What is a Loop Group?
People who are not familiar with all the gears behind the production of films and television series, usually have a very simplified idea about what it means to be an actor, perhaps thinking that this profession is reduced only to being in front of a camera or the audience in a theater. In reality, acting goes much further. In this post, we will discuss a little-known acting modality, which is widely used, by the way. We are talking about Loop Group acting: a form of crowd walla that consists, in a nutshell, of adding voices to the background of a scene; voices that, despite being in the background, are absolutely necessary for the verisimilitude and authenticity of a scene.
A movie or a series has extras. In an airport, in a hospital, in a public swimming pool, at a rock concert, on a New York street in rush hour…, in such situations there are always people talking around. What the extras are murmuring is not always recorded (because, in most cases, they are just moving their lips so as not to compete with the actors’ voices in the middle of a scene), but it should be present in the final result anyway. If only the main actors speak and the extras only move their lips, the viewer would think that something is wrong. Background noises are always there, even if we don’t pay attention to them, after all. The thing is, it has to sound realistic, it can’t be just some blah blah blah, and that’s where Loop groups are necessary. Sometimes the voice actors must even do the same in dialogue scenes performed by the main actors in the film when they are in the background, for example.
Pre-recorded sounds, taken, for instance, from a Foley sound bank, cannot be used either. Although some of that is possible, the viewer must listen to the person in the coffee shop asking the attendant for an espresso with cream and sugar in that particular scene, and in which library can you find that sound?
This craft is not only used for regular movies and series, though. A medieval tavern, a futuristic stadium, the murmurs of a horror scene… This applies to all possible genres, and not only to the traditional narrative: also to video games. Hardly anyone stops to analyze the background voices of a game like Grand Theft Auto, but they are there, and they give tremendous realism to any location in the game. To this extent, what the voice actors do in Loop groups is mimic the lip movements of the extras to give them real voices, which are saying real sentences. Someone walks while arguing with someone on the cellphone, for example, and you need to hear that “you will never change, Joey!”. The actor or actress can’t just say “walla, walla” instead of the real words. He or she must be saying actually something, with intent, just like any actor does. For this reason, voice actors working in this field must have some training in reading lips, interpreting the context of the situation, improvising, and sounding natural. As a matter of fact, these actors have to prepare before recording, study the context of the story, do some research in person or remotely to familiarize themselves with words, expressions, whistles, chants, etc., that will give the magic to a scene. It is impossible to imagine a Peaky Blinders scene with American-accented background voices, for example.
These types of sessions are not simply about gathering a bunch of random people and asking them to say whatever they think is best to fill the background noise, no. It takes a lot of creativity and thoroughness to recreate reality. They are usually small groups of five to seven people, or even more, depending on the needs of the production, in professional studios, with sound engineers, as we do on Enhanced Media. Sometimes they are split into pairs or small groups, recorded separately, and then all the sounds are mixed. Sometimes they follow scripts, sometimes they’ll just lip-read and improvise a bit. Sometimes they won’t even be noticed in the film or show, but the viewer unconsciously notices that those sounds are there; and sometimes they are notorious, like in the middle of an awkward silence of the characters in the middle of a dialogue.
Loop groups are also known as “walla”. This word is an onomatopoeia of the sound of the murmuring of the crowd. This name appeared in the early history of radio, when they needed these sound effects, and realized that if many people said “walla walla” in the background, at a very moderate volume, it sounded like the murmur of many people talking in real life. Over time, it became an inside joke in the film and television industry, and these words (or others, depending on the country) are often repeated in movies and comedy shows like The Goon Show or Southpark.
It’s not just an important resource for making movies or television (or video games): it’s a growing craft that’s in high demand and involves hard work.