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updated: 6/2/2014 2:15 PM

Elgin native sounds off on Hollywood success

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  • Elgin native and Larkin High School grad Dean St. John loves his work in ADR, also known as "automated dialogue replacement." He returned to town recently for family graduations.

       Elgin native and Larkin High School grad Dean St. John loves his work in ADR, also known as "automated dialogue replacement." He returned to town recently for family graduations.
    Dann Gire | Staff Photographer

  • AMC's "Halt and Catch Fire," starring Scoot McNairy and Lee Pace, is the latest production that sound technician and Elgin native Dean St. John has worked on.

      AMC's "Halt and Catch Fire," starring Scoot McNairy and Lee Pace, is the latest production that sound technician and Elgin native Dean St. John has worked on.

  • Elgin native Dean St. John has done sound for a number of TV shows and movies.

      Elgin native Dean St. John has done sound for a number of TV shows and movies.
    Courtesy of Dean St. John

  • Video: "Halt and Catch Fire" trailer

 

He's worked on 90 episodes of the TV series "Star Trek Enterprise," four seasons of "Star Trek Voyager" and one season of "Star Trek Deep Space Nine."

And yet, you've never heard of Dean St. John.

But he hears everything. He has to. That's his job.

The Elgin native and Larkin High School graduate works as a sound technician and ADR expert for Hollywood movies and TV shows. (More on ADR in a moment.)

"The pay is nice ... when you work," St. John said from his Elgin home. He dropped by his hometown last week to attend a couple of family graduations.

"I was a fan of the original 'Star Trek' series when I was a kid. So it's amazing to be a part of the 'Star Trek' legacy."

St. John has more sonic laurels to sit on than spin offs from a 1960s TV show.

His imdb.com credits run 11 printed pages of sound work on movies and TV programs dating back to the mid-1980s when he started out as a Foley artist, the person who creates incidental and ambient sound effects for movies in postproduction.

"Most sound people come out of the music industry, either musicians or sound mixers," St. John said. "I came out of Northwestern University's Radio, TV and Film Department in 1982."

He moved to Los Angeles and struggled to find employment.

"I did any job I could get on a set," he said. "Craft foods person. Camera assistant. Grip. Electrical assistant. Production assistant. Whatever they needed."

An infamous upstart movie company called Cannon Films needed someone to run its International Distribution Department. The company suits, impressed with St. John's Foley work and his "encyclopedic knowledge" of classic movies, gave him the job of making sure copies of Cannon's movies arrived at the right places in other countries.

"I got to work on 'Thelma and Louise' for Ridley Scott, and 'Runaway Train' with Jon Voight!" St. John said with the enthusiasm of a kid recounting his favorite baseball cards.

St. John also provided sound for four Charles Bronson movies, including "Death Wish 4: The Crackdown."

"I was a huge fan of his work," St. John said. "He was always a consummate professional. Always on time. Knew his stuff. I enjoyed working with him and respected him quite a bit."

Eventually, St. John decided to stick with ADR work. That stands for "automated dialogue replacement." St. John explained:

"Sometimes the dialogue recorded on the set isn't technically good. Or, sometimes, and this is common in TV shows, a writer will decide to add plot points delivered off-camera or in voice-over narration."

That's when St. John brings back the original cast members (if available) to rerecord their dialogue (or "loop" it) while watching their scenes play on a large video screen. Often, the actors will replace randy words and tawdry phrases with sanitized, PG-alternatives that can play on airplanes and broadcast networks.

St. John has also done "loop groups" where he records background and ambient sounds for scenes of parties, airports, bus stations and other group gatherings where sound must be added later.

St. John has done sound work in movies such as "The Heat" (starring Plainfield native Melissa McCarthy), "Jeff, Who Lives at Home," "Frozen" and Jackie Chan's "The Spy Next Door," as well as TV shows such as "The Newsroom," "Mob Doctor" and "Girls."

He also provided ADR services for AMC's new series "Halt and Catch Fire" that premiered Sunday in the time slot usually given to "Mad Men."

For years, St. John has lived in Burbank. No wife, kids, dogs or any other pets.

"I don't have the house, picket fence and the kids," he admitted. "Do I miss it? On some days I watch my nieces and nephews and think, 'Oh, my gosh, I wish I had one of those.' But this is a business where I have a lot of freedom. You always wonder what the path you didn't take would have been."

And what do his Elgin parents, David and Nila St. John, think about their son's sonic success in Hollywood?

"The fact that I'm working in Hollywood doesn't impress them at all," Dean St. John said. "If I'm doing OK and I'm happy, that impresses them."

Sounds about right.

ญญญญ -- Dann Gire

• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for people from the suburbs who are now working in showbiz. If you know of someone who would make a great feature, send them an email at dgire@dailyherald.com and jsotonoff@dailyherald.com.

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