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“The Mafia of the Acting World”: Hollywood’s Secret Loop Groups

Welcome to the insular world of background voice actors, where major players can rake in up to $1 million a year and "no one gives up their spots, you have to kill someone to get in."

After having worked in television as a writer and also having reported on the industry for more than 20 years, I thought I knew all the steps in production. But I had never met a looper. Or, more accurately, someone who told me they were a looper.

On countless sets, watching background actors mouth words at crowded bars, newsrooms and renaissance fairs, I never thought to ask: “Isn’t it going to be weird to see a bunch of silent people at a crowded bar?” I didn’t have much time to wonder because by the time I watched the edit, a sound engineer had gotten a bunch of improvisational voice actors to come in and sync incredibly banal things for them to say.

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I also didn’t notice that sometimes, they weren’t that banal. Originally, directors would often get crewmembers or actor friends to create the background conversations, which often consisted of the word “walla” over and over. During the early 1980s, Barbara Harris was one of those unpaid actor friends. “I quickly realized there was money in them hills, so I put the kibosh on that,” she says. Soon she helped make walla (now the industry term for background talk) a more specialized skill to make the audio more realistic. “I said, ‘We can’t just show up and do a movie without knowing what it’s about. There’s a shoe factory. What do people say in a shoe factory? We can’t just be a bunch of people going, ‘blah blah blah blah.’ ” Harris started running a company, The Looping Group, which is still one of the largest in the business.

While she was doing looping for Matlock, she invented the Matlock Muffle (also called a Chomsky Pass or a Babble On), in which loopers speak convincing gibberish with an occasional real word thrown in so that it sounds like mumbled English, thus providing unobtrusive background noise while also allowing studios to use the tracks when the movie is dubbed into other languages. Soon, loopers created the donut, in which the troupe walks by the microphone in a circle while talking to make the conversation sound like it’s taking place on the street. They learned to make fight noises (“efforts”), scream, speak foreign languages, imitate Alexa, sound like a child, whistle, and burp entire words. Says Marabina Jaimes, who has been looping since she was a child in 1987: “A director will be watching a scene and say, ‘I need a two-minute cartoon in the background.’ And just like that, we will create the cartoon, or a barbershop quartet, or soccer commentary. Looping actors are like voice ninjas.”

Loopers compile their own libraries of heavily guarded research packets detailing the complicated jargon of doctors, lawyers, cops, play-by-play announcers and travelers through the space-time continuum. And they deliver it all without ever referencing a brand name or saying, “Oh my God.” (Airlines, apparently, don’t like any mention of God.)

“One time on a show I was working on, a looper was reading out of a physics textbook as he walked across the stage. That’s something you’re not going to get on set,” says a showrunner. “The loop group people are better than the background actors, frankly, at making up content and controlling their voices.”

Besides providing expertise, loopers save shows a lot of money. As soon as a background actor talks, you have to pay them $1,056 per day (instead of $114 they get as extras or $182 if they’re in SAG), and four talented loopers paid that same $1,056 speaking rate can improvise more than 50 voices. Most loopers who work on a regular basis probably earn about $50,000 a year in day-rate income alone.

Loop group coordinators, who arrange a group of loopers for a show or movie (four to six for a half-hour show and up to 30 for a big action movie), get between $100 and $300 a session. The real upside: While a loop group coordinator might hire different loopers for different episodes depending on their skills, they’ll typically book themselves in every single episode of a series. The top group coordinators get so good at scheduling, they can fit in two or even three sessions every workday. Many have a loop group coordinator partner and always hire each other, allowing them to double their bookings. Sometimes that partner is a spouse. Being on every episode can be huge, because loopers receive the same residuals as on-camera day players. Essentially, they’re castmembers on the show. So if 10 of the shows they loop go into syndication, over decades those residuals can lead coordinators to make more than $1 million a year. Which a handful do. A slightly larger number of them bring in mid-six figures.

Says a drama showrunner: “A million dollars? What in God’s name could justify that? If I were the sound mixer, and I learned that, I would want to kill myself.”

With her partner Laurie Petok, Sally Brooks runs Hollywood Babble On, which has done the looping for Modern Family, Grey’s Anatomy, NCIS: Los Angeles, Black-ish, Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. “I have friends who do looping occasionally and think I do really well, but they don’t have a clue,” notes Brooks about how lucrative her career has been.

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“It’s a very small community, and it was kept that way on purpose. It was an unwritten agreement. A lot of people kept it quiet because of the money, and they didn’t want to share it,” says Brooks, who has been looping for more than 20 years. “It’s very competitive to get these jobs. I have an ex-boyfriend who called it ‘the Mafia of the acting world’ because no one gives up their spots and you have to kill someone to get in.”

Confirms Scotch Ellis Loring, who runs the boutique loop group Scotch & Walla, which has done The Baby-Sitters Club and GLOW: “Any looper that goes to the press or goes to a seminar has received a mild form of blacklisting. It is so ruthlessly protected.”

