Dialog Editing in Theatrical Films and Television
By Dane Davis
Movies aren’t reality. But movies must offer cross-sections of reality to their audiences. To succeed, there are a few simple rules of aural reality that cannot be broken: First, people speaking in the same room must sound like they are in the same room. Second, continuous time must sound like continuous time.
The illusions of real time and space are critical to screen storytelling. But the methods used to capture narratives on film naturally work against those illusions, because the time and space on a movie set has no relationship to the ultimate screen time. These illusions can only be maintained if one of movie-making’s least-appreciated crafts is executed flawlessly. These illusions are created by dialog editors, ADR editors, and the re-recording mixer.
Mind the Gap
When a movie is filmed, practical requirements determine the order of scenes to be enacted and captured. Multiple takes of each line are recorded from various angles. When all of this non-sequential information comes out the other side of the picture editorial process, the sound track will contain a lot of secondary, usually unwanted noises that contradict the screen illusion of time and place.
When you cut between the two tracks, the sound “bumps” when the incidental noise stops or starts. This sudden change violates the illusion that a conversation is unfolding in a natural way right in front of the audience.
Dialog editing protects this perceived continuity. When noises cannot be removed in the editing process, the dialog editor must find a way to extend those noises across picture cuts in both directions, so that texture and timbre changes do not correspond to visual camera angle changes. For example, an idling truck noise behind the first line of dialog can appear to “drive away” by fading out during the second line (culled from another take recorded without the truck noise).
A Mass of Distractions
Whenever possible, continuous obtrusions of this sort are edited out and filled — or “backfilled” — in the same way that discontinuous shots are smoothed out. Car horns, doors, crew noises, camera dolly creaks, microphone bumps, dog barks, and an evil cornucopia of other aural distractions can be replaced with a common background blur.
Actors contribute their own distractions as well, created by their limbs or vocal apparatus. Physical noises include chair scrapes or rattles, foot scuffs and steps, and setting down or fiddling with props over lines. What plays visually as character gesture often works against vocal expression if it dominates the audience’s ear for a moment. Anything that “takes me out of the movie” requires a period of watching time to dissolve back into the story.
When dramatically intrusive noises are right on top of words or phrases and cannot be segregated from the actors’ voices, the dialog editor looks for alternate syllables or words recorded during other takes to replace the problematic reading. When actors “step on” or clip each other’s lines and the overlap doesn’t work in the picture cut, replacement surgery is also required. If the same defect exists in the other takes, a more severe alteration is required. Sometimes “cheating” a syllable or a whole word from another scene entirely can rid the performance of intrusions like a bottle clunking down, a chair scraping as the actor stands up, or an off-screen door closing. Whenever possible, these alternates can be sent to the cutting room for a trial run in the cut done in the Avid picture editing system.
Splitting and Sculpting
A dialog editor essentially takes a scene full of very raw audio behind a carefully sculpted performance and prepares it for the dialog re-recording mixer. The mixer can use tools like EQ, notch filters, noise reduction, and gating, as well as level balancing, to create the final illusion of continuous on-screen time and space. This editorial preparation is critical for the mixer to work deftly and efficiently.
Another key aspect of the dialog editor’s craft is the reconstruction of natural breathing by the actors. When the picture editor makes decisions about where to change angles with corresponding audio, a performer’s natural pattern of breaths between lines or words often gets butchered. Perhaps another character in the scene speaks, or the switch to a different take changes the pattern of inhaling and exhaling. The sound editor then must extend the pieces on his or her newly split dialog track to restore the original breaths, or replace what is no longer usable with a “cheated” breath from another take (or a completely different scene if necessary). Again, the illusion of reality can easily be broken by “chopped” breaths that have no natural rhythm or connection to the spoken lines. In fact, an actor’s breathing is often an integral part of the emotional performance, and needs to be respected and preserved as much as possible.
If the defects in a piece of dialog cannot be overcome by the dialog editor or the re-recording mixer, and is still too unclear or distracting, then the actor must be brought in to record the line again in a more controlled environment. This process is called ADR (Automatic Dialog Replacement) or “looping.” My next column will explore the world of the ADR supervisor, editor, mixer, and actor, and their contributions to this last step in making the final mix as natural and clear as possible. All of these crafts are about maintaining an invisible structure underneath that expected illusion of continuous time and space.