PRODUCTION SOLUTIONS

Expert Advice from Epitome's Production Safety & Risk Management Specialists

How COVID-19 Affects ADR

Automated Dialog Replacement (ADR), a.k.a. “looping,” has been around since the invention of sound recording. ADR is a vital tool in any post-production process but, during filming, it is more often known by its call sign: “We’ll fix it in post.” 

Sometimes confused with “dubbing” — which is the process of recording the dialog in a different language. There are many reasons to use ADR, the most common being:  

  • To reduce background noise 
  • Enhance dialog
  • Change dialog 
  • Change the story
  • Change the performance 

There is no avoiding noise on location. We have all had to roll sound on a scene that we knew would not sound great. Production schedules and location agreements often force us into sub-optimal conditions where the only option is to fix it in post. 

Given just how much of our production processes have changed during COVID-19—from schedules to casting to travel—we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that ADR has also changed. This article is designed to help you understand how the pandemic has affected ADR. To do this, we will look at two critical areas:

  • How production affects ADR
  • How to maximize ADR safety  

Before we actually enter into post and begin ADR, we have to see how the decisions we make during production affect our ADR options.  

How Production Affects ADR

As we detailed in our article on set organization, we must reduce to an absolute minimum the number of people we allow into our sets’ innermost bubble while simultaneously increasing our location control. These changes can have both positive and negative effects on our sound recording. 

  • Positive:  Limiting the number of people and maximizing control of our locations has kept the amount of noise down. This has made for cleaner audio recording and, therefore, a decreased need for ADR in post. 
  • Negative: These necessary safety steps have seen the crew inside the bubble taking on more work and responsibility. This, in turn, has led to understaffed sound teams, which has, in many instances, led to an increase in ADR. 

The pandemic has had contradictory ramifications from one production to the next, so it is impossible to accurately say whether ADR has increased or decreased in the COVID-19 era. What we can say is that ADR is easiest when you prepare for it. 

Often, we try to record live sound and dialog only to spend more time fixing it in post than it would have taken to simply create it entirely in post. 

Complex shots with lots of moving parts are often best recorded with the intention of adding the sound and the dialog in post. In short, sometimes it’s best to let ADR do all the work.

A great example of this is the Copacabana Oner from “Goodfellas.” As we highlighted in our Through the COVID Lens article, all the dialog in that scene was added in post. The shot would have been practically impossible if they had tried to get clean audio. So, they focused on the visuals with the knowledge that they would add the dialog in post. 

The added benefit of knowingly relying on ADR for a given shot is that it increases set safety during the pandemic. If we can go into a scene knowing that we will add the audio later, we can further reduce the personnel inside the set’s innermost bubble. 

This has a compounding benefit of giving us one less thing to worry about. COVID-19 has put so much extra stuff on our plates that we should celebrate the removal of anything when we can. 

Now that we have adequately prepared for ADR during production, let’s move on to making ADR itself safer during a pandemic. 

How to Maximize ADR Safety

Most of the COVID-19 safety guidelines are geared toward production, and rightly so. Production is far more likely to be the source of an outbreak than pre-production or post. 

However, this does not mean that once we enter post-production, we are out of the woods. On the contrary, post-production has a few high-risk choke points. We already covered one (music production), and ADR is undoubtedly another.

There are many issues associated with ADR during this pandemic, but we want to highlight three strategies that greatly increase safety:

  • Separate talent
  • Sanitize the area
  • Minimize personnel

Separate Talent

Just as crucial to pandemic safety as a precise shooting schedule is a precise post-production schedule. When it comes to ADR, we must schedule our actors so that, if possible, they are not in the same room—or even the same hallway—at the same time. 

We recommend building in at least a 10-15 minute safety buffer to ensure that one actor can safely leave—and we can properly sanitize the area—before the next actor arrives. 

Be sure to stress to your talent that arriving early is not encouraged. If they arrive early, they will be asked to remain in their vehicles (or a well-ventilated, socially-distanced holding area) until the sound booth and the route to it are both clear. 

When it comes to ensuring talent separation, it is important to keep actors in separate booths. It is a common practice in non-pandemic times to have two actors record together when the director wants to recapture the on-set chemistry during ADR. This is not recommended during COVID-19. Two or more non-masked people in an enclosed space should be avoided when possible. 

If your facility has the appropriate layout, it can be possible to put two actors in two adjacent booths with a window between them. This would allow them to see and react to each other without breathing the same air. 

To safely record ADR, we must focus on separating our actors whenever possible. 

Sanitize the Area 

Recording ADR is not always a calm endeavor. One look at this clip of Hugh Jackman looping “Logan” is enough to see why. To properly record ADR, actors must recreate and reenact their performances, and this may require all sorts of exercise and exuberance. 

Actors’ methods vary widely (and wildly), but many, if not all, will end up thoroughly contaminating the recording equipment. For this reason, we recommend that, in addition to separating your actors, you assign them each individual headphones, microphones, pop-filters, and any other piece of equipment they will interact with during ADR. 

By assigning and labeling them, you can ensure that no other performer interacts with these devices. This will go a long way to eliminating cross-contamination. 

Sanitize the room after each use and use proper PPE when handling potentially contaminated items. Particular attention should be given to anything a person has spoken into. 

This step takes time and special care, but it is vital to minimize the chance of an outbreak. It is also another reason we recommend scheduling a buffer between each ADR session.

If you have the budget and the space, you can go one step further and assign each ADR actor his or her own recording room. This can streamline your ADR day and drastically reduce the chances of contamination. 

Minimize Personnel

Post-production staff members do not interact with famous people as often as their counterparts in principle photography. Often, ADR is the only time the office staff of a post-production house will see the stars of the film they are working on. In non-pandemic times, many a staffer has found subtle (and not-so-subtle) reasons to be in the hallway when a movie star arrives in the hopes of saying hi. 

Sadly, during this pandemic, we must minimize the staff in the halls while talent is moving through. This is where a precise schedule comes into play again. If we are scheduling our ADR session well and communicating with our staff, we can ensure that the path to and from the booth is clear. This will help to reduce the transmission of COVID-19. 

Maybe, as a thank you, we can invite these staffers to a post-pandemic screening of the film so they can meet these stars safely. 

BOTTOM LINE

ADR is an essential part of any post-production process. But during this pandemic, we should take extra steps to ensure we do it safely. By taking the time to plan for ADR during production—if not pre-production—we can reduce the on-set risk of contamination by further reducing the personnel and equipment that need our attention. 

Once we enter post-production, we must remain vigilant. This means keeping personnel separate and scheduling buffer times. It requires assigning and labeling individual equipment and, if possible, entire rooms. Safely recording ADR also requires sanitizing the area and equipment between sessions and minimizing on-site personnel. 

With these safety tips in mind, we can continue to safely escort our projects through post-production and, finally, to completion.  


Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production. 


*DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic