Monday, January 26, 2009

What did he say?

Is it just me or is it sometimes hard to hear what characters are saying on one hour dramas? In an effort to have the dialogue sound more real and natural actors are now starting to mumble. Kiefer Sutherland is either screaming, “Get on your knees! NOW! … or whispering. It’s one thing to whisper during a tender moment or when you don’t want others to overhear but “I’ll drive” can be said in a normal tone.

And I’m not just singling out 24. MAD MEN drove me crazy last season. I could make out maybe 40% of what Peggy said. It’s less bothersome on HOUSE because with all the medical jargon I don’t understand what they’re saying half the time even when they do enunciate.

WEST WING’s signature rapid walk and talk dialogue was fine when Josh was whining about his love life but when the topic was foreign policy in Rwanda I was lost. Take a breath people! Just once.

When I’m watching one of these shows I usually have to pause and go back once or twice to decipher a line. And it really bugs me to rewind three or four times just to learn the actor was saying, “I hear it’s going to rain tonight”.

I blame David Janssen. He played THE FUGITIVE back in the 60s and you never understood what the hell he was saying. He whispered and mumbled and when the scene called for him to really act he stammered. When he saw the one-armed man about to kill his wife he probably could have saved her if the one-armed man could make out that he was yelling, “Stop!” No intruder is going to be scared away by “Shgmmetip!”

And since single-camera shows usually do five to ten takes of every scene, you wonder just how incomprehensible the takes they didn’t use were.

In comedy it is CRUCIAL that the audience hear the lines, both the set up and the punch line. The minute the listener strains to hear dialogue, you’re dead. The Indian guy on BIG BANG THEORY swallows half of his jokes because he says them too fast and has an accent.

My general rule of thumb is: Brando is dead. Say the lines! God knows how many of the laughs I’ve missed on 24.

46 comments:

geewits said...

That is SO annoying. We played something back about three times the other night only to discover it was some inncocuous line totally unrelated to the plot.

Anonymous said...

Two words: Hearing aid!

Dan said...

I've been watching West Wing on Bravo and I've found that turning on the Closed Captioning makes a big difference.

Diogo said...

Ken, you forgot the worst whisperer of them all. Wentworth Miller from Prison Break makes whispering lines into a way of life. Last season, if he said 3 words in a normal tone of voice I'd be surprised. True, the show sucks, but it'd still be nice to hear what you're not liking.

izaskun said...

For me, worst of them all is T.R.Night in Grey's Anatomy.
For the love of all that is sacred, man, ENONCIATE and speak out loud.

sonderangerbot said...

The guy (whoe name escapes me atm) on JAG was really into this method of acting as well. It's stupid, and unlike Brando I'm sure these guys know their lines so I don't see why they do it.

Roger Owen Green said...

Every once in a while, I experience that on THE OFFICE. It is usually some probably snarky response to something that was said. I'd rewind and still neither my wife or I would get it. All three male leads (Michael, Dwight, Jim) have done it.

D. McEwan said...

Yeah, when I get the DVDs of DOCTOR WHO, where they all have British accents to boot, I just watch them with the subtiles on.

But I don't think it's them. I didn't used to have this problem. We're the same age, Ken.

I think it's us. Our ears are not young anymore, and have been blasted by classic rock for nearly 6 full decades.

I really think it's us.

The worst is with porn. What did he say? Maybe it was hot, Play it back a little louder. Nope. Can't make his mumble out over the porn music.

Maybe a little louder. No. Maybe LOUDER!

When it's loud enough for every apartment in my building to hear the unmistakable porn music and sex moans, I finally can make out: "Oh yeah baby, just like that."

AAaaaarrrrrggggghhhh!!!!!!

WV: fragu. The last words Douglas Neidermeyer ever heard.

Sebastian said...

Another good reason for closed captioning on ALL show.

I learned english watching DVDs with the subtitles turned on. You learn a word, how to spell it, and maybe even how to pronounce it IF the actor actually opens his mouth :-)

I hate Toby on The West Wing. Mumbling bastard :-)

ScottUSF said...

