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  • I watch a lot of movies and TV

  • on the train, at home, at the movies, while working out, while doing dishes, in the bath...

  • But no matter where I'm watching,

  • I find myself constantly doing this one thing.

  • What?

  • It turns out this isn't unusual.

  • We polled our YouTube audience and about 57% of people said that

  • they feel like they can't understand the dialogue in the things that they watch unless they're using subtitles.

  • But it feels like this hasn't always been the case.

  • So, to figure out what was going on, I made a call.

  • Hi, my name is Austin Olivia Kendrick.

  • I am a professional dialogue editor for film and TV.

  • I basically perform audio surgery on actors words.

  • Do you watch with subtitles?

  • I– I do, actually.

  • I do, a lot of the time.

  • So... Why are you think that we all feel like we need subtitles now?

  • I get asked this question all the time.

  • All the time.

  • It's something that is...

  • It doesn't have a simple, straightforward answer.

  • It's very layered and very complex.

  • And after talking to Austin for almost 2 hours, it's true.

  • It's a very layered and complex topic.

  • But everything kept pointing back to one main thing.

  • Technology that got us from this...

  • –I'll get you, my pretty. –You should be kissed and often.

  • -No, Richard, no. What has happened...

  • To this.

  • -Mom, I just woke up.

  • ...little slim-waisted birdy...

  • Let's start with microphones.

  • I'm going to use this clip from "Singin' in the Rain" to show how mics used to work.

  • Here's the mic, you talk towards it.

  • The sound goes through the cable to the box.

  • A man records it on a big record in wax.

  • This scene illustrates some of the difficulties and intricacies early sound recordings.

  • Mics were big, bulky, temperamental, and required creative solutions to be hidden.

  • They were wired and recorded onto hard memory

  • like wax and eventually tape.

  • No matter how many actors were in a scene, all sound got recorded to one track.

  • So performers had to be diligently focused and facing a certain angle so that their words could be picked up.

  • Otherwise...

  • You couldn't hear a thing.

  • But technology's improved to the point where microphones don't impede performance as much anymore.

  • They become better, smaller, wireless...

  • and we use more of them to ensure that performances get captured.

  • What we typically are working with from production dialogue is 2 boom microphones

  • and then every actor has at least one lavaliere microphone hidden somewhere on them.

  • These shrinking mics have given actors the flexibility to be more naturalistic in their performances.

  • They no longer need to project so that their words reach the mic.

  • They can speak softly, knowing that the tiny mic hidden on their body will pick up what they're saying.

  • And my personal favorite example of this performance shift is Alec Baldwin on 30 Rock.

  • In a 2011 speech slash roast,

  • Tina Fey says that "He speaks so quietly that she can't hear him when she's standing next to him."

  • "And then you play the film back and it's there somehow."

  • Just listen to this whisper off between him and Will Arnett.

  • I'm not afraid of you.

  • Yeah. Well, you should be.

  • Let's just see how it all shakes out in the meeting.

  • Naturalism isn't always the best for intelligibility, though.

  • Take Tom Hardy, an actor that I personally love but who famously is a mumbler.

  • I mean... the mic picked that line up fine.

  • Like, we can definitely hear that he's talking, he's saying something.

  • But once that mumble gets recorded, it's on to a dialog editor's shoulder to make it as intelligible as possible.

  • And that was a lot harder when everything was analog.

  • While you could pick the best takes and physically splice them together,

  • if some piece of dialog was truly impossible to understand

  • then actors will come in and rerecord those specific lines

  • in a process called ADR, or Automated Dialog Replacement,

  • which you can see Meryl Streep do in this scene from "Postcards from the Edge".

  • There isn't enough money in the world to further cause like yours.

  • That still gets done today, but..

  • ADR also costs money because you're not only paying for the actors time you're paying for the engineer's time

  • and then the editor's time.

  • So we try to do ADR, frankly, as little as possible.

  • And so a lot of her job is making words sound better.

  • The show I'm currently working on,

  • I remember in the middle of this one word

  • there was just this loud metal clang that I couldn't remove.

  • So I had to go in and I had to find an alternate take of it that fit and then I had to fit it...

  • to the movement of her mouth in that moment and then push it in.

  • And once she's done with it it's sent off to a mixer,

  • who works to make sure the frequencies of the sound effects and music don't overlap with the frequencies of the human voice,

  • something that's only possible now that the world has moved away from tape and into digital recordings.

