'This is the part of myself I told you I struggle against'
That's a quote, not something I said. It will make sense in a minute. Also, 7 other things worth your time.
Long day yesterday. After we put my daughter to bed, my wife and I were exhausted. We were going to sit down to dinner at the table, but then we both got that “I’m too tired to sit upright,” vibe and we ate in front of the TV instead.
We turned on an episode of You. It’s on Netflix. Doesn’t matter if you’ve seen it really, the point isn’t that we watched it, or what it’s about. It’s how we watched it. Like this:
See? Subtitles “on.” Closed captioning enabled.
Why? Because in 2021, sound quality is just all over the place when it comes to television and movies.
This isn’t just me saying this. There’s a Reddit thread of people who went to see the movie Dune recently and found its dialogue to be incomprehensible at times, but then went home to watch it again on HBO Max with subtitles, and felt as if they were watching an entirely different movie.
And, here’s Bob Pearson, who writes for the movie review site Slashfilm, and who did a deep dive recently on why film and TV are getting more creative, more visually interesting—and yet harder to hear:
I used to be able to understand 99% of the dialogue in Hollywood films. But over the past 10 years or so, I've noticed that percentage has dropped significantly—and it's not due to hearing loss on my end. …
[A]t home, I've defaulted to turning the subtitles on to make sure I don't miss anything crucial to the plot.
Pearson surveyed Hollywood friends, colleagues and sources who work in sound editing, mixing and design, including some Oscar winners like Jaime Baksht, who got the award for Sound of Metal last year. (Highly recommended movie, btw.)
They industry experts told him there are a few things going on today that weren’t the case 10 or 20 years ago, and that combine to make it a lot harder to hear what’s going on in movies:
Sound is a red-headed stepchild
“In the last 15 years, movies have become more visually exciting,” said Mark Mangini, the Academy Award-winning sound designer behind films like Mad Max: Fury Road and Blade Runner 2049. “And because of that, it is less likely that you're going to be allowed to put that boom mic right where the actor is, because it's probably going to drop a shadow because it's in front of a light that the camera team insists has to exist to get the perfect look.”
"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," explained Thomas Curley, who won an Oscar as a production sound mixer on Whiplash (another good one). "That's a personal choice for them. Our job is to record it as well as we can regardless."
A “high-profile Hollywood sound professional who wishe[d] to remain anonymous” explained:
“The reason people don't remember having these same audio issues with older films is that [now] we have more: more tracks to play with, more options, therefore more expected and asked for from the sound editors. If you listen to, say, 'Four Weddings and a Funeral,' you'll hear every word ... the sound was cut on film back then, and with limited time, track count, and budget, these are the results you got."
Technology, part 2
Once upon a time, say maybe 1997, there were two main ways to watch a movie: in a theatre, or at home on your VCR. Now, there are many more options, and some of the sound pros say there’s a vast gulf between what sounds sound like in the mixing booth and what they should like on a wide variety of consumer viewing setups.
Human nature on set
I think I can summarize this one pretty well; it’s just a facet of human nature:
Actors, directors, and others on set don’t notice mumbled dialogue, simply because they’ve heard the script so often by the time they’re shooting for real.
Human nature, part 2
Finally, some of the sound pros blamed directors for simply not caring.
Among the worst offenders: Christopher Nolan, director of "Tenet," "Interstellar," and "The Dark Knight Rises,” whose films “push the boundaries of sound design, often resulting in scenes in which audiences literally cannot understand what his characters say.
(According to Pearson, Nolan admits that “other filmmakers have reached out to him to complain about this issue in his movies.”)
I’m just kidding, there is no real solution—well, except for subtitles. But, I’m glad for this discussion, because it allows me to put off admitting what might actually be the root cause that nobody seems willing to admit.
In short, none of us is getting any younger.
7 other things worth your time
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a sweeping Covid vaccine mandate for all private employers in New York City on Monday morning to combat the spread of the Omicron variant. It takes effect Dec. 27 and is “the first of its kind in the nation.” (NYT)
The U.S. Department of Justice sued the state of Texas Monday over its congressional redistricting plan, alleging that the new maps dilute the power of the Black and Latino voters who fueled the state's population growth and led to the state picking up more seats in Congress. (Business Insider)
The “whitest and wealthiest” part of Atlanta is trying to secede from the city and form its own municipality: Buckhead City. Now the Atlanta school board is trying to block it, saying it would mean it would lose 26 percent of its budget. (Axios)
The CEO of Better.com, which just raised $750 million, laid off 900 employees via a Zoom call according to leaked video. (I’ll be writing about this for Inc.com shortly.) (NY Post)
Reality Winner—the former National Security Agency worker who spent more than four years in jail for leaking classified documents—has given her first interview since her prison release. "I am not a traitor. I am not a spy. I am somebody who only acted out of love for what this country stands for," she told 60 Minutes' Scott Pelley. (People, CBS News)
Could Viagra help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s? A new study of 7 million patients published in the journal Nature Aging says use of the drug was associated with a 69 percent reduced incidence of the condition. Causation? Correlation? We don’t know, but once we’re all done with the jokes, it seems there’s good reason for further study. (Daily Beast)
An IKEA in Denmark turned into “a giant bedroom” after a freak snowstorm left two dozen employees and six customer stranded there overnight. "We slept in the furniture exhibitions and our showroom on the first floor,” the store manager Peter Elmose told media. People could "pick the exact bed they always have wanted to try." (CTV)
Thanks for reading. Photo: Fair use from ‘You.’ Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.
I thought I was just losing my hearing! At my age, that is a viable assumption.
I loathe subtitles and rarely watch a foreign film as a result. The primary reason? I enjoy actually WATCHING a movie. I read books, plenty of them. Also the news from multiple sources. I love to read.
When I WATCH something visual, I don’t want to move back and forth between words and the bottom of the screen and the visual content. I want to experience the visual using both sight and sound. Reading the dialogue for me adds a complexity I’m unwilling to endure when I want to be entertained.