Jul/Aug 2003 Nonfiction

Loop Slut

by Ann Anderson


I'm a looper, and lest you think that I need a 12-step program, let me assure you that looping is not my condition-it's my job. Looping is one of the least-known jobs in show business, but dozens of actors make their living at it. We fix the dialog track of motion pictures and TV shows by pretending to be other actors. More about that in a minute. This morning, as I drive to the Burbank post-production house where I'll loop a movie for Showtime, I ponder all my usual questions: Will we finish on time? Will the company brass interfere? Will my crew be in good form?

I've worked on hundreds of shows, and I know that some sessions run smoothly and some don't. I've learned to expect certain contingencies: balky equipment, cranky producers, flaky actors, acts of God. No matter what happens, it's my job to ensure that the end product satisfies the client. Today, my synapses are firing with extra questions: Will it be weird to see my ex-husband? Will it be even weirder to be his boss? What was I thinking when I hired him for this job?

My ex and I started looping in 1980, the year we married. When we broke up in 1983, I started my own group; that is, I convinced producers to hire me to coordinate the post-production voice-overs on their shows. As a loop group coordinator, my job is to preview shows, hire actors with appropriate vocal skills (e.g. children's voices, foreign accents), coordinate recording sessions with sound editors and associate producers, and direct the actors and myself. When we separated, my ex went to work for one of my professional rivals. Thus, he became an employee and I became an employer-an ironic development considering how often he knocked me about my lack of ambition. Since we split, I've bumped into him twice. Then one day the phone rang.

"Annie." Just that, my name as a statement-you are there, I am here. Here we be.

I knew it was him. He and my dad are the only people who ever called me Annie. My current husband calls me "Ann" or "Sweetie."



"Hey, Jack, what's doing?" I strove to speak in an even, unhurried tone. My standing strategy, were I to see or hear from him, was to appear blithe, suave, unconcerned-like one of those Noel Coward characters who drops bon mots as if they were cigarette ashes.

When we were a couple, Jack's mood would shift from neutral to sullen faster than a car with a bad transmission. He'd suddenly fold his arms, clamp his lips into a thin, white line, and refuse to speak to me for reasons I couldn't fathom and which he would not discuss. His silent rigidity made me hysterical with frustration. An especially awful incident occurred almost twenty years ago; I screamed at him backstage after we had finished performing in a children's show, for God's sake. Onstage, Jack, who tended to be out of control physically, had clocked me in the face with a poorly-timed gesture because he didn't know (or care?) that I was standing right next to him. When I tried to talk to him about it afterward, he turned his back on me, and that set me off. I knew that everyone in the building could hear me-the other actors in the dressing room certainly heard me-but I couldn't stop hollering. As Jack limned his stone wall imitation, I grew more and more shrill in a futile attempt to get through to him. For years afterward, Jack brought that incident up every time he questioned our compatibility. My histrionics on that day (that one day!) were ammunition that he used repeatedly to shame me, a tactic that wouldn't have worked had I not already been filled with self-loathing.

A short time after that backstage incident, I married the guy. I believed that Jack was my best shot at a relationship, so I accepted his proposal. (You may be wondering what he saw in me. Well, I could be a lot of fun, but truthfully, I wasn't ready to be anybody's wife.)

As I tried to concentrate on our present-time conversation, our eight-year history as a couple filled my head and made it hard to listen.

"Did you know I'm not working for Leigh anymore?" he said.

"Nope, didn't know that."

"Well, if you can use me, I'm available," he said.

We chatted for a minute more, and that was that. Two weeks later, I was hired to coordinate the looping on this TV movie. After debating for a few hours whether to employ my ex, I offered him the job. He's been looping as long as I have, so I'm confident that his work will be fine. I told myself that it's time to see if we can be colleagues again, but that's not the real reason I hired him. I was determined to show him that on my own, I had become cooled-out and in control. Perhaps proving to him that I had overcome my youthful excesses would help me eradicate some lingering shame. The image of younger, immature me, the one that neither Jack nor I liked very much, still cluttered my consciousness like a faded photo in a dusty cardboard box. It was time to chuck it into the trash.

