This episode originally aired on Every Little Thing. Go subscribe!
Invisible actors create worlds of sound in everything you watch - from Jaws to The Wire. With special guests, Carl Gottlieb, screenwriter and author of "The Jaws Log"; Dann Fink, loop group director and co-owner of Loopers Unlimited; Stuart Stanley, Sound Supervisor; loop group members Eboni Booth, Dennis Carnegie, Axel Avin, Jr., Shannon Burkett, Daphne Gaines, and Rashad Edwards; and Will Ralston, supervising sound editor for The Wire, The Deuce, and Treme.
Defacto Sound is a sound team dedicated to making the world sound better.
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View Transcript ▶︎
You're listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz... The stories behind the world's most recognizable and interesting sounds. I'm Dallas Taylor. [SFX: NYC ambience, walla is present and upfront, occasional phrases and laughs poke out above the bed of noise]
Imagine you’re watching a movie. It’s a busy scene in some major downtown city, but there’s people in the background walking, talking, laughing, and generally going about their normal day. The city is alive with sound. However, on the film set, the background actors are actually completely silent.
[SFX: Ambiences bump out]
That’s right, none of those background sounds are actually happening. The actors in the background are told to to appear like they’re talking, laughing, and yelling, but not to actually make any noise while doing it. The film set is kept as quiet as possible to get a clean recording of the lead actors’ performances. This also goes for scenes in loud places like concerts or a club.
[SFX: Club atmosphere and music sneak in]
The actors may be yelling, but on set, there’s nothing else being heard.
[SFX: Quick bump out]
So, eventually all of that background chatter has to be recreated.
Recently, Flora Lichtman from the fantastic podcast Every Little Thing talked with some of the talented people who make those voices. And if you like Twenty Thousand Hertz, I think you’ll really like Every Little Thing. It’s about the small stuff that makes a big difference. Here’s their report.
Carl Gottlieb: Yeah, so do a bed of just people in the police station. One, two, three.
[SFX: Background chatter “I've got the plate and VIN numbers.”]
Looper: I had no idea that this type of work even existed.
[SFX: Background chatter “Get out of my neighborhood. We don't need you here. We don't need you in our neighborhood.”]
People in this industry don't know.
Looper: I didn't know until I got a call from Dan.
But it's in everything.
Looper: It is in everything.
[SFX: Background chatter “Okay, we'll just do a bottle, we'll just do another bottle then.”]
Looper: So, we just kind of have to come in and be a chameleon and do whatever they want. Now, when I watch a film or television show, I can't even watch it in the same way.
[SFX: Background chatter]
Carl Gottlieb: You shouldn't know that we're there. But once you do, you will always hear us.
Today, the actors you always hear, but never see. Their story starts 40 years ago, on the movie Jaws. Crew members from around the country had gathered on a beach in Cape Cod to make cinema history. It was magical. Carl Gottlieb: Ugh. This may be disappointing to you, but it was a movie, it was a difficult location, the crew was tired and angry and overworked and underpaid. It was a job.
Meet Carl Gottlieb.
Carl Gottlieb: We worked under difficult conditions. The mechanical shark had issues. And we had to work around all those things.
Carl co-wrote Jaws.
Carl Gottlieb: Screen credit it "Screenplay by Peter Benchley," who wrote the novel, "and Carl Gottlieb," who did the rewrite on location.
So, why did you have to do the rewrite on location? What was the problem with the script?
Carl Gottlieb: It was awful. It just wasn't good. And I shared with Steven, and he had sent me a copy of the proposed shooting script, with a note on the cover saying, "Eviscerate it."
So, Carl did eviscerate, and eventually the mechanical shark came to life, Steven Spielberg shot the film, and Verna Fields edited it.
Carl Gottlieb: We were in Verna Fields' home, where she was cutting in her garage, cutting the film. And there's a point in every film where the film is spotted for music and effects. In other words, the director says, "Oh, can we add some music under here?" And, "Oh, look. I see a lot of people in the shot. We're gonna need some crowd sounds there." Whenever there is a crowd scene being filmed, the extras were always instructed, "Don't say anything. Just move your lips, and we'll put in the sound later."
