Ben Pearson: ‘Here’s Why Movie Dialogue Has Gotten More Difficult to Understand’

Ben Pearson, writing for Slashfilm:

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. It’s gotten to the point where I find myself occasionally not being able to parse entire lines of dialogue when I see a movie in a theater, and when I watch things at home, I’ve defaulted to turning the subtitles on to make sure I don’t miss anything crucial to the plot.

Knowing I’m not alone in having these experiences, I reached out to several professional sound editors, designers, and mixers, many of whom have won Oscars for their work on some of Hollywood’s biggest films, to get to the bottom of what’s going on. One person refused to talk to me, saying it would be “professional suicide” to address this topic on the record. Another agreed to talk, but only under the condition that they remain anonymous. But several others spoke openly about the topic, and it quickly became apparent that this is a familiar subject among the folks in the sound community, since they’re the ones who often bear the brunt of complaints about dialogue intelligibility.

I think part of this is a trend that might have been inevitable, as the language of cinema inevitably became the lingua franca of the world. Most people can thoroughly enjoy movies recorded in a foreign language with subtitles. (Have I ever mentioned how fucking much I love Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite? My god, what a masterpiece.) So of course, you can, in theory, enjoy a movie recorded in your own language even if you can’t make out all or even a lot of the dialogue. Trend isn’t even the right word, though — it’s a fad, like grunge typography in the 1990s or the bizarre orange-teal color grading of movies during the 2000s.

But the other factor — which Pearson addresses directly — is the singular influence of Christopher Nolan. Nolan is to mumble-mouthed movie dialogue what David Carson was to illegible typography. Did I buy every issue of Ray Gun? Yes. Do I watch every movie Nolan makes? Yes. But, still, it’s a fad.

The correct answer here is Stanley Kubrick. In the same way the color grading of his films has never seemed dated, no matter the current fad, the audio tracks have not either. You can understand every fucking word every character says. Which makes Nolan’s recent films a bit frustrating, given how amazing a job he did supervising the 50th anniversary re-release of 2001: A Space Odyssey. My gut says Nolan is going to outgrow this.

Friday, 3 December 2021