Beyond that, I was simply curious. What's he like these days, and how will I feel when I see him again? And another thing: When we split up, he was a successful actor, and I was a struggling one. It's just so delicious that almost twenty years later, he came to me for a job.



This is looping: In any movie or TV show, the background players, called extras, only pretend to talk. That's because actors with scripted lines, or principals, have to be recorded with no ambient noise. In a restaurant, office, street, hospital, battlefield, courtroom, or any scene with extras, their dialogue is added later, in post-production, by a group of improvisational actors called loopers. It's our job to "sweeten" the dialog track, or to make a scene seem more populated if there are too few people on screen. Loopers fill in phone conversations, add hospital or airport pages, "fight grunts," weeping noises, laughter, and bits of dialog. Looping encompasses a wide variety of vocal odd jobs. The operative phrase, sometimes used as a joke is, "We'll fix it in post."

Principal dialogue has to be looped if it wasn't recorded cleanly. For example, if a plane drones overhead while a scene is shot, the actors may have to re-do some lines during post-production. Actors sometimes flub lines, and if there's no time for a re-take, the line will be looped-the classic application for "we'll fix it in post." If the actor isn't available (post production goes on for weeks after a picture is shot), loopers do a "sound-alike." My favorite sound-alike was for a lead actor on a series who tried to say "bribe attempt," and it came out "brabatap."



It's 8:50 am. I enter the studio, a one-story cinder block box on a section of Burbank Boulevard lined with auto body shops and taco stands. I turn up the corners of my mouth in an approximation of a smile, take a deep breath and walk into the actors' lounge.

The first person I spot is Eddie. "Hey," he says as he leans toward me for a hug and an air smooch. Good old Eddie. He's one of my most reliable loopers. A stable family man, he doesn't take anything too seriously, including himself. He's great at looping teenagers and anything sports-related. I'll rely on him to lead the football scenes.

Dino is here, and I repeat the greeting. Dino is the nicest guy in the world, and his concentration never flags. He had a malignant brain tumor removed three years ago. He's still on chemo, and not once have I heard him complain.

A man slumped in the corner of the leather sofa waggles his fingers at me. Who is this chunky middle-aged guy in shorts and a baseball cap? He looks like an overgrown ten-year-old. Oh. It's my ex.

"Hi, Ann."

"Hi, Jack, nice to see you." He shoots me a tight, closed-mouth smile. At least I think it was a smile. It might have been a tic. I scan my brain for verbiage, but I'm fresh out of words. I wonder if this sudden bout of aphasia means that I'm having a tiny stroke. My head feels so tight, it seems entirely possible. I pivot toward the counter with the coffee machine and pastries. Cherry or cheese? Bagel or donut? I focus on the tray as if I were studying a CAT scan of my own aneurysm.

The coffee ritual buys time. While I pour and stir the powdered creamer (I won't actually drink this swill), I consider my appearance. Immediately, I regret the discount store slacks. And what's with the clunky shoes? Why, for God's sake, didn't I demonstrate some fashion sense? Have I aged as much as he has? Nah, I decide. No way. Does he notice that I'm thinner? Why did I add the pressure of working with my ex to a day that has plenty of challenges already built in? I wish I were on Prozac so I could take some right now. I walk down the hall to the studio, grateful to be alone again, even for a few seconds.



Joe, the ADR editor, is at his desk. The initials stand for automated dialog recording, the technical term for looping.

"Joe, hi. I didn't know you were on this picture."

He rises and extends his hand. "You're leading the group today?" he asks. "Great," he says as I nod my head affirmatively.

Joe and I make a good team. We've been paired on a couple of TV series, and we both like to work fast, omitting cues that don't really help to tell the story.

"Joe, I have an idea, " I say. "How about we record some generic hallway walla so we don't have to do a bed for every cue?" Walla is the onomatopoeic word for indistinct crowd noise, as in wallawallawalla.

"You read my mind," he says. "I was going to suggest that." Fantastic. We've agreed on a crucial short cut. The woman who hired me and booked studio time for this session expects us to cram two days worth of work into one. Fortunately, Joe understands that something has to give, so now we have a way to complete the job on time.

