Growing up, Christopher Navarro used to listen to himself talking on a hand-me-down Kmart cassette tape recorder, then re-record his voice until he had perfected the audio clip.
Now 38, the Northern California native channels his childhood pastime in his career as an automatic dialogue replacement mixer, meaning he re-records dialogue by actors in a sound studio during post-production.
Though his name won't be read among the official Oscar nominees this Sunday, the ADR mixer for Audio Head and the Formosa Group has his work in four of the nine best picture contenders: "Gravity," "12 Years a Slave," "Her" and "The Wolf of Wall Street."
"I'm the guy behind the curtain," Navarro said at the Audio Head sound studio on the Lot in West Hollywood, the site of what is said to be the first ADR stage here in the 1920s.
Sporting a ponytail, bandanna around his head and rings galore, Navarro walked around the sound studio pointing out where directors, sound editors and actors — Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson and Chiwetel Ejiofor, to name a few — have delivered their lines.
Last weekend Navarro was part of the team that won a Cinema Audio Society sound mixing award for "Gravity," but when asked about his favorite of this year's Academy Award nominees, he couldn't pick just one. Here is a rundown of the ADR mixer's experiences working on the Oscar-nominated films.
When: April to October 2012.
"As far as I knew, it was just going to be one day in May," said Navarro, who was approached by people with whom he had worked in the past. The project turned out to be long term. "They had already been working on it for three years before they called me."
The film was one of the longest projects he has ever worked on, Navarro said. Almost all of the dialogue needed to be added in post-production because the film's setting — outer space — required absolute silence in the background.
The takeaway: Navarro liked "being part of the conversations … and hearing some stories about what is going on behind the scenes," noting it was especially interesting to see George Clooney and director Alfonso Cuarón review their notes.
"They were going over discussions of character development between George and Sandra's [Bullock] characters," Navarro said, adding that actor and director didn't rewrite the story in post but they did finesse "a little here and there."
When: April to September 2013. "Any time you get longer-term projects going on, you get to be more involved with the people and develop more of a relationship," he said of the Spike Jonze film. "It was a lot of fun."
The takeway: Although ADR often involves replacing just one line of dialogue at a time, Navarro said, the ADR for "Her" required stars Phoenix and Johansson to play out whole scenes. "We had both of them here at once," Navarro said.
Working with the actors and Jonze in one room felt like being on set, Navarro said. Rather than just re-recording dialogue in a technical manner, the actors were "re-creating characters in the moment, here on this stage."
Movie: "12 Years a Slave"
When: March to April 2013. Navarro has known the film's supervising sound editor, Robert Jackson, for more than 10 years. Re-recording sound took about a month, which is average, but actors did their audio in studios across the globe. Michael Fassbender, who plays slave owner Edwin Epps, used a studio in Britain. Director Steve McQueen and star Ejiofor, who starred as Solomon Northup, worked with Navarro at Audio Head.
The takeaway: Having the "loop group," or background voices, re-recording in the studio was particularly interesting, Navarro said. It's a special talent to be in a sterile studio and still be able to produce vocal sounds that you would hear in the setting pictured on screen, he said.
Actors might look like they are singing, Navarro said, "but everything in background almost entirely is pantomime so dialogue comes through clean." The "12 Years" loop group playing fieldworkers re-recorded slave songs and voiced noises associated with work, such as lifting or throwing.
Movie: "The Wolf of Wall Street"
When: One day in September 2013.
The takeaway: Navarro's job was to record Jonze's cameo as Dwayne, a small-time broker who teaches Leonardo DiCaprio's character about penny stocks. Because many of "Wolf" director Martin Scorsese's productions are based in New York, Navarro didn't think he would ever get the chance to work with him.
Fortunately, Jonze had already been in the studio working with Navarro on "Her," so it was convenient to do his "Wolf" audio at the same location. Navarro loved seeing Jonze transition from director to actor.
"I wanted to crack a couple of jokes with him, but at same time I wasn't certain of how it could be taken, so I kept quiet," Navarro said. "He did great."