Never Seen And Sometimes Barely Heard, Loopers Fill In Hollywood's Soundtrack

Feb 19, 2015
Originally published on February 19, 2015 6:33 pm

When the Oscars are handed out on Sunday, the red carpet, the ceremony, the films and people who are honored, will be all about being seen. But there's a group of actors who will never be seen on screen. They're only heard — and barely.

Loopers are voice actors whose work begins after the show or film is shot and edited. Their job is to record what people in the background of a scene could be saying. Their dialogue is never really heard at full volume — and it's mostly ad-libbed.

On a sound stage at Fox Studios in Los Angeles, seven loopers are recording dialogue for the TV forensics series Bones. They're working on a restaurant scene, speaking lines that people at background tables might speak, over lunch.

As they record, the loopers stand in a circle under two overhead microphones. A scene plays silently on a big screen. On cue, and often off-mic, they start to walk around and talk. They record random scraps of dialogue, to be mixed later into the scene they're watching; they are creating human ambience.

In the Bones control room, sound mixer David Betancourt explains the reason for looping.

"The beauty of it is it enhances the experience of what you're watching," he says. "If you watch without all of this stuff that gets filled in, in postproduction, it feels dead, it feels really flat. If it's done right, you shouldn't even notice it."

Loopers add texture and dimension to a scene — filling in those blank spaces between dialogue. For 37 seconds of TV screen time, there could be six layers of looping — and there are many more for a major motion picture.

In the film Selma, as marchers were beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, audiences saw a crowd of extras mouthing dialogue and shouts — but they were hearing loopers, who recorded the shouts and screams in postproduction.

Those loopers, and also the Bones loopers, were hired by Barbara Harris, who heads a company called The Looping Group. Harris did the voice casting for American Sniper, Guardians of the Galaxy and 12 Years a Slave.

So why isn't this dialogue simply recorded during filming? "It would be too time-consuming," Harris explains. "When they are shooting, their primary interest is everything the principals are doing."

To fill in the background sounds, Harris looks at the movie or show, takes notes, decides how many voice actors she'll need, and then gives the actors guidance on how they should go about their research.

"If they say this takes place in Atlanta, I would then instruct the actors to get some street maps, some points of interest," she says. "So when they're talking ... it sounds as if the people who are talking go to this job every day."

To make Bones feel authentic, loopers research the language of forensics experts. Some of the Bones loopers, like David Randolph, had more upbeat work on Happy Feet — the Oscar-winning 2006 animated feature set in Antarctica. "Who doesn't want to be a penguin, right?" says Randolph.

For the sequel, the loopers were singing krill — little, but loud, crustaceans. Animated penguins aside, looping is not always such a G-rated profession. "The hardest thing to do in looping is sex scenes," says looper Lanei Chapman. Even the most intimate movie moments can require a looper in postproduction.

The easiest and most fun looping assignments? "Blood-curdling screams," Chapman says.

As far as whether the loopers ever get demoralized spending their days creating what is essentially Hollywood's background noise, Randolph says you have to look at the larger picture.

"We believe that what we do is really important, and it's collaborative," he says. "Every part of this industry has lots and lots of layers. We're one of the layers in the soundtrack, and it's necessary, and we try to do it as best we can."

Break over, the loopers take their places again on the soundstage, walking in circles, their spoken fragments floating up to the faraway microphones, to be mixed into the manufactured reality that is Hollywood.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When the Oscars are handed out on Sunday, the red carpet, the stars and the movies will be all about image, about being seen. For her annual series on odd Hollywood jobs, NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg reports on actors who are heard but never seen.

DAVID RANDOLPH: I'm David Randolph. I'm a looper.

WILL COLLIER: I'm Will Collier, and I'm a looper.

RANDOLPH: Here we go. Let's take four.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: On a sound stage at Fox Studios in Los Angeles, David, Will and five others are recording dialogue for the TV forensic series "Bones."

(SOUNDBITE OF DIALOGUE)

RANDOLPH: ...Suspicious packets...

STAMBERG: They are not principal actors in the show. They are not extras on the show. Their dialogue is never really heard. And it's mostly ad-libbed.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIALOGUE)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: I love it and I want you to come see it after work because I think...

STAMBERG: Loopers are voice actors whose work begins after the show or film is shot and edited.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIALOGUE)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: I'm going to go Caesar with a little chicken on top.

STAMBERG: Their job is to record what people in the background of a scene could be saying. Right now, they're going to lunch - well, acting - as if they're lunching at a restaurant.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIALOGUE)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: I was looking at this caramel custard.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: Ew.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: What do you think?

STAMBERG: As they record, the seven loopers stand in a circle under two overhead microphones. A scene plays silently on a big screen. On cue and often off mic, they start to walk around and talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIALOGUE)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #4: Could be sweat.

