are struggling over a pile of rocks, rather than floating down a stream.

I asked Jackie to say the phrase ‘American accent’ but to slur the final ‘n’ to the beginning of ‘accent’ to sound like ‘America-naccent’. By tying the two words together, much of that odd emphasis and hesitation is lost and it sounds much more natural.

Jackie tried it and immediately grasped my intent. We started work and he was pleased with the improvement in his ‘American’ accent. Whew!

Another aspect of ADR is the recording of background ‘walla’ for crowd scenes, restaurant scenes etc. Some ‘loop groups’ are very talented and will create a texture of background that adds a sense of reality to a scene.

Long ago, loop groups were told to murmur ‘peanut butter’ over and over to create a non-descript background buzz that would not compete with the foreground dialogue. Modern loop groups bring vocabulary lists and even foreign language phrases for the talent to use in order to give the walla the flavor of a specific time and place. A Moroccan street market sounds different than a corporate board room. Really!

Many actors, practice their craft and can make a decent living working in a loop group while seeking on-camera work. The downside can be that novice actors are so hungry to be ‘discovered,’ their performances must be reined in so they remain in the background.

Working with inexperienced actors provided me with the opportunity to perform as a ‘talking bomb’. Twice. Occasionally, some absurd gimmick becomes popular with multiple script writers. In this case, a time bomb which not only had a clock, but also a voice which announced, to anyone who happened to be standing around, how many seconds they had before being blown to bits.

“Siri, should I cut the red wire or the blue wire?”

On two different shows, I ran the sessions where we needed a voice counting down from ‘ten,’ presumably to inject further tension into an already anxious scene. But the actors seemed unable to grasp the ‘motivation’ of the ‘talking bomb.’ Alternatively gleefully evil or mother-hover anxious, their bomb was over-acting.

Every Shakespearean attempt by each member of the loop group would be rejected by the director. When they ran out of actors, I offered to try.

The tension in the scene was in the characters, and hopefully, with the audience. But the bomb couldn’t care less about the pending explosion. It wasn’t a character. It had no character. It didn’t ‘know’ what was about to happen.

I performed my count-down as devoid of emotion as possible, a counter-point to the humans in the scene. This bomb had not a care in the world. Rain or shine, this bomb was indifferent to its future or the lack thereof. It was what no actor wants to be described as – mechanical and flat. My performance, with just a suggestion of boredom, was perfect.

I was the bomb. They loved it.

On Science and Miracles – Christmas and Others

It is the common belief that miracles are a fantasy of an over-heated religious sensibility. In our enlightened age, miracles have largely disappeared. Cultures which believe in miracles are regarded as primitive, childlike and, at best, quaint (like clapping your hands if you believe in fairies). Postmodern thinkers believe miracles won’t happen because they don’t happen, because they can’t happen… and so on.

Modern culture believes miracles cannot be true because they break the laws of nature. Those laws, though, imply a Law Giver. But let’s not talk about that.

So do miracles cease to happen in modern cultures? Or do we just stop seeing them? Blinded by our sophistication?

As Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” We possess the advanced technology. And yet there are still phenomenon that occur outside our control or ability to explain them.

Considering the number of UFO sightings each year (and rising) there is an appetite for that which is beyond our comprehension.

What distinguishes the religion of Scientism from other religions is it denies the occurrence of miracles, except perhaps those accomplished by its high priests (I mean those holders of advanced technology). I’m not aware that followers of Scientism believe in a Supreme Being, unless he has an advanced degree from MIT.

What rational person could believe in an all knowing entity that answers everyone’s questions in seconds, simultaneously, throughout the world? Before Google that was an absurd expectation. Now it is mundane and expected.

By miracles, I am not talking about parlor trick ‘miracles’ like might be demonstrated by David Copperfield parting the waters of a swimming pool. Nor do I think just any fantastic occurrence would be a miracle. I don’t necessarily think it would be a miracle if a cat were to talk. If it told a funny joke, that would be a miracle, for everyone knows cats have no sense of humor, unlike dogs.

Also, miracles are not a form of wish fulfillment like programming a computer to spit out predictions. That kind of hocus pocus is neither science nor miraculous. How sad to be throwing darts at a digital target and hoping no one notices those darts keep missing. Predictions aren’t miraculous. Results are.

