ADR: Creating Emotional Realism in the Soundtrack—Part 1

by Christopher M. Allport

mic_icons1The sound of the human voice is capable of evoking more emotion and feeling than any other sense.

Automated Dialogue Replacement, otherwise known as ADR or “looping,” is a vital post-production soundtrack technique that provides a massive sense of emotional realism for television and film audiences. For some directors, ADR is an afterthought, but the best know it as an integral part of world-class storytelling.

Since the age of nine, I’ve had the fortune of working as voice talent in the ADR world with some of the biggest studios: Disney films, WB films, CBS TV and Paramount TV, to name a few major employers. However, one of my most enriching voice-over experiences was my ADR work on Hook. Hook starred the late Robbin Williams as Peter Banning, a middle-aged disgruntled, yet well-intentioned, over-worked executive with little time for his kids. During a family holiday trip to his ancestral homeland in London, his children convince him to open his imagination.

Eventually delighting in playtime, Peter winds up in J.M. Barrie’s Never Never Land, the magical place of pirates and lost-boys, retrograding into his forgotten youth. Realizing that he alone is Peter Pan, he finds himself clad in those iconic togs, and launches through the air, with J.M. Barrie style, crowing loudly, like a rooster greeting the cracking dawn. Lost boys are chanting and cheering their leader on.

Most viewers don’t pay much attention to the little details like that crowing rooster sound in the soundtrack of a feature film, or the chants and group cheers. They are focused on following the story, the visual beauty and mesmerizing effect that films have on all of us.  But how do you actually translate an epic story into a motion picture with critical acclaim?

Steven Spielberg understood, especially in those earlier days, that the secret to an audience’s heart need not involve CGI explosions and unmotivated special effects, but childlike imagination, a human component and emotionally truthful literary components of story.

Common wisdom in film making is that the picture tells the story and the soundtrack tugs your heart strings, playing your emotions.

Emotion—a concept that I think voice actors should pay more attention to. Many of my VO students that are new to the industry enter into my studio having been told that they have “a great voice,” and that “they should get into voice over.”

My first question to my students is, “What makes a great voice?” There really is no great answer. Every human has a voice. Some are clear, some thick, some with texture or gravitas, some sweet, appealing, alluring, inviting. Some can turn each of these elements on and off with ease.

When it comes to choosing voice talent, the question that casting agents, directors and clients will ask is, “does that voice convey the reality of our story?” Very rarely will you hear a director say, “Wow, you have a great voice.”

My advice is to save the subjective “great voice” comments and internal monologues for the critique of opera singers, and instead get more invested in storytelling, mood setting and manipulation of vocal emotion to create excellent voice-acting.

Meanwhile, back at the studio, ADR is playing a critical role in the realistic soundscape that draws an audience to become emotionally involved in a scene. There’s that pesky little world again. Emotion.

Way back in 1991, my mom got a phone call from my agent asking if she could get me from school to the Todd-AO sound-stage in one hour. There were few other details. Good thing she decided to go along with that program.

When we arrived, Steven was waiting for me in the studio’s control room. I had been selected to perform (amongst other group vocal ADR cues) the iconic rooster crowing sound in Hook.

Mr. Spielberg wanted a specific sound for that moment in the film: he needed that vocal effect to bear the emotion of a child’s imagination, therefore choosing my 12-year-old human-rooster sound (instead of a recording of an animal, library sound effect, or Robin William’s performance) in those pivotal sections of the film.

Robin’s voice was used as a guide track. I had to fit my performance into his timing, but with a certain sound that Spielberg was looking for.

A couple of timecode notes, from an engineer behind the glass, were given. Steven gave me a few directorial notes, there was a moment of silence, and then… “OK, lets rehearse this on tape…”

The standard three-beep ADR cue followed, red time code rolled with picture, and I laid down my cue. At that point the talk-back switch was engaged, there was a brief moment of silence followed by Steven’s voice “Wow! I guess we have to call you one take Allport.” I beamed proudly. Other solo cues followed, and then three days of recording group walla, and singing.

Looking back, it was very clear that Steven Spielberg knew how to get what he needed, and what he wanted.  He knew how to cherish the sensitive creativity of others in order to tell a story that would affect people on a visceral emotional level, around the world. More than anything, he understood how to work within the imaginative realm of a child’s mind.

So you might be wondering, what does this imaginative realm have to do with voice over, or ADR more specifically? Everything. The best voice work is ripe with so much more than reading copy, lines of dialogue and cues from a page. Its so much more than having a great answer for ‘whom you are speaking to,’ or ‘understanding what product you are selling.’

Great voice over work is actually voice acting. What the talent’s voice is being laid over should be the biggest influence on crafting your performance. Does your performance match the emotional tone of the picture?


Watch for Part II of  ADR – Creating Emotional Realism in the Soundtrack on September 24th.

Christopher M. Allport is an award-winning director and performing artist, whose career has spanned all forms of stage, film and television. He is well-known for celebrity voice-match, feature film and animated series regular work.  His vocal talents were recently featured in the Gareth Edwards summer blockbuster “Godzilla.”  Mr. Allport is also well-known for his ability to direct celebrity talent, such as William H. Macy, John Williams, and The Beach Boys, just to name a few.

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  1. Thank you for sharing this, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I have another ADR session tomorrow at Universal Studios and feel like I now have a fresh perspective on the craft!


  2. Great advice here, Chris

  3. Mark Silverman says

    Very interesting article. I have spend lots of time on ADR stages over the years. I do lots of voice matching. I once had to loop 80 lines for Al Pacino for the movie “Carlito’s Way.” It was going to show on network TV and I had to go in and say all of Al’s dialog but replace is “bad” words with more family friendly words. That’s why in the TV version Al keeps yelling “Forget You!” at everbody!

    I have also matched Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel and Fred MacMurray. A few months ago I went in to Disney and matched Michael Douglas. I love voice matching, When it’s done right, the audience has no idea that anything was ever done.

    I can be heard as the voice of Rod Serling on the Disney ride called The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.

  4. Dave Johnston says

    Greetings from the heartland.Manson,Iowa.Thank you so much for sharing.Carry the emotion,the words will follow,best wishes in all your endeavors.

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