  • That is a big challenge.

  • Carving out those frequencies, that space...

  • amongst every other element of the mix for the dialogue to be able to punch through

  • and not be all muddied up by any other sounds that exist in that band of frequencies.

  • But even with all that work, lines of dialog can still be hard to understand.

  • The kind of feeling has been if you want your movie to feel quote unquote cinematic

  • you have to have wall-to-wall bombastic, loud sound.

  • A lot of people will ask like

  • "Why don't you just turn the dialog up?"

  • Like, just turn it up.

  • And... if only it was that simple.

  • Because a big thing that we want to preserve is a concept called dynamic range.

  • The range between your quietest sound and your loudest sound.

  • If you have your dialog, that's going to be at the same volume as an explosion that immediately follows it.

  • The explosion is not going to feel as big.

  • You need that contrast in volume in order to give your ear a sense of scale.

  • But the thing is, you can only make something so loud before it gets distorted.

  • So if you want to create that wide dynamic range you have no choice but to push those quieter sounds lower

  • instead of pushing the louder sounds louder.

  • So explosions go up and dialog comes down.

  • Which brings us to the Christopher Nolan of it all.

  • -A separate structure within the others

  • -Pushing out of orbit!

  • Nearly every film of his has been criticized for its hard to hear dialogue that essentially begs for subtitles.

  • But as as this headline explains, he likes it that way.

  • According to an interview in a book called The Nolan Variations,

  • he said that he gets a lot of complaints,

  • even from other filmmakers who would say,

  • "I just saw your film and the dialogue is inaudible."

  • "But the truth was it was kind of the whole enchilada of how we had chosen to mix it."

  • And in his 2017 interview with IndieWire, he said

  • "We made the decision a couple of films ago that we weren't going to mix films for substandard theaters"

  • And this is kind of the crux of the matter.

  • The content that we watch here and here and here is not mixed for us, primarily.

  • We rerecording mixers mix for the widest surround sound format that is available, typically like big release films that is Dolby Atmos,

  • which has true 3D sound up to 128 channels.

  • The thing is, if you're not at a movie theater that can showcase the best sound Hollywood has to offer...

  • you can't experience all of those channels.

  • So, after the movie is mixed for the 128 Atmos tracks,

  • somebody has to create a separate version of the film's audio where all those same sounds live on one or two or five tracks.

  • This is called the downmixing.

  • Downmixing is the process of taking that biggest mix and folding it down into formats with lesser channels available to it.

  • So say Atmos down to 7.1 or 7.1 down to 5.1 or 5.1 down to stereo, stereo down to mono.

  • Unlike old TVs that were gigantic and had a ton of space for speakers,

  • TVs today are super thin like this one that I have in my living room is about the same thickness as my iPhone.

  • So even though it's outputting the same mono or stereo sound that an older TV might, it's still going to sound worse

  • because you have to have tiny little speakers to fit into this tiny, sleek form factor.

  • These tiny speakers are also usually on the back of the TV.

  • So the downmixed version of this movie that went from 128 channels down to just 2

  • is going to sound even muddier when it's pointing away from you.

  • And when you're watching on your phone or a laptop, it's generally not much better.

  • When you combine not great speakers, naturalistic mumbly performances,

  • dynamic range featuring bombastic sound over dialogue, and a flattened mix...

  • It's no wonder we have trouble hearing what's going on.

  • And it seems like the industry knows this because TVs today are shipping with all kinds of settings built in, like this intelligence mode.

  • You can put on active voice amplification in hopes of making that dialog track come through just a little bit clear.

  • But of course, that's more band-aid than it is solution.

  • The way movies get mixed likely isn't going to revert back to super pristine dialogue.

  • So the solutions we have are, one:

  • Buy better speakers and only go to theaters that have impeccable sound.

  • Two: Take a chill pill and try to just worry a little bit less about picking up every single word that gets said.

  • Or, three...

  • Just keep the subtitles on.

  • For people who are deaf or hard of hearing subtitles make movies and TV shows accessible

  • and this accessibility has just expanded in recent years.

  • Laws have been passed to ensure that movie theaters have at least a few screenings a week with captions.

  • Pretty much every streaming service has standardized them

  • and speech recognition technology has made them accessible in pretty much every YouTube video and TikTok.

  • Plus, they're super easy to toggle on and off.

I watch a lot of movies and TV

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