Science is not consensus. And it doesn’t campaign. It isn’t a cult. Science does not recruit the largest crowd of believers to sway public opinion and policy to their side. It is not subject to vote. Pure science is based on meticulous research and replicable, predictable results.

Science doesn’t sell itself. It isn’t supposed to have any agenda but inquiry into the truth of things. Ideally, it doesn’t seek to win anything as it is dispassionate in its search.

By miraculous I am thinking more in terms of spontaneous recovery from an incurable disease, or someone risking their life to save another. These things happen fairly often, but are not predictable and so are thought miraculous by witnesses. They might not even make the news.

Miracles are popularly thought of in positive terms. To hear “It’s a miracle!” would generally indicate that good news had arrived. But obviously, Pharaoh’s army was not happy when Moses parted the Red Sea.

No one predicted Donald Trump would be elected president. It was declared impossible by the experts and described by many as a disaster, a tragedy. Most would agree that it was unpredictable and couldn’t happen again. Yet you don’t believe in miracles? Some still deny it happened.

Science is not all encompassing. Grant money is limited and choices must be made as to what will be researched. Some things are hard to study and so money does not flow to those challenging areas.

Science does not prove anything. It documents results of its painstaking research and posts statistical analysis as to the probabilities of this or that phenomenon. Science predicts based on those published probabilities. Science predicts. If results contradict the predictions, that theory collapses.

Science seeks to disprove. And that which cannot be disproven is deemed to be true (with qualifications).

A one-time event (aka a miracle) is a rare occurrence and so cannot be studied let alone predicted. Those who witnessed that occurrence are dismissed as superstitious for seeing a phenomenon that science chooses to ignore. How predictable and boring would be a life that only experienced ‘what is possible’ as determined by some bureaucrat in a distant government office?

Quantum physics is lifting the lid on some very curious, if not miraculous, phenomenon that do not fit previously accepted paradigms – like particles mirroring each other’s behavior simultaneously despite vast distances separating them. And the famous demonstration of a particle’s behavior being influenced by whether or not it is observed.

Consciousness receives very little attention from the scientific community. Most of us believe in consciousness because most of us believe we are conscious. But try to pin it down or tell me where to pin it. Consciousness is elusive despite seeming to be almost everywhere. Science side-steps it because they just don’t know how to test or duplicate it. Science does not play well with the ineffable.

Scientist and author Dr. Robert Lanza theorizes that death only seems to exist because we identify so closely with the physical body. Because humans are bio-centric, we fail to apprehend that other states of being may exist without our physical bodies. How does one test for that?

A man risking his life by running into a burning building to rescue others is counter-intuitive and irrational. It happens rarely enough to be unpredictable, but everyone knows it happens. Is it miraculous? To the person saved it would be.

Near death experiences are rare and so are ignored by science. Yet they exist. A friend of mine, Ray, describes how he died on the operating table and then watched from afar as the doctors tried to revive him. He realized his wife needed him and so he needed to return. He still tells his story.

The floods in Houston after Hurricane Harvey did not bring the predicted inter-racial blood bath, chaos and anarchy. Contrary to expectations, people instead acted on their best instincts to help one another.

News coverage of the Houston floods evaporated when common humanity appeared. Faith-based organizations converged on Houston to assist those who had lost everything. Atheists, predictably, stayed away in droves.

Many species have virgin births. Science confirms this. A human having a virgin birth would be extremely rare but not scientifically impossible. There is only one account of it ever happening.

One thing about the miracle of Christmas, regardless that you accept the virgin birth, Mary risked her life for her child. Life in those days was cheap but at risk of her own life she protected her baby and herself from death on many fronts. King Herod, fearing his replacement, sought to kill all babies under two years old. Unmarried sex (adultery) was a capital crime then. Mary was a single mother, and homeless. Rather than claiming victim-hood, or aborting him, she gave him birth and nurtured him.

By today’s enlightened and evolved standards, so many options now exist to avoid that dire fate. The ACLU and Planned Parenthood would eagerly offer support. What homeless, single mother these days, would intentionally bear a child under threat of death? It would be completely irrational.

Who would predict Mary, or Jesus?