Can we just take a minute? Yes, the extras that you see in movies are often miming. And there are a couple reasons for this. First, putting in the background sound later allows you to get clear recordings of the primary actors. And it's also cheaper because of the way that actor pay scales work.
Carl Gottlieb: And then they would put in a crowd sound, either from a film library of other crowds, and sometimes if it was a small group or a group that had to express a particular emotion or something, the sound editors would grab a bunch of colleagues from the editorial department, they'd stand in the hall with a tape recorder, and they'd go, "Rhubarb, rhubarb, sassafras, sassafras, sera babachaba."
Wait, wait, wait- first of all...
Carl Gottlieb: And that would sound like a crowd. That would sound like a crowd.
Why were people saying, "Sassafras, sassafras, sassafras?" Why not just talk regularly?
Carl Gottlieb: If you get a room full of people and tell them to say, "Rhubarb, sassafras, sassafras, rhubarb," there are no specific words that emerge from the crowd. It becomes noise, rather than discernible dialogue, and for the purposes of filmmaking those days, that's basically all you needed was crowd noise, crowd background.
This is actually how it was done, but back in Verna's garage, the team had this offhand idea.
Carl Gottlieb: I don't know whether it was Verna or Steven, basically said, "Wouldn't it be great if we wanted to dial up, turn up the crowd sound, we could actually hear voices talking in New England accents and really nail down where we are?"
So, the idea is that even the background sound would be authentic. Carl Gottlieb: Exactly. People who were familiar with New England accents would talk like they were from Bar Harbor, Maine, or Boston, and all those voices had to be kind of appropriate.
So, is this insight into what Steven is like as a director? It sounds very meticulous.
Carl Gottlieb: It is very meticulous, and Steven is an extremely meticulous director. He wanted the background sound to be right.
We're talking about being obsessed with background noise.
Carl Gottlieb: Yep. Yes. Yes, you want it to be all right. Just like when you're looking at a crowd of extras in a Roman chariot spectacle, you don't want to see any of them wearing a wristwatch. So that's the same eye for detail.
Okay, so Carl and his then-partner Allison Caine cast the background sound of Jaws. They hired improv actors, who could do New England accents, and for three days, they transformed themselves into Massachusetts beach bums.
Like here, in this scene, early in the movie.
[SFX: beach scene plays in background]
Carl Gottlieb: I love that scene. First of all, it's a perfect short film in itself.
And if, for whatever reason, you haven't seen Jaws, this scene is a study in how to build tension. Things start out great. The crowd is having a lovely day at the beach.
Carl Gottlieb: There's a kid. There's people running into the water. You hear a radio announcer. It sounds like a transistor radio is playing on the beach.
[SFX: Radio Announcer Speaking]
Listen to that extremely appropriate ferry information.
Carl Gottlieb: So you hear some of that. You hear people laughing. You hear the guy calling to his dog.
[SFX: “Pippin! Pippin!”]
Carl Gottlieb: And you're building suspense because we, the audience, know that there's a shark out there.
[SFX: Jaw music]
And then you hear the scream. The individual voices start expressing curiosity, then shock. "Oh my God, look! Oh, oh God, look, look. Help, help somebody do something."
[SFX: Beach scene continues]
We hear it even in the tension of the voices of the background actors. And then, you realize the kid's dead. So it's all of a piece.
In this scene, Carl and Allison invented a new profession: human background sound acting. That offhand idea, born in Verna's garage, to make Jaws just a little more authentic, it was the start of something much bigger. 40 years later, these background sound actors are everywhere.
[Background sound actor montage]
Carl Gottlieb: So, it slowly became an industry standard.
Now, it's the industry standard for films and TV shows. And this is how the magic happens.