Back when NYPD Blue was on we had to turn on the captioning to catch all the dialogue...and its been on since.

Anonymous said...

I think you're just getting old. I have no problem understanding dialogue on eiher Mad Men or 24. Get a better TV or sound system.

estiv said...

There's another possibility here, Ken. Sound engineers now usually mix TV shows to work best on multi-speaker systems, and listening at home through one or two-speaker TVs can cause problems. I first noticed this on sports shows--the announcer's voice would sometimes get lost in the crowd noise. Then I went to a friend's house to watch a game, and she had a 5.1 speaker system. I could hear every word: the announcers were in the front, the crowd noise was in the back. Obviously if you're listening to Jack Bauer in a home theater it's not that, but if you're in the bedroom...

benson said...

Ken, I've been doing radio for over 30 years and my hearing is shot. You've been doing it longer.

And for the rest of you- Mom and Dad were right. That loud music you were listening to did make you go deaf.

okiesister said...

Thank you, I'm glad somebody is finally talking about this. I hear you loud and clear Ken.
I'm sick of being over-powered by show's music soundtrack and missing half the mumbled dialogue. What's the solution?

A. Buck Short said...

benson, it wasn't the loud music. In his youth, Ken obviously received the wrong warning. It’s “Keep doing that and you’ll go DEAF!"

This is why the guys get custody of the remote. But thanks, I thought it was just me.

estiv, you couldn't leave well enough alone? We had this Levine guy convinced it was age and infirmity.

“Shgmmetip!” Do you keep a file of these in case they ever come in handy? Is it just inspired? Or in utero, were you frightened by Al Capp?

Anita said...

Actor Tom Cavanagh. Loved the show "Ed" but missed about half his dialogue because of his rapid-fire "West-Wing" style. When he visited "Scrubs" I paid close attention and nope, it's not me. It's him. New dilemma, should I take a chance on his new show, "Trust Me" or is it likely to lead to heartache again?

A. Buck Short said...

Trust me, it's when you can't hear books on tape that you know you're really in trouble.

Martín Barquero said...

Abshhlghly rgght, shgggm ghh.

Michael Green said...

When I was a kid, I would sit in front of the TV and watch the news--specifically, Walter Cronkite. Every night, Eric Sevareid would come on and do a commentary. I didn't understand what he was saying, but it seemed important, and it got me hooked. But when I got older and read his biography, I found out he always mumbled. Now I think maybe I wasn't the only one who couldn't figure out what he was saying!

More seriously, a great newscaster.

Equally seriously, do you think some actors think--with some justification--that the greatest cameo in movie history was in "Dick Tracy," with "Mumbles" played by Dustin Hoffman, and they are imitating him?

John said...

Maybe the sound problems are a tribute to the Marx Brothers -- I had the same problem picking up some of the lines in "The Coconuts" -- or they may have decided to use circa 1929 sound equipment as a cost-cutting measure.

Grant said...

But Ken, you're missing the important thing...

JACK BAUER GETS RESULTS!

sherman said...

Thank you! I thought I was the only one who was replaying bits three, four times just to hear some innocuous line. I was blaming it on the sound, recording, because it seemed to only be one or two shows in particular.

Stephen Gallagher said...

If it bothers you not to be able to understand what Jack Bauer's saying... imagine how it must worry the poor b*stard tied to the chair.

I must say I've never had a problem with the Indian guy in BIG BANG THEORY -- to me his diction seems exceptionally clear.

jbryant said...

For a while now, I've wondered why I have to crank the volume for dialogue and turn it down when music and sound f/x kick in. Clearly, it has something to do with the mix or my lack of state of the art sound equipment (though I do run the TV through a perfectly respectable receiver). It's especially noticeable on DVDs.

Emily Blake said...

But THERE IS NO TIME to enunciate! When you have to save America from vague terrorists you don't have time to speak clearly dammit!

Mike In SLO said...

