Why are dialogues sometimes so inaudible in films and series?

There are several obvious reasons for activating subtitles when watching films or series at home: when watching an original version (VO), of course, or when lowering the volume to let someone sleep

Why are dialogues sometimes so inaudible in films and series?

There are several obvious reasons for activating subtitles when watching films or series at home: when watching an original version (VO), of course, or when lowering the volume to let someone sleep. close, for example. Alex activates them in a more surprising context: to watch very French fiction, at a normal volume. “Even if it means sometimes missing information on the image when I’m busy reading it,” explains this 29-year-old from Grenoble. Among his motivations is an argument often cited by the dozen major consumers of subtitles interviewed by Le Monde: “The voices lack clarity. »

It can happen that “an actor plays a little fragilely,” observes Gwennolé Le Borgne, sound editor who worked in particular on the films BAC Nord (2020) or The Three Musketeers: D’Artagnan (2023). Or that he speaks too quickly. » Episodic speech problems which only become really problematic when combined with other discomforts, estimates sound engineer Niels Barletta, double César for best sound: “The text given to the actor can be difficult to understand. understand for the viewer or the actor's mouth can be hidden from the image, which makes it difficult to decipher. »

TVs that sound bad

Voice capture is not always perfect either. “On a shoot, sound is among the team’s last concerns,” says a production assistant who wishes to remain anonymous. “The director manages too many factors: lighting, acting, movement, camera movements, framing…” adds Sarah, a sound engineer who has worked in dubbing. It is therefore the image that prevails on a set and the occasional “post-synchro” adjustments, which consist of summoning the actor after filming to have him dub his own voice in a padded studio, do not always succeed. to reproduce the energy and atmosphere of the shoot. So much so that, from time to time, a take on set can end up being kept even if it has a sound defect.

If these passages are less annoying in the cinema than at home, it is firstly because the sound volume is much higher in the cinema and because we are more attentive to it than at home. But also because the audio equipment is generally much better in dark rooms than in our homes. The speakers of low- and mid-range smartphones and tablets struggle to reproduce voices clearly in a noisy room. As for televisions, they have been getting thinner over the past twenty years: their speakers have become ultra-flat and moved to the back of the screen, whereas they were previously directed towards the spectators. “The quality is not there, judge Niels Barletta. The sound is often very blurry, even catastrophic. »

Not to mention that housing sometimes suffers from real acoustic problems. Most rooms amplify certain low frequencies due to their geometry, and attenuate others, at the moment when these bass, after bouncing off two different walls, meet in a specific place in the room and cancel each other out. For some, these imbalances can seriously hinder understanding. Additionally, in fully tiled or heavily glazed rooms, sound waves can also bounce around and form a reverberation that blurs the contours of voices.

Sound variations

A few acoustic adjustments, combined with the use of a soundbar, have a good chance of reducing the feeling of misunderstanding dialogue (see our box below). But these improvements will not do much against another major problem, if we are to believe the people interviewed by Le Monde: sudden increases in sound levels, linked for example to the explosion of a bomb or to "the “obligatory club scene,” quips Agnès, a 53-year-old graphic designer living in Tarbes.

A problem which particularly concerns people living in homes with thin walls, forced to regularly lower the volume so as not to disturb neighbors or loved ones, then immediately raise it again in order to hear the dialogues. The maneuver is so repetitive that they sometimes end up getting discouraged: they then turn on the subtitles. The sound engineers who refine the soundtracks of films and series are perfectly aware of this. They produce a specific version intended for our homes, which is distinguished by reduced volume differences, compared to the version intended for the cinema.

However, the differences in levels are not completely erased from one scene to another. If engineers eliminated them, they would only work for spectators who want to watch their fiction at low volume: these in fact benefit from a flat sound without contrast. But mixers work for all spectators, including those who appreciate the more expressive, natural and moving soundtracks of cinema. In short, which have the opposite interest. Since it is impossible to please everyone, sound engineers seek a middle path.

To complicate matters, the transformation of cinema tracks into a television mix (or downmixing) is often entrusted to software which automatically converts them. However, “his work is not always verified by a human,” regrets a sound engineer working in dubbing, who wishes to remain anonymous. Result: it can happen that dialogues are drowned out by music.

As for Blu-rays and DVDs, they are not always mixed for televisions. “There is no standard to respect for these discs, unlike the soundtracks intended for channels and VOD platforms,” explains Niels Barletta. Result: Blu-rays often include the cinema mix, with its very large volume differences. » It is these differences, from one series to another, which can give viewers the impression of being a little lost, with the volume remote in hand.