Kathryn Madsen, the dialogue editor of plot-heavy dramas from ‘Better Call Saul’ to ‘The White Lotus,’ has another, even more impressive credit to her name, at least according to Aaron Paul. “She called me the goddess of ADR,” Madsen told IndieWire.
The title is perhaps fitting because ADR, like many of the tricks and techniques that fall into the “fix it in post” bucket, is a kind of divine intervention. Or at the very least, it’s a good object lesson in how isolated the components of cinema are and what a miracle it is that they come together to tell a single story.
ADR stands for automatic dialogue replacement. It is the process by which films and television programs replace “production sound,” or sound captured on the day of filming, with dialogue recorded later and for a variety of purposes.
“The first iteration of a show is what the writer wrote. And then the second iteration of a show is the edited version of the show. Sometimes scenes are edited into different versions than they were originally written for, and sometimes (editors) will have to shorten scenes, to take parts out of a scene,” Madsen said. ) something was cut and you need to have something explained. You need to add dialogue to get from point A to point B and still make sense. Sometimes you add lines if something isn’t clear.
Of course, sometimes ADR is needed because something has gone wrong with the sound of the production: in the heat of an emotional performance, an actor has uttered a word, ambient noise, or animals make their voices heard. In the case of Season 5’s “Better Call Saul,” which memorably caught some goats on the mic who weren’t deeply impressed with Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), ADR provides an opportunity to preserve the poignancy of Esposito’s performance and give Gus the seriousness his words deserve.
But the ADR value for Madsen when it comes to “Better Call Saul” — which is about to get its last hurrah as the second half of season 5 is up for Emmys this year — is greatest in some of the smaller replacements that the show had to do . During Howard Hamlin’s (Patrick Fabian) final scene, during what Madsen called his “Emmy catch,” Fabian dropped a syllable in the heat of the moment. “There’s one time where he said the word ‘true’ — he’s acting, (he’s emotional) so he dropped the ‘r’ and it just came out sounding like two, instead of true. But you want to be able to use that awesome, amazing shot. (That’s) what we can do with ADR,” Madsen said. “You get to keep the amazing performance and I’m really proud you can’t say that. It sounds just like when they recorded (his dialogue) that day.
But the ADR process couldn’t be further from the environment of a set. With series, ADR usually involves just an actor in front of a microphone and monitor, with a sound engineer, sound editor, and sometimes a writer or showrunner watching in a sound booth or on Zoom. Dhyana Carlton-Tims, co-supervising sound editor on ‘Poker Face’ and sound-forward supervisor on ‘Nope’, among other projects, thinks through incredibly minute details to help make even small performance pieces sound without continuity solution.
“So often the note I give is just to add a little movement to (the actor’s) voice. If they’re on the go, just add a breath,” Carlton-Tims told IndieWire. “Adding just a physicality at their core really makes a huge difference. It makes you feel so real, adding a little bit of an exhale to a line.
Carlton-Tims and most ADR editors’ process with actors for replacing or augmenting existing dialogue will begin by looking at the line in question a few times in a row and then talking about the mechanics of the dialogue: where are the breaths, the room quality and line volume. “It’s really important to match projection levels, especially if (the scene is) an exterior,” said Carlton-Tims. “It’s really about matching projection and matching tone.”
When ready to record, the engineer will play the sequence for the actor, with three beeps queuing them up at just the right time to speak on a phantom fourth beat – the audio equivalent of playing your pick on “rock, paper, scissors, shoot.” The same process is used to dub entire films and series into English, although other techniques place a dubbed voice slightly after the original speaker’s for artistic reasons.
“I always think back to the independent films of the 90s. One of the hardest things about them was the sound. Especially like the clarity of the dialogue, which would always lose me,” Carlton-Tims said. “I’d be just like, ‘I can’t understand what the hell they’re saying!’ I’m on a busy street in Manhattan and it’s just… I’m getting frustrated. So this is where sometimes ADR can really save the day. It’s really just getting that clarity.
