Become a Looping Legend With This Guide to ADR

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Without even knowing it, audiences watching cartoons, television shows, and feature films are listening to automated dialogue replacement. If you’re interested in doing this type of work as an ADR voiceover actor, read on.

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What is ADR in voiceover?

ADR—automated dialogue replacement, also known as looping—is a postproduction process that involves actors re-recording or adding dialogue to footage while watching it on a screen. They attempt to match their voices and sounds to the mouth movements and physical gestures they see onscreen, creating background conversations or replacing missed lines. In the original “Star Wars” trilogy, for instance, actor David Prowse wore Darth Vader’s black suit and mask onscreen, but James Earl Jones provided the voice in postproduction. Together, they created the character.

What are voiceover ADR jobs like?

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Financially stable: Looping can be a good source of income for actors. Successful loopers can make over six figures, and SAG-AFTRA members earn minimum rates on union contracts. Looping and ADR work is covered for SAG members under the Basic Agreement, except “in circumstances where a star performer loops his/her own performance in a foreign-produced motion picture in association with dubbing performers,” in which case it is covered under the Dubbing Agreement. 

Social: Many actors who do ADR work are part of loop groups, or walla groups, collectives of voice actors who secure regular work for a production’s ADR needs. (“Walla” is a sound effect that mimics the murmur of a background crowd.)

Low stress: Voiceover artist Cam Clarke (“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”) has acted as a liaison between producers and loopers for decades. Though he deals with a variety of clients, “we are in postproduction and rarely have the headaches people in production do, because by the time it gets to us, it’s done,” he says.

Sam Riegel (“Yu-Gi-Oh!,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”) considers himself lucky to be part of a “tight-knit” loop group because “it pays well, gets residuals, and is not too straining vocally.” 

ADR is “kind of like the holy grail,” explains voice actor Mela Lee (“Mortal Kombat 11,” “Fire Emblem”). The appeal of looping, according to Lee, is that it can be a 9-to-5 job.

How to break into ADR voiceover

ADR

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So how does a newcomer break into this lucrative, competitive, and fun field? Experts say it’s not easy—but with the right voiceover skills, a great demo, and luck, there’s always room for another looper.

Build relationships: According to voiceover agent Stephanie Blume, “Many ADR jobs are through voice matches”—when “producers come to us looking for someone to sound exactly like the actor in the picture.” 

Lee was discovered after signing up for a voiceover class. “The teacher had a showcase at the end of the class, and agents came, and they signed me,” she says. She explains that the field relies heavily on relationships: “Normally you work with the same people repeatedly, or people just know you. It took me a few years to get my name out there and work steadily.”

“I happened to be introduced to the leader of my group through a mutual friend,” Riegel recalls. “You’re working with the same people repeatedly, so they have to see if you work well with them. I sat in on a couple of sessions without getting paid, just watching to see how they worked. From there I started filling in for members of the group if they couldn’t make it, sort of unofficially. I was eventually included as a real member.” 

“I was introduced to the voiceover world by my brother, who was an associate producer at Warner Bros. in charge of postproduction,” says Clarke. “I had just come home from college, and he would call me in to do looping on whatever show he was working on.” He emphasizes that looping is “a small business. A lot of people are very popular and they’re the first ones called.”

Work on your improv skills: Aside from vocal ability, improvisational skills are one of the most important requirements for ADR work. “Loopers basically immerse ourselves and improvise in a world that the writers have created,” Lee says. “Producers note very specific conversations happening around the lead, but the extras aren’t saying anything, so we will script it to the point where we’re ‘chasing flaps’—watch their mouths moving. Then we start improvising a conversation geared around a particular topic that fits with the onscreen actors’ mouths and hand gestures. It’s very rarely 100% scripted,” she says. “They rely on us ADR actors to script it for them.”

Be authentic: Lee and Clarke explain that authentic performances are nearly seamless. “If we do our work right, you hardly know we’re there,” says Lee. Adds Clarke: “Sometimes there is direction, but most of the time the people are very good and don't need it, because it becomes second nature.”

Take initiative: Though he did not receive any looping training, Clarke “branched out and took voiceover workshops,” he says, “because I was pursuing things like commercials, animation, dubbing.” He soon launched his own loop group because, as he jokes, “I wasn’t able to play in anybody else’s reindeer games.” When first trying to find work for his group, he says, “It was similar to going door to door like an old encyclopedia salesman,” but soon producers started contacting him.

Know your voice: Riegel believes that “it’s very tricky for young voice actors to know their own voice. There are guys out there who can do a million voices, and they’re great, but they are few and far between. It’s best to know what you’re strong at, what role your voice serves in the broad spectrum of voiceover.” He adds, “When an audition comes through for a young hero fighting for justice, I know I can do that. I know my voice and I know its capabilities, and I know its limitations, and that is an advantage to me.”

Zhuzh up your materials: Make sure your voiceover résumé and demo reel are killer so they grab the attention of casting directors and loop groups looking for new members. “Reels are specific and scrutinized because they’re only one to two minutes long,” says Riegel. “For a lot of young actors, a reel can highlight their weaknesses. In order to get better as a voice actor, you have to be in a recording studio perfecting your mic technique, the way you take direction, breathe, and more. It’s not just acting; it’s technical too. It’s an art and a science.”