Cutting MOS for an SOB: Adventures in the ADR Trade

A cutting room back in the day. Photo courtesy of Luarembepe/Flickriver

by Norman B. Schwartz

MOS is a standard motion picture abbreviation used by production sound mixers on their reports to indicate a single shot or entire sequence of a film that has been shot without a synchronous audio recording. The origins of this classic cutting-room term remain obscure.  Why the first syllable, as I first heard it, was pronounced mit (German for with) with a foreign accent and the rest (out sound) in plain English is still a matter for debate.

Years ago, while working on the ADR stage at Warner Bros., someone told me that the Hungarian director Michael Curtiz (né Mikhail Kerstez), famous on the lot in the 1930s for his malapropisms, mispronunciations and reckless destruction of the English language, once turned to his on-set mixer to inform him that the next scene would be shot “mit out sound.”  Instead of abbreviating “without sound,” as was the standard sound department procedure, the man scribbled MOS—the term used to this day.

Many decades later, another director on the lot (who shall remain nameless, as he is still with us) decided to shoot the first two opening dialogue scenes of a feature film on location in the same manner.   Although there was no apparent reason not to have recorded something in the way of a guide track––if only as a means of showing the sound editors where the real sync was––he chose not to, perhaps because he came from that now-famous first generation of Young Turks who insisted on breaking all the rules, doubtlessly for the gratification of doing what they had been told could never be done.

I knew enough of the director by then not to have asked why he did what he did.  He was one of the youngest directors ever to have won an Oscar.  Three of his previous films had been enormously profitable at the box office and with the critics.  Flushed with success, he could do anything he wanted––and did.  In those days, one of the fringe benefits of being a young director on the A-list was the droit du seigneur to abuse anyone in any way you wished without fear of incrimination.

Horror stories of what he had done and would do to sound editors who did not give him exactly what he wished were all over town.  One of his greatest early successes was shot on the streets of New York, the editing completed in Hollywood.  While in Manhattan, he insisted that his location mixer record an entire library of authentic urban city sound effects.   Once in Hollywood, he gathered together all the usual elderly suspects from the studio’s sound effects department, men who had never once been spoken to directly by a director.  He told them in no uncertain terms that they were verboten to use any of the standard studio library effects, many of them magnetic transfers from old optical tracks that had been used in the studio’s films for decades.

The director, his editor and the chief re-recording mixer scrutinized every lip flap, flap after flap, syllable after syllable, but my cuts were undetectable.   At the end of the projection, the lights came back on. 

As so often happens in the process known as post-production, the editor who was eventually assigned to cut an elaborate chase scene in a New York subway was out sick the day the director issued his dictum.  And no one had told the editor about it.

When the chase in question was first played in rehearsal, what the director heard––much to his dismay––was the same grumbling and cracking subway loop that had been used for decades.  He turned many techni-colors.   “What the f*ck is wrong with you, man?  Don’t you know what a New York City subway train sounds like?”  The editor began to cry.

“No s-sir… How c-could I?…  I grew up in B-B-Burbank.”

Rumor had it that from then on, whenever the director worked in Hollywood, the first thing he did the first day on the set was to seek out the most vulnerable person: usually a lowly technician or bit player.  Finding an excuse––any would do––he would then criticize and humiliate that person to the point of tears, at which point the culprit would be removed from the set and summarily fired.  This directorial technique had an irrefutable effect; either it scared the rest of the company into doing superior work or risk being treated similarly, or else it terrified the mediocre into a higher level of competence.

Although the director and I had worked together once before on an earlier film—one that I had cut shortly after coming back from Italy, and which had won him many an award, including an Oscar for its soundtrack—he interviewed me for his latest film with the same air of belligerent suspicion—the good cop and the bad cop combined into one intimidating and terrifying persona.

Offering me a glass of Château Margaux—he only drank the best—he then turned to his film editor, a man who had come from relative obscurity to a post of great authority because of his instinctive comprehension of the director’s perverse psychology.  “Remind me, Hal,” he asked, “How many people did we fire on the last one?”

Hal lifted his glass and made the silent count.  “Over 200.”

The director then smiled.  “Still want to work with us?” I nodded and we drank.

“On this film the director is always right…even when he isn’t.” – unnamed director

This was not our first encounter.  Our relationship had begun one day over four years ago when I was employed as a freelance dialogue editor for an independent sound editing house, one of the first in Hollywood outside the standard studio system.  I was told that the director of a film in-house was worried about the lip sync of a scene and wanted a particular actor’s ADR tracks cut and screened as quickly as possible.

