Exclusive Interview with Tammy Fearing, ADR Editor on “Step Brothers”
Following all that production sound talk from “The Dark Knight” I knew I needed my next post to focus on something I never really covered here, ADR. In a mix, ADR and production dialog try to play nice, hopefully resulting in a pristine dialog track that keeps an audience engaged. Luckily, people like ADR supervisor Tammy Fearing are on call, ensuring the viewing public an enjoyable experience. Even better, she was willing to discuss her job as an ad lib wrangler on “Step Brothers”.
DS: What do your duties encompass as an ADR supervisor and what are the best or worst aspects of the job?
Tammy: My duties as an ADR supervisor are as follows: I spot the movie for production dialog that needs to be replaced and keep a current list of ADR requests from the picture editor and the director. During the ADR sessions I help the actor or actress match the original production dialog performance by suggesting changes in pitch or volume. I edit the ADR and turn it over to the picture editor after each recording session. I keep a transcription log of all the improv jokes that are recorded during each ADR session to help the director keep track of the numerous joke options for each scene. By the end of the film, that log is 15-20 pages long.
The best part about my job is being a part of an ensemble team during the ADR process. ADR is a great tool for the director to get more jokes into the film. During “Step Brothers” our director, Adam, wrote the jokes, the actor or actress would improv on the script, our picture editor, Brent, cut each scene so the timing of the jokes worked, and I made sure the ADR takes we recorded matched production performances in the scene. An ADR joke won’t play if the new line sounds different from the production dialog. Bad ADR is a distraction, while good ADR adds more laughs and no one ever knows it is ADR.
DS: Working with improv advocates like Adam McKay, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, how do you navigate through all the ad lib on the ADR stage and then in your cutting room?
Tammy: The picture editor gives me an edit of the scene that contains space for the ADR joke we are adding. The mock up edit allows us to record and playback the added ADR line to make sure it is working within the scene. During “Step Brothers,” director Adam McKay would write multiple jokes for each ADR cue. The actor or actress then performs the written lines doing several performances for each joke, including ad libs. We typically go into record for several minutes while the actor improvs. The challenge for me is to unobtrusively slip in directions of “louder please” or “try a little higher pitch” while the actor is improving. I am responsible for matching the ADR line to the production dialog in the scene. Adam works with the actor to come up with funny stuff but isn’t always aware if the performance will work in the scene. It is a team effort and is a lot of fun. After the session I cut Adam’s selected takes and give them to editor Brent White to cut into the picture. Brent shows Adam the different lines in the Avid and they choose their favorite take to put into the film for different previews. Our sound supervisor George Anderson, records audience reactions so we can determine which jokes get the best responses. At the end of the screening process the joke with the most laughs is usually the one that gets into the final cut.
DS: When directors or editors can’t make a looping session how do you have to adapt creatively or otherwise to the situation?
Tammy: My job is to help the actor get a performance that will work in the context of the scene. To do this I have to understand what each ADR line is intended to achieve, I need to know what the director wants so I can convey that to the actor, and I always have the actor perform several takes so the director has a few reads to choose from. If we are doing jokes I have the actor or actress improv on each line after the scripted jokes have been performed. In doing all of this I become the defacto director for the session when the director and picture editor can’t make it.
DS: Removed from the focus demanded of them on set, how do you reengage a frustrated actor, any specific examples?
Tammy: Do a few loop lines yourself and you quickly see how challenging it is to match picture sync and give a good performance months after the filming has ended. After doing a lot of takes on the same line an actor can get frustrated and loose energy. Here are few tricks I use when the actor has reached their limit on a cue: I ask them if they want to take a break or want to move on to another cue and come back to the problem cue later. Most actors will want to finish the line and get it right before moving on. Offering to return to the cue later seems to make the actor view the performance as a challenge. They will conquer the line- it won’t conquer them. Another option is to playback the scene with the last recorded ADR line in place. Playing back the scene lets the actor step back and learn what adjustments are needed to get a performance they are happy with.
DS: With that reliance on improv for the funny, on the Apatow Produced films you work on, does ADR ever steer a meandering story back on course?
Tammy: ADR is used as a tool for connecting ad lib material back into the scene or helping to transition between scenes. For example, in “Step Brothers” we have an exterior shot of a steak house in which Adam wanted to make it clear that we are at Derek’s birthday party. To do this we added Will’s ADR line “Happy Birthday Derek.” and Adam Scott’s ADR line “Nice gift TJ. Where are the rest of my gifts?” These 2 lines are heard over the exterior shot of the steak joint as a lead in for the scene. Example 2: For timing purposes, Adam deleted a scene of Will [Brennan] making plans to get his Mom and step Dad back together at the Catalina Wine Mixer and used ADR to convey this information. At the Catalina Wine Mixer Nancy greets Robert [Brennan’s step dad] by saying “How nice to see you here.” For Robert we added the over the shoulder ADR line “Brennan sent me an invite.” Will [Brennan] then walks up and in another over the shoulder ADR line says “I see you two are getting along.” By adding the 2 over the shoulder ADR lines we were able to keep the action moving forward but still convey the intent of the deleted scene.
Lastly, John C and Will [Dale and Bre
nnan] are talking about launching their new company, Prestige Worldwide. At the request of Dale, Brennan sings him a song and then starts giving excuses about why his performance was bad. Adam wanted to make Dale as sincere as possible about how much he loved Brennan’s voice so we added the ADR line “Your voice is like a combination of Fergie and Jesus.” Not only does the ADR line get the point across, but it gets a big laugh so it serves two purposes.
DS: What was your first gig like?
Tammy: My first gig as an ADR supervisor was “The Perfect Score” directed by Brian Robbins. The big challenge was the narration. Originally, the lead character, Kyle, was narrating the story but after several recording sessions the director decided it wasn’t working. He then had the character Roy, the stoner dude, do the narration. It completely changed the tone of the film and added a nice touch of extra humor. Narration is a tricky ADR beast. The two big pitfalls are an actor or actress tending to read the narration too fast or not keeping a consistent tone for the narration from scene to scene. My job is to make sure the narration is well paced and that the energy and tone are consistent throughout the film. We do many takes of narration which are then cut together to make the final performance that goes into the film.
A funny side note: In “Step Brothers” the “Playboy” lawyers informed us that we couldn’t us their brand name in any context using the word “masturbation”. Apparently their readers buy the magazine to read the articles. In the original tree fort John C and Will [Dale and Brennan] are looking at Playboys. Brennan comments “I still hate you, but you’ve got an awesome collection of Playboys.” Dale makes the joke “I’ve got some from the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. It’s like masturbating in a time machine.” The Visual FX team had to change the magazine title to “Hustler”. We had to ADR Brennan saying “I still hate you, but you’ve got an awesome collection of nudie mags.”