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INTERVIEW: Jackie Johnson – Dialog Editor

Jackie took time out from her crazy schedule to talk with us about the art and process of dialog editing. She is also an accomplished pianist and composer.

Woody: How did you first get into dialog editing?

Jackie: I was just a musician and I wanted to do something else. My major had been film and I thought, okay, well, maybe music editing because you know, I know music and I like computers (Laughs). How’s that for a brilliant way to get into something? Then I went over to Digital Sound Works where a friend of mine had sent me and they said “well we don’t do music editing here, we do dialog editing, but, you know, we could teach you.” And they just hired me as an assistant dialog editor, showed me how to do all the assistant dialog editing stuff and from there they taught me dialog editing. It’s just unbelievable that they picked me over other people who went to school for four years to do to the exact same thing. They picked me with no experience because they wanted to teach me from scratch their way, you know.

Woody: Right.

Jackie: And because, you know, I’m a nice person (Laugh). There’s that of course. (Laughs)

Woody: How long does a feature dialog edit take?

Jackie: Well it’s pretty standard. I mean, it’s generally about two weeks. This is for smaller, Indie pictures, major motion pictures can take quite a bit longer because of picture changes.

Woody: For what length picture?

Jackie: An hour and a half, 90 minutes.

Woody: A ten day edit?

Jackie: Yeah. I mean if they throw extra things at you like, I don’t know, finding alts or whatever, that’s the assistant’s job anyway, then you know then things can start to take longer. But generally for your basic dialog edit, removing the PFX (Production Effects) and laying out the tracks properly for the mixer, yeah it’s a couple weeks.

Woody: So what is your process when you start?

Jackie: The process. My first step is, I should say is to watch the picture, but it’s not because I get too eager. What I do is remove all the stuff that doesn’t need to be in there, like if they give you stereo tracks there’s always one track that sounds terrible. So you remove whatever is the excess. Sometimes your stereo tracks are needed because one is on one person and one is on the other and it’s an ambient and you need them both. But a lot of the time you’ve got to get rid of all the excess.

Jackie: Then the first thing I do is delete all the automation that the picture editor has created. I do a universal read “off ‘for all automation. And there may be some choices that the picture editor made, like in this last movie I did somebody was beating somebody up and the production sound slowly faded out as the music came up. So it’s good to know that, but that’s on the guide track, I don’t need to see his automation in order to know that happens, I see that from the guide track.

That’s one of the rules – the guide track is king. Because that’s the decision that the director has made. They said, okay, this is what we like. So if you don’t hear it in the guide it doesn’t go on the edit, even if it makes sense or vice versa.

Woody: What next?

Jackie: I lay out the tracks – one, two, three, four and five- to make sense for the mixer. For example – you have “Scene One C” all on one track cause it’s all from one angle, so it’s all one particular sound. You have “Scene One A” on the next track which is all from the close up. And you have “Scene One F” which is a distant shot or whatever all on a different track so that the mixer can do his one mix on each track. (Laughs) I assume that’s what you guys do. That’s what I was taught to do (Laugh).

Woody: That’s the right approach. You consider track management as an important part of the job?

Jackie: I think whatever we have to do to make it easier for the mixer the better, because the mixer and the mixing stage is what costs money. So whatever we can do to save time on the mixing stage is what our job is. Cleaning things up, making things uniform, making things easy to see and read and understand for the mixer I think is the most important part.

Woody: Do you bring your own materials to add to the edit?

Jackie: I have a little CD of fills (roomtones) I bring that I keep adding to if I find something brilliantly clean and wonderful, which is rare. And that is another whole issue that is very important. Roomtone is key. I would say if you’re not going to record room tone, don’t bother recording the movie. Here’s the thing, even if you have perfect sound recorded on set, you still need room tone because stuff does get pulled out even if your production dialog is perfectly recorded.

You know, you listen to any room and you think, oh that’s just quiet, but really, it’s just so different from every other room. It’s unbelievable how I can take room tone from my little folder that sounds like it might match the other room and I cut it in and it is completely different. There’s no way to match exactly any room without recording that room itself. The only way around that is to find enough of the real room tone and piece it all together because you don’t have one big long piece. You piece it all together and then create one big long fade into one of your own room tones where you actually have a 10 second piece. And do it subtly enough. Room tone is the key to a clean edit, for sure.

You need it for the basic edit, you need it for the PFX track when you pull stuff out, and you need it for the ADR when you pull that production dialog out.

Woody: For someone who may not know – what exactly is PFX?

Jackie: Any production audio without dialog, people opening and closing doors, walking, sitting, putting their coffee cup down, even breathing, panting, if they’re running around or whatever it may be, all of that needs to go on a PFX track cause it makes for a better M & E (Music and Effects Track) in the long run. If it’s something that they’re going to have to replace with Foley, if it’s an action that you actually need to see sound for, yeah, that needs to go on an M & E because it’s the real sound. You don’t want to have to Foley absolutely everything just for the M & E.

