The rising problem of inaudible dialogue

Actors are mumbling, and audio mixes are getting louder and less balanced. Simon, for one, just wants to hear what people are saying again...


I still remember the first time I watched a television programme and genuinely didn’t have a clue what a character in front of my eyes was saying. It’s one for Brits of a certain vintage this, as the programme concerned was Grange Hill, and the character was Pogo Patterson, a scheming school entrepreneur with a voice so nasally-twanged that I quickly accepted that he and I were never likely to have a conversation. He never seemed to have much interesting to say either, but I couldn’t tell you that with any certainty.

However, across the 80s and 90s, I put this kind of thing to the back of my mind. I kept watching films and television shows, actors and actresses said their lines, I heard them, and it all seemed to work out.

Yet there’s a growing trend now in the world of TV and the movies. And for once, I don’t think it’s just me that’s suffering this. It seems best to explain it with an example.

Recently, I had a chance to see The A-Team movie. The review is being held back until the film’s UK release at the end of the month, but I’d like to echo something that many American reviewers have already picked up on: namely, I could barely hear a word that Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson was saying at any point in the film.

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There are two reasons for this, my ears have concluded.

Firstly, we’re in an era where film and television shows are putting together very complex surround sound mixes, where backing music sometimes takes too heavy or loud a role in the audio balance. As such, at the point where an actor is delivering what may or may not be a pivotal line, there’s so much going on elsewhere in the audio mix, that you’re onto a bit of a loser from the off (I’m saying actor, incidentally, because it’s almost entirely male performers who I’m finding I can’t hear). So loud are parts of the mix, that there’s simply too much noise competing for your ears’ attention.

Secondly, though, actors are rediscovering the art of the mumble. And The A-Team is the most notable, but not the only, example of this in recent times.

So earnest was Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson attempting to be in his portrayal of B.A. Baracus, that too often his lines become a mesh of sounds that I couldn’t pick up at all. I’ve checked, too, with other people who have also seen the film, and they report the same thing.  He’s a character that simply can’t be heard properly for most of the film.

My initial suspicion is generally the sound mix in the cinema in which I’m sitting, but on anecdotal evidence, that doesn’t seem to be the case with The A-Team.

Nor is it the case in Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Here, the wonderful Ken Watanabe is given some fairly crucial exposition to put across, and yet, with the best will in the world, I couldn’t make out most of what he was saying.

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I appreciate that Watanabe does have a comparably strong accent, but I’ve not had a problem hearing him in his earlier films. In Inception, however, I can’t pinpoint whether it was the loudness of the rest of the film, or the manner in which he delivered his otherwise excellent performance. It didn’t change the fact that I simply couldn’t make out what he was saying for too much of the time. In a film as dense as Inception, that’s a sizeable problem, I’d argue.

Again, I’ve checked this with others who have seen the film in different screenings, and there’s about a 50/50 split between those who concur, and those who think my ears needs syringing.

I can come up with further movie examples, too. You’re a better person than me, for instance, if you can make out much of what was being said in the remake of The Italian Job. Pitch Black, too, for all of its qualities, is a film where it’s often quite hard to make out just what Vin Diesel is saying. And Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain? Too much of his dialogue simply escaped my ears, however brilliant his performance may have been.

Just popping a quick note out onto Twitter confirmed what I thought, too: that I’m not the only one who has problems with mumbling actors (and many thanks to all of you who responded, you’re all credited at the bottom). Films such as Public Enemies, Shooter, the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies, Four Christmases, Miami Vice, The Wolfman, Be Kind Rewind, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas and lots of Sylvester Stallone movies were quickly cited as examples (with one contributor also suggesting of some of Andy Garcia’s work in particular that “only bats can hear his dialogue”, although my ears have never had a problem with him in the past!).

This isn’t just a cinema problem, either, as the issue seems to be increasingly evident on television, too. I remember watching more than one episode of The wonderful Wire with subtitles on, for instance, to ensure I could catch everything that was being said. I’ve heard similar complaints levelled at even more traditional shows such as Grey’s Anatomy, too. And most Doctor Who fans could offer a story or two about how the volume of the backing score occasionally drowns out what the actors are saying in front of it.

Just to be clear where actors are concerned, though. I’ve no problem per se with an actor mumbling where a character demands it. The history of film is littered with great examples of where this works to tremendous effect.

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Take Marlon Brando. He’s often cited as an actor who mumbled his way through many roles, but at least the directors concerned kept the rest of the sound down while he was doing so, to give us a sporting chance of making out what he was saying (the exception, of course, being Apocalypse Now, where his words are still a bit of a mystery. Yet his appearance in that film arguably transcends dialogue!). The balance was right, and Brando became one of cinema’s finest, and most effective, screen mumblers. And in his case, it’s hard to grumble – or indeed mumble – about it.

Where I have the problem, though, and where I think the line is increasingly crossed, is when I can’t actually hear the dialogue actors are spouting properly, even with the most ambitious straining of my lugholes.

For without wishing to sound like a bit of a fuddy duddy, I can’t help wondering now if there’s just a bit too much going on. That the balance is being lost. On the one hand, we’re getting a few more cases of actors delivering lines that might sound fine on set, but are coming across as collections of inaudible noises on screen. And then when the film or TV show in question hits the editing suite, this isn’t being compensated for.

I do accept that I’m lucky. My hearing is okay, but as I get older, inevitably – as it will with us all – it’ll deteriorate. And I wonder whether I’ll get to the point where I’ll watch more and more films and television programmes with the subtitles on. Not because I’ve got problems in everyday hearing, but simply because I need the best chance of finding out what’s going on. The subtitles might just give me that extra leg up that film and programme makers may not be willing to offer.

This shouldn’t be the case, though. Instead, all concerned surely need to put some of the gimmicks aside for a moment and consider the basics. That dialogue on a page has to go through the filter of someone’s performance before we get to hear it. That it has to come through speakers to get to our ears. That any other sound layered against said dialogue is a potential distraction that needs to be handled with care. All of this really needs to be taken into account.

On stage, if an actor is inaudible, there’s at least the slight chance that someone might bring it to their attention, through kind means or otherwise. For what it’s worth then, I’d like to do the same with screen actors, too.

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My message to them is this: make sure your audience can hear what it is you’re saying. Stop mumbling incomprehensibly. If you’re not mumbling, speak clearly. You’re an actor. That’s your job. And let us all enjoy the dialogue in the script that presumably was one of the reasons you signed up for the project in question in the first place.

My message to the production team around the actors? Call bullshit, and never forget the audience at the end of it all. Seriously. If you’re watching a first cut of a movie, and you can’t hear what’s being said properly, then what chance have the rest of us got?

Rght now, the number of performances I personally can’t hear or make out is very much in the minority, thankfully. Yet I’ve got a horrible feeling though that right now, this is a growing, rather than shrinking, trend.

And in my view, it’s really one that needs to be nipped in the bud. Quickly.


With thanks to the following Twitterers for their help:

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@GrahamJ Robinson, @marc2j, @marcgibbons, @Bigbossfan, @ST360, @CerpynCarpiog, @MdellW (for the Dick Tracy gag), @marksavela, @RobBuckley, @BeeReine, @woosabitronic, @dominichamon, @hectorbustnuts, @sitartattoo, @Hoopyjoe, @LeeAHarris