STAMBERG: Random scraps of dialogue to be mixed later into the scene they're watching, creating human ambience.

DAVID BETANCOURT: Hey Rob, let's do it one more time, if you don't mind. And take a step back.

STAMBERG: In the "Bones" control room, sound mixer David Betancourt explains the reason for looping.

BETANCOURT: The beauty of it is it enhances the experience of what you're watching. If you watch something without all of this stuff that gets filled in in postproduction, it feels dead. It feels really flat. If it's done right, you shouldn't even notice it.

STAMBERG: Here's the difference "Bones" loopers make to a crime scene at a high school. First, the scene with just the lead actor, dry, no background sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BONES")

EMILY DESCHANEL: (As Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan) This locker is currently unassigned. There's blood smears all over the inside.

STAMBERG: Did you here that little space between her phrases? Well, here comes a looper to fill the space, giving voice to a high school security guard. We just see the guard's back. The looper speaks for him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BONES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As security guard) Let's keep moving, guys. I know. I know. Just stay back. Just keep moving.

STAMBERG: And now here's the same scene partially mixed with music and that looper heard very faintly in the background.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BONES")

DESCHANEL: (As Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan) This locker is currently unassigned.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As security guard) Let's keep moving, guys. I know. I know. Just stay back. Just keep moving.

DESCHANEL: (As Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan) There's blood smears all over the inside.

STAMBERG: There's texture now, dimension. In the end, for 37 seconds of TV screen time, there will be six layers of looping, many more layers for a major motion picture. In the film "Selma," as marchers were beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, you saw a crowd of extras, but you actually heard loopers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SELMA")

STAMBERG: Those loopers were hired by Barbara Harris, as were the ones working on "Bones" today. She calls her company The Looping Group. Barbara did the voice casting for "American Sniper," "Guardians Of The Galaxy," "Twelve Years A Slave."

Why wouldn't it be enough to have very good microphones on a set recording the principals as well as anybody who's in the background talking?

BARBARA HARRIS: Mostly because it would be too time-consuming. When they're shooting, their primary interest is everything the principals are doing.

STAMBERG: To fill in the background sounds, Barbara looks at the movie or show, takes notes, decides how many voice actors she'll need and gives them guidance on research. Say it's a scene in a police station.

HARRIS: If they say this takes place in Atlanta, I would then instruct the actors to get some street maps, some points of interest. So when they're talking, as you would do in a police station, you know, you'd reference there's some activity over on, you know, Main St., intersections, bridges so that it sounds as if the people who are talking go to this job every day.

STAMBERG: To make it authentic, loopers on "Bones" even research the language of forensic experts.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BONES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Got another 2 EK kits for the luminal.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #5: (As character) There's some residue on this binder.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Make sure you're looking for latent prints.

STAMBERG: Some of these loopers, like David Randolph, had chillier work on "Happy Feet," the Oscar-winning 2006 animated feature set in Antarctica.

RANDOLPH: And so we had to come in and be penguins. Who doesn't want to be a penguin, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAPPY FEET")

STAMBERG: Cute. For the sequel, they got to be singing krill, little but loud crustaceans.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)

STAMBERG: A krill chorus.

(APPLAUSE)

STAMBERG: Oh, my goodness. This was a life experience.

LANAI CHAPMAN: I will tell you the hardest thing to do in looping is sex scenes.

STAMBERG: This is looper Lanai Chapman. Even the most intimate movie moments can require a looper in postproduction.

CHAPMAN: And the easiest, perhaps, or at least the most fun, bloodcurdling screams.

STAMBERG: Well, let's talk about the sex scene.

CHAPMAN: Oh, our time is up.

(LAUGHTER)

CHAPMAN: So unfortunate, but how lovely of you to spend some time with us in this magic box we call the sound stage.

STAMBERG: Not so fast. One last question for looper David Randolph.

What about the part of never being seen? At some point, I mean, you're working so hard here. You're neither seen nor heard, really. You're sort of background mumble.

RANDOLPH: (Laughter). Well, we believe that what we do is really important. And it's collaborative. Every part of this industry has lots and lots of layers. We're one of the layers in the soundtrack. And it's necessary. And we try to do it the best we can.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All set guys?

RANDOLPH: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah.

STAMBERG: Break over, they take their places again on the sound stage, walking in circles, their spoken fragments floating up to the faraway microphones to be mixed into the manufactured reality that is Hollywood.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Did you text him?

STAMBERG: In California, I'm Susan Stenberg. NPR News.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Very nice, guys.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Great. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF "HAPPY FEET TWO")

BRAD PITT: (AS BILL) We are krill. We are meant to look the same.

MATT DAMON: (AS WILL) Not me, Bill. There's only one of me in all the world. I am one in a krillion. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.