Woody: That sounds like it’s a huge part of the dialog edit.

Jackie: That is the most tedious part of the job. And that is actually where room tone becomes most important because you tend to pull out chunks and you know you do have to back fill it because at some point they may choose Foley over the production effects at which point they won’t have any sound in the background. If they use production effects of the PFX track, great, you’re all fine, but you need to back fill it anyway because during the mix they may go – “you know what, I like the footsteps from the Foley people better.

Backfilling means putting in room tone so that the dialog track plays without the replaced dialog or the PFX – seamless, as if nothing was removed. And the important part about PFX is you have to ramp in and ramp out of the PFX tracks, you can’t just pull out the handles. If you put the coffee cup clanking sound onto the PFX track and then simply pull out the handles you’ll have the same sound on the PFX track that you have on the dialog track and they are going to phase against each other. So you have to find different sounds to ramp in and out of the PFX track or out of the dialog track so that you do not have the same sound overlapping each other. Cause then you end up phasing tracks now playing together and then the mixer gets really mad at you (Laughs).

Woody: So now we know that a dialog editor pulls the production effects onto it’s own track the PFX track.   What then is an “X” track?

Jackie: An X track is something that you need to save, but you’re probably not going to use. It’s where the bad sound goes. And if you desperately have to go back to it, it’s still there in the session, so you just pull it back up from the X track. You’re trying to save the mixer time. You’ve pretty much decided that it’s no good, but the director may go “oh that’s a horrible ADR line, what’s production sound like on that” and they can pull it back up and say “here’s production.”

Woody: So besides sounds you may not use the X track contains the production audio of lines that have been ADR’d?

Jackie: I prefer to have a nice clean dialog edit before I ever make pulls for ADR because a lot of times they will put back the production and blow of the ADR. So you want the edit nice and clean and then pull out the production tracks for ADR and backfill once you get the list. I end up collaborating a lot with the ADR guy because he often asks me if there happens to be any alts in the session or how’s this or that or the other thing really sound. He’s judging the ADR often times off of the guide track and most of the time the guide track is a compilation of those two stereo tracks. He is hearing stuff like radio mics, phasing and stuff like that, but one or the other track might be perfectly clean. I’ll call him up and say you know this line, that radio noise is not on the other track and it sounds fine. I’ll pretty much just get a list from him and then call him back and go “why is this line needed, because it’s fine.” Or I’ll also say why not this line, because it sucks. But I’ll wait ’til I get the list before I start annoying him. (Laughs.)

Woody: Any advice for new directors?

Jackie: The problem starts from the very first day of shooting with the sound person on set and how the sound recording is approached on set. I think it’s worth it to spend more money on the dudes on set recording the sound and to make sure he knows exactly what he’s doing. I can only tell them that it sucks after it’s been recorded, I can’t tell them how to make it better. And room tone! Those two things: a real sound dude and room tone.

Woody: What is it that you love about dialog editing?

Jackie: It caters to my personality of liking a challenge. You get this thing, you see the diamond in the rough and you get to chip away until it’s a diamond. You get to clean stuff up and make it beautiful. How bad is that?

Woody: That’s perfect.

Jackie: And I get to work at home.

5 Misunderstandings About Audio Post for Feature Films

You’ll find this list is filled with quotation marks. They are representative of the “powers that be” who are making assumptions about the process. You know who you are …

5. The Quickie Mix –

Or the “one-day mix”, or the “just get the levels and EQ right mix” or the “quick polish mix” – generally this is a fiction. First there are a number of things that must happen to prepare the tracks for mixing. All of the production audio must be gone over, cleaned out and moved to their appropriate mix tracks. The dialog (production tracks) needs to be edited, cut in with room tone, the PFX (production effects) track needs to be created, all SFX need to be given their own tracks, music must be pulled to their own tracks and all of these tracks need to be properly routed for the mix splits. This session will also need to contain the editors guide track as well as the spotted to sync video that will hopefully have a Timecode burn-in that exactly references the Timecode in the edit session. If ADR has been recorded or Foley has been recorded they must be cut to their own tracks and properly routed as well as cut to sync. All of these things need to occur prior to the actual mixing session. Then we have to do the actual work of mixing the tracks. EQ will be added and automated, compression and limiters added as needed, levels adjusted and audio finessed to smoothly match. Then the show must be watched in it’s entirety for notes and changes. Just the “listen session” alone will take at least the length of the program – i.e. a 2-hour show will take 2 hours to watch, then the notes and changes take time as well. Unless of course it is all perfect and requires no changes … Bottom line – a successful, great sounding movie takes time to create. If it took months to co-ordinate and shoot, months to edit, weeks to create effects, graphics and titles, to online and do the color grading why would it take a few hours to mix? After all the blood, sweat and tears you expended to create your feature would you want to short change the audio? George Lucas has rightly pointed out that sound is 50 percent of the motion picture experience.  Give your audio – production and post – the time and attention it needs.