As with most things, its the Director's fault!

mattsmakingamovie said...

I have the same problem with Battlestar all the time. And I am far from old.

I just watch it with the subtitles, now. My wife can't stand it. "They're speaking English!"

Sebastian, I wouldn't trust the spelling from Closed Captioning. I can't count the number of mistakes I've seen.

blogward said...

They do it to make sure you're paying attention. Then you turn the sound up and the commercials kick in.

WV: podelero - Mexican-themed accessory set for your iPod.

Anonymous said...

The only drama I watch is Damages and that show drives me crazy. It's like the entire show is quiet so you have to turn it up to high volume, but then the commercial comes on and blows you away.

benson said...

Just to add to what some others have mentioned, my tv has various sound settings, and spatial puts some of the audio out of phase to create a more stereophonic effect, but when watching Fox Baseball for instance, the crowd noise drowns out the announcers. If you like Joe Buck, that's bad. If you hate Tim McCarver, as some on here do, that's good.

WV: felun...waiting for groovy to appear.

Kirk Jusko said...

I disagree that you can't mumble and be funny. Look at W.C. Fields.

Though, now that I think of it, I could always make out everything he was saying. Was he just PRETENDING to mumble?

Moira said...

To repeat what a few others have mentioned, the settings on your t.v. may be to blame. We have a Vizio that came with a surround sound option. The default setting is ON and we were puzzled why everyone on every show was mumbling. Turned it off and while we still miss lines - most of which, after 3 listens, are unimportant - the sound is overall vastly improved. Failing that, you might kick up the treble a bit to make the dialog sharper.

yatesy said...

ken, i really thought it was just me. i couldn't watch that biker show on a&e because i couldn't hear what they were saying either. i've recently had my hearing tested so i know i'm not going deaf. whew!

Michael Zand said...

Ken,

I have the same problem. But I think it’s a combination of technology, poor speech training, and some plain old bad acting.

First off, you're right, but I would make the distinction of actor's whispering their lines as opposed to mumbling them. This has really taken hold of film acting in the last ten years. Sound recording has improved so much that the mics can practically pick up your thoughts. And of course actors abuse this. Actors now use whispering as a gimmick to convey "uber truth." It's bullshit. Back when I was on "Felicity" I'd be on set and watch the actors shoot a normal conversation scene and I couldn't hear from three feet away. They could barely hear each other. How is that realistic? Christian Bale did all of his Batman in the “Dark Knight” in an annoying, raspy whisper. No wonder the Joker was so pissed. I see actors whispering their lines in crowded restaurant and nightclub scenes where you’d have to yell full out to be understood. Again, bullshit.

The second issue with American actors is that they don’t have the same speech and vocal training that British or Aussie actors have. When Hugh Laurie chooses to whisper on “House” you can still understand every syllable he utters. Most young American film and TV actors don’t come out of the theatre or theatre training programs and their speech shows it.

The third issue is bad acting. Most young actors, on TV in particular, are not that great. This style of “whisper acting” hides their weaknesses. Just whisper and look intense and the camera will do the rest. It’s safe and incredibly boring but you’ll never be accused of being too big or going over the top.

So next time you’re watching TV or a movie look out for the whisper. You’ll know you’re in the presence of mediocrity.

A_Homer said...

I don't feel that it's the dialog with the Mad Men so much but a mixing issue. And maybe something else (cough)age(cough)..To be honest, I use wireless headphones to watch the tv now. Because it's usually later at night (I get cds of most of my television programs from online as I'm now living in Europe and don't feel like waiting two years) and my apt wall-thickness doesn't comfortably insulate tv volume - plus the damn commercials that are then pitched LOUDER. So it turns out really well, I can keep things lower and hear it all.

Kimosabe said...

I turn on the closed captioning for PRISON BREAK, 24, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, MAD MEN and HOUSE from the get-go.

And could someone talk to FOX about their audio levels during 24? The promos and commercials are WAY louder than the program or the local spots.