On today's TV movie, we have 145 cues. A cue is a small segment of the picture, sometimes a few seconds long, sometimes a few minutes. They're notated like this on pages called cue sheets: 01:22:34:08 INT. HIGH SCHOOL. That tells me at what point in the picture the cue begins, and that it's an interior shot with a lot of extras. Most of the scenes in this movie take place in a high school hallway and lunchroom, and are packed with extras. I have eight actors on my crew today, including me, and we'll have to create the sound of a big, teenage crowd all day long. This job will require all my concentration and stamina.

We'll have to average 18 cues per hour-an extremely fast pace. Each cue requires multiple takes, because we have to layer the tracks to sound like a big crowd. We'll do a "donut," so called because we walk in a circle to create the sound of people in motion. Then we'll do "call-outs," where we stand in a line and shout something one at a time to make vocal peaks, which add texture. Finally, we'll do "specifics" for the extras who are obviously saying something that should be heard. We have to improvise the dialogue when we can't read their lips and time our words precisely to fit their mouth movements. Experienced loopers make looping look easy, which is why producers think it is easy.

This movie is a hair better than most of the TV movies I've looped, but that's not saying much. It's about teenage violence and freedom of speech, which are marketable topics in the wake of the Columbine shootings. I've worked on dozens of TV movies about the "disease of the week," sociopathic spouses, homicidal children, courtroom battles, and vehicular disasters. I've looped every former series lead who is now relegated to cheap cable fare. I've looped wars both modern and historical, foreign and domestic. I've watched plucky housewives, who, "based on a true story," take on the school board, the sheriff, City Hall, The System. I've looped everything with the words "Desperate," "Deadly," or "Murderous" in the title. After a while, all series episodes and TV movies blend into one long looping session in my brain pan. It doesn't matter to me if a show is good or bad. I'm paid the same session fee for every job. I'll loop anything for union scale because a job is a job is a job. I'm a loop slut.

Someone in the booth is waving at me, and a tinny "Good morning, Ann," rattles through the speakers. It is Herself, the woman who hired me, the Vice-President of Post Production. Please let her be busy with other Very Important Things today. This lady thrives on chaos, and if there isn't any, she'll create some. One of my loopers said of her, "She throws a baby in the swimming pool, jumps in, pulls it out and yells, 'Look, I saved a baby!'"



We meet in the hall. She shuffles up to me in a baby doll dress accessorized with black tights and patent leather Mary Janes. Despite the elementary school affectation, one can clearly see that she's in her mid-thirties. Her emotional dial, usually set to fury, seems to be oscillating between sorrow and terror. Her shoulders droop on her tiny frame, her hands shake, and her eyes are huge and watery. I take an instinctive step back.

"I have to leave," she says with a quaver in her breathy voice. "There's something I have to do." Yippee! I command my face to look sympathetic. "Not to worry," I say in a grave tone. "The show is in good hands." She extends her arms for a hug. I can feel her desperation through her clothing. If she didn't habitually splash her bad feelings all over everyone like a kid in a mud puddle, I'd feel sorry for her. She says goodbye. I reenter the studio with a light heart.


01:25:34:21 INT. ADR STAGE

Joe tells me that the director won't show up until at least noon. This day is getting better and better. When it's just the loopers, ADR editor, and the mixer in the booth, we call it working without adult supervision. Those sessions are my favorite.

The other loopers filter in, and we fill out our paperwork. We've filled out this Screen Actors Guild standard contract hundreds of times, and we yak as we go through the motions. Eddie and Dino talk sports. Lara and Cam, who are good friends outside of work, huddle in a nimbus of gossipy whispers. My long-time colleague Melanee is here. We compare footwear with Kerry, who is working with me for the first time. My ex sits by himself, signing his papers with a flourish.

The room is roughly fifteen by thirty feet. A movie screen is at one end, and the loopers, microphones, music stand (for the cue sheets), headphones, and Joe's desk are at the other. The room is carpeted. The walls are lined with egg crate foam. Aside from the metal microphone stands, this room could double as a padded cell.

We dive in. The first scene, the background for the opening credits, is a montage of kids scrambling off a yellow bus and entering their school. It's been edited MTV-style-lots of quick cuts. Each cut requires a donut, specifics, and call-outs. It's essential that we maintain a consistent, high energy level, which is the hardest thing about looping kids. I could have hired real teenagers, but I'd rather have experienced loopers who can sound young. (Kerry, at age 21, isn't far removed from teen age, which is why I hired her. The rest of my crew, with whom I've worked for years, range in age from 35 to 50.)

We start with a one-sided donut, meaning we talk on the half of the circle closest to the microphone. "Hey, wait up!" "Meet me at my locker after fifth period!" "Can't-I have play practice!" This is the same stuff we said when we were in high school, and we figure-changes in slang aside-that the experience blooms perennially. We pitch our voices higher to sound younger and project as if we were yelling across a large parking lot.

There are mini-scenes all over the place. We have to do specifics for a group of kids who hassle someone. ("You gonna cry, loser?") There are more specifics for kids who are harangued by a teacher. We need headphones for this cue because we have to respond to the teacher's dialog. There's a group of girls by a locker, a boy who trips and falls. ("ehh-oofff!"-It's important to do a two-part sound: first the stumble, then the impact of body on linoleum.)

My ex asks, "What about those two kids on screen left?" He spots background details that not every looper would catch on first viewing. Every time he sees something such as a couple doing a "pass-by," he asks if I want to cover it. I've heard that his former employer, my competitor, works in excruciating detail, and that's obviously his habit as well. My style is to record only the tracks that I know from experience that the editor can really use, which saves everybody's time and the producer's money. I think Is he implying that my work is sloppy? Then, Whoa, chill, he's just trying to be helpful. I observe his face, which at the moment is open and guileless. Oh, I see. He's trying to make a good impression on me. I'm his employer. As if to confirm my thoughts, he says, "I really like the way you work. Thanks for not wasting time."

So much has changed since we divorced, and so much is the same. We met twenty-eight years ago, when we were hired to perform in an improvised musical review called The Proposition. Jack and I didn't know it at the time, but our five-year tenure in the show, first on tour, then in the Boston company, then off-Broadway, honed the skills we'd use later as loopers. Our off-stage relationship was rocky from the start, but we always gelled at work. Our best creation was a parody of 70s husband/wife singer-songwriters like Ashford and Simpson. Trading off sappy lyrics, we'd mind-meld on the improvised choruses, Jack singing melody while I harmonized. Our exchanges used to vibrate with a love-hate volatility that made our performances spark and our off-stage relationship explode. I can feel that same electric charge right now, but I'm not sure if it exists in the present moment, or if I'm summoning it from memory. It's something like the mostly uncomfortable sensation-overlaid with a slightly stimulating frisson-of having to sneeze.

I can't read his face anymore. I can feel his vibe, though. I think that he's more resigned and sad than he used to be. I was originally attracted by his cockiness, which had a callow charm when we were twenty-three. He was never what you'd call nice, but I wasn't looking for nice. Immature and terrified by the demands of adulthood, I was looking to be saved. Jack had unshakeable faith in the inevitability of his own success, and I wanted to be near the confidence I lacked. I thought I could absorb some fortunate mojo by association.

His single-minded focus on making it as an actor was ultimately a factor that wedged us apart. As his career grew, so did his desire for a traditional wife-someone who would subsume her own interests for the sake of his success. In short, he wanted me to replicate his mother, a housewife who bore six children. Compounding my confusion about my role in our marriage, he also wanted me to establish my own presence in show biz, as long as my star did not ascend higher than his.

