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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.)

“It is a history of pre-Columbian Peru, the Spanish conquest, and the subsequent colonial regime” — and an argument (in Spanish, Quechua, and Aymara) that Spain had no right to colonize and abuse the Inca peoples

While the official global death toll from COVID-19 is about 5.2 million, the excess deaths (including unreported cases, other illnesses that couldn’t be treated, etc.) is now estimated at 17.6 million, according to The Economist

I Was Adopted. I Know the Trauma It Can Inflict. @espiers on Justice Amy Coney Barrett's too-casual assertion that adoption is "an accessible and desirable alternative for women who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant".

Felix Klieser is an internationally recognized French horn player who was born without arms and plays his instrument with his toes.

David R Chan has eaten at more than 8000 Chinese restaurants across the US. "My interest in the history of Chinese in the US led me to eat Chinese food and see what it was like to be Chinese in different parts of the country."

The escalating costs of being single in America. "We don't seem to like or respect single people and their choices."

A collection of 30 maps made in 30 days.

Just sent out the latest issue of the @kottke newsletter. There's been so much interesting stuff on the site lately that it was hard to keep this short. A good way to catch up on things if you've been busy.

Quick Links Archive

Victorian Condoms (Possibly)

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 06, 2021

You find the strangest things in the pages of old books, and the folks at the Bodleian Archives at Oxford are no stranger to the eccentric bits of paratext one picks up here and there. But this is indeed something of a mystery:

Folded Tissue with Ribbon.jpeg

The tissue was folded in half, lengthwise. When I unfolded it, it was immediately clear: not a glove, not unless you wanted to cover only one (very long!) finger at a time.

Instead there were four, individual, 8 inch/20cm-long tubes. For each, one end has been skillfully shaped, cut and sealed into a three dimensional dome, like a fingertip on a glove. The other end of each tube is fully open, and a pale blue ribbon drawstring is neatly tucked into a narrow hem around the circumference of each opening.

The archivist’s best guess? A small pack of condoms, quite possibly made from an animal casing, which would have been soft and supple when new (now quite brittle). And to be honest, a book is a perfectly good place to keep such supplies — unlikely to get lost in laundry or wardrobe changes, the closest thing a man of that era might carry to a bag or purse.

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The Logistics of the Montgomery Bus Boycott

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 06, 2021

Montgomery_Bus_Boycott_1955.jpeg

The bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama began on Monday, December 5th, 1955 and ended on December 20, 1956 — 381 days during which a huge population had to commute to work, shop, socialize, and run errands without using the city’s public transit system. Obviously, not all of them had cars of their own or could rely solely on their feet or bicycles. They needed organized transport.

The bus boycott produced well-known heroes like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., and a Supreme Court decision prohibiting segregation on public transit, but it also was a product of grassroots organization, an exercise in logistical planning as well as party discipline. How did they do it?

Blogger Samantha Shain has gathered a few threads from books at her site The Data Are All Right (I found Samantha’s post via a tweet by Elizabeth Wrigley-Field.) Here are some highlights:

At least 29 women worked as regular carpool drivers or dispatchers. Ann Smith Pratt, a hairdresser, was the chief dispatcher. She worked the ham radio directing taxi drivers and the church station wagon crew to urgent pickups at 32 designated sites. (At the Dark End of the Street, p. 120, by Danielle McGuire)
[Rev. Benjamin J Simms] set up three repair shops, designated official gas stations, instituted a uniform pay scale for drivers and a system for keeping track of them, oversaw dispatchers working around the clock, and demanded meticulous record keeping. (Daybreak of Freedom, p. 13, by Stewart Burns)

Dr. King wrote about some of these logistical difficulties in the local papers; they were made even more difficult through the counter-organization of the boycott’s opponents.

The newest and most recent of the attempts to end the protest has been effected through insurance companies, which for some strange reason have cancelled the insurance policies on all but seven of the 24 church station wagons. Whether pressure has been put upon the companies to force the cancellation, no one knows, but on Saturday Spetember 8, the automobile insurance companies annoucned that they “could nott take the risk” and cancelled the policies. Thus, seventeen station wagons have been out of operation since then. Efforts are being made to find “companies which will take the risk,” so that these carriers can resume operations. (quoted in Daybreak of Freedom, p. 395.)

Ann Smith Pratt and Reverend Simms are examples of the other heroes of the Bus Boycott, the ones who never became national names but without whom it simply would have failed.

Infrastructure doesn’t just happen; it is a manifestation of how a community takes care of itself, or (too often), how it cares for some but not others. As my friend Deb Chachra persuasively writes, infrastructure is care at scale.

The Vinyl Boom

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 06, 2021

Bar chart titled The Huge Resurgence of Vinyl Records; vinyl records projected to break 30m units (LPs) sold in 2021

About five years ago, a funny thing happened: for birthdays and holidays, instead of LEGO sets or basketball jerseys, my son started asking me to buy him vinyl records. I happily complied: it was fun to mix new and old records together, track down semi-rare albums, and then listen to the music together, plus talk about music all the time.

It turns out my teen wasn’t an outlier: younger people are buying vinyl at a rate not seen in over a generation, not just as collectors or as an affectation, but as a first-line way to enjoy music, new and old. What’s more, the revenue from vinyl sales was a small but substantial lifeline to artists squeezed by streaming’s stingy royalty rates.

At The Hustle, Zachary Crockett does the math:

For modern-day indie artists, it’s a welcome boom. A vinyl record costs ~$7 to manufacture, and a band typically sells it directly to fans for $25, good for $18 in profit. By contrast, streaming services only pay out a fraction of a penny for each listen. A band would have to amass 450k streams on Spotify to match the profit of 100 vinyl sales.

There are also moments where the streaming and vinyl economy come together. Bandcamp has a vinyl pressing service, and some of the most popular music videos on YouTube are needle drop recordings of a fan playing a vinyl record.

There are some bottlenecks, though. First, streaming is a much bigger ocean than vinyl. Second, vinyl’s manufacturing capacity is greatly reduced from its heyday, making it more arduous and fragile to make, manufacture, and distribute a vinyl record. Finally, the environmental impacts of vinyl manufacturing aren’t great.

But the aesthetics — oh, the sweet joy of a needle on a record — the aesthetics can’t be beat.

Update: Crockett’s arithmetic above is a little hasty. For one thing, it doesn’t include shipping costs, which can either make a record much more expensive or cut into the profit margin. It’s definitely a better profit margin than streaming music royalties, but it is one where costs are at a premium.

Sounding the Sumburgh Foghorn

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2021

Built in 1905 and recently restored to working order, the Sumburgh Foghorn is perhaps the last functioning foghorn in Scotland. This two-minute film, which is simply but beautifully shot, documents the surprisingly elaborate process of sounding the horn.

Out of use since 1987, the foghorn was painstakingly restored by Brian Johnson. Shown in the video is the annual Foghorn sounding at Sumburgh Lighthouse, Shetland, Scotland. Brian starts up the 1951 Kelvin K-Series Diesel 44hp Engines. The engines power the Alley and MacLellan compressors, which in turn, power the foghorn.

Just so’s you know, the horn was originally much louder at the end, but YouTube’s audio algorithm turned the volume down. I tried several versions but it wasn’t having it.

I wish we could experience the true loudness of the horn through the video — it was so powerful that it could be heard at a range of 20 miles on foggy days. (thx, mick)

How to Build the Perfect Medieval Castle

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2021

Castles across Europe and the Middle East during the Middle Ages were all pretty different, but by looking at the trends over a period of several centuries, you can determine how to build the perfect castle.

We trace the origins of the castle in the feudal system that emerged in France c.900 CE, and look at the early motte-and-bailey castle, used by the Normans to subjugate England and Wales in the 11th century. We then look at how castle’s became stronger and more sophisticated, with the addition of stone curtain walls, massive keeps, towers (square, round and D-shaped), as well as powerful gatehouses, barbicans, machicolations and moats.

(FYI: The sponsorship in this video for a medieval role-playing game is a little annoying but easily skippable and ultimately doesn’t detract from how interesting & educational the video is.)

The Hunt for Nazi War Criminal Adolf Eichmann

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2021

This animated documentary about how Israeli Mossad agent Zvi Aharoni tracked down and captured Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Argentina 15 years after WWII ended is really fantastic.

The rare film to win festival prizes as both a documentary & as an animation, Randall Christopher’s The Driver is Red is a stunning showcase for his minimalist pen and ink art and for his grand aim to increase public awareness of WWII history (which he perceives to be rapidly fading from the consciousness of younger generations). Should he succeed in that noble aim however, the reason will be that he has taken a potentially dry historical record and transformed it into an imaginative and unabashedly cracking spy thriller.

Told through the experience of Israeli Mossad agent Zvi Aharoni, the film documents the discovery and capture of Adolf Eichmann, the senior Nazi official largely responsible for organizing and executing the Holocaust. Hidden for 15 years half a world away, and living under an assumed identity, Eichmann is tracked down by Aharoni and the agent, with a small team in tow, must design and execute a strategy for Eichmann’s capture and extradition.

You can read much more about Eichmann and his crimes, capture, trial, and death in a massive five-part series Hannah Arendt wrote for the New Yorker in 1963 (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), later collected in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. (via open culture)

Beneath the Bird Feeder

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 02, 2021

a red bird with its wings flared in the snow

a gray/brown bird in the snow

a squirrel on snowy ground

Last winter, Carla Rhodes captured some scenes of the animal life underneath her bird feeder. Rhodes is a wildlife conservation photographer, so the photos are good and she made certain to do the right thing with her feeder:

Ethical considerations were at the forefront of this project. This included hanging the feeder in a tree away from house windows. If not cared for properly, bird feeders can be a vector for diseases, such as salmonella. To avoid this issue I regularly raked beneath the bird feeder (and turned the soil below), rotated the feeder to different branches, occasionally allowed the feeder to be empty, and regularly disinfected the feeder with dish soap and dilute bleach solution.

(via colossal)

Designing a Lego Car to Cross Gaps

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 02, 2021

In the second video by Brick Experiment Channel I’ve posted here in the past week, a Lego car is repeatedly adapted to cross larger and larger gaps, until it can cross a massive gap just a little narrower than the length of the car. As I said before about their climbing car video, watching the iterative process of improving a simple car performing an increasingly difficult task using familiar design objects is such an accessible way to observe how the process of engineering works.

One of the things you get to witness is when a particular design tactic dead ends, i.e. when something that worked across a shorter gap is completely ineffective crossing a wider distance. No amount of tinkering with that same design will make it work…you have to find a whole new way to do it.

Extreme Macro Photography of Eyes

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 02, 2021

closeup photo of an eye

closeup photo of an eye

closeup photo of an eye

closeup photo of an eye

closeup photo of an eye

I have featured Suren Manvelyan’s ultra-macro photos of human eyes on the site before, but since I think about them all the time, here they are again. I just wish the images were bigger. Manvelyan has also shot a bunch of animal eyes at close range — this is a llama eye:

closeup photo of a llama eye

Vintage Photos of Venus & Serena Playing Tennis as Kids (1991)

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 02, 2021

Venus & Serena Williams as kids

Venus & Serena Williams as kids

Venus & Serena Williams as kids playing tennis

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is home to a collection of photographs taken by Rod Lyons in 1991 of Venus and Serena Williams practicing tennis at the ages of 12 and 10 on a tennis court near their home in Compton. Their father Richard is in the photos as well, coaching his daughters. Patrick Sauer talked to Lyons about the photos for Smithsonian Magazine:

“Where I was sent to shoot an up-and-coming tennis player was interesting because [the sport’s] ’70s [to] ’80s boom was over, so [tennis] wasn’t that popular overall, and you certainly didn’t see Black people in Compton out there playing. But other than that it was no big deal,” Lyons recalls. “I got there and started taking pictures of two young sisters named Venus and Serena, 12 and 10, taking lessons from their father, Richard. The practice session was disciplined and intense. Richard was really coaching ‘em up that day, but he wasn’t dictatorial, and [he] treated his daughters with kindness and respect.”

There’s another photo of the sisters from 1991 in this NPR piece, as well as some stories from locals about the Williams family:

Barbee was a 21-year-old limo driver and part-time tennis coach when Richard Williams invited him to train with his daughters.

“Tennis was a passion,” he says.

Barbee was a tennis prodigy himself, so when he faced Venus and Serena on the court, he had finally met his match.

“Man, it was unbelievable,” Barbee says. “Never seen nobody that good. It was something I’d never seen before in my life.”

Venus wasn’t even a teenager yet.

Training meant hitting hundreds of balls with enough force to break the strings on their racquets.

“Every other day, I was restringing my racquets,” he says. “My shoes, once a week. A hole right in my foot of my shoe. Used to tape them up.”

Here are still more photos from 1991 and you can find a photo of the sisters posing with Ronald and Nancy Reagan at Sports Illustrated.

King Richard, a biopic of Richard Williams produced by his daughters, takes place during this period of time, is now out in theaters and on HBO Max, and is getting great reviews.

Dogs That Look Like Celebrities

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 01, 2021

Compiled by Joaquim Campa, here are several dogs that look like celebrities. There’s Harrison Ford:

a dog that looks like Harrison Ford

William H. Macy:

a dog that looks like William H. Macy

Snoop Dogg:

a dog that looks like Snoop Dogg

And from the comments on that post, Patrick Stewart:

a dog that looks like Patrick Stewart

Also from the comments, Martin Scorsese:

a dog that looks like Martin Scorsese

This is not my usual thing, but this caught me at the right moment and I needed to get my annual pet post in so…

What Movies Can Teach Us About Mozart’s Music

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 01, 2021

Typically, we think of music in movies in terms of what the music adds to the visuals. Music often tells us how to feel about what we’re seeing — it sets the mood and provides an emotional context. But, as Evan Puschak details in this video, you can also learn something about music (Mozart, in this case) from the way in which talented directors and music producers deploy it in movies, particularly when they use it unconventionally.

[These films and TV shows] teach us something about the Lacrimosa. They open up doors in the music that maybe even Mozart didn’t see. This is what’s so cool about movies — they bring art forms together and, in these collisions, it’s possible to see some really beautiful sparks.