“I used to be able to understand 99% of the dialogue in Hollywood films,” writes professional film blogger Ben Pearson. “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…”
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…
“There are a number of root causes,” says Mark Mangini, the Academy Award-winning sound designer behind films like “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Blade Runner 2049.” “It’s really a gumbo, an accumulation of problems that have been exacerbated over the last 10 years … that’s kind of this time span where all of us in the filmmaking community are noticing that dialogue is harder and harder to understand…”
When it comes to dialogue unintelligibility, one name looms above all others: Christopher Nolan. The director of “Tenet,” “Interstellar,” and “The Dark Knight Rises” is one of the most successful filmmakers of his generation, and he uses his power to make sure his films push the boundaries of sound design, often resulting in scenes in which audiences literally cannot understand what his characters say. And it’s not just audiences who have trouble with some Nolan films: the director has even revealed that other filmmakers have reached out to him to complain about this issue in his movies… Thomas Curley, who won an Oscar as a production sound mixer on “Whiplash” and previously worked on “The Spectacular Now,” has also seen this type of mentality at work. “Not everything really has a very crisp, cinematic sound to it in real life, and I think some of these people are trying to replicate that,” he tells me.
Among the other factors: Curley also says that in general there’s also a “bit of a fad” with today’s actors for “soft delivery or under your breath delivery of some lines.” Another sound designer complains today’s more-visual movies are more resistant to closely-placed boom microphones — while a sound editor notes issues are exacerbated by compressed shooting schedules. One "high-profile Hollywood sound professional who wishes to remain anonymous even blamed an abundance of new technologies: “more tracks to play with, more options, therefore more expected and asked for from the sound editors… We literally have hundreds of tracks at our disposal.”
And after all that, the article adds, movie theaters could also just be showing the movie with volume set too low.