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Sound Speed: Voice on Film


By Mel Churcher

This article stresses the importance of a fully supported voice for actors working in film and offers advice on how they can avoid replacing too much dialogue in post-production.

It examines the differences between vocal production for theatre and film, looks at the importance of unimpeded breath flow for both the visual as well as the aural aspects of filming and explains why the actor may need more volume than she or he expects. There are some hints and tips for voice teachers working with actors on preparation of film scripts and to help with those last-minute vocal problems.

Many actors have a mistaken idea that they can whisper and mumble their way through a film. One well-known actor, who whispers her way through the shooting and knows she'll have to replace every line, has learnt not to move her mouth to make ADR easier! Now both sound and performance suffer.

ADR, or automatic dialogue replacement, enables the actor to replace lines after shooting by doing a new sound track, which will be married onto the final print. Hollywood actors, who accept it as a way of life and often prefer it, call it looping. This is because, in the old days, before digital technology, the clip of film the actor matched to went round and round on a loop.

Nowadays, technology has moved on but ADR is still no ideal solution. All film makers prefer to be in the happy position of using the original soundtrack. The verisimilitude of the original ambience and the energy of the performance can never completely be matched. ADR has to be done months after shooting, alone in a sound studio and all lines have to be timed exactly to match the original mouth movements. The actor watches the clip of film on a screen and a white line passes across it, three beeps sound in the actor's ear, and the line must be said on the instant of the fourth beat. The actor has to find the same emotional energy, sound level (made harder as all background noise has been removed from the track) and remember the plot whilst probably already engaged on a completely different project. Without craning the neck forward and reducing the voice to a squeak, the actor has to whisper sweet nothings into the microphone's ear with no popping plosives while watching that embarrassing original footage time after time after time as he or she misses the beat.

Every sound mixer has the intention to use the original soundtrack as it will contain the natural ambience as well as the spontaneity of the acting. Sometimes this isn't possible because of outside circumstances or the problems of squeaky floorboards or clanging armour, but it can simply be due to the actor's vocal shortcoming. Many film actors have had little or no vocal training and some feel that anything above a breathy whisper is not 'real'. Because the visual aspects of filming are so important, directors often cast for the perfect 'look'. This often means a vocal coach is then required on set to help with the dialogue. It is usually much easier for a trained actor, used to theatre, to adjust the volume down to suit the circumstances than for an untrained performer to find a supported resonant sound that will carry intention, feeling and script nuances effectively.

So how can the actor avoid ADR? In film, unlike theatre, there is no audience. So the sound need only be as it would be in life. Instead of playing to an audience, the actor is observed by a camera. Only the other characters need to hear the dialogue, and they will usually be standing much closer than in theatre (or even life), in order to fit into frame. Having said that though, it needs to be a whole supported voice at a natural level. No amount of technical wizardry will give emotional life and resonance to a breathy, unsupported sound. And if an actor does need to whisper - it has to be heard. One sound mixer told me a story about Peter O'Toole. He asked the actor, whether it was true that he could be heard in a whisper round the block. Peter O'Toole walked fifty yards away and whispered, 'It is true' - and it was!

Sometimes an actor will be asked to give more volume than normal for a shot. There can be several reasons for this:

  1. Booms often can't get close in wide shots as they will be seen by the camera or create shadows. Sometimes a radio mic’ can't be used as it makes the sound too 'intimate' for the scene.
  2. There may be unbalanced sound levels between the actors in the scene. This is particularly true if there's a woman playing against hearty men.
  3. There might be a sound track to be laid underneath the scene later - like a train or rain or dance music. If the actors are too quiet, not only will it be hard for the sound department to get the level up technically, but it will also sound false. In life they would use a different quality of voice to compensate for the background noise.

This last reason is a particularly difficult one for the actors. Whilst playing the scene, they have to constantly imagine that background noise. Inevitably, after a few moments, the actors lose level - especially in an intimate scene.

Boom operators are very skilful. Wielding a long telescopic pole with the microphone attached, they balance precariously above the actor, keeping out of shot, to catch every word that is said. It's important that the actor rehearses at performance level and doesn't vary volume too much on different takes or make any surprise moves. It is also worth checking that the level isn't dropping to match another actor's performance or because the camera has come in close.

Often the actor is fitted with a radio mic'. This is hidden on the clothing around the neck and the transmitter is secreted down the petticoats or strapped to a leg. Tell them to beware silk underwear - it will rustle horribly! Also to avoid noisy jewellery, thumping the chest on 'I' and 'me' or poking a partner in the microphone. When using props, dialogue should be separated from any noisy cutlery, keys or loose change. Actors should shut a door or move the drum-kit before or after the line and avoid noisy shoes.