Dann Fink: Everybody up on the small lane. And this is-
We're on a background sound session for the CBS cop show Blue Bloods. It's a padded room, couches in the back, mics in the front.
[Background actor noise]
Dann Fink: Let's try one with a different tone, which is still the anger and whatnot, but the context of the argument is "get out of our neighborhood, this doesn't belong here." Like, it's you guys rising above his bad actions, instead of just going back at an attack towards him.
This is a what's-my-motivation conversation about background noise. This is rhubarb sassafras two-point-oh. In this session, the actors are watching tiny snippets of the show on loop. They call themselves "loopers." And for you sound nerds, looping is a totally separate process from Foley sound effects. It's just for human background sound.
Stuart Stanley: You wanna hit right onto look-who specials and get those going?
That's Stuart Stanley, the sound supervisor.
Dann Fink: Super. And you guys, like, to get actor-y-
That's Dan Fink, he's the head of this loop group. And you've heard Dan's noises in hundreds of movies and shows.
Dann Fink: Gravity, Arrival, Beauty and the Beast-
He's working with a group of loopers, and for a lot of these actors, looping is a well-paid side hustle.
Daphne Gaines:Hi, I'm Daphne Gaines.
Axel Avenjuliar: I am Axel Avenjuliar.
Ebony Booth: I'm Ebony Booth.
Shannon B.: I'm Shannon Burquette.
Dennis Carnegie: I'm Dennis Carnegie. I'm an actor.
Daphne Gaines: We have many roles on Blue Bloods, and so, from scene to scene, we change characters according to what's needed in the scene. What about today? What are the specific roles that you're playing today?
Axel Avenjuliar: Police officers.
[Background Police Officer chatter]
Axel Avenjuliar: Folks, please stand back. Ma'am, please step back. Everything's gonna be okay. We can give you no information right now.
Axel Avenjuliar: People working the mayor's office. Forensics, heavy forensics.
They're playing the ancillary characters, the faces out of focus, the specs on the horizon, the random elbow that pops into frame. And today, they're also doing the paramedics behind the detectives.
Axel Avenjuliar: They're hard at work trying to keep him alive.
Ebony Booth: That's an ambu bag.
Axel Avenjuliar: Ambu bag?
Ebony Booth: Yeah.
And they've gotta know paramedic speak, 'cause they're improving everything.
Looper: Pressure's dropping.
Looper: I've got the ambu bag.
Looper: Okay, BP.
Looper: He's losing a lot. Yep, BP's racing. You got him?
Looper: No, not good.
Dann Fink: Let's play it back.
[Blue Bloods scene plays]
Dann Fink: Good. I'll place it around where we need it. Good.
Do you have to do research?
Loopers: Yes, Yes.
Well, what does the research look like?
Axel Avenjuliar: I'm sure I'm on FBI and CIA lists, because I'm looking up "FBI glossary," "FBI language." I'm sure they're like, "Follow this guy."
Daphne Gaines: Because when you go up there, and those beeps go off, you have to have the information and you have to have it at the tip of your tongue.
I used to have it all written, and I had a book. I'm not kidding, a couple inches thick, of everything. And-
Like of all the kinds of roles you might play?
Daphne Gaines: Hospital, forensics.
Axel Avenjuliar: There is a white supremacist element in this episode
Axel Avenjuliar: We're just trying to secure the permits for the rally.
Axel Avenjuliar: So, we're playing white supremacists, and I'm African American. You can't see me, but yeah, that's kind of fun. Different perspective.
Is it fun?
Axel Avenjuliar: Yeah. It's a lot of fun. It's surprisingly fun.
Axel Avenjuliar: For me, as an African American actor, it's liberating in voice because I can be white, black, Italian, Spanish, British. You don't know what I am. But when I go on camera, for television, I'm limited by certain roles. So I'm not a stereotype. I'm a voice. 'Cause you don't know who or what I am.
