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.

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