Then there’s a completely different use because the microphones only pick up the dialogue of the main characters. The ADR team also helps create atmospheric sounds, sometimes called “wild” sounds: the buzz of a busy restaurant or the roar of a crowd at a concert. “This is something that a lot of people don’t realize is part of the process,” Carlton-Tims said.
“We bring in voice actors for (that background sound). So for “Poker Face,” we actually had eight actors per episode, and that cast would change depending on the needs of the episode, but we’d create all these different settings: metal rock groupies, casino patrons, barbecue patrons, a house of rest, race car enthusiasts. And of course we use pre-recorded material from the audio library, but to really give it that realism, hearing a couple pass you by, especially if it’s mixed with surround sound, it’s really nice to have that immersive experience,” said Carlton-Tims The sense of immersion is essential for a touring series like “Poker Face,” which is making its Emmy case through each episode feeling like a whole new part of the country, almost a whole new world.
Greater immersion and a deeper sense of the on-screen action is also the goal behind many of the “efforts” added in ADR. It can be as simple as, in “Poker Face,” Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne) adds a mumbled part as he drags a box up a driveway in Episode 8. “(In that scene) he just does a little comedy thrown off the line and was able to get the breath level and it was just perfect,” said Carlton-Tims. “Those are my moments where, OK, it’s improving the scene. He would have missed it because there was all that gravel and stuff on the ground (on site) and missed the opportunity to laugh at great writing or great improvisation from Natasha, you know – it doesn’t have to be that way.”
There is an opportunity to flesh out a scene through ADR at times even when there is minimal dialogue. Sean Heissinger, a dialogue editor on everything from ‘Mythic Quest’ to ‘Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’, has really ramped up the comedy and darkness in ‘Barry’s’ final season. In season 4 episode 3, when Gene (Henry Winkler) and Tom (Fred Melamed) break into the house of a reporter (Patrick Fischler) to cover their conversation with him, much of their rampage through the house was captured in ADR : about 80% of what the public hears, according to Heissinger.
“There’s a lot more prep work for that. We tried to get them to join together to do the session together so they could bounce off of each other, but the programs wouldn’t allow it. So we had Henry come in first and tried to break him down into sections,” Heissinger told IndieWire. The sequence, shot with the long deadpan takes that are a staple of “Barry,” allows Gene and Tom to climb in and out of frame, providing natural entry and exit points.
“Then when Fred Melamed came in to do his part, we let him listen on headphones while he was doing his (lines) the stuff we recorded for Henry. So he’s been able to perform outside of that. When Fred is behind throwing the computer in the pool, he’s been doing what we call “wild” takes where we’ll have the beeper so he knows when to come in and then just let him record. He’s going to do a series of them in a row of his little efforts of him and he’s done 10 different efforts to launch, and every single one of them made me laugh so much,” Heissinger said.
The important thing that ADR can accomplish — other than Fred Melamed’s line sounding like he just fought a hippo and won — is drive the audience’s attention with sound, even if they’ve lost sight of the character visually. It’s something that “Barry,” in particular, is adept at, leaning on sound to convey tone and suspense on a level that most other Emmy Best Comedy contenders don’t attempt. “You have to keep their breath alive, keep them alive with the right breaths and time it to where their next beat is,” Heissinger said.
A number of tools can reduce the amount of technical ADR needed for a project; Madsen, Carlton-Tims and Heissinger all attested to working wonders with iZotopo RX, a suite of audio repair tools and filters to isolate and delete unnecessary sounds. But no solution is ever foolproof, and sometimes the ADR process itself brings something extra to a performance. Michael Irby, who plays Cristobal in “Barry,” reported for ADR in Episode 4 of this season, specifically the sequence at the infamous sandpit.
“(Irby) hadn’t seen the final scene yet in that episode with him and Hank, that really emotional scene in the house. And I was like, ‘Hey, do you want to watch this now?’ And she was so excited to see him. So we sat there and we were watching it and you could see — I mean, all of us, I think, started to get a little emotional,” Heissinger said. “Then I was like, ‘Oh shit, we still have to do his line. after seeing this, and maybe I should have waited until the end.’ But he was like, no, he really helped him figure out what he’s fighting for on the show. He said, ‘He’s actually going to help me perform better.'”