I had worked as a theater actor since I was eighteen, but in the move with Jack from New York to Hollywood in my late twenties, I veered into an altogether different trajectory. Auditioning for plays was challenging, but auditions for TV shows-which were the best bet for employment in L.A.-were repulsive. The scripts were awful. Hollywood agents were venal, and everyone treated actors like beef on the hoof. Unlike theater people, no one in television seemed to have any taste or aesthetic sense. Frankly, I couldn't stand having my work evaluated by accounting majors. I knew I could work in TV or even films if I persisted for as long as it took, but would it be worth it? I began to think not. Moving from New York City to earthquake country caused a tectonic shift in my thinking. How, I wondered, should I spend my productive years? I was trained for a conventional acting career, but was there another, better way to use my skills? (As it turned out, the answer was yes: looping.) As my identity took shape, partly as a natural consequence of surviving my twenties, I no longer needed to bask in an audience's approval or someone else's accomplishments. I had a few plans of my own, such as developing my intellect, personality, character, and yes, my own income. I wanted a solid foundation upon which to build my life. Being dependent on a preoccupied husband while making half-hearted stabs at TV jobs wasn't cutting it. Besides, I had another important fact to face: Jack and I no longer liked each other. To me, his efforts at networking looked like exercises in insincerity. (If the next time I have dinner with a William Morris agent is never, it'll be too soon.) His confidence morphed into arrogance. In his eyes, my burgeoning assertiveness equaled ball-busting; my expressiveness was a lack of self-control. (To be fair, I did have a bad temper, but I felt he should have given me points for working on it.) The characteristics that we most valued in ourselves became the very qualities that made us unattractive to each other. He and I were fine colleagues but a lousy couple. We went our separate ways. Now that we've both been married to other people for a long time, our shared frame of reference is the past tense and a polite interest in each other's family members.

I'm happy that he eventually got the things that he wanted: kids, an on-camera as well as a looping career, and a wife who accepts him as he is, or so I'm told. I'm happy that I got the things that I wanted: no kids, a measure of professional autonomy as a loop group coordinator, two graduate degrees, and a husband who thinks I'm the best thing since the TV remote control.



It's lunch time. Six of us walk under the hazy Burbank sun to the Mexican place up the street. My ex and Eddie eat at the sports bar next door. Does that mean something, I wonder. Is Jack already sick of my company? Geez, Ann, not everything has to do with you! Maybe he doesn't like Mexican food.

Whenever I leave the ADR stage, I take off my coordinator hat. At the restaurant with familiar co-workers, I sink into a chair and take a deep breath. "What do you think, guys? Should I take her to temple and church?" Lara asks. Lara is a nice Jewish girl who married a good Catholic boy, and they're not sure what to do about their kid's religious training.

"I have no idea," I say around a mouthful of chicken stew. "I'm just glad I don't have to decide." We chatter on as we make our food disappear. This is a real Mom and Pop Mexican joint, not the corporate, homogenized chain store kind. This is a seedy part of town, but you can score some righteous chow.


02:30:19:43 INT. ADR STAGE

We resume work at two, and we're humming along. Then the director shows up. He looks like he's about twenty-four, which makes him less than half my age. When did these pishers start directing? What's next? TV movies directed in utero? To my great gratification, he watches us do a few cues from the booth, and then goes to the lounge to make phone calls.

Suddenly, the equipment malfunctions. The picture won't "lock," which means the computer isn't synchronizing the sound and the picture. I knew this day was going too well. Jack stands near me and leafs through the cue sheets to see how much we have left. The soles of my feet start to itch. I wonder if it's possible to be physically allergic to someone.

We do a half-dozen takes of the same cue before the engineers work out the bug. The energy in the room has drained like water from a leaky bucket. I have to use my mommy voice to push us to the end of the cues. "Focus, please. No talking on the beeps."

Joe ushers me to a corner of the room. "He wants to review some cues we did before lunch," he says, indicating the director with a nod. We shrug at each other. The director is still on the phone, so until he hangs up, all we can do is hang out. I pick greasy chocolate frosting off a stale donut and talk-sotto voce-to Dino.

"Am I being strange today?" I ask.

"No more than usual," he says.

"Gee, thanks. C'mon, you know what I mean." I say with tiny glance toward Jack.

"Naw, you're doing fine." Dino pats me on the back and meanders off. I look around the room at my crew. Wrangling them can be like trying to nail Jello to the wall some days, but they sure are talented.

While I listen to Cam tell a personal anecdote ("On my answering machine! At seven a.m! On a Sunday!"), I watch Jack out of the corner of my eye. That solid sense of "Jackness" that made his youthful personality pop is still there. It's been translated into a prosperous middle-aged mask. This is no longer an aspiring kid. This is a tax-payer, a property owner, a parent, a golfer. I don't really know this guy, and I can tell from the veiled look in his eyes that I never will.

