“You’ll never see a movie the same way again,” Dann Fink assures me.
A partner in New York City-based Loopers Unlimited, Fink doesn’t know how right he is. I’m about to embark on a very curious journey with him, an all-star audio team, an HBO producer, and eight handpicked actors. And when I come out the other side, I’ll understand an essential dimension of TV and movie sound that, up until today, I knew nothing about: loop group.
There’s plenty of hot coffee, muffins, bagels, and cream cheese at the ready for the crew this morning at Soundtrack, the multi-floor recording complex in NYC’s Flatiron district. Everybody’s going to need the nutrition, because today’s session is extra-special. On the agenda: record all of the loop group for the Season Four finale of HBO’s acclaimed series “Boardwalk Empire.”
A one-hour show with 58 total scenes, today’s episode is #48 and entitled “Farewell Daddy blues”, directed by Tim Van Patten, and the squad is going to have to move fast. There are 46 total cues to cover – so it’s a good thing that Fink and his companions are into this loop group thing.
The Soundtrack X-Factor
Virtually unnoticeable if handled correctly, “loop group” refers to the part of a film or TV show’s audio soundscape that must be created in post, providing crowd/ambient noises – as well as some ADR vocals – that are subtly essential to the reality of the scene.
Like every detail that is seen and heard on “Boardwalk Empire”, perfectly executed loop group is needed to execute the vision of the series’ highly esteemed creators. No less than the legendary Martin Scorcese, Terence Winter (“The Sopranos”), Mark Wahlberg (“Entourage”), Stephen Levinson (“In Treatment”), and Mr. Van Patten (“Game of Thrones”).
That explains why there’s a dream team of media professionals at Soundtrack’s Studio J today, all assembled to watch closely as the actors fastidiously chatter, laugh, cheer, gasp in horror, murmur indistinctively (“walla”), and also speak crisp lines of dialogue that – if mixed correctly – almost none of the shows millions of viewers will be able to clearly discern.
Fink and his invited thespians are joined by veteran post producer Brad Carpenter (“Bored to Death”), Emmy Award-winning Supervising Sound Editor Fred Rosenberg, Emmy Award-winning ADR Mixer Mark DeSimone (The Hunger Games, “Breaking Bad”) and Assistant Engineer Ric Schnupp.
Fink, who runs Loopers Unlimited along with his longtime business partner Bruce Winant, was drawn into loop group after years of experience in the Broadway world. In the likely event that he meets somebody at a cocktail party who’s unfamiliar with loop group, he’s got an explanation at the ready.
“I’ll usually start by asking them if they know what Foley/SFX is – very often they do – and I say we do the same thing just with actors instead of sound effects, to recreate the sound backgrounds of the environment in a scene,” Fink says. “If we’re anywhere with people speaking, I tell them to be quiet and look and listen for a moment. I explain how all of the people we see making that sound in a film would have been background actors who were being silent, and why. So someone like me works with the editorial and directorial team to figure out how to create or recreate the organic sounds of that scene and moment. Once in a while I’ll demonstrate by picking someone across the room and ‘looping’ him. People catch on fairly quickly and are usually very intrigued.
“I’ve heard a few explanations for why the practice is called loop group,” Fink continues, “and the one that seems the most logical to me is that in the early days of what we now call ADR (automated dialog replacement), actors performed dialogue replacement by speaking their lines in sync to repeating loops of the image that were matched with strips of recording tape, that looped over and over. Hence ‘Looping.’ Loop group just specifies that versus principal ADR.”
Proprietors of loop group have a harder time finding heroes then many of the other verticals in TV and film production, since one hallmark of excellent looping is that it’s undiscernable. When pressed, however, Fink notes the work done on the Harry Potter film series as exemplary in its sonic effectiveness.
“When a team uses loop group as a textural element for the storytelling, as organically and delicately as they do Foley – to illuminate a moment, underscore an energy or heighten an emotion – that’s inspirational,” he states. “As a group leader, the payoff is when I get to let the actors dig into their years of craft and training, and they turn in performances that blow my mind. Happens all the time.”
Now in its fourth season, “Boardwalk Empire” – which stars Steve Buscemi as a corrupt political kingpin in prohibition-era Atlantic City – is a certifiable hit. The series has 40 primetime Emmy award nominations to its credit with 17 wins, and not surprisingly HBO recently renewed “Boardwalk” for a fifth season.
Today’s episode, “Farewell Daddy Blues,” is going to send Season Four off with plenty of excitement, and Fink – who spotted the episode with the production team weeks before at Brooklyn’s Steiner Studios where the show gets shot – is sufficiently motivated.
“This episode is as big as any Scorcese feature,” Fink says. “You’re going to see us in high gear, being every imaginable type of person: everyone from patrons and employees of an Atlantic City nightclub not unlike the Cotton Club, to a packed courtroom, all the way down to residents of a backwater bar in Tampa in 1924.”
Fink ushers a group of actors into the spacious, high-ceilinged live room of Studio J, where Rosenberg is already set up at a computer workstation and ready to monitor the action. With over three decades of TV and film audio experience, Rosenberg has acted as a sound editor, dialogue editor, ADR editor, or supervising sound editor. His reel includes When the Levees Broke, The Aviator, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gangs of New York, Shaft (2000), O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Ice Storm, Fargo, The Silence of the Lambs, “The Equalizer”, and dozens more.
As supervising sound editor for “Boardwalk Empire,” Rosenberg’s role is to oversee all aspects of the show’s postproduction sound except for the music. “I’m kind of the interface between the producers, the editors, and the mixer of the show,” says Rosenberg, who’s as colorful a character as any of the actors in the room. “I interpret what they ask for, and work with our sound editors as we try to realize what the filmmakers want to do.
“Loop group is important because there are places where you need human voices to sell the illusion. The unique thing about ‘Boardwalk’ is that there is a certain amount of humor behind it – that can come into play when we’re creating different textures.”
That levity is obvious right away when the session gets underway. Fink is half-camp counselor, half-cheerleader as he prepares his group of actors – a racially diverse, young-to-middle-aged ensemble of four men and four women — for the long day ahead.
“I make this disclaimer every time,” he reminds the upbeat group, “we all need to be a whole bunch of different people here – different races and ages! If what you do is not a match to the visual that I see, no ego if we have you sit back down – we all know that. Remember, jargon and stuff like that is OK in teeny little pieces, but everyone should pretty much speak in the English that we speak every day.”