Film Production 101: ADR Meaning & Best Practices


By Assemble

September 2, 2021

ADR Meaning in Film

Every low budget filmmaker knows the one person you always have to pay on set is the sound person. The audience will forgive a multitude of sins in light and picture and accept it as an artistic choice, but one constant that separates a professional film and amateur film is bad sound.  However, even the most meticulous producer will sometimes be faced with circumstances that make a controlled environment for sound impossible. This is when the need to re-record dialogue comes in and the magic of ADR can be utilized.

Assemble turned to two-time Emmy winner Lee Walker, an industry veteran re-recording mixer to add clarity to the need, process of re-recording and best practices in ADR sessions.

In the process of making films or TV, there are often challenging situations where recording pristine dialogue is difficult or impossible.  Walker went into more detail:

“Things like wind, general environment, clothing movement, and even the position of the camera may impact the audio recording. Sometimes the actor may flub a line or word, marring an otherwise great performance, or the production sound mixer might be unable to get the microphone close enough given the position of the camera. These variances in audio quality require attention and preparation.” 

After the shoot, in instances where filmmakers will look to replace these lines in post-production, they use a technique called ADR.  

ADR stands for Automated Dialogue Replacement.  In some circles it is referred to as Additional Dialogue Replacement.  Both describe the same general procedure, recording dialogue in a controlled studio environment after the shoot has been done, usually once the piece has been edited.

The ADR meaning in film is also referred to as “looping”, where the actor will record multiple attempts against a loop of film to get the performance just right, looping over and over that section until a good take is achieved.  ADR is a broad term that includes replacing lip synced lines or when the timing of the line is very generalized, like in a crowd or busy room.

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Preparing the ADR Session

Though it may seem like an easy task, there are several areas that can affect the believability of the recorded line in the context of the dialogue around it.  Preparation before the ADR session is key to generating quality audio recordings.  Walker addressed some common elements to consider before the ADR session.

“So much of the success of an ADR line lies in attention to the context of the dialogue replacement.  We are replacing a recorded line with a wide range of base characteristics.

Is the scene indoors or out?.  Has the actor performed in a large or small room? Is the room reflective like a grand hall or tight like a closet?  Does the performance require shouting and intense emoting or is it sedate and informative?  Is the mic proximity very close and intimate or is it a broader delivery.

What mic was being used?  Often the shotgun Sennheiser boom and lavalier mics are being used on the shoot so it makes sense to use it on a pickup line or change.  Half the battle is won securing the mic and environment of the original recording.  Having all manner of mics used in production will help in matching to the original production audio.

One helpful step in production that can save lots of time in the edit and ADR session is to capture clean “room tone” during the shoot. Room tone is recorded audio tracks of the environment with no one talking or moving.  This will be needed to ‘backfill’ under these newly recorded ADR lines and smooth out jarring audio edits around it.”

How an ADR Session Works

The process of ADR began in the early days of filmmaking.  Often the sets were noisy, barely controlled environments that did not lend themselves easily to great recordings. It became apparent that often these dialogue lines would need to be re-recorded in a studio with a more controlled space.  In time, this gave actors a “second chance” at a better performance or approach.

Typical ADR sessions begin well in advance. The Director will likely be compiling portions of the production that will need re-recording during the edit, honing in on selects that convey the original intent.  Walker explained how the process typically works.

“Usually this is done in a studio that is equipped to build audio against picture.  A recording space is often available that is large enough to not create too many reflections and dead enough to stop much echo.  For instance, a recording done in a reflective space like a kitchen, dining room, or hallway will carry those close reflective characteristics.  

Once the actor is in the ADR session, they will be watching video of the edited scene, often with a time code window showing the exact location of each frame while listening to a guide track of the line in question. The audio mixer then inserts three beeps in front of the line being replaced, often exactly one second apart, this gives the actor a countdown to know when to start speaking.  Once everyone is ready to record, the section is played, the actor hears the beeps and counts in their head ‘one, two, three, GO’, and says the line as closely as possible to the original. At the end of the section, the track is stopped and the recorded line is assessed.  To get a rhythm, studios will often ‘loop’ in that one section over and over, refining the performance, getting the new audio recording to match the timing of the actors mouth in the video.”

Many times the lines needed don’t require the tight matching of lip movement.  In films and TV shows, off-camera lines, loudspeakers, announcements, crowd noise sound effects, ambient walla and murmur all fall under the broad umbrella of ADR.  There are even “Loop Groups” consisting of any number of actors all together recreating believable restaurant ambience, crowd reactions, as well as specific dialogue used to support the scene, such as conversations of people in the background.

Talent and ADR Sessions

ADR is not necessarily easy for every actor.  Recording the line isolated in a studio, listening to beeps, and not having another actor to play off of can be a difficult process.  Walker suggested that having the director present will improve the creative environment.

“A good director will be present to guide everyone back to the same ‘headspace’ as the original scene. Matching the tone of the surrounding lines is critical to make the new ADR lines believable. Sometimes the new audio is improved over the original performance.”

He offered some real world examples of working with talent.

“I once mixed a half hour children’s show where we needed to replace large sections of dialogue from several characters.  Ten child actors and their parents / managers worked with me for two days, looping over and over each section until we got a good take.  The range of acting experience was evident in how quickly they could achieve that good take.  Sometimes you’ve got to say ‘close enough’.

At the other end of the spectrum, I worked with a very prominent actor / comedian who had recorded a special but had flubbed a few words here and there in the live show.  Grinning, he pronounced himself the ‘Loop King’ and stated he was a master of ADR technique and yes, he wanted to try and fix those words. This is difficult because the original moment was live and very specific in performance and sound.  Some of these words were in the middle of yelling rants. He stepped into the booth and nailed every word, usually on the first take.  Of course he returned to the control room playfully gloating. I have no reason to believe he’s not the ‘Loop King’!”

ADR Wrap-Up

For producers, even the best preparation may include unforeseen challenges.  You should strive for the best on-set sound you can achieve, but to be safe, always get room tone in every location and budget for post production ADR.  You will probably be faced with a variety of experience and skill sets from talent, but under the guidance of a post production sound professional, ADR can save you from expensive re-shoots due to audio issues.

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