Sound and Dialogue in Films

Post Production Sound

Towards the end of 2019 clients based in Africa and Europe started asking me to explain the American accent in a few Netflix series.  When I viewed and listened to the characters they were talking about, I could understand why they didn’t hear the words and chose to turn on the subtitles.  It’s not because of method acting but muffled sound.  The article below, by Ralph Jones goes some way to explaining the phenomenon.

“There is a wonderful exchange in Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Tenet, between Robert Pattinson and John David Washington. “Hngmmhmmh,” says Pattinson. “Mmghh nmmhhmmmm nghhh,” replies Washington. Marvellous.

This is how much of Tenet sounded to viewers in cinemas. The film’s dialogue has been criticised by reviewers and audience members for often being impossible to make out. Given how hard Nolan’s blockbuster would be to understand even if all the dialogue was crystal-clear, it is curious that the director has made it doubly difficult to hear the story of a screenplay he supposedly spent five years writing.

But it isn’t just Nolan’s films. It’s a much-repeated claim that movie dialogue is becoming harder and harder to hear. What is going on? Mathew Price is a production sound mixer who has worked on The Sopranos and The Marvellous Mrs Maisel. “When they take the sound we record on set and kind of undermix it, it feels like, ‘What did we try so hard for?’” he says. Price believes the problem is partly that modern directors have so many more tracks to play with, causing “track overload”, the result being that “the dialogue gets short shrift a lot of the time”. When he watches films or TV shows at home, he turns on the subtitles in case of clarity issues – he is far from the only one – and

will limit the TV’s dynamic range. (On home TVs the dynamic range is more extreme than in a cinema: this is why you often have to turn up the volume for dialogue, then down again for action.)

Is it actually a modern phenomenon? Sound engineer Ron Bochar, who was nominated for an Oscar for his mixing on Moneyball, thinks so. “Think about it: the first few Star Wars [films], we heard them all. We heard all the lines. Listen to Apocalypse Now – you hear everything.” Price agrees: “If you watch old movies, you might hear some sound effects here and there but now they go nuts: somebody’s walking across the room in a leather jacket, you hear the zippers clink and the creak of the leather and every footstep is right in your face.”

When television became commonplace in the mid-20th century and challenged cinema’s dominion, cinema needed to distinguish itself; it needed to prove that it could justify people leaving the comfort of their homes. It did so partly by becoming bigger and louder. In an era – and a pandemic – in which home streaming dominates, cinema may be forced to pull out the stops once more. “I think we’re bombarded,” Paul Markey, a projectionist at the Irish Film Institute, says of modern films. “The more expensive movies have got, the more of a bombardment they become on your senses.”

Sound effects and music tracks exist on faders that can slide up and down. This means that even “a crazy, bats**t scene” with numerous layers of sound is easy for a mixer to control. “It really isn’t a mystery. We know how to do it.” This means that Nolan’s use of noisier Imax cameras in Tenet would not explain the problem, as some have suggested.

To complicate matters, there is a disparity between the environment in which the director hears the final mix of a film and the one in which it is screened. Markey says Warren Beatty watched a screening of Bonnie and Clyde when it came out and couldn’t understand why the sound of the bullets was so quiet. The projectionist was turning the volume down. Beatty realised that projectionists, not directors, have final say on a film. Markey says that they could, for example, raise the volume of the dialogue specifically, but they never do – it would mean having to readjust it for every film.”

Robert Pattinson, John David Washington, Jack Cutmore-Scott in Tenet written and directed by Christopher Nolan

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