Says Loring: “There’s no part of the industry that is such a well-guarded secret. It’s like a weird mob thing. Snitches get stitches.” When SAG-AFTRA did a panel on looping two years ago, none of the big players attended, and one coordinator warned a looper to drop off the panel. Which they did.

I have never had so many people agree to be interviewed and then cancel or ghost me for an entertainment article. Or a business article. Or a politics article. “Big Loop is trying to shut you down,” guessed an insider.

There are about 20 coordinators who make up Big Loop, and their ways of limiting the community of walla providers are manifold. Loopers who are not hired by the coordinator, but added to the group by a producer, are sometimes not spoken to by the group for the entire session. Or not informed of their recording time and location until the night before. Or not told about specialized jargon they need to prepare.

The competition among existing loop groups is fierce. If you are one of the 60 or so people in Harris’ group, which does tons of movies, television shows, video games and theme park rides (she has the longest IMDb page I’ve ever seen, and many of her credits aren’t even listed), you can’t work for other coordinators. And Harris takes a salary as a looper, though she no longer does voices, only directing and organizing the group.

Loop group coordinators have been accused of telling sound coordinators that they were hired for a new show by the executive producer when they hadn’t been and sneaking in the job that way, hoping no one checks. Post producers, who make a fraction of what a top loop group coordinator brings in, have been gifted expensive purses, iPhones, speakers, trips and leather jackets. When one loop group coordinator saw a post producer on their flight to France, they decided to cover the post producer’s hotel.

Part of the reason for the maneuvering is that, on any given project, it’s unclear who is in charge of hiring. One showrunner told me he will never show up for looping sessions no matter how important the episode might be. “Loop groups have a lot of drama because these are the extras of the audio world — and as such attract desperate performers who think that this is their chance at breaking in, when in fact being this close to the action is actually the furthest away,” this person says.

Sometimes showrunners do get involved and hire the loop group coordinator (though sometimes they back off after being warned of all the political problems it will cause). Other times, the sound supervisor chooses, sometimes the post producer, sometimes a network executive. “Does my contact have the final word or does your contact have the final word?” explains Cam Clarke, who for 38 years has co-run Loop Therapy, a midsized group that works a few times each week. And even if you lose the contract, your contact at the show might ask that the winning coordinator include you as a looper in the group. Though that can backfire. “There are some nasty group leaders out there who have crazy nasty egos, and they will sabotage and say shit about other group leaders. It’s like Macbeth,” says Clarke. Even intra-loop group dynamics can have drama. Most loop coordinator partnerships break up. In an ugly way.

One common practice that many coordinators complain about is swapping. Loring said he found out about swapping early on. “The first day on a Barbara Harris show, on the first break this guy walks up to me and says, ‘I heard you’re running another show [as a coordinator]. Want to do a swap?’ I don’t know what that means. He says, ‘I’ll hire you on my show, you hire me on mine.’ Then these two ladies come up and say, ‘We run a group too. Maybe we can do the deal.’ I like to hire diverse actors and particularly single parents who are raising children,” says Loring about why he doesn’t like to cut deals that limit his ability to hire on a sitcom that might only have two other looping jobs beyond him and his partner.

Johnny Gidcomb has been looping for about 30 years and runs Loop De Loop, one of the most successful looping groups for films, having done most of the Marvel films, Avatar and Titanic. The former CEO of the Groundlings, he rebelliously teaches a $350 four-session online looping class. “People were like, ‘Why are you teaching people how to take our jobs?’ I said, ‘It’s because we’re all aging out. It’s time for new blood.’ If it’s the same people over and over again, it gets stale,” he says. Because it’s so lucrative, none of the original loopers want to give up spots, which means a lot of white female loopers over 50 are messing up the slang on the teenagers they’re still doing. He encourages his students to take community college classes on policing and EMT to learn the lingo. For each film, he says he casts a different group depending on what skills he needs. Which is what swapping can inhibit.

“It’s widely known: Don’t come knocking on my door and asking to trade jobs. When someone hires me, they’re not getting the same people for every single job,” he says. “That’s what makes me different. And how I run a room. People, to be creative, need a safe place. If you’re being yelled at or being ridiculed for having a bad take, you don’t need that.”

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Illustration by Jack Richardson

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One often-cited — and frequently ridiculed — fact of life for those in the looping community is that directors, producers, showrunners and production coordinators insist that the production hire someone’s wife, sister, daughter or Pilates instructor as part of the looping team. These “must hires” sometimes don’t have any experience and are told that the job is just to go in and talk.