Sometimes there will be a fixed microphone as well. You remember that famous scene in Singin' in the Rain where the microphone is hidden in the flowers? Every time the heroine speaks, she turns her head away and the sound fades out mid-sentence. Well, the sound department's resources have become more sophisticated since then, but the actor may still need to favour the microphone's direction and it is certainly helpful not to hit it during dialogue!

In his book on film acting, Michael Caine advises to forget the sound technician as he always has a problem. Because film is so visually oriented and there is the possibility to replace dialogue later, sound is the Cinderella of the film industry. And yet sound makes up a great part of the final film's effect. In television particularly - where dialogue is less readily replaced in post-production - many viewers will listen as much as watch. They don't want to miss the plot as they pour a cup of tea or slip a stitch.

We know that voice is the most sensitive indicator of feeling. When a study was carried out on lying, it was discovered that radio revealed the truth more than any other medium. If the actor doesn't use a voice that resonates with the 'ring of truth', no amount of visual clues will compensate. Actors need to take voice as seriously as any other aspect of communication on film. Because film deals mainly in subtext, the sound of the voice doesn't seem as important as the feelings underneath. But the two can't be separated. If the thought is strong - the voice will be. If you drive what you want either through the words or under the words, a free released voice will carry your intentions or your subtext.
And if the actor is working in a different dialect, it is important that the voice doesn't lose its full resonance or change the performance in any way that isn't intended. American actors, particularly, have a tendency to let their voices become higher, thinner and generally 'nicer' when they move to an English accent. British actors often do the same when confronted with a period movie and a 'period' accent.

Dialogue in film, Pinter and Mamet excepted, is not always well written. There are few long speeches and the words may be banal or prosaic. This encourages an actor to hold back the sound - to bring the false vocal folds across, use too little breath and go into 'creak'. Breathing work is as important in film as in any other branch of performing. This is not because the actor needs to project but because, if the stomach is held, then the voice will not respond freely. Nerves are a real problem in filming. Adrenaline is flowing, the set goes silent, the shot is called, the clapper falls and 'Action' rings in the actor's ears. If the actor takes a high clavicular breath - all is lost. The scene will seem false and there will be no access to emotional feelings. If the actor stops breathing, he or she will stop listening. And listening is the most important part of acting in film.

In close-up, the camera acts like a microscope. The face may be blown up to fifty times its real size on a large screen. Every twitch of tension, raised eyebrow or trembling lip will be magnified and seem enormous. Keeping the breath flowing will work wonders to take tension off the face. I advise actors to keep a hand on the abdomen in an emotional close-up. By checking they are breathing and sending their emotional energy from this hand, the face will be relaxed, the eyes alive and the voice responsive. (It also works like magic when an actor wants an intimate confidential tone for a voice-over after shooting).

Incidentally, when the actor is in a single close-up shot, it is important they don't overlap the dialogue with the off-camera lines. Because, on film, sound and picture are married together at a later date, overlaps make for difficult editing. Level and energy are also required from the actor speaking off-camera to help the person in shot respond in the same way that they did in the original scene.
If you are helping an actor with a film script, it is worthwhile suggesting that they make extensive notes or even write out separate cards for each scene. These notes should take account of the plot situation and relationships to the other characters as well as the character's drives and actions. Because films are shot out of sequence on such a long time-scale, actors need an aide-memoir to help them place a scene in context. Breathing places for new thoughts can also be marked if the actor has a tendency to rush scenes through nerves. As parts of scenes have to repeated in many takes, whispering the lines slowly just before a take will refresh the original meaning and drives behind the words.

Film actors benefit from the same warm-up as any other performer and I recommend abdominal-diaphragmatic breathing work. I use a simplified version of the 'Accent Method" pioneered by the Danish voice therapist, Sven Smith. If the actor has never done voice work before, then getting them to lie down and to feel the rise and fall of the abdomen during relaxed breathing is a good start. This movement can be built on gently with the breath expelled on 'sh', feeling the contraction of the abdominal muscles and then their release as the breath drops in. More energetic breathing exercises can then be introduced, where the breath is expelled on three beats (with the middle beat taking the strongest energy):

'sh' 'sh' 'sh' (flattening stomach gently inwards and upwards)

stomach releases and breath drops in:

'sh' 'sh' 'sh'..., and so on. 

