Adventures In Audio with Audio Masterclass
When we go the the movie theater

When we go the the movie theater, we expect the film to have a ‘look’. But should it also have a ‘sound’?


The cinematic look. That's a commonly used phrase, and something that is commonly sought after by digital filmmakers. It harks back to the days of chemical cinematography with film running at 24 frames per second with the various limitations and distortions that the process involved. Digital cinematography can be very much closer to real life, but we perceive it as the soap opera effect and, in general, we don't like it. Click the link for an example of what people say.

But there isn't just one cinematic look. A happy boy-meets-girl movie for teens will benefit from bright lighting, bright colors and contrasts. A serious subject will work better with muted tones. Achieving the right look is a huge thing in cinema.

But what about having a sound? Yes of course a movie needs a sound track, but I mean 'sound' in the same sense as 'look'. And here I'm thinking particularly of dialog.

What do we normally expect of film dialog? Well let's start with intelligibility. It is vitally important that the audience can understand every word that is said. (Lack of intelligibility is an issue, but slightly different to the point I want to make here.)

Dialog also demands naturalness, so that the audience feels that they are listening to real people. Naturalness also applies to ambiences, so that the actors sound like they are actually in the locations depicted, and at the same distance as they appear in the shot.

Recording, editing and mixing dialog involves a range of specialist skills, and we enjoy the work of the people who do it without ever being aware of the skill, craft and artistry involved. Why there isn't an Oscar award dedicated specifically to dialog baffles me.

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A recent movie

Because there is enough ill-will on the web already, I won't name the movie that caught my attention, although I will say that it is a 2019 release so the issue is current.

The dialog sounds dreadful.

As you probably know, a lot of the dialog in film is re-recorded. This means that the dialog is captured during shooting, but is replaced in the studio through looping/ADR, editing and VocALign (caps correct).

Sometimes a director will have a policy of using as much of the original dialog (often referred to as production dialog) as possible. On other occasions all of the dialog will be replaced. Or their may be a balance between production sound and ADR.

What the balance is in this film, I don't know. But what I hear is that the dialog is hugely inconsistent. Sometimes it's quieter, sometimes it's louder. Sometimes the sound is close and upfront when the character is in the distance, sometimes it's the other way round. Sometimes the sound is low-frequency heavy (which is expected if the actor is close to the microphone without the LF cut filter switched in) sometimes it isn't. Sometimes one actor will sound distant and another close, even though they are next to each other in the shot.

Sometimes the sound is distorted – the kind of distortion that you might hear when a connector is dirty or corroded. Softly spoken passages sound OKish, but when the speech is louder it rises in level more than it should because the signal has broken through the dirt or corrosion.

So in conclusion, this movie suffers from bad sound… Or does it?

A sound look?

If the movie suffered from bad sound, then that's a shame. But what if it was intentional?

What if the director, or sound supervisor, had decided intentionally that since the film is set in the past then the sound should seem old-fashioned to suit the era. Not that sound since the 1950s onwards would necessarily have to be bad, but often it is perception that is considered more important than accuracy.

That might account for the distortion, but it's less likely to account for the inconsistencies I mentioned above.

It's a worry. I go to the movies to be entertained, or informed if it's a documentary, and although I'm all for artistic expression, I want to be able to hear and understand dialog without effort, and I want to feel that the dialog sounds like human beings and not like faulty electronics. I also want to feel that the dialog takes place in the setting depicted. If sound 'looks' are the way of the future then I fear for that.

Oh well, it's just my opinion. Others may not perceive the problems the way I do, and indeed they may like what they hear. Perhaps I'm just being stuffy and sound looks will open up new vistas of artistic expression, the like of which we can't yet imagine. Time will tell.

P.S. Since writing the above I was fortunate enough to experience a movie with dialog that I like very much – Kill Switch. Give it a try.

David Mellor

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David Mellor