Can you show ... Can you do some of your-
Axel Avenjuliar: Well, if I just sort of talked like I'm from England, you wouldn't know particularly if I was black or white or what. I'm just there.
Axel Avenjuliar: Or I can be a cop. What are you doing over here? Get up against the wall. What are you doing?
Axel Avenjuliar: But then I'm like, yeah man, I ain't do nothing. Why you putting me up against the wall, brother?
Axel Avenjuliar: So I can be all of those people, and Dan is wonderful at that. He doesn't put us in a box. 'Cause I have a million voices. A million voices.
Besides doing a million voices, a good looper also has to master the microest of non-verbal performances. Grunts, yells, sniffles, snorts.
Dann Fink: Or in this case, it was somebody falling off a skateboard. Getting clotheslined and falling off a skateboard.
Can you just give me a "watch it, watch it, watch it"?
Axel Avenjuliar: Watch it! Oh, God. [SFX: Grunting]
Dann Fink: Damn, that was good. I like that better.
It's always kind of a very delicate situation to get the exact right sound for what you're seeing.
What are the smallest types of sounds that you add to a scene?
Ebony Booth: We do sighs. We do simple breaths sometimes. And it's amazing when you go back and see a film that you've worked on, and you hear how a simple breath has changed the magnitude of that scene.
Dann Fink: There's a million ways to exhale.
So, little tiny things like that can really, really help storytell, and it all depends what mood you want to create.
Can you mess up the mood? What's the biggest faux-pas of looping?
Dann Fink: Oh, boy. The biggest challenge is because we're not front-and-center, we have to be uninteresting.
Axel Avenjuliar: Actors look for drama or conflict. But in this, we have to be nondescript. Interesting, but not interesting enough. So, we don't want to pull focus from what ... So it's difficult finding that medium line.
I wanna hear all about this because this seems like the opposite of every other kind of acting.
Dann Fink: We're the sizing on the canvas. We're not the painting. So, we have to be there as the foundation, so that everybody can become compelled and captivated by the foreground.
What are the traps that people fall into, where they make things too interesting?
Dann Fink: Oh, boy. It's ... And every single person has done it. Everybody, you get a gut instinct, and you're gonna go with it. Going negative is never really a productive way to go, but that's all improv. That's not just who ... That's just not us.
Ebony Booth: All of a sudden, talking about something ... like, "Oh, when my grandmother was shot in the head, by my brother who was".
Shannon B.: There's nowhere to go from there. It's horrible.
Ebony Booth: You start talking like that, and people are gonna be like ... If it's just loud enough, people are gonna be like, "What is going on over there?" So believe it or not, the tone is gonna come through.
If I were to listen for the best looping, are there go-to scenes in your ... Like, they crushed it in this movie or in this scene?
Ebony Booth: The good moments are the ones that I watch a film or show and I hear the people that I've worked with, or I know them and-
Axel Avenjuliar: I heard you the other night, in a bummy hotel, seedy as hell, having an argument through a door. And it was futsed. So you couldn't even really hear her voice, but it sounded so authentic. You could smell the urine in the staircases. It was just the voice was perfect. You couldn't hear it, but just this muffled argument. It was perfect.
40 years after Jaws, human background sound has become integral in films, TV shows, and more. It’s an art form all it’s own. And with every art form, there are perfectionists.
Ebony Booth: I mean, there are certain shows that the director slash creator writes almost all of the dialogue. He is creating an orchestra piece, and he wants ... he hears it all.
Axel Avenjuliar: Every single instrument, he has mapped in his mind, and he wants to hear it. It's incredible.
Ebony Booth: It is. And it shows. I mean, I think his pieces are-
Axel Avenjuliar: Stellar.
Ebony Booth: Stellar.
We’ll find out who they are talking about, after the break.
40 years ago, the profession of background sound acting was invented in a garage. Since then, actors and directors have elevated the practice into an art form. While Flora was reporting on this story, one name was brought up over and over again. It was the name of a master in the art of looping.