Voiced sounds and then words and phrases are added until the actor can ensure that the abdomen is not contracted or held during the incoming breath - thus avoiding clavicular breathing and the 'flight or fight' syndrome.

I also use many exercises for resonance and articulation such as humming and feeling vibrations on the body, clasping hands in front and shaking out a sound, hanging over and releasing sound, throwing lines, 'chewing' words and singing dialogue. All the work, in fact, that I would use for theatre actors but with the emphasis on resonant relaxed but supported voice production rather than projection. Sometimes, of course, one is working on an accent too and that will influence the choice of vocal exercises: working on oral or nasal resonance, consonant production, increasing the range of vocal qualities available to the actor or changing tune and cadence.


A few quick-tips for emergency help on set

If the actor finds the pitch rising - tipping back the head very slightly with an open mouth, and swallowing on the way back down releases tension in the larynx and the pitch will revert to its natural level. If the voice sounds creaky - breathing in and out through the open mouth and making it completely silent will open up the false vocal folds and increase breath flow (putting hands over ears makes it easier to monitor). If the voice is breathy - get a gentle adduction of the vocal folds by wiggling the finger as if telling someone off on 'Uh-Uh, Uh-Uh' and take that sound into text.

If the sound seems to be produced too far back - press the knuckle gently into the alveolar ridge and say the line, then remove the knuckle and repeat the line, imagining that it is bounced off the 'buzz' on the hard palate. (This gives a very gentle 'edge' or 'twang'.

After several hours on set, ask the actor to siren up and down gently on 'ng' a few times - this stretches the vocal folds and then they seem to 'mesh' together better giving a more supported sound. (It also helps relieve tired vocal folds.) As sets are often hot, dry places I talk about vocal health and encourage actors to drink enough water, use steam if there is vocal strain and to take the re-hydration drinks offered on hot locations.

After the twentieth take, the brain stops working and the words lose their meaning. Taking a second to shut the eyes and whisper the words very slowly, puts the actor back in touch with the original impulses and intentions.
You will have many little tricks of your own. It's lonely out there on set and the actor has to stop and start so many times that a few tips for tension and voice quality are really helpful. When I mention that an actor in a major role on a feature film works for around twelve weeks (sometimes longer) doing twelve hour days, you will see how many shots and takes there will be to shoot a film. A major movie is only looking to shoot one to two minutes of eventual screen time a day. So there is no chance to 'find your voice' or experience the linear journey of the character as there is in theatre.

There is also very little dialogue on most films. To root the voice in the character, or to make the actor comfortable with their own sound, I suggest that he or she improvises some physical work or tasks that the character might do whilst improvising dialogue. For example: I had to work with a softly spoken Welsh actor who had to play a medieval blacksmith. As part of the preparation for the role he had to learn horse riding. I suggested that he improvised lines when riding and when mucking out the stables. Out of these improvisations emerged a strong resonant sound that was both healthy and right for the role and avoided any quick decision to 'take the voice down' which could have led to vocal strain.

The voice that will emerge through this work will be 'organic' and grounded in the body so that it not only feels right to the actor but also has enough physical 'substance' to please the sound mixer.

There are times when all this work will go for nothing. Concorde keeps going over, the waterfall is too loud or the dialogue was too steamy for the aircraft version. Then ADR will save the day. But with good voice work, the actor will ensure that most of what she or he says will be heard. Heard both in the sound mixer's cans and, because less will end up on the cutting-room floor, in the final film.

As a last thought - it's worth mentioning to actors that they will always have a secret audience on set. The director, producers, sound crew and coaches all wear headphones and all microphones stay on during shooting. There are things they might not want heard - so they should hold back that expletive! And remind them to ask the sound operator to release them from the microphone and transmitter when they need to leave set. I have to confess that on my first film, mine did reach a watery grave!

Mel Churcher has worked as dialogue coach on a number of films including, King Arthur, 102 Dalmations, The Hole, The Count of Monte Cristo, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and the new Forsyte Saga for television.



Caine, Michael, Acting in Film, 1990, Applause.
Kotby, M.N.,The Accent Method of Voice Therapy, Singular Press, 1995
Thyme-Frokjaer, K, Frokjaer-Jenson, B, The Accent Method, Speechmark Publishing Ltd., 2001
(This article was first published in Essays on Voice and Speech: Film Broadcast & E-media Coaching ed. Rocco Dal Vera , presented by the Voice & Speech Review 2003, a publication of the Voice & Speech Trainers Association. (Vasta) inc.)



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