“Most shows, there is at least one person who is a request,” says Ruth Adelman, a supervising sound editor on one-hour dramas with 13 Emmy noms and one win. “One request was that a person’s husband died, and a letter from a producer said, ‘If this person is useful please use them.’ That’s the most gentle version I’d ever gotten.” Another time, she was asked to hire someone with brain cancer so they could meet their union minimum to get health care. Getting a looping job from a friend who knows you’re shy of your minimum is pretty common.

But usually, it’s a less sympathy-inducing request. Often, it’s someone who isn’t right for the parts, can’t improvise or doesn’t know how to sync to the screen.

For the first 20 years of her career, Adelman would choose her loopers herself, instead of hiring a group coordinator. That ended about 10 years ago. And she never pushes back. “I like to stay neutral. I’m Switzerland. That’s how I’ve been able to work for many years,” she says.

Adds Harris: “I am asked to hire people’s wives, husbands, girlfriends, etcetera, and I do so happily.” Why happily? “Because that’s the right answer,” she says.

Nickie Bryar, who does looping on animation, including all of Seth MacFarlane’s shows, says it’s all about who you know: “Unless you are the cousin or nephew of the postproduction supervisor or the executive producer, you’re not going to get hired.”

When Loring was running the loop group for the ABC show Revenge, a producer asked him out to lunch. “I was romanced by a producer of a CSI-type series because she wanted me to hire her daughter and her husband on my show,” he remembers. “The second I lost Revenge, I never heard from her again.”

Brooks, of Hollywood Babble On, notes that she can get three requests a day from people who want to enter the field. “A lot of people are like, ‘Hire my sister. Hire my wife.’ They’re not charity jobs,” Brooks says. Some of those sisters and wives go on to make a lot of money looping even if they never get good at it. “Every loop group out there, whether they’re a wife or a cousin or a friend, they think they’re very good. It might not be how I do it, but some of them are succeeding, so who am I to say?”

Clarke, who voiced Leonardo on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV show, says he’s trained himself not to let must-hires bother him. But it clearly still does. “The first wives club got hip to this industry. Those of us in the trenches are like, ‘How much money can you need?’ They have a house in Malibu and a house in Sedona, but more is more. It gives them something to do,” he says. “I’d hate to have one of these people flying an airplane if their husband were running the airline.”

The problem, he says, is that a great sound editor can bury awful performances. “There are people I know, even group leaders, that make my teeth grate because they are just somebody’s family member, and I know that mixers have to dance around them and pull the faders down because their voices cut through in an unusable way,” says Clarke. “It doesn’t mean that all wives or lovers or great-grandkids are not good. I got my start from my brother.” Clarke, who performed as a kid on an ABC variety show hosted by his mom, one of the King Sisters, has a brother who was a producer at The WB network.

“There’s so much nepotism. There are people who not only shouldn’t be in the loop group, but there are people leading loop groups who shouldn’t be doing it. They’re not actors. As a human being, I wince,” he says.

Many loop group coordinators do have deep connections. Jennifer Crystal Foley, daughter of Billy Crystal, runs a group. Loring is married to three-time Emmy Award-winning director Todd Holland. Julie Falls’ husband, Kevin, has a writing Emmy for The West Wing and created Journeyman and Franklin & Bash. Voices of Brazil’s Marie Brazil was married to the late Scott Brazil, who won three Emmys for directing television. In the Loop’s Nancy Snow’s husband is post producer Hans Van Doornewaard. Brooks’ partner, Laurie Petok, is married to Michael Petok, who has one Emmy and eight nominations as a producer.

Those connections are mostly made by older white women. So, until recently, there wasn’t a lot of room left over in looping for actors of color. “When I was starting, Black could only do Black. Even for grunts and efforts, people think if it’s a white guy, it should be a white guy. I’m hoping that thinking will continue to fade,” says Harris, who is Black. In the on-camera world, it’s suspect to hire a person to play a character of a different ethnicity. But loopers are supposed to be able to do every race, every age, monsters, cartoon horses and aliens. Loring, who also is Black, tries to make sure people of color aren’t only hired to play the parts of background actors with their same skin color. “When I started, if I only got to work when there were Black faces on the screen, I would have rarely gotten to work,” Loring says. For his looping group’s anniversary, he had T-shirts printed that said, “We’re working like we’re white.”

That much work for top group coordinators — with all the prep work and scheduling several recordings a day — can become golden handcuffs. “If you’re a superlooper, it’s hard to have an on-camera career because you have to be available for auditions,” says Susan Leslie, who often works on films with Gidcomb’s Loop De Loop and whose teenage daughter also loops. “If I got hired to act on The Big Bang Theory, I’m not going to leave at lunch from Warner Bros. to do an audition. It’s the same thing here. They’ve booked you for the day.”

But, really, how many people wind up doing the thing they came to Hollywood to do? Loopers get paid to improvise with other actors, contribute to a production and play a lot of characters in every session. And make more money than you would assume.

I understand why they would want to keep it to themselves. I just hope they don’t come after me for writing this article.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.