Mumble mumble in movies

In too many movies over the last few years I have seen (heard) a very annoying trend: poorly recorded or poorly mixed speaking voices.  Producers apparently spend hundreds of thousands of dollars making sure we hear every creak and booming rumble, and making sure the explosions are loud enough to deafen everyone in the theater, but they do not care if the actors speaking can be heard or understood at all.  I have to strain to catch what they’re saying, and then grit my teeth when the soundtrack blasts some obnoxious noise over the top.

It would be easy to blame the actors for failing to enunciate clearly, and indeed I think enunciation  is considered “uncool”—so actors choose to mumble just the way they do at home, with no regard for the fact that mumbling in the rest of the soundtrack mix is like trying to converse while a freight train rushes by.  But in fairness I think mumbling should be a legitimate part of an actor’s vocal range, so the onus is on the recordist and the engineer to make sure the mumbling is heard clearly, at a decent level, with the absolute minimum of obstruction from background foley and music.

One movie that absolutely galled me in this way not too long ago was “The Incredibles“.  It’s a great movie, very entertaining, and I’ve watched it several times.  But the vocal performances and mixing are terrible! I honestly can’t understand how anyone let such godawfully unprofessional audio work get out of the studio door.  The voice actors sound like they are talking into their sleeves, or reading the lines just for practice.  They sound flat and dry and distant—you can practically see the actors standing in the studio, reading their lines, with no sense that they are the voices of the characters onscreen being chased or blown up, or that they might have to enunciate or speak up in order to be heard over the other noises.  And there was no effort made by the engineers to fit those voices into the audio environment of the movie!  Even given the dry, dull, mumbling recorded performance of the actors, the engineers should have been able to massage those sounds into an appropriate mix.  A little careful EQ, scene/room-appropriate reverb, harmonic coloration, and the right levels, and those recorded performances would have been saved.

Another hated example is the Tim Burton remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Actually the spoken lines of the actors are intelligible enough, but the sung lyrics by the Oompa-Loompas are utterly obliterated by the overblown and excessively loud music Danny Elfman chose to blast out.  The whole point of having the Oompa-Loompas sing at all was so they could directly convey the moral messages that were the foundation of the story!  Roald Dahl wrote them in specifically to make his message clear.  So for Burton to turn their scenes into cheap pop-culture pandering, and for Elfman to render their lyrics completely unintelligible, was to spitefully crap all over both Dahl and his writing.

I could add many, many more movies to this diatribe, and I probably will as I recall them.  I can say now though that it’s a recent trend.  Even the poorly-acted and cheaply-recorded B movies of the 70’s had more intelligible speech.  It seems to me that many movie producers of the last two decades or so have decided the public just wants a lot of noise, and doesn’t care if the actors can be heard and understood.  Which is frankly a massive insult to both the audience, and the actors themselves!

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1 Comment »

  1. DIego said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 3:21 am

    Maybe you’re just deaf from playing so much loud music?

    joke B: Are you sure you weren’t watching the pirated versions of those movies on some Chinese website?

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