Worked in TV for 20 years - never heard anything booming like what happened last night.

DOIDAPP - A combination doily/napkin - kinda like a spork, but for decoration and and neatness.

Michael Zand said...

PS. not hearing the dialogue might be an age issue for some but I have no problem hearing sportscasts and the news. I actually turn the volume down.

Ken is right. You don't have the same problem with sitcoms because the dialogue is crucial and has to be precise. Part of it also is the diminishing respect for the written word. A lot of "dramatic" actors are offended if you sic the script supervisor on them if they drop lines, mispronounce, or change the dialogue. They actually feel that the words are less important than what they're "emoting" for the camera.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

Michael Zand hit the nail on the head. I've been complaining about inaudible dialogue in movies for years and the problem is with the actors whispering and, in some cases, moving their mouths and saying nothing. Don't believe me? Watch the end of The Magician. (I think that's the title--it's the magic movie that came out the same time as The Prestige). In the old days the actors seemed to whisper but they were audible and the sound techs picked up the dialogue. Nowadays, in a foolish attempt to be realistic, they DO whisper, and when you add the music sound track and rustling of wind in the trees it sounds like someone in an iron lung trying to breathe. Add a touch of method acting (thanks Brando and Anthony Quinn) and you have a mess on your hands. And you young whippersnappers can stow the cracks about hearing aids. I can hear just fine. Ask my neighbors who play their music too loud.

Wayne said...

I routinely leave on closed captioning.
Side benefits: they spell out proper nouns so you know character names. And they tell you the titles of background music.
Complaint: often British productions where the accent is harder to understand to begin with isn't captioned.

emily said...

Huh?

xjill said...

Being hearing impaired has benefits, I guess. I HAVE to watch the closed captioning on all shows! During The West Wing heydey I pretty much watched all episodes twice, once with the CC to get the dialogue and once to savor the performances.

Rock Golf said...

Possible solution: Adjust the audio on your TV. Assuming you've got a model over $400, go to the menu and look at the audio controls. Most dialogue sounds far clearer on mono than stereo. Also, it sounds even worse if you've got a sound system that tries to surround sound. That audio separation comes with a price: clarity!

Verification word: ferstnue, - becoming initially aware of

Anonymous said...

Thank you for saying it. Thought I had gone even more deaf while watching 24 the other night. Every 2 minutes.... "what did he/she say?"

Mich

Kevin said...

yeah I miss a few things that are said on 24 and a few other shows but I don't mind. I like to think of it as beign a fly on the wall and if I don't catch it is is a bit of a mystery. just keep watching.

what I hate though is when some sit com actor gets a movie deal like one of the guys from "friends" and shoults all his lines. Movie actors sound dumb when they spell everythin out.

Maybe it is just east vs west?

"Hi, how can I help you?" yelled in my face just turns me off in real life.

The Crutnacker said...

Ken,

Thank you for pointing this out, because I thought I was the only one going deaf at 24. I think it has more to do with the digital sound mix these days. Rather than mix for your average TV, they're mixing it for the person who likes to fire up the 7:1 Dolby THX Super Doppler First Alert Sensurround Aural Exciter and crank the volume up to 11.

My thumb gets a workout on 24, and don't get me started on what happens when I turn it up to hear Keifer whisper "dammit" and then it goes to commercial and I "FIVE DOLLAR FOOTLONG" cracks my speakers and part of my foundation.

WV: hawowwoo... The response Ralph gave when he walked in on Norton and Trixie having relations.

Shade Wilson said...

2/4/13

Now I know that I am not the only person in the USA who is irritated by all the whispering on TV shows. I am watching Castle, and none of the characters are talking in a normal voice. Don't the supersmart folks who run the networks realize that the population is getting older and the chances are its hearing is not getting more acute.

I know this venting won't do any good,but thank you for letting me know that I am not just a cranky old man who has trouble hearing almost anything that supposedly passes as entertainment on TV but at least one other person has also.

Shade Wilson
shaderealestate1@aol.com