You know, when we were on this ... When we were meeting with this loop group in New York, just naturally in conversation, the loopers we were talking to started sort of talking in these hushed, reverent tones. You know where I'm going with this. About one director, one creator who is so meticulous that he scripts the looping.
Will Ralston: Yeah. David Simon.
So it's not apocryphal?
Will Ralston: No, unfortunately it's true.
This is Will Ralston. Will has been the supervising sound editor for many of David Simon's projects.
Will Ralston: We started this process on The Wire. That was the first show that I was involved with, that David worked on.
Just like with Steven Spielberg, Will says that David Simon's attention to looping is about this obsession with authenticity. He writes all the loopers' lines, and on The Wire, he hired non-actors for the loopers' parts, people from the neighborhoods where the story was set.
Will Ralston: I think all of this is really ultimately born of his lack of embrace of score. He doesn't like to hear music in his storytelling.
Oh, that's interesting.
Will Ralston: Which I think is ... It just kind of comes from his journalistic background. He's not ... none of us are harboring the illusion that we're creating a documentary per se, but there's something about a score that says, "We're trying to manipulate you now, and this is how you should feel, and this the energy we're going for." And he'd rather kind of build that world with off-screen sound.
Can looping act like a score?
Will Ralston: Totally. I mean, not just looping, but all of sound can really do that. I mean, going back to The Wire, especially like the Hamsterdam stuff, I mean creating that whole world like an open-air drug market ...
[SFX: market scene]
Everybody's talking at once, but you have to find a way to make them all kind of breathe and have their moment. They're all like instruments, and you're just trying to build this symphony that's really a cacophony of the open-air drug market.
Are there particular sounds or ways that you can make me feel something with looping, or with background sound?
Will Ralston: Yeah. I mean, just for an example, if you're watching a character walk down a street and it's dark, if you want that person to feel lonely, put some people in the background somewhere off camera having a good time. 'Cause they're having a good time without our character. You know? He's been separated from it.
Will Ralston: If you want that person to feel danger, put a distant siren. Or somebody ... A couple of people having an argument just around the corner, so that there's this sense of tension, and that there's something going wrong in the world. We don't have to see it. If we can hear it, we're gonna kind of attribute the emotion that we're feeling to the person we're looking at on camera.
This seems like subliminal storytelling.
Will Ralston: Oh, totally. Totally. The thing is, with sound, you're only doing a good job if nobody notices that you've done anything.
Well, we spoiled that. After listening to this, you'll always notice. If you want to.
Carl Gottlieb: It's kind of like the old adage about sausage, you know? You like sausage, but you don't want to see it made. Like every magic trick, you don't want to know exactly how it's done. So, you immerse, you surrender to the experience. And people who don't surrender to the experience, I think, our word for them is "nerds." Or "obsessives." Because they're looking at the elements of the piece, not the whole piece.
Well, I wonder if we could be both. Maybe you can be both a nerd and then surrender, if you want.
Carl Gottlieb: Yeah, exactly.
For everyday life, what are tips that people can take away from looping?
All Loopers: Listening.
Axel Avenjuliar: I think one thing we learn is to not talk wall-to-wall. Just ad nauseum, like constant, with no breaks. So take breaks. Listen. Have some air, you know? And I think... Listen, like when you're in a conversation, don't feel the need to drive it all the time. Sit back, listen for a second, intake that information, and then give it back. You know? Take your time.
Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound, a sound design team that makes television, film, and games sound amazing. Find out more at defacto sound dot com.
Announcer: Every Little Thing was produced by Phoebe Flanigan, with Flora Lichtman, Catherine Wells, Christine Driscoll, and Devan Taylor. Production help from Nicole Pasulka and Doug Baron. Dara Hirsch mixed this episode.
Announcer: If you want to look for loopers in credits, the official credit is "ADR Voice Casting," for "automated dialogue replacement."
You can hear more episodes of Every Little Thing by visiting their website: elt dot show. You can also subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
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