Jack was diagnosed with type II diabetes many years ago, and the disease has taken its toll. His skin is mottled and veiny. His shape is much more square than it used to be, but he's not just heavier, he's weighted down. I sense the gravitational pull of disappointment just under his practiced, cooled-out veneer. Few actors except for maybe "A list" movie stars are as successful as they want to be. I imagine that's also true of Jack, but in his case, I sense a deeper, more existential unease. I can see it in the grim way he mimes a golf swing. I think There's something missing in his life. I don't know what it is. I wonder if he does.

I also wonder if Jack can see that I'm more upbeat, well-regarded, and in command of my gifts and my person. I'm not the insecure, socially inept little girl who married him in a fit of mutually poor judgement. I want him to know that I'm happy, goddammit.

I watch myself overacting for his benefit between cues. Dino is a big fat liar; I am behaving strangely. Actually, I'm being phony. My smile is too broad, my laugh is too hearty. I'm trying to make like a swan, gliding on the surface while paddling like mad underneath, but I fear the effort is all too visible. During a cue, while I'm shouting "Can I borrow your notes for English?" the day snaps into frame. I see why I hired Jack. I was hoping that we could make a fresh start and be pals. Jack has no such agenda. I watch him standing stiffly in the corner with his hands in his pockets. He's here for the paycheck. I just happen to be the one who booked him for the job. He knows that I turned out okay, but I don't think he cares.

The director hangs up the phone, and I make a dash to grab his attention before he dials another number. I push open the heavy, sound-proofed studio door and enter the booth. "Um, I just want to remind you that we go into overtime at six," I say as humbly as I can. I doubt if my tone is convincing. "Don't I get extra time for the equipment breakdown?" he says. I knew he was going to ask me that. It's such a typically young director thing to say. I think, Sure, we'll waive overtime pay because your project is so special, but I say, "I know we can finish by six if we pick up the pace."

We make it to the last cue. The director listens to a cue from the morning in which we improvised a game show that's supposed to emanate from a character's TV. He wants to hear a sports question. Everyone smiles as Eddie stands up at the mic. Eddie launches into a complicated baseball question-something about the Chicago Black Sox-that fills the cue to the nanosecond in a perfect game show announcer voice. It's the best loop of the day, and all the loopers applaud.

We re-do a couple of other cues, and the director says, "That's a wrap." It's 5:45. We completed a job that could have easily taken two days in under eight hours. I can't help thinking, Damn, I'm good. Actually, we're all damn good. That's why I hired these people.

The tracks we made today will be delivered to the "dub stage," where they'll be mixed with principal dialog, music, and sound effects. Some of the loop tracks will be audible, but others will be played at an almost subliminal level, and much will be discarded.

In spite of my early experiences with the television business, I've spent over two decades working in the industry, and I'm fine with that. Unlike on-camera actors, I don't have to audition, get up early, stay up late, or even look my best. I've earned perks that relatively few actors accrue: pension, residuals, health insurance. I avoid the indignities of ageism and sexism that many actresses suffer. I milk the cow without being kicked by it.

I shake the director's hand. "Good luck with the picture," I say. Joe and I thank each other, and he winks at me. I call out a general goodbye to the room. I consider saying a particular goodbye to Jack, but instead grab my briefcase and bolt.



I walk fast to work out the tension in my muscles. San Fernando Valley smog feels better in my lungs than the air that was recycled through the windowless studio all day. No matter what kind of session I have, lengthy or brief, difficult or easy, I always feel liberated once I'm on my way home. Today I have that sensation more than ever.

I was watching myself all day. I want to shimmy from head to foot like a big, wet dog and shake off the self-consciousness. In spite of my fondness for Jack, we are now, as always, a terrible match. I wish him well, but I see that my finer feelings for him exist more in theory than in actual practice. We can behave reasonably with each other, but what an effort! I must have been hoping to see an Ideal Jack, but he's still Real Jack, only older and more so. Spending the day with him had all the charm of a pelvic exam.

Traffic is light. I think I'll stop for take-out-Indian, my husband's favorite. I can't wait to tell him about my day, including what it was like to hang out with Jack. Ken's not only my hubby, he's my very best bud. Tonight, we'll eat vegetable biryani and tandoori chicken. We'll make each other laugh. Then we'll flip through the TV channels and probably hear my voice in something I looped.


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