I loved Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s dazzling film about the theatre, acting, public image and self-doubt. That I missed quite a few lines of the dialogue when I saw it in a cinema with a good sound system I initially put down to my own rapidly advancing decrepitude and the concomitant effect on my hearing. Then I went online to check out Facebook and found some of my friends – of varying ages – had experienced the same problem and were busily complaining about it. Maybe those plans for a hearing test were not so urgent.
Still, at least Birdman’s dialogue was more comprehensible than Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, where the dialogue was contentiously often mixed below the level of Hans Zimmer’s organ-dominated music score, making it sometimes difficult if not downright impossible to figure out.
Such was the ruckus among bloggers, critics and their readers that the director was forced to explain to Hollywood Reporter in November that he'd deliberately pushed the music volume up high to drown out the dialogue in some scenes, explaining the decision in self-flattering terms as “adventurous and creative”. He didn’t agree “with the idea that you can only achieve clarity through dialogue,” adding that cinemas he’d visited to check on screenings had been doing “a terrific job in terms of presenting the film in the way I intended.
“Broadly speaking,” said Nolan (pictured below), “there is no question when you mix a film in an unconventional way as this, you’re bound to catch some people off guard, but hopefully people can appreciate the experience for what it’s intended to be.”
Nolan already had form on this issue. His previous movie, The Dark Knight Rises, was saddled with risibly muffled line-readings by Tom Hardy as the villain Bane, wearing a heavy mask over his mouth. (The comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon deliver memorably funny impersonations of the incomprehensible Bane in Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Italy). Perhaps this, too, was due to Nolan’s being “adventurous” with the sound mixing.
Perhaps a degree of egomania and arrogance is necessary in order to be a creative artist in a corporatised, mega-expensive form like the blockbuster movie, but Nolan fell into an obvious trap by losing sight of the likely experience of much of the audience. Unlike one of Interstellar’s artistic forebears, Stanley Kubrick’s mystery-laden 2001: A Space Odyssey, Nolan’s movie is exposition-heavy, with much of its vital plot information involving complex theories of advanced theoretical physics. The film sets up the expository dialogue as vital to understanding the plot – so of course viewers are going to lean forward and cup their ears when that dialogue falls and starts to fight for dominance with the music. And naturally, they’re going to get frustrated. So why not take out those lines altogether?
If this was deliberate sabotage of the dialogue, more commonplace is accidental or simply careless mistreatment of a cast’s line readings. The most notorious recent example is the so-called ‘Mumblegate’ fiasco that engulfed the BBC TV last year after the premiere of its adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s classic, Jamaica Inn. The corporation was forced to apologise after a deluge of complaints from viewers unable to make head or tail of characters’ thickly rustic accents, especially when battered by the loud music score. After looking into the complaints, the BBC concluded “a perfect storm” of issues included mumbling actors and technical issues, as well as the poorly balanced sound mix.
Shifting blame partially to the cast was a low move, because the actors’ delivery of lines is the ultimate responsibility of the director (and this being a teleseries, possibly the producer). It is standard procedure in film and TV to re-record actors’ lines later in the studio, a process known as ADR, or Automated Dialogue Replacement. On few shoots do sound recordists manage to record perfect speech throughout, which is why this studio process is usually a vital part of the post-production phase. The dialogue track is for obvious reasons a key part of the sound mix. According to Birdman’s sound designer, Martín Hernández, around 30 percent of that film’s dialogue was recorded as ADR. (Pictured below: Alejandro González Iñárritu).
Given the sophistication of contemporary digital sound recording technology, there is no excuse for any film budgeted above the level of an oily rag to deliver a dialogue track that isn’t clearly comprehensible. So why do filmmakers makes this basic error? One reason is that directors and their teams are so au fait with the script that they already know what the actors are trying to say. They find it hard to project themselves into the point of view of the audience, which of course has no prior knowledge of the script.
A related issue is wildly fluctuating sound levels, which can make home viewing frustrating. It’s fashionable for music scores to be played loudly in action scenes. Movies are sound-mixed to be heard over multiplexes’ THX sound systems, but play the same movie on a television and, unless you have an expensive home-cinema set-up, the movie will annoyingly require constant adjustments to volume.
Historically some earlier films were criticised for hard-to-follow dialogue for different reasons. Marlon Brando was famed for his mumbling, a component of his Method acting. Modern day counterparts are Interstellar and Birdman’s respective stars, Matthew McConaughey and Michael Keaton, who seem to think that by not opening their mouths they gain authenticity bonus points.
In the 1970s, Robert Altman made a point of getting his actors to sometimes speak on top of one another (the technique was originally developed in the 1940s by Orson Welles) because it lent a spirit of spontaneity – the card playing scenes in western McCabe & Mrs. Miller are an obvious example. In real life, people don’t always wait politely for the other person to finish speaking as they do in most movies. They often jump right in, and in an argument, they yell at once.
Of course, the home viewer battling against foggy dialogue can always switch on the English language subtitles, but that is assuming they’ve been provided. Last year I demanded – and was given – an iTunes refund after buying a digital copy of one of the Game of Thrones seasons, only to find it had no subtitles. (My partner is hearing-impaired.) Few non-studio films released on DVD in Australia feature English captions unless they’re subtitled foreign films.
What can we do about all this? Viewers and film critics could try complaining loudly and often and stop blaming their own hearing unless they are genuinely going deaf. And even then, older audiences, whose hearing will often have deteriorated since their younger days, are being reasonable in expecting to be able to follow the film or series they’ve paid to see. (Note this is one of the fastest growing demographics for cinema going.)
It needs to be made clear there is no excuse for poor sound given the sophisticated digital tools now available. The equation needs to be made clear: a cloud of mumbles equals incompetent filmmaking.