4. A Little Bit of Foley –

Just the title implies a basic misunderstanding of Foley. Foley is a complicated art that requires at a minimum a Foley artist and a Foley recordist. On the most-simple level the movie must be spotted for Foley and decisions made regarding what Foley work is to be performed and recorded. The Foley sessions may be fully cued with beeps and cue sheets or more run-n-gun where the scene is played for the Foley artist and choices are made on the fly. Foley is an exacting art requiring proper mic placement, proper props, experienced personnel and good sounding recording spaces. After all the passes have been recorded – cloth pass, props pass, footsteps pass, any special needs passes like fighting, swords, swishes and the like – the tracks are still not complete. Now an editor must go through all of this newly recorded material and clean it up, remove breaths, clicks, bad takes, the Foley artist talking etc., and cut all of it to sync and arrange the tracks in an easy manner for the mixer to decipher. Oh yeah and it all has to get mixed in such a manner as to seem to be part of the actual production or you’ve just wasted a whole lot of time!

3. A Little Bit of ADR –

I could just say see item #4 but we’ll break it down just a little more. ADR is a complicated art that requires at a minimum the actor who’s lines are to be replaced and the ADR recordist. On the most-simple level the movie must be spotted for ADR and decisions made regarding what dialog is to be replaced. Scripts need to be created for each actor indicating each of the lines to be ADR’d. The sessions then need to be beeped for sync playback for the actor. The session needs to be created in such a way that the production audio is easily accessible for playback to the performer and the takes are assembled in a manner for easy retrieval. You never know when the director wants to “hear the take a few back” cut into the production dialog tracks for playback and approval. It’s also an exacting art where the recordists needs to understand if a particular take can be cut to sync, where the actor needs to hit the proper emotion of the scene and the director needs to be satisfied that the replacement enhances the scene rather than detracts from it. There is also of course the “social” aspect of ADR. Actors see producers and directors for the first time since production, they’ve never seen any footage so would like to watch a bit of it, they take some time to get warmed up for the session all adding up to more time involved. Now mutiply that by several performers. And that’s just the prep and recording. The takes then all need to be approved by the director which mean placing and replacing lines of ADR up against production. Even “small” ADR sessions can be hundreds of takes per actor. Decisions have to made for the “final” choices. (Note the quotes!) Then cut to sync and mixed to match the production audio seamlessly. Yeah, and let’s get that done before lunch …

2. Just clean up the dialog track –

And what we mean here is production audio. There is often an assumption that “it’s already mixed.” (See item #5) Since the producers or director or powers-that-be have lived with picture changes and notes the audio is generally in a somewhat “acceptable” state. It has to be so everyone can comment on the edit. If the music was overpowering the sync dialog there would be a real problem. Usually the problems “to be fixed” are about noise levels, distortion, clicks and pops and generally bad production audio. Cousin Joey may be cheaper than a mixer and boom man but his tracks are all off-mic and there are hums throughout the scenes. All of this will cost you in post. Time and money. When I am approached about “a quickie mix that just needs the dialog cleaned up” I can generally count on the fact that there is no room tone to be had. Roomtone is one of the most cost effective tools for post that rarely makes it to the sound editing house. (Because it’s not recorded, or mostly not recorded, or recorded with whispering or cell phones …) Most of #5 applies here – all of that prep work still needs to be done for a proper mix, and all of that mixing stuff needs to happen too. No self-respecting sound guy is going to lay something back to tape with clicks and pops and hums, if they are avoidable. And when the project length is 90 – 120 minutes it takes a lot of time to go through all of that material. But thinking that “just cleaning up” the dialog track is somehow easier or different than “the whole audio post thing” is just plain wrong.

1. It’s Just Technical –

Audio post is a collaborative effort that is spearheaded by the vision of the director and translated into reality by the supervising sound editor and his team of editors, artists and mixers. You will make just as many new choices in the audio post process as you did during the picture edit. These are not simply technical issues being hashed out although there will be many of these such as – how much EQ do you roll off to kill the generator hum or what backgrounds are needed or the level of the score over the dialog. You’ll also be making many subjective choices that affect the overall experience of the story being played out – adding reverb and sound effects choices to create atmosphere, time or place and how frequency use and gain levels create mood and tension. Audio post is a highly technical process no doubt, it also defines the pace and mood of the story. Audio post is the final pass of choices to tell the most effective story possible.