Once I ran these tracks in the Moviola, I could see why.  The actor’s work, brilliant and impassioned as was the performance, was noticeably out of sync.  The words spoken did not match his lip movements.  I meticulously pulled frames and sprockets out of the magnetic track when words were said too slowly and added single sprockets before plosives and hard consonants when words ran short.  It took me a day or two to accomplish this feat, but after a great deal of judicious squeezing and stretching, I managed to pull the dialogue into what I thought was perfect sync.

The director, surrounded by his sullen staff, was seated in the cavernous dubbing stage of one of the best independent re-recording houses in Hollywood, famous for its advanced stereophonic sound system.  They stared up at an enormous white screen––then the tallest and widest screen in the entire city––waiting for something to happen.  I took my place, as sound cutters did in those days, in the back row of the theatre.

The lights went down and my edited tracks were run along with the projected images of the sequence in question.  In close-up, the actor’s face, which was synchronized for days on the six-inch screen of my Moviola, now stood tall as a building with every lip movement the size of a Volkswagen bus.  As not a single background atmosphere track was being played behind them to mask the numerous splices I had made, every cut in the track stood out in absolute nakedness.

The director, his editor and the chief re-recording mixer scrutinized every lip flap, flap after flap, syllable after syllable, but my cuts were undetectable.   At the end of the projection, the lights came back on.  The director turned to his editor and laughed in his face: “What were you so worried about, Hal?  Didn’t I tell you they would sync?”  He then cast his all-seeing eyes on me.  “You didn’t make any schnips in the mag, did you? I can always hear it when you guys do that.”

I dared not utter the truth.   “No sir, why would I be so foolish?”

He laughed at that and, from that day on, our nameless director and I were on first-name terms.

Despite that, four years later, I was once again put on the rack.  “Listen carefully, Norm,” he began.  “I’m only going to say this once.  I shot the entire beginning of my film MOS back east in a real alley––no phony studio back lot and no phony sounds.  I then got all my actors together in a sound studio in the same town and had them repeat all the dialogue but I didn’t show them the film.  For the second scene, the one we call the Irish Homecoming, I did the same.  I brought all the local characters back, not one of them an actor, and had them all ad-lib what they said on location.”

Hal handed me several cardboard boxes filled with magnetic rolls and some barely decipherable sheets of notes made by the out-of-town mixer.  “Put these wild tracks in perfect sync with the action,” he said.  “You sure you can do that?”

“No, but I’ll give it a shot.”

No sooner said than the director turned at me with that lupine look I had been warned about. 

One day shortly afterwards, on the same gigantic dubbing stage where I had made my debut years before, the director, Hal, and the chief re-recording mixer ran all the sync-sound production dialogue recordings shot for the rest of the film.   The purpose was for them to decide which were too noisy to be useable and would then have to be re-done with the actors returning to the ADR stage.   I was handed the shooting script.

Slowly, reel after reel, the entire picture was screened.  If the mixer listened to a line of recorded dialogue and said, “Loop it” (the term still used then even, though ADR had then been in use for years), I was to put a check next to the speech.   If he said nothing, the original sound track was considered useable.

At last we came to the final sequence in the film—a barroom brawl in which all the principal actors and some minor characters were all screaming and overlapping each other between punches in a barn-like structure full of echo and street noise.  “Loop it, loop it,” the mixer called out, one line after another.

Every single bit of dialogue but one shouted by a bit player was to be replaced.  Without thinking, I asked, “Is there any reason why we’re not looping that one line from the fat cop who comes through the door?”

No sooner said than the director turned at me with that lupine look I had been warned about.  “Oh, so now Mr. Normie is telling us how this should be done?  We’ve made a few pictures before this in case you haven’t heard, one of which won us an Oscar.”  He caught his breath, turned to the chief mixer.  “The cop track he’s talking about, can you fix it?”  Having been included in the Royal We, the mixer nodded.  No more was said.   The spotting session ended.  The director and mixer left the room.  I gathered my paperwork.  Hal approached me from his seat beside the throne.  “You’ll never learn, will you?” he said.

“Learn what?”

“To keep your trap shut.”

There was no recourse other than to defend myself by explaining that if we were replacing every single line of dialogue in this noisy scene but one, the sound effects editors would then have to fill the entire scene with the same deafening background behind the cop’s recording so that that one piece of production track would match all the ADR.

“Still wrong.”

“Why?”

“On this film the director is always right…even when he isn’t.”

I looked at him with total discombobulation, unable or, more likely, unwilling to understand that simple home truth.  Hal left the room.

Many years later, the man who gave me this piece of advice was appointed vice president in charge of post-production for one of the most powerful studios in the entire world. I, on the other hand, had not yet learned how to be MOS.

(Editor’s Note: This article is © 2011 by Norman B. Schwartz, and has been excerpted, with permission, from his latest work of fiction, Hollywood: Below and Beyond.  According to the author, “Although based on real people who worked on real films in real time, names and places have been changed to protect the guilty as well as the innocent.”) 

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