You’re not alone if you’ve found yourself using subtitles in movies and TV shows at home more now than ever before. It’s not just that you’re getting older, it’s not just because you might not want to max out your volume for fear of waking up sleeping family members or neighbors. There are a set of physical, technological reasons why dialogue in modern movies and shows has taken a back seat in sound design.
The folks at SlashFilm took a deep look at why movie dialogue has gotten more difficult to understand in recent years. They went so far as to interview industry insiders, finding that the issue is a hot-button topic when it comes to sound design. Directors, actors, and producers all appear to be part of the issue – if one considers it an issue in the first place.
Digital Audio Tripping
Sound designer Thomas Curley (Whiplash, Yellowstone, Documentary Now!), summed up the array of issues in one simple quote. "It might fall into the realm of the ‘Jurassic Park’ thing," said Curley, "They spend so much time realizing that they can do all these things, but not thinking about if they should do all these things."
In the past, before digital audio was available, options were limited. Before digital audio was available, it was a given that dialogue would need to be loud and clear. As digital audio was introduced, sound designers were given the ability to easily change elements with extreme speed. With the same budget and time, far more changes could be made to the sound mix in a given piece of media.
Having more options isn’t always a good thing. In this case, having greater control over the entire soundscape means there’s more to mess with – and more to mess up.
Streaming Quality / Lost in translation
If you’re at home, you’re getting a different sound mix than you’d get at a physical movie theater. If you’re watching a movie that’s streamed over the internet, you’re getting a different sound mix than you’d get with a Blu-ray.
Sound director Mark Mangini (Mad Max: Fury Road, Blade Runner 2049), confirmed that a Blu-ray disc with 7.1 audio is "our full fidelity, 48 kilohertz, 24-bit master audio." This same audio can be heart on "certain premium platforms" but, for the most part, if you’re streaming a movie or show, you’re getting a degraded experience.
If you’re streaming a show, you’re getting a degraded sound experience that’s mixed after the original sound designer no longer has control. In order to make certain the entire streaming experience is synced (sound and image), the quality must be compressed.
Take a peek at the video above and see what SlashFilm turned up. An array of industry insiders speak on the problem and confirm what we’ve suspected for a while: It is really, truly more difficult to understand dialogue in films now more than it ever has before.