Over the past few years, it seems that dialogue in films has gotten harder and harder to hear. There are times that I miss a few words in the middle of a sentence or an entire conversation because it was muffled by a mask or the sound just wasn't audible.
When I am home, I can turn on the subtitles to avoid missing any major plot points, but in the theaters, I sit there trying to piece together parts of the plot that I missed.
I’m not the only one experiencing this issue. Not being able to hear the dialogue has changed the movie-going experience for many, and this lack of understanding has sparked a conversation in the filmmaker community.
Recently, Ben Pearson spoke with several professional sound editors, designers, and mixers that have worked on Hollywood’s biggest films to get to the root of the problem, narrowing the issue down to these distinct reasons.
It’s the Director’s Choice
Do you remember when Tenetcame out, and all that anyone could talk about was the unintelligible dialogue? Well, it turns out that Christopher Nolan did that on purpose. The director is known for using his films to push the boundaries of sound design, often creating scenes with dialogue that audiences can’t understand. Nolan's intentions with this muffled, incoherent dialogue were to mimic reality. When a character wears a mask, the sound becomes muffled and harder to understand exactly what that character is saying as we have seen in Tenant and in Tom Hardy's performance as the masked villain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.
We are not alone. Other filmmakers have reached out to Nolan to complain about this issue in his films, but Donald Sylvester, who took home an Oscar for his work on Ford v Ferrari, stated that Nolan wears this complaint as a badge of honor.
Tom Hardy as Bane in 'The Dark Knight Rises'Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
Luckily, the creative aesthetic of muffled dialogue doesn’t feature itself throughout the entire film. It can change from scene to scene, or line to line—it depends on how the director wants to tell the story.
Jaime Baksht, an audio engineer who has won an Academy Award for his work on Sound of Metal, commented on the inaudible dialogue in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film Biutiful, and how it was purposefully awful to replicate the situation the characters found themselves in. As long as films attempt to replicate the real world, the unintelligible dialogue might be around for good.
It’s the Actor’s Performance
There are actors in Hollywood that are unfortunately hard to understand, one of the most notorious being Tom Hardy. His delivery style is so frequently indecipherable that it has become a game with audiences to try to understand what he’s saying. Check out his role as Heathcliff in the TV mini-series Wuthering Heights for a chaotic-sounding British-Bane.
What about actors who aren’t at the same level of unintelligibility as Hardy?
Thomas Curley, who won an Oscar as a production sound mixer on Whiplash, told SlashFilm, “It seems to be a little bit of a fad with some actors to do the sort of soft delivery or under your breath delivery of some lines. That’s a personal choice for them. Our job is to record it as well as we can regardless.”
'The Revenant'Credit: 20th Century Fox
The naturalistic, breathy type of acting might feel right for an actor, but becomes a sound producer’s and editor’s nightmare.
If an actor's performance is too quiet or not clear enough, the sound team needs to talk with the director and see if a compromise can be reached. The director can give notes to the actor in private to speak a little louder or enunciate more on specific words.
There are many ways a director can direct actors to assist the sound team on set. An open line of communication across all cast and crew members is vital in the filming process.
Sound Isn't Respected Enough on Sets
Another factor to the complicated mess of inaudible dialogue has to do with how the sound team is treated during the filming process.
Sylvester told SlashFilm, “If the sound guy goes, ‘Can you get one more take for me?’ they go, ‘Nope, we’re wrapping. We’ve gotta move on to another setup.’ It’s because pictures are the most important thing, and we do a good job fixing sound at the end of the day. So they go, ‘We’ll fix it in post.’ That’s literally their go-to answer. ‘I just need to get this.’ ‘Yeah, we’ll fix it later.’ And we do, unfortunately, but it’s not because we want to. It’s because we have to.”
Fixing things like audible dialogue in post is a huge gamble that can lead to more problems. Instead of having this "fix it in post" mentality, take time on set to record the sound correctly to improve the quality of the project. All members of the crew should be respectful toward each other, helping one another get the best quality shot to improve the entirety of the project, not just the picture.
Credit: PremiumBeat by Shutterstock
The Evolution of Technology
The reason we don’t have the same audio issues we have today with older films is simple: we have more tracks to play with.
Curley expanded on this idea, telling SlashFilm, “Part of the reason is because when everything was shot on film and edited with tape, it was a much more laborious process and it was much more technically challenging to do a whole lot with sound designs. Everything had to be a very conscious choice and a very intentional soundscape that they create... they wanted to make sure that the story got across first and the emotion gets sort of directed with music, and that’s about it.”
As the filmmaking process evolved over the years, the focus has shifted from the story being the most important aspect to the emotional response of the film itself. Sound designers focused on clear dialogue, location sound, sound effects, and music are faced with the negative notion that all sound can be fixed in post with the updated technology.
Even if the dialogue can't be heard, there is no emphasis to fix it since the story is secondary to the picture. Sound designers are asked to focus on the music in modern movies to push the emotional response.
The focus has to be reset, placing an equal amount of importance on the dialogue, picture, and other sound design elements. One cannot be deemed more important than the other since they all work in harmony once on the big screen. This focus may not be achievable right away, but here is a trick that can help make the dialogue sound better in the rest of the film's mix.
All four of the factors above that contribute to the unintelligible dialogue are a result of decisions made on sets. By the time a film makes it to post-production, editors can face something Karen Baker Landers calls “passive listening” or “familiarity.”
Making a movie takes a long time, constantly reading the script and listening to dailies. At some point, a filmmaker’s ears begin playing tricks on them, making words inaudible one day and clean and crips the next. At some point, critical listening goes out the door because the filmmakers have gotten used to the project in their lives.
Craig Mann, however, does not believe that the idea of familiarity is a widespread issue.
“Just speaking of the couple things that we’ve done even this past year, I can say Joe Carnahan, writer/director, wants to hear every word," Mann said. "Tyler Perry, we just did something with him, wants to hear every word... So I don’t necessarily agree with getting numb to it. I think it’s incumbent upon us to have that fresh ear every time we show up.”
This problem ties into the relationship the director has with the project. It is all right to have dialogue that is too quiet if it serves the story, but there is a problem with laziness taking over. Stay inventive and listen to the sound mixes with a clear mind. If there is any doubt about a sound issue, don't be afraid to ask for a second opinion or take a moment before coming back to the scene.
'Blow Out'Credit: Filmways Pictures
Mixing for Cinemas and Streaming
Sound mixing is a tricky and delicate process that can get messed up during distribution.
It is not unusual for theaters to purposefully ignore industry standards for something as crucial as sound. There is no longer a standard for sound in theaters due to the steep cost to constantly update or upgrade their sound systems. Many smaller theaters can't afford to stay up-to-date with industry standards.
Another fault is that theaters are showing movies on a digital system that favors inexperienced employees who can press play before carrying on with other tasks instead of projecting movies on film.
Many sound designers on the mixing stage have to mix sound in a calibrated environment and not think about the volume at the theaters. They cannot adjust their mix for the overblown speakers, low levels, and uncalibrated theaters while other theaters like AMC are up-to-date with industry standards and keep their soundboards calibrated for the best sound possible.
'(500) Days of Summer'Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures
When it comes to streaming, mixing sound has its own set of challenges. In layman’s terms, think of compression as audio files being shrunk down to be efficiently transported across the Internet and onto your viewing device. These shrunken files have a significantly lower quality than what you’d get if you watched that same movie on Blu-ray.
Although Netflix has an audio standard, there is no industry standard in how to measure audio for streaming. Hulu requires the sound mix to be based on the overall volume of the film, not on the dialogue of the film. This causes a problem for action movies that have loud explosions followed by quiet dialogue.
Most modern movies require a separate mix for home video, but there is the occasional film that decides to skip that step in favor of the dynamic range that won’t translate to home video, forcing the movie watcher to have their thumb on the volume button throughout the watch.
The best possible solution to the streaming and the home audio issue is to have a set standard that sound designers should follow. Sound designers should be there to create a separate mix for home video to ensure that the sound quality is correctly mixed for the average home audio setup.
Credit: Getty Images
Is There a Solution?
From the sound of it, the solution to the problem requires a multi-pronged approach.
One involves educating filmmakers and studio executives about the importance of sound.
The lack of understanding sound has trickled down to audiences that can't understand what a character is saying. If the processes of capturing, creating, and shaping great sound were better understood throughout the industry, it might not be a problem.
Another solution involves sound professionals consistently finding a way to up their game to meet the changing circumstances of the moment. Being able to manage mixes that are designed specifically for a non-pristine sound environment would counteract the inaudible dialogue.
Stop telling the sound team to fix it in post!Credit: QuickMeme
The final solution involves having a tough conversation about priorities and end goals. Making sure that the sound team is getting what they need on set is vital while the director gets the coverage they need to tell the story they want to tell. It’s a group effort that requires open communication and compromise. It is about time to stop telling the sound team that they can fix it all in post.
Moviemakers are not technicians, but people who are dedicated to the love of the craft. The world of film and sound design is constantly changing, and it is important to give those departments the time and attention they need to improve their craft for the new age of film.
Do you think there is another solution to fix the inaudible dialogue crisis? Let us know in the comments below!