Anyone else struggling to hear dialogue in the movies?

Are you struggling to make out the dialogue in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar? And why is the inaudible dialogue problem not going away?

Appreciating you could be forgiven for thinking that a good 90% of features on movie websites right now are about Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, for the purposes of this piece, there’s little other place it can start.

Before I went to see Nolan’s latest, I’d been advised by a colleague that Hans Zimmer’s score for the film was quite dominant in places (“it’s like he fell onto a church organ at one point”, I was sagely told). And that proved to be true. What also proved to be true – for me at least – was that the sheer volume and force of that score drowned out dialogue.

And in turn, it brought up one of my recurring bugbears: inaudible dialogue in modern movies.

As it turned out, in the case of Interstellar, I wasn’t alone. A quick snapshot of our Twitter feed over the weekend found that whilst many were fine with the dialogue, a good number had trouble. Here’s a quick snapshot.

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“The tone of MM’s voice and the score mixed together gave me Bane-like problems”, wrote @Fininho. @Timson_Charlie argued that the lack of audio clarity “took me out of the moment more than once”. And @Groovurism reflected the views of many, adding “I’m glad it wasn’t just me”.

It wasn’t.

I’ve written about this before, and it’s generally Christopher Nolan films that prove a catalyst for it. I’m a genuine fan of his work, but I can’t help thinking something’s not quite right in the way his films are being projected somewhere along the line. I don’t think for a minute he’s the kind of filmmaker who sits in a booth, can’t hear a line of dialogue, and, glancing at his watch, figures it’s nearly lunch, and says he can let than one go. But also, the issue has cropped up in particular on his last three movies. Something’s amiss.

If you go back to Ken Watanabe’s character in 2010’s Inception, the only way I ever got to find out what he was saying was by switching on the subtitles on the disc release. It was fairly crucial exposition he was voicing in that film, but a mix of quiet delivery and the loudness of the film around him meant I was none the wiser when I watched it in the cinema. Anecdotal research suggested that around a third of people were in the same boat as me. It wasn’t a case of one cinema being faulty, or letting the side down. There was a bigger problem.

Then, obviously, there was the whole Bane in The Dark Knight Rises issue, when inaudibility rose again. That was, in major part, a consequence of having an actor wear a mask for the duration of a film. But also, there’s a joining theme across Christopher Nolan’s last three movies, and that’s that the volume of Hans Zimmer’s score – or at least the prevalence of it in key moments – gets in the way.

Once is a one-off. Twice, well, a little troubling. Three times? Something, somewhere along the line, isn’t being fixed.

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A couple of things to note. Firstly, my hearing is good, and the majority of people I’ve asked about inaudibility are in the same boat. Secondly, the same people who cite issues with Interstellar‘s audio mix – or the way that cinemas are broadcasting it – also had the same complaints about Inception and The Dark Knight Rises. It’s nothing to do with the quality of said films. Just that they couldn’t always hear them.

In recent times, we’ve had instances of directors writing to projectionists (at least the ones they can found) giving specific instructions on how to actually screen their films. What’s perhaps lacking is some direction on audio as well. This is a part technical issue, and it’s getting in the way of people enjoying movies. You go to a cinema, after all, and you’re paying because you get to see the film first, and also, you get to see it screened in a far better way than you could manage at home. Unless you’re Mr Odeon or something, and have a really nice house. If you’re not getting a better quality viewing ‘experience’, then a major selling point of the cinema is instantly taken away. You shouldn’t be sat in a multiplex, thinking you need to turn the subtitles on.

But technical problems, and sound mixes, are one part of a problem that doesn’t seem to be being arrested. The other is mumbling.

Back when I first wrote about this in 2010, the catalyst at that point wasn’t an audio mix. It was the ultra-quiet, mumbled delivering of Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson’s lines in The A-Team movie. Yet he wasn’t alone. Dialogue in films such as Pitch Black, Brokeback Mountain, Public Enemies, Miami Vice (Michael Mann is a repeat offender here, due to a heavy preference for production audio, sometimes at the expense of ADR work apparently), The Wolfman, and Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides came up as examples.

Since then? More films have been cited, but it’s spread to British television too. The BBC drama Jamaica Inn attracted a wealth of complaints earlier this year. Broadcast magazine, in reporting on that particular issue, said that “actors do seem to mumble their lines these days in an attempt to replicate ‘authentic’ dialogue as ‘heard’ in reality TV”.

However, perhaps the biggest problem it cited was that “tight production schedules don’t always allow enough time after filming to sort performance issues of noisy locations out properly.” Certainly the continued truncation of post-production schedules has a part to play. It seems sometimes there’s barely to time to notice the problem, yet alone fix it.

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Whatever the reason though, that the problem continues, in spite of high profile examples, is troubling. Is anyone actively trying to sort this out?

When we talked about this issue in the aftermath of The Dark Knight Rises‘ release, one commenter, by the name of Lambkins, noted that “Christopher Nolan will forever be remembered as the great filmmaker who forgot about the importance of decent sound mixing.” I really hope not. However, it’s surely no coincidence that with his last three films in particular, the same complaints have come up. It’s perhaps a little unfair to cite him, but he’s the highest profile director caught up in something that’s not really going away fast enough.

One last point: if people with generally good hearing are struggling, then those whose without are getting even shorter shrift. It can be a struggle at the best of times for anyone with any kind of hearing impairment to get the most of out a film’s audio mix. But when the cards are seemingly stacked against them before they’ve bought a ticket, that’s beyond irritation: that’s downright unfair.

So: if you go to the movies and can’t hear what’s going on, please complain. If we all sit there and accept it, then we’re barely going to hear a syllable of Batman v. Superman at this rate…


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