homeaboutarchivenewslettermembership!
aboutarchivemembership!
aboutarchivemembers!

Why Can’t I Hear The Movie?

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 06, 2021

boom-mic-and-movie-camera.png

In theory, this should be a golden age for movie sound. There’s better digital recording and mixing equipment than ever, theaters are incentivized to offer a premiere experience, and home theater equipment is more expensive, elaborate, and ubiquitous.

But many viewers report that even simple intelligibility of movie sound is worse than ever. In “Here’s Why Movie Dialogue Has Gotten More Difficult To Understand (And Three Ways To Fix It)”, Slashfilm’s Ben Pearson tried to break down the various causes of the problem and propose some solutions. It’s a thorough (and quite enjoyable) read.

Some of the sound problems just have to do with plain incorrigibility of the people involved: directors (Christopher Nolan is singled out) and actors who pride themselves on arty unintelligibility. There’s also some incompetence: movie houses who’ve let go of skilled projectionists and play the movie back too low (often if someone complained it was too loud), or filmmakers who rush through a shoot or a mix counting on the fact that they’ll be able to pick up the sound later. And sure, we’re probably overromanticizing our youth, when everything was pure and clear (but really made by the same kind of hacks still in charge of the movie business).

The more interesting problems, however, really are structural. For instance, remixing a movie for streaming (when you can afford to do a proper second mix), often bumps up against not just digital compression, but the fact that competing streaming services have no single standard for sound quality and mixes:

Compression is inescapable when streaming is involved, but it turns out not all streaming platforms are created equal. Craig Mann tells me something he says “is not well-known” outside the sound community: different streamers have different specifications when it comes to their audio mixes. “Netflix has excellent specs in terms of dialogue norm and overall levels,” he reveals. “They need a particular level in order to pass quality control, and the level is essentially based on the dialogue level throughout the length of the program.”

But since there’s no industry standard in how to measure audio for streaming, other platforms base their levels on other parts of the sound mix. Case in point: Mann recently worked on Joe Carnahan’s “Boss Level,” which was originally meant to be a theatrical release. “For a variety of reasons, it ended up at Hulu, and when we got a look at that spec, they require it to be based on the overall [volume] of the film, not on the dialogue level of the film. Consequently, that’s a big action movie with shooting and cars and big music, and the result of that is that you have a much more squashed up, un-impactful mix … there are only a couple different ways of measuring these things these days, and I can only imagine that it’s somebody just not understanding the reason why it should be this and not that.”

As for downmixing the streaming service for stereo, well, as Pearson writes:

For audio mixers, the theatrical mix comes first, followed by a streaming mix. Then, a stereo mix will often be created, funneling the full scope of the sound mix through just two simple speakers in a process Donald Sylvester likens to “taking a beautiful steak and dragging it through the dirt.”

As for solving the problem of unintelligibility and bad sound experiences, it mostly boils down to having more respect for and a better understanding of sound, from preproduction to the algorithms that serve up a mix to your TV set or headset. No easy fixes, just time and craftmanship